Talking About Love: documentary interview styles

Liz Strong is a current OHMA student. In this post, she looks at interview tactics in documentary film.

Much of the work I have done conducting and recording interviews has been solely with audio. To change the context, and to practice mindfulness of the varieties of interview tactics out there, I took a close look at two film documentaries. I picked a pair, made in the ‘00s, with a similar story to tell: One woman, baffled by forces in her personal life, sets out to ask interesting questions of interesting people to find the wisdom she needs.

They are:
Always a Bridesmaid, by Nina Davenport (2000)
Paper Heart, by Charlene Yi (2009)

Each woman uses the plot of her own experience to engage viewers and to narrate the relevance of the interviews she conducts. Each protagonist is struggling with all the modern-day pressures for women to be heteronormatively coupled and in love. The mechanics of the dominant narrative, girl meets boy and they stay together forever, are pretty simple, but the motivations and experience of that story, powered by the inexplicable and elusive force “love,” are more complicated.

Nina makes a living as a videographer for other people’s weddings while her own partner, Nick, is hopelessly allergic to commitment. She feels ready to get married and doesn’t understand why she has to wait.

Charlene is a comedian who is starting to think there might be something wrong with her. She’s not sure what true love is but she feels sure she can’t do it.

Of course the interviews themselves are what interest me the most and between the two of them there is a stark contrast. Because Nina and Charlene are working in video all the choices they make in editing, setting the space, and how they place themselves physically within the interview are readily apparent for comparison in addition to the way they conduct questions.

Nina readily identifies as being fascinated with the stories of “old spinsters.” Outside of people in her personal circle, they are her primary narrators. As she visits each of these white-haired women the composition of their conversation is relatively the same. They sit opposite each other, seated comfortably, with Nina behind the camera and off screen while the narrator sits in a centered frame.

Charlene sees herself as “one of the dudes,” and her road trip in search of narrators is interspersed with shots of her and her director pulling over to tromp through the woods, shoot cans with pellet guns, and ignite fireworks to let off steam. Her interviews are also each a hands on adventure. Her conversations are shot sitting in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, walking through a wedding chapel in Vegas, playing with children on a playground, or playing pool in a room stuffed with taxidermy.

Most likely a major motivating factor for this difference in interviewing styles between Nina and Charlene has to do with production. Nina is a one-woman team, handling the video and audio as well as conducting the interviews. All of her narrators are speaking directly into the camera because Nina’s face is right behind it. Charlene on the other hand has at least two cameramen, an audio technician, and her director. This enables her to have a lot more freedom of movement, but also to focus wholly on the interview and her rapport with