About a week ago, my editor asked me if I would interview an up-and-coming director for an article. And, honestly, my first instinct was to run. Anywhere. Wherever my editor couldn’t find me. However, this wasn’t something I could just blow off. So I gave myself a pep talk, arranged the interview with the production manager, and made the call.
…And I lived! Yes, I probably spoke too quickly and had the occasional voice-crack, but I survived my first ever interview. I also got some great info from the director and had a really enjoyable conversation with her at the same time. She was relatable, cool, and not as intimidating as I’d worried.
Being able to complete interviews, my editor later told me — even super brief ones — is a really important skill to have if you want to take your writing to the next level. He said many people don’t even bother.
So, with that in mind, here are 5 tips on performing an interview over the phone from a very novice film critic. Hope you find it helpful! And if not, I am just a lowly intern after all.
1. Make sure you are in a quiet, private space
This first tip may seem incredibly obvious, but apparently it was not as obvious to me. After confirming the interview time with the production company’s manager, I realized I would only be able to do the interview during my lunch break. I figured it would be perfect, I’d go to the spot where I usually eat (a nice sunny area outside the office) and make the call from there. It was not perfect. What’s important to remember is that background noises, in my case a nearby highway and employee chit-chat, sound VERY loud to the person on the other end of the call. Make sure you have access to a quiet, closed-off room before you begin the interview and that no one will disturb you. It makes the overall experience feel much more professional for both interviewer and interviewee.
2. Have your notes ready beforehand
If you’re an obsessive note-taker like me this one is a no-brainer. If your interview is going to take place over the phone it’s extremely ideal to have your notes open in front of you on your laptop or tablet. This way you stay on track with your questions and get all the key points you need for your article (or whatever you’re writing). I like to list what I need from the person at the top and underneath write their answers in as close to the wording they use as I can. This is key when quoting directors or writers. Also, keeping your questions focused and relevant helps keep you from taking up too much of their time — they’re probably pretty busy people.
3. Be conscious of how you ask your questions
Speaking of the actual interviewing part of the interview, the way you ask questions is just as important as the questions you are asking! Make sure you give the person time to extrapolate on things before going right into a follow-up. I found that the director absolutely loved explaining the motivations behind the story she was telling, and that I loved hearing those details. Sometimes, by sitting back a bit and letting them monologue for a while about the project you can actually get the best content for your writing. On the other hand, make sure you don’t leave all the talking to them. You want to sound as if you are interested and engaged, otherwise they may wonder why they’re taking the time to talk with you (instead of making a movie). So be sure to communicate your enthusiasm over the phone (you wouldn’t believe how much we rely on facial and body cues in conversation to do this) and ask your questions in a way that reflects this. For example, instead of just asking “What was the motivation behind [film]?”, try “I find the idea of [detail about the storyline or themes] really intriguing, what motivated you to take the story in this direction?” They’ll appreciate being asked questions that are more engaging rather than a list-like series of queries.
4. Ask permission before using any quotes or comments
This is especially important if your interview relates to a project that is not released yet. Not only is it respectful to ask, but if you give away key details of the plot in your article, ones the director was not quite ready to share, they’ll likely be pretty unhappy with you. Also, it only takes a second to confirm that they’re alright with you quoting them on something they’ve said. I just asked “hey, can I quote you on that?” and she said “of course!” Another quick tip related to quotes: definitely use them liberally once you’ve got permission! They are perfect for beefing up a piece if you’re creating an article rather than just publishing an interview Q&A style. Having a direct quote from the mind behind a production or film really makes a world of difference to your readers.
5. Finally, remember they’re probably just as nervous as you are!
Unless you’re interviewing Scorsese, your first interview when you arrive on the film news scene will likely be pretty low profile. This means you’ll be speaking with people just entering the biz or taking a crack at it right out of grad school (like Che Grayson, the director I interviewed for my article). So they’re probably nervous as well in terms of speaking with a journalist or writer like you. They want to represent their work and their art well, and you want to do the same! So be friendly, and engage them in terms of why the story or production matters to them as an artist. You’ll do great!