The art and science of great interviews

The art and science of great interviews

The art and science of great interviews

Doing interviews is not easy. A bit of a paradox, really, given we live in a time when just about everyone is doing interviews with everyone, including themselves. Today, interviews are manufactured in bulk and broadcast for global audiences, on vlogs, YouTube channels and across traditional media platforms, only to be forgotten the next day, in most cases. And then, there are those rare few that outlive their audiences to become the classics of the genre, interviews that have an almost theatrical depth and multiple layers of meanings and possible interpretations. They are a mirror reflection of human nature, glittering with intellect, humour, subtlety and subtext, like a great speech. So what does it take do deliver a really interesting conversation on camera these days?
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Learning from lost opportunities

Last year, I was invited to facilitate a press conference with two iconic names of the international film and music industries: Roman Polański and Alexandre Desplat. For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that both have achieved (and lived through) so much in their respective worlds that, no matter how many conferences, interviews, events or discussion panels I had moderated, in front of large and small audiences, meeting these two towering figures that day (not to mention being the one invited to 'keep the conversation going') felt like a deeply humbling experience. The briefing was part of the Kraków Film Music Festival, believed by many to be the best film music festival in the world, and this particular press conference took place in Katowice.

Later that day, a very special concert took place (Polish Music Gala: Scoring4Polanski), during which the famous director received probably the longest standing ovation this young and elegant concert venue has ever witnessed, one that had so much cultural context to it that, most likely, only a Polish audience was able to discern the finer shades hidden behind the rapturous applause of a single concert night.

The 'happy curse' of perfectionists

So why would I insist on calling what happened 2 hours before the concert that day a 'lost opportunity'? First, let me make one thing clear: it truly was a textbook press event, with more than the usual dose of preparations & consultations preceding it. Enough journalists turned up to fill the room, questions were asked and answered, hundreds of great photos were taken, people smiled and laughed and everyone was happy by the time we shook hands to close the meeting, BUT...

Minutes after the press briefing was over, I couldn't resist feeling sorry about how many things could have been done differently, assuming complete creative freedom over the process. To start with, the press briefing took place at NOSPR - one of the most interesting buildings the city of Katowice has to offer. The event itself, however, was crammed in a small conference room, one without a trace of personality to it. This single fact alone made it almost impossible for the journalists attending the event to get what they (should have) expected that day, i.e.

  1. enough open space to allow for multiple-angle photography and video shooting, with different light (exposure) and depth-of-field options (NOSPR just happens to be perfect for that, both on the inside and outside)
  2. a venue where the number of people in the room would not increase the room temerature by 10 unbearable degrees (or reduce the volume of oxygen) in a matter of minutes! Let's stop at stating the obvious: the event called for a much better choice of space.
  3. a place that would help its organisers put on display the best this fine piece of architecture could offer, not to mention the fact that, had this conference been staged in the main foyeur of the building, some of Poland's most iconic architectural references would have inevitably become part of the photos taken on that day (not to mention the 'reportage potential' of the video footage).

More importantly than that, however, doing a press conference with guests of this calibre and with such amazing interview potential, requires a proper 'warm-up', i.e. getting to know the people you are about to talk to in front of cameras in person, even if it means a 5 minute chat before the event. For a festival format like FMF, perhaps the best way to go about it is to shoot a proper, 1-hour interview with your guests, ahead of the press briefing, one like that, except, better! 

Needless to say, it's really not easy to win today's audiences with a 1-hour interview, let alone have nearly one million people watch it of their own free will. But guess what, if you happen to organise one of the world's most extraordinary festivals, like FMF, it is almost ignorant not to understand the potential of proper video interviews in today's world, especially if you are in a perfect position to deliver those with very little trouble, almost free of charge (comparatively speaking). Your superstar guests are already there anyway, happy to indulge you.

