How we make a Family Voices Media documentary: The Interview

The family documentaries we make are real movies. During a recent discussion with a journalist, his questions reminded me that the process is second nature to myself and my crew. But to the family being filmed, it’s an entirely new experience.

We film you at home

When we arrive at a family’s home, I have two jobs to do at the same time: setting up for filming the interview, and putting the family and whoever’s being interviewed at ease. Usually, your home is the ideal location: filled with your taste and your things, with touches of history, it’s usually the most comfortable, and it reflects the family in quiet ways.

A small crew

We are a small, efficient crew, with decades of experience in broadcast television between us. That cameraman setting up in the corner? I’ve worked with him on award-winning network shows. And yes, our standard attire is black. We want to recede into the background, so everyone, including the family and the subject, can fully focus on the interview.

 As we set up the lights and cameras, we consider many factors: where will the sun be in four hours? How does the setting look on camera? Is there a comfortable place for the subject to sit? We get the lighting right, always trying to take advantage of natural, available daylight, and we set up the frame for the shots. We want to optimize our time and get everything just right. 

Getting ready

We’ve already discussed and created a list of questions to ask, based on discussions with the subject and the family, and that’s what forms the basis for the interview. But the process is like opening a door. On the day of the interview, the family is often brimming with new ideas on what to cover, and the subject may have remembered something new. I’ll quickly work more questions into my notes.

Discussing the final composition

The interview

Finally, it’s time to sit down. We’ve got the subject in the light, and I’m beside the camera. Lights, camera, action: Now, the interview can start. Usually I warm them up with a softball, like “Where were you born?” And then we move into the details.

“What Big Bands did you get to see in Asbury Park?”

“How did you manage to escape the Ayatollah?”

“Describe Berlin under the Nazis —"

“Tell me about your Iron Guard neighbor in Bucharest —” 

“And then you went to Woodstock?”

 

As we get further into the questions, the very taste and smell and sense of those faraway times comes to life. It’s a deeply intimate exchange: the subject should be so fully engaged in conversation with me that all the technical things fade away. And this is when memories and emotions begin flooding the room. Everyone can get pretty misty-eyed — the family watching, the person being interviewed, and even me. I tend to get incredibly moved by these stories. It’s impossible not to.

What’s so key to bringing the past back to life is doing it in a comfortable and sensitive way, so the subject can freely relive those memories and experiences. I can feel that intensity during an interview, that moment when time seems to stop. There’s so much to cover, usually: an entire life distilled into four hours with lights and camera.) While this may be just one moment out of a long lifetime, the family will have this moment forever.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happens after we’ve packed up our lights and cameras. The interview completed, we head to the studio to create your family’s documentary movie, editing the interview, and interweaving in family photos, archival materials, and period music.

That’s where the magic happens.

The interview begins.