Podcast Episode: Steve Humphries & his 20 rules for intimate interviewing

Left – Poster for the theatrical release of ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ that emerged from ‘Sex in a Cold Climate’
Centre – Steve Humphries
Right – ‘Hull’s Headscarf Heroes’ by Testimony Films, 2018.

Steve Humphries is an oral historian and film maker. He is the founder and executive producer of Testimony Films and has produced over 100 television factual programmes for national and international broadcasters. The programmes that he has produced include ‘Sex in a Cold Climate’, an expose of nuns’ abuse of young unmarried mothers in Irish Magdalene Homes between the 1930s and 60s. This was the winner of the Chicago International Film Festival award and inspired Peter Mullen’s multi-award winning feature film The Magdalene Sisters. Other programmes include ‘Hull’s Headscarf Heroes’ (BBC), Britain’s Greatest Generation (BBC) and ‘The Girl Who Forgave The Nazis’ (Channel 4).You can find out more about the television programmes that Steve has produced here

STEVE HUMPHRIES: MY TOP TWENTY RULES OF INTIMATE INTERVIEWING

1 Choose epic subjects with lots of potential for intimate and emotional storytelling. This is an essential starting point for strong interviews.

2 Find interviewees who haven’t told their intimate story before- or if they have, they haven’t told it in quite the intimate way you imagine it could and should be told.

3 If possible be selective about who you film. Research is key- choose people with lots of potential. They must have a strong story to tell and also be able to tell it movingly. So often people have one or the other, but can’t do both. Focus on those who can.

4 Don’t give up when people say no. They will often turn out to be the best subjects with the most intimate and important stories to tell. Many of the people in our films said no to begin with and they have been very pleased with the results. Sometimes the consequences have been hugely positive and beneficial for them, even though they were initially reluctant or rejecting. At the same time be aware that sometimes no does mean no- knowing this comes through instinct and experience.

5 Be flexible about the location and time for the interview and who is going to be there when you do it. Some are better filmed at home, some prefer somewhere else. Some prefer a one to one, some prefer others to be there with them. The time of day it’s done as well can have significance. Men generally open up more when it’s dark- or in a darkened room. And beer can help too. Women are more comfortable expressing their emotions at any time of the day- or night. Being sensitive to these things can help get a more intimate and relaxed interview.

6 When you arrive for the interview give all your attention to the person you’re interviewing. They have to like you, trust you, respect your motives, bond with you big time- sometimes almost love you- if they are going to give you a really intimate interview. Prior to filming don’t let them go cold, charm them, form the ‘intimate stranger’ relationship where someone will tell you their secrets like they have almost nobody else. Don’t fuss too much about technical matters like sound or lighting. Give them your undivided attention, don’t let them be frightened, you need to show you care about them most of all. All these things are so important- if you are intimate with them it can transcend boundaries of age, class, race, gender and everything else. When I began I was told I wouldn’t be able to interview much older women about something as intimate as their sex lives- this was proved completely false.

7 Know everything you can about your interviewee and their story in advance. It helps to almost know it better than they do- you can’t do too much research on this. You want to get every story you know they’ve got/think they might have/and more. I never go in with a detailed list of questions- you lose the personal, intimate touch if you do that. I’ve got most of it all in my head.

8 Interviews are usually best when the interviewee is telling you their detailed story for the first time. It’s never quite the same the second time- though second and third takes are always useful to get when filming, Generally the first one, told for the first time will have the most intimacy and power. Definitely don’t let them tell you their story when you’re preparing to film or record them. Just talk around the subject saying how much you’re looking forward to them telling you their story and how important you feel their story is.

9 Let them know in advance that you want them to tell you all the detail of their story, in their own words and in their own time. Prepare them in advance for the kind of areas/experiences you want them to go into.

10 Have a logical narrative structure in mind- it usually works best if they keep to a rough chronology so that you are asking them simple questions like what happened next and how did you feel about that- my two favourite questions.

11 But change the narrative structure whenever necessary to adapt to what your interviewee might really want to tell you about. Sometimes in intimate interviews people want to pour out the dramatic highlights, the most emotional part of the story as soon as you start filming. Often it’s best to let them. They can feel the emotion welling up and they can’t hold it back any longer. You can go back to the other bits later.

12 I always try to sit really close to my interviewees when I’m filming them- close enough to touch them or hold hands. It adds to the intimate atmosphere. I find touch is really important- as is humour and laughter sometimes too…..

13 Always make loads of direct eye contact with them- and explain they must do the same with you. If it’s going well they will do it naturally. This is what will make it look great on camera.

14 Keep questions short. I think sometimes interviewers show off and give lectures to the interviewees which can be quite confusing and undermining. I keep it short and clear- they are the ones doing the talking not me.

15 Don’t turn the camera off unless specifically requested by them. Keep filming when they get emotional- you may not want to use it, they might not want you to, but it’s good to have choices and potential. I find men and women get emotional and cry in different ways- men aren’t used to it and have to stop, most women are and will easily keep on talking and recover without any embarrassment at all.

16 The use of silence in the interview is really important. Sometimes at an intimate or emotional moment a little silence can help- they will fill it and add another thought or story. These can make for some of the most powerful pieces on film. Using silences too often or that are too long though can be completely undermining for the interviewee and can break the flow of the conversation and the relationship. It’s crucial to get the use of silence absolutely right.

17 When you are talking about the intimate experience that is most important to you- and hopefully your interviewee- keep them on it for as long as you reasonably can by asking the key question in slightly different ways. Use all the usual devices to do this- who? What? When? Where? Why? How? So tell me again?

Be brave, there’s something about it being filmed which gives you the right to ask emotional and intimate questions that you wouldn’t otherwise do in everyday life. It’s like a confessional- I think a lot of people respect this. I think a darkened room heightens this atmosphere too. If you have a really tough question to ask which you fear might give an extraordinarily intimate response or might just be really upsetting either don’t ask it at all or leave it until the end of the interview.

18 Use their words- repeat them back to them- ask them what they meant by that, at important moments to get another layer of depth and meaning.

19 Always repeat key questions at the end of the interview when you’ve asked them everything for the first time- but if you’re clever you’ll have already asked them a few times but in a slightly different ways. Although first takes can be fantastic, second and third takes can sometimes work best, they might be shorter or clearer when the interviewee has settled down.

20 Keep in touch with the interviewee afterwards. If you’re recording or filming them for a broadcast programme stay in touch after the interview and before and after the programme goes out. If they’ve spoken about an intimate experience they will expect some encouragement and support from you. This is what you must give back to them.

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