The All Important Pre-Interview

Recording a life story of someone you love seems fairly straightforward. You turn on the camera and start asking questions, right?

But there’s a critical important first step you must do with family history videos. It’s something I’ve learned over the years and it goes against everything I have ever learned about documentary filmmaking, both during college and while working in broadcast television for 15 years.

As a television producer, I would always talk briefly to my subjects ahead of time. I wanted to make sure they had something worthwhile to share and I wanted them to be comfortable with me as the interviewer. But I would never "dig deep" during that conversation and I would NEVER ask the questions I was planning to ask during filming. That would be a huge mistake! You can’t get people to be authentic and real and fresh if they know all of the questions ahead of time!

Meeting with a client pre-interviewFast forward a decade later, and here’s the secret I’ve learned for creating great personal history video projects - conduct a thorough pre-interview with your subject. Sit with them for a few hours, in person or over the phone. Ask all of the questions you want to ask. Dig deep. Get great information. And by all means, take copious notes.

I’ve learned that people want and need help remembering their stories from long ago. In fact, they’re often afraid they’ll forget their stories once the camera starts rolling, or worse, will forget a crucial detail or sentiment they wanted to share.

Many people also have trouble figuring out how to structure their life story when going it alone, to the point that it stops them from wanting to start. Where do you begin telling about your ENTIRE LIFE? It can be overwhelming.

By conducting a pre-interview – even if you, the interviewer, already know all of the stories – it will help your subject feel prepared and you will be better able to craft an organized interview. You can use your notes to remind your subject when they forget a detail and make them feel more at ease.

Though I do make my questions on filming day a bit different from the ones I’ve asked during the pre-interview, I find my subjects are still authentic, real, and relaxed  - not despite their pre-interview meeting, but because of it.