Monday, September 17, 2007

Getting Interviews to Tell the Story

Getting Interviews to Tell the Story
Alice Apley and David Tamés use the interview as content in Remembering John Marshall, screening with three of Marshall's shorts this month at the Plymouth Independent Film Festival.
By Hermine Muskat
In Remembering John Marshall, Alice Apley and David Tamés create an intimate portrait of John Marshall, the ethnographic filmmaker from Belmont, Massachusetts who spent 50 years filming the everyday lives of the people in Bushmanland, Namibia. Their approach to the formal interview exemplifies how this device can simultaneously advance character development and storytelling. They introduce several living witnesses to Marshall’s life -- wife, sister, colleagues and students. And because of their use of the form, the characters feel immediately familiar and their presence lasts long after the film ends. NEFilm asked Apley and Tamés to discuss the importance of the documentary interview.
Hermine Muskat: Why do you think the interview film has gotten a bad rap?
David Tamés: Because a lot of cinéma vérité and observational film purists immediately dismiss interviews, especially formal interviews, and feel it’s not the way to make a documentary film. I don’t think it’s quite that black and white. There’s sufficient room for variety and, of course, there’s the critical difference between a good interview and a bad one. If there’s a good relationship between the interviewer and interviewee, if people appear authentic... it can be extremely interesting to hear their words. Especially if they are bearing witness to someone who’s no longer alive. Their memories become the vehicle to tell a cinematic story, and it is up to us to create the climate and then to ask the right questions so that they can do that effectively.
Alice Apley: In the film, we use the interviewee material as narration, but it is more than that. We come to understand Marshall through the impact he had on others. It is only through your social relations that you have meaning and value in society.
HM: What was your intent in the introduction to the film where we hear the interviewee’s voices before we actually see them?
Tamés: One of the challenges is to quickly establish how to read the film. What it is about and what to expect from it. We wanted people to know within the first 60 seconds that this is an homage to John Marshall through the eyes and voices of those who truly know him. So, we simultaneously hear their words as we view images of him and his films. Because it is a short film, this format set the tone for the film’s direction in an efficient way.
HM: How did you prepare yourselves for these interviews?
Tamés: The film required a great deal of research. Fortunately, a lot of that had already been done since Alice did extensive graduate work on representations of the bushmen in Africa. And, this involved watching almost all of John’s films. So, her research for our film began a decade before we started production. For a film like ours, much of the work is the research.
Apley: Having that depth of knowledge was critical in establishing my credibility as a trustworthy ally when we interviewed John’s family and colleagues. We were able to cut through a lot of the complexity of John’s work, the situation of the Ju’/hoansi and details about southern Africa, and stay focused on the topic -- which really was the person behind this remarkable body of film work and activism.
HM: How did you select your subjects?
Apley: We looked for people intimately connected to John, people who could go beyond the historical facts of his life, and provide insight into his character and complexities. We knew we could only achieve a rich portrait by speaking to people who illustrated the very different roles he played for others -- brother, colleague, mentor, etc. We also tried to select people whose voices were compelling and appealing and who we felt were direct and emotionally present. I think we succeeded. So much so that we did not feel the need for any background music to create or augment mood. In fact, we think it’s better without it.
HM: How did you prepare them their participation?
Tamés: People understood, once they got to know us, that we sincerely wanted to create a fair and accurate picture of John rather than a sticky, sweet remembrance piece. We were very frank with them and told them that we wanted to present John in all of his complexity.
HM: After you selected interviewees, can you describe the process?
Apley: Generally, I did a telephone pre-interview one week beforehand. These could last for an hour and a half or more. My intention was to get a broad sense of how they saw John. I asked very open-ended questions and just let them guide me to what they felt was most compelling about him. I developed questions for the on-camera interviews from these telephone discussions since they had already shown me which topics and lines of questioning it would be most productive to pursue. I approached everyone with a curiosity that spoke to my fascination with John and especially his motivations. In order to do this, I was asking for their help. So, I drew them in as necessary collaborators.
HM: What were some of the questions you ask to elicit the complicated feelings many of them expressed?
