The Pre-Interview

One thing that took learning the hard way was discovering the incredible resource conducting a pre-interview with a subject or client is. Too many times I poured over interview footage or transcripts, attempting to decode what a subject said to form some kind of narrative, wishing they had just said, “x” or hadn’t said it “that way”. When I began implementing a mandatory pre-interview into my process about 3 years ago, I began noticing not only an increase in the quality of the final product but also an easier post-production process. When you go into an on-camera interview knowing exactly what you want a subject to say and how to say it, your focus can be more about getting them to say the right thing the right way that will play on camera, rather than trying to pull the story out of them.  This is why one of the most important assets to the on-camera interview is a pre-interview. Before walking into your pre-interview, here are 3 things to keep in mind.



First and foremost, I must insist that you record all pre-interviews. If you have a smartphone, you have an audio recorder, so there’s no excuse not to record your conversations. Everyone has their own style, but recording pre-interviews works well for me on 2 fronts: 1) I have a terrible memory, and 2) it’s so hard to relate to someone when you’re busy trying to take notes. Imagine meeting up with a friend who is having a hard day and begins sharing some vulnerable information about their day and you ask them to talk slower because you are too busy jotting down notes. It’s tough to imagine because no one would do this. When you’re asking someone to share their story that is potentially intimate or vulnerable, being an active listener is key. Freeing yourself from taking notes allows you to better engage with what is being said and allows you more mental clarity to ask the important follow ups.



Consider this moment like a first date. You not only want to make a good first impression on the person, but you also want to develop a level of trust and understanding before you move into that awkward, vulnerable scenario known as the “on Camera Interview.”  Like I discussed in the last blog post, on camera interviews are awkward as all get out, so having that underlying trust and bond is key to diffusing a lot of the tension and having a better on camera experience. In the past, I’ve had subjects tell me that they were glad that the first time we met was without all the cameras and lights, because it gave them an opportunity to get to know me first, and then made the transition to the set more comfortable. Because with all the distractions of lights, cameras, and the looming fear of not wanting to feel like an idiot, the constant in that moment was me. So treat your pre-interview like you’re getting to know a potential life long friend. The pre-interview is just as much about the relationship building as it is information mining. Which leads us to the last item;



The third function of the pre-interview is to gather as much information about the individual’s story that you can, or as I like to call it, information mining. Before you walk into the room, it’s important to have a good understanding and grasp of what you’d like to discover based on the overall theme of the piece. This will help guide your questions to uncover the themes of the person’s story that are applicable. The pre-interview allows you to explore various paths into someone’s story without the expense of filling up memory cards, or draining camera batteries, making it easier to go down tangents that could prove to hold no value to the end product. Or, some of these paths may be ones that the interviewee may not even know exist, or feel are a relevant part of their story. Sometimes when mining for gold, you may come across an even more beautiful stone to keep the mining analogy working.  

For instance, in a recent pre-interview I did, the client began sharing his story from the perspective of what he thought was important. Through each follow up question, I began to dig deeper into some of the larger movements in his life and pulled out of him details of his own story that were game changers in my mind that he had disregarded as useless pieces of information. Having given myself the space to really dig into his story, in a comfortable setting, allowed us to produce an even stronger piece than originally planned; which never would have happened if I had just set up the camera and lights and asked basic questions.


If not for anything else, I have found that meeting with someone before putting them in front of a camera breaks down some emotional barriers the interviewee might build up. When you can establish a relationship with someone in a comfortable environment, it makes the transition to the on-camera interview exponentially easier.