Interviews That Jump Off the Screen
David Lynch is a distinct storyteller. Some say weird. Instead of arguing that “weird” is simply subjective to the eye of the beholder, instead, I want to tell you about a project that he produced and his son Austin directed. But first, distinct storytelling seems to run in the Lynch family. In Mr. Lynch’s films, he seems far more interested in “interesting” than “polish”: the ideas, the actors, the use of animation, the music, all of it. So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with his son’s Interview Project. It was a web-based series of short interviews directed by Austin Lynch and collaborator Jason S. I stumbled upon a few in 2009. Every interview I watched was intoxicating. I couldn’t get past it. The setups. The content. But the people… each person had my undivided attention. I was glad to learn that there were so many more. From what I gather based on limited research, the 121 interviews came from the idea that the 2 directors traveled 20,000 miles across America in 70 days to talk to ordinary people on camera. By ordinary, I mean, people that wouldn’t make the cut in most marketing circles. If you find yourself to be important, then you’d be viewing these interviews about people you’d probably find to be less important than yourself. My guess is that many of the interviewed people have gone unnoticed in life, forgotten by those around them. I seem to remember one about an elderly gentleman, long retired from factory work, who lived in a broken down farm house. The visual setup was him in front of his front porch. There was an old car in the background that had clearly quit running years ago based on the high grass, weeds, and rust. His life story was beautiful and it broke my heart that it may go unnoticed. So I want to share what I believe the traits were, about his interview and every other one that I viewed, that made them jump off the screen. When vetting people for interviews, I believe these traits are important:
This may be the most interesting trait of anyone on camera. Whether I’m trying to be entertained or educated, I’d take quirks over credentials any day of the week. Quirk provides salt. And salt both seasons things and preserves things. This obviously interests me because… Story Preserve. I continue to observe from clients, agencies, and institutions that I’ve worked with, a desire to get the “right person” on camera for an interview. Quirk is not at the top of the list. In fact, it’s often at the bottom. It’s been a dismissive trait. People think they want the polished credentials on camera, but when they switch to viewer-mode for something not connected to them, I guarantee they’ll be attracted to the quirks. Quirks are the spice of life. The “warts and all” characteristics. It reminds us of the human condition. It challenges us to accept that we all have flaws. Justin and I produced a documentary called The Grove. I was thrilled to edit it. One of the interviews from it, that I wasn’t present for when Justin shot it, was Toni Funkhouser. She’s an elderly woman from North Carolina. She wore a cute sweater that Christmas marketers would call ugly. She takes her dog everywhere she goes. She also said the phrase “needless to say” many times over, and it always made me laugh because she’s so damn cute. She also interviewed without much of a filter and it made the interview great. She talked about “growing up gay in the church” and she’d say things like: I’ve always said that if everyone who was gay turned purple, people would fall over. Unfiltered. Quirk. Love it.
I think expertise is an important trait, but only if it is delivered through passion. And passion isn’t always yelling. Even a quiet person can passionately say something and it will be evident in their expressions. When you listen or watch them, the true test of the viewer is: does the person on camera believe what they are saying? The way to know: look in their eyes. If they believe it, whether they wear their heart on their sleeve or are more reserved, their passion will be evident. Passionate content is the lifeblood of the interview. The good news is that most interviews are part of a collection. So if you have a quiet passionate person, there’s also room for a louder passionate person. Even in conducting several interviews for a project, trying to have a variety of on-camera interviews is best. I know an interview is going to be great in the edit bay if the interviewee is so fired up talking about something that they cut me off and say “let me finish” or “now hold on” or “I want to go back to that”. The bottom line is, you want someone in that chair that believes in what they’re saying and has words to back it up. They’re willing to say it again in a different way, or tell a story to emphasize a point, or become very demonstrative with their body as the camera tries to keep them in frame. Justin and I once interviewed a guy in Alaska. He was a biker who worked at an oil field on the northern slope. He was the kind of helpful guy that you’d want available at the ready if you found trouble in a dark alley. When he was at home, he lived in his brother’s garage. I think the garage had a sign called “The Wayward Boys Clubhouse”. When the garage doors opened, all you could hear was Ozzy Osbourne blaring. He offered us beers before we started so we were day drinking with this guy before the interview ever began. His home property was encircled by a paved surface because he and his buddies enjoyed go-cart racing after midnight; I’m guessing much to the chagrin of nearby neighbors. When we interviewed him, I knew he believed everything he was saying. There wasn’t a false word from him. And most of the interview was a wide shot of him and his bike in front of the garage. But I could still see his eyes. They gave me everything I needed to know.
I’ve found many people to say that they respect this trait. I’ve equally found that many people can’t get there themselves on camera. So yeah, it’s the holy grail of interview traits. Tell me a fact about you and it might intrigue me. Tell me a fact about you with reflection, nervousness, ad libbed delivery, insecurity, or heart-felt emotion, and I’m in. I’m all in no matter the fact. Over the years, when I see someone cry on camera during an interview that I conduct, my first thought is that I like it. I quickly feel bad because I don’t want to manipulate an audience with emotion. And then, I quickly get past that because I’m not doing anything manipulative other than ask a question that matters. If it invokes tears, it means it matters to the person on camera too. When someone opens up on camera and goes off script from what their mind wants to communicate, they’re entrusting their value to every stranger who will watch the interview. That trust means to me that it is an honor to bear witness to it. That trust also goes both ways. The interviewee has displayed trust to everyone. And in turn, I now trust them. They took a risk with what they were saying about their past, present, or whatever. It makes me, the viewer, want to risk my time and attention to listen and consider. In the late 90s, I lived in western Colorado. I was a volunteer chaplain at the nearby hospital. I just wanted to be there for grieving people, but I was just a kid in my early 20s. No skill-sets other than my quiet presence. I’ll never forget sitting in a hospital room with a 10-year-old boy. He played video games most of the time. He was waiting for his mom to arrive. The mother was coming to this hospital because this young boy, his sister, and his grandmother had been traveling by car from eastern Utah to home in Nevada when the grandmother fell asleep at the wheel. They had an accident. The girl died. The grandmother was hurt badly. The boy was barely hurt. They were airlifted to the nearest hospital which turned out to be in Grand Junction, Colorado. So while the grandmother was just out of surgery up in ICU, I sat with this child. He only said one thing to me that I remember other than the typical banter of greetings and video game details. He asked me: Did you know that my sister died? I told him I did. About an hour later, his mom suddenly walked in. The moment he saw her, everything about his demeanor changed. It got very real. I’ll never forget the sound of his crying when he saw her. He completely melted and she absorbed him crying with him. He held nothing back. I got out of there as quickly as possible. While that moment wasn’t appropriate for recording, I will say that, in any interview I conduct now, I am hoping that the interviewee will be willing to be as raw as they want, without holding back. Vulnerability is encouraged, but it’s up to them. As heart-wrenching as it was to be an eyewitness to such vulnerability that day in the hospital, for some crazy reason, I was allowed to be there. And when someone gets vulnerable on camera, for some crazy reason, you and I are allowed to watch as complete strangers. The impact on the viewer is always life-giving to them. And it runs the gamut from positive emotional response, to thought provocation, to sheer gratitude.
I encourage you to do 3 things. One, do yourself a favor. Go online, search for David Lynch’s Interview Project and watch at least one. They’re pretty short. Two, if you’re an interviewer, reconsider these traits above over anything else. Three, if you are ever asked to be on camera, don’t over-prepare. Jut be honest and real. Whoever is asking you to do it is doing so because they already see the makings of a good story.