Apley: We always began by asking people how they met John, how they got to know him or their first impressions. These responses guided our subsequent questioning. We asked everyone how they would characterize him and “What will you miss most about him?” All of our questions were guided by things we knew were specific to their relationship. For instance, what stood out for Karma Foley was her trip to Nyae Nyae with John, and for both Karma and Sandeep Ray, it was what it was like to work with John in the editing room. One of the hardest things is to get someone to describe someone else’s character. So, we asked people to imagine and then comment on situations with John -- What was he like as a brother? What was he like at a party? As a boss? Around the campfire in southern Africa? Sometimes if we knew someone had a particular view of John, one that was important for our story, we would try to evoke this by asking a question that was provocative or contradictory, and provide the room for them to clarify or disagree. Usually this had to do with our attempt to uncover more about what motivated him.
HM: Do you see the interview as supporting the content of the film or as another aspect of content that ought to be a seamless component of it?
Apley: On most television documentaries, interviewers support the narration. In our film, the idea was that since the audience can’t meet John directly, and in fact, neither David nor I knew him very well, that we can get to know him through these people that were close to him. So in that sense, the interviews were the content. For us, the challenge was providing the contextual information about John’s life, his family, his evolution as a filmmaker, and his turn toward activism, so that viewers would have a baseline of information from which to appreciate the subjective remembrances of the man.
HM: Did anything unforeseen happen during the interviews?
Apley: Yes. Some things we honestly didn’t know beforehand. For instance, I did not know about how John decided to include himself in A Kalahari Family. The story Cynthia Close tells of his resistance to that fascinated me, because the choice to do so is so significant in terms of the final film. But Cynthia’s story is also interesting because it says so much about how he saw his role as a filmmaker, and that he saw the films being about the Ju’/hoansi, while the involvement of his family was secondary. And also, while his body of film is remarkable for constantly evolving, it’s interesting to note that in this one case, while it has become very popular to include a first person perspective, Marshall was quite reticent to do so. Ultimately I thought the issue of him deciding to include himself in his most recent work offered a nice intersection of his personal life and the chronology of his films.
Also, we were pleasantly surprised that we got more stories than we expected. For example, Sandeep’s description of John when he was his teacher at Hampshire and their later relationship in the editing room are fundamental to establishing our sense of who John Marshall was and thus are critical to the success of the film. This ties in with the extent to which the stories and the emotions of the interviewees crystallized further during the on-camera interviews.
HM: What is one of the biggest challenges to effective interviewing?
Tamés: To get people to paint pictures rather than describe abstractions by telling physical stories. Aristotle said, “Character is revealed through action.” So, people could tell us that John was complicated but that’s too abstract. What we needed were specific instances to describe that. When Sandeep says, “So, he pulled me aside and he said ‘Listen Buddy, when you make a good film’” ...we can actually see as well as feel the action and those are the kind of things you want to evoke. Things that people can actually visualize. So the challenge is to get people to talk and tell stories in visual terms. It boils down to encouraging and coaching your interviewees to become storytellers. Some people are just natural at it. Others need a bit more direction. There were two interviews where the interviewees simply didn’t tell stories. They were very interesting and we learned a lot from them but they didn’t tell stories and because they didn’t, they ended up on the cutting room floor.
HM: To sum it up, what makes for a good and meaningful interview?
Tamés: It’s an interview that paints a picture rather than simply relaying facts that makes for a good interview. A lot revolves around your relationship with the interviewee and there are different types of relationships for different kinds of films. For ours, we wanted the perspectives to be personal and intimate, so building rapport and trust was critical before they could talk about a man they loved and cared about deeply. Before anyone makes that kind of investment, they need to feel safe.
After that, much of it rests in the preparation you do. By the time our interviewees spoke on camera, there has been an extensive pre-interview, and while we were setting up for each interview, there was plenty of time for each interviewee to acclimate and get to know the crew. Then, when the interview begins, it’s as if the conversation has been ongoing and everything but the interviewer and the interviewee recedes into the background.
Stories often get better as we retell them, therefore, previous preparation need not detract from their immediacy. I call it the purposeful construction of spontaneity in documentary filmmaking.
Remembering John Marshall screens at the Plymouth Independent Film Festival on July 20th as part of a special program that includes three short films by John Marshall and Q & A session with Alice Apley and David Tamés.


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