Insiyah Saeed has conducted thousands of interviews as a print journalist, researcher, and now as a documentary filmmaker. For her film, SHE STARTED IT, which just released on iTunes and Google Play, she helped to conduct over 80 on camera interviews and interviewed many key players in the Silicon Valley and beyond, including Ann Miura Ko, Tracey Chou, Danny Rimer, Jess Lee, Ruchi Sanghvi, and more.
Insiyah is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and has been covered by many publications, including Forbes, CNET, CNN, Glamour, IndieWire, and Fast Company and more.
1) Get your subject to be comfortable with you.
Documentary film is not like the news. When I was an intern at CNN we had just a few seconds to catch that usable sound bite from passersby on the street. Most of these clips ended up on the cutting room floor. In the documentary world, we often set up for an hour or half hour interview and have a little bit more time to do a deep dive with our subject. While the crew is setting up lighting sound and color, I take the time to make the subject comfortable. Small talk is a good icebreaker, like asking them what they had for breakfast or how their day is going. The more comfortable the person is, the more likely they will give a natural interview, resulting in the soundbites you are looking for.
One of my favorite intimate comments in SHE STARTED IT was from Stacey Ferreira (Founder, Forge) when she revealed “If you’re learning something, you’re not really failing.”
2) Give them a few tries to get what they want to say right.
Once you’ve gotten your subject comfortable enough to talk, they might need a few tries to get the interview to match the vision you have in mind. If there’s something particularly juicy you want them to say, you can try asking them to repeat it if you don’t like the first delivery. This gives you a few options in the edit room, and your editor will thank you. Of course you will not get that option every time, but at least you know you’ve done what you could to showcase them in the best light by allowing both of you to prepare your thoughts in advance and taking the time to get it right.
When I heard this line, I knew it was a keeper and I had to make sure we had a good version for the edit: “If plan A, plan B, plan C doesn’t work, there are 23 other characters in the alphabet,“ by the late Thuy Truong (CEO GreenGar).
3) Do the work of pre-producing.
Of course you are pre-producing everything before you book your interviews as a story conscious producer. Maybe you watched your subject on Youtube a few times, or did research on them in another way. But pre-interviewing them over the phone and on Zoom to exactly understand what they may say and how they deliver it is really important for your overall content quality. Emotion, delivery, and passion all make a difference for your story and for your viewer.
4) Use acts and figures only when necessary.
Asking your interviewee to give particular facts or statistics on your topic can be boring and make your viewers sleepy. However if they have an important point to make, you need to let them say it — especially if it is astonishing, or drives home the point of your documentary. If you still feel that info is too dry, you can always cut to b-roll or graphics to make it more Interesting.
5) Make sure you transcribe everything.
Transcription needs to be in the budget beforehand. Don’t make the mistake of partially transcribing your interviews, or trying to rewatch everything yourself and think you can conjure it up from file names by memory. The only way you will locate everything you can possibly place in your documentary is by marking up the best bites from the transcribed portion of your shoots and trying them out with your editor.
6) Don’t forget to add humor.
We all need a good laugh, and if you have a funny subject, why not use them? It breaks things up from the mundane, and often are the most memorable sound bites you have have from your documentary. My favorite example in SHE STARTED IT is from Brienne Ghafourifar, who said, “You can sleep when you are dead.”