Reality Pro Tip: On Interviews

A friend related a story to me recently about a news reporter who asked a woman how she felt after her home had been destroyed. The subject basically asked (and I tidy it up here): “How the @$%$ do you think I feel?”

Dumb question. Justified response.

All too often, field producers and other story folks (often under the gun to compose interview questions in short order) fall back on asking questions that might as well be providing a soundtrack for the blind to the show. Yes, we can see what just happened. Yes, it’s obvious that the crying person was upset by the thing the other character said.

Interview questions that don’t add anything to scenework are useless! If you think you should ask “how did you feel when XYZ happened,” consider asking the deeper “why did you react that way when XYZ happened” instead.

There are a number of uses for interview content in reality television. It can be used to explain something too difficult to surmise from watching footage, explain what people are feeling despite the face they’ve put on in the source content, and, perhaps most simply, explain where you are and why you’re there.

Working backwards, we’ll start with that one… the establishing interview. When you see two tough characters on a biker show walk into a tea room, you’re probably going to wonder why that’s happening. A simple explanation in interview is enough to untie the eyebrows of your confused viewers: “Joe and I had to go down to the tea room to pick up a gift for Jolene” would do… but can you do better? Sure you can… here’s your chance to heighten the comedy angle of watching those two guys in leather jackets pick out an antique cup and saucer set for their aunt!

Ask your subjects for something like this, instead: “Joe and I had to go down to the tea room to pick up a gift for Aunt Jolene. In case you hadn’t noticed, Joe and I, we’re not exactly the fancy teacup type.”

Ah, now the viewer gets it. What’s about to come isn’t just covering an errand, it’s going to be funny, fish-out-of-water stuff. It’s always a good idea to semi-script the responses you want to these setups so that you can get what you need in a concise manner. It’s okay to tell your subject that it’s specifically needed for setting up a scene, and that you need them to say “something like this.”

Now on to the interview content that contradicts what you see in scene. Your biker dudes are now inside the tea room talking with a ninety year old woman who’s more interested in telling stories about her grandkids than in helping your guys pick out a cup and saucer. They’re probably all smiles as they listen to the story, but if you know they’re uncomfortable, ask for something like this when it comes time for interview support: “You were smiling through every long-winded story that woman had to tell… what did you think of her long-winded stories?” You’ll likely get an answer back that indicates that the guys secretly wanted to get the heck out of there, and just like that, you’ve added texture to the scene. Your editor can add a few dissolves to make it look like the stories really droned on, and suddenly you have a better, funnier result.

Now on to explanatory stuff. The bikers find a cup and saucer that they seem excited to buy for a bargain price. They buy it and leave the tea room.

What you don’t know is that the teacup looks just like one their grandmother used to have that they always heard was extremely valuable. In interview, ask “Tell us about the cup and saucer you found and why you couldn’t let on that you were excited.” Work that into your content and now the audience understands that for your leads, this was about more than just finding a nice-looking gift.

Thoughtful interview questions lead to thoughtful responses. Avoid yes or no questions or mere narration of what’s happening in a scene.

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