Ephemeral vs. immortal

From the perspective of today's global audiences, an interesting conversation on camera, one where a fascinating perspective on life blends with a workshop-style chat about art (and just about everything else), will certainly outlive everything else FMF has had on offer to date, not to mention the level of global exposure and positive impact on all kinds of future (license/guest/programme) negotiations. Why? For many reasons, but the most obvious one is that concerts (even the very big ones) can be attended by a limited number of people. Except for the memories of those who attended, they disappear from the world stage only the day after (unless a lot more money is spent to deliver a Blue-Ray version, which, anyway, doesn't even come close to the 'live' experience). The story is very different with interviews. They are much less ephemeral in nature and can expose the kind of subtleties that have a huge inspirational, let alone education potential. With proper lighting, camera work, a skilled interplay of close-up and wide-angle, miracles can happen. Feel free to watch The Hollywood Reporter's roundtable above to get an idea of the potential I'm talking about. 

So here's the message for the absolutely brilliant FMF team: Do not underestimate the potential of delivering at least 3-5 in-depth, quality interviews from each and every edition of the Festival. Create a separate channel for these, combined with multiple promotion routes. You guys happen to attract the kinds of guests, artists and audiences, that it's almost a sin you have so far failed to recognise the potential of what I'm talking about. The interviews I'm talking about, however, should not be TV-studio-style, super-stiff-and-formal kinds of interviews (the breakfast TV category!). Instead, they should feel far more intimate and authentic, both in terms of setting and conversation style.

Much as I felt honoured and humbled to have facilitated the conversation that day, even under such creatively restrained conditions (video excerpts below), the long-term legacy of the festival itself would have benefitted greatly if the aforementioned potential had been acknowledged in time. 

Regrets, I've had a few...

The life of a perfectionist (even of the highly selective variety) has some obvious advantages: the powerful drive to continuously improveme things, the empowering feeling of being genetically geared to learn from yesterday for the benefit of tomorrow, the ability to change, adapt and sustain a clear sense of focus along the way, are only a few. In other words, perfectionists (especially the creative variety) just happen to perceive, explore and process a lot more details than the (un)happy rest of us. After all, ignorance is bliss, they say. There is, of course, also, the petty, smaller-minded kind, drawing enough satisfaction and fulfilment from simple daily routines, such as keeping the desk at work clean.

In a slightly less optimistic tone, perfectionists are doomed never to feel truly satisfied with how they do things. They are hopelessly addicted to picking fault with themselves and others, constantly on the lookout for better ways and means to reach the stars. Now, how is this relevant to the press conference described above, you might ask, again :) 

The perfect marriage of image and sound

Teaching presentation/communication skills at university a couple of years ago, I especially enjoyed tormenting my unsuspecting students with in-depth analyses of American presidential debates: the body language, political keywords, the colours, the ties, the shoes, the gestures, the postures, camera angles and reactions to conclusions from one debate to another, etc. A truly unique spectacle in its own right. I used to watch them one after another, including long-forgotten debates from past elections. What would inevitably be the definition of boring to anyone outside the Anglo-Saxon cultural borders, to me represented a wealth of study and teaching material, which proved very useful years later, when I started coaching clients in non-verbal communication and presentation skills.

And so, to close the main argument of this (possibly shortest ever blog post ;), as the best-earning vlogers of the last decade will no doubt tell you, success in video publishing is very closely linked to story-telling skills, creative design & editing, and, last but not least, just about the right balance between the message itself (if you have any, that is) and the so-called 'flow'. In other words, if it's too fast or too slow by a milisecond, a perceptive eye will tell you that in no time (couldn't resist the pun ;).

If you want to read a little more about the festival itself, here's my last article about FMF



Przeczytaj również:

    (A)Plaudit for Polański & Friend(s)

    Applause is among the purest and most intuitive forms of non-verbal communication. Known to mankind since time immemorial, it can express a puzzlingly diverse range of emotions and attitudes, stretching far beyond the simple act of putting one’s hands together and making noise.


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