Interviewing: Listening For The Story

Updated: Apr 22, 2018

Often in interviews, a fascinating thing happens. While the other person is speaking, I suddenly get the sense that this isn’t something they often talk about. I’m looking into their eyes, and the more they speak, the more the rest of the room melts away. My heart races, my hairs stand, and I lose any ability to think about anything else. Later, we pack up the microphone, and in the car, I turn to Bardo and ask him, “Did you feel that?”

This is maybe the highest privilege of doing interviews: to be allowed into someone else’s pulsing inner thoughts. The responsibility of telling it well comes after; what comes first is the looking for the story—or listening for it. Learned mostly through trial and error, here are a few notes we’ve made that in principle might be helpful to any kind of storyteller.

1. The hidden job of a director

Improv theater (where actors create scenes on the spot) relies heavily on the cast actively listening to each other. Classes in improv school begin with "check-ins." We sit in a circle and take turns talking about our week. When someone is checking in, the whole room leans in and tries to get on the same page emotionally. What I've observed is that when people feel that they're being listened to—and not just being heard—you’d be surprised about where they can go.

In her book The Film Director’s Intuition, Judith Weston suggests that the term "directing" should be changed to "listening." It's less about having an immovable vision that you impose on the material given to you, but more about listening for the story's essence, and serving that. This is especially true for documentary filmmaking.

The fascinating thing that happens in interviews that I described at the start, it’s never something that’s just handed to you. You have to earn it. You have to listen. You have to be there, radically.

2. In lieu of eloquence

"I hope my answers were okay," an interviewee said as we turned off the mic. We get this a lot. People often feel pressured to say something smart or original, or to talk about a life that's interesting or impressive, when in truth, what we find moving isn't so much cleverness in phrasing but the sheer honesty in someone's words.

Judith Weston writes, "Eloquence can occur in surprising forms. It may be a function less of rhetorical skill than of honesty and emotional connection. It may be more likely to happen when one is not trying for it."

My version of it is this: sometimes moments of candor fall through the cracks. When we're not conscious of what other people think of us, our most truthful selves come out. It's on the interviewer to foster a safe space, to attune himself to the interviewee. This takes time, trust, and momentum.

3. Fact versus truth

We once spent an afternoon asking our interviewee different things about his life in New York in the 60s and 70s. He was precise, recalling each event down to the exact year it happened. After reviewing his audio though, we realized that we had failed in finding the story. On another afternoon, we went back to ask less about facts and events, and more about his thoughts and feelings. That’s when we struck gold.

In his book Story, Robert McKee writes, "Writers of portraiture must realize that facts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: ‘But it actually happened.’ Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens."

That one afternoon has forever changed the way we ask questions.

4. There's always something

In his TED Talk, Pixar director Andrew Stanton recalls a quote that has always stuck with him—which has always stuck with me too. It goes, "Frankly there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story."

Any time I feel distanced from the material, I remind myself that I’m just not looking closely enough. It means that I’ve merely closed off the story into a box, instead of seeing the story for what it actually is. If I can't find it at first glance, it only means that it needs a second glance, a third, a fourth, until its hidden charm shows itself. There’s always something.

Storytelling, as we’ve come to know, is as much a responsibility of the left brain as it is of the right. We’re obsessed with story design, but we’re far from experts and often turn to the people who are. If you’re interested to know more about story design, here are some of our favorite references. Thanks for reading!

- Jake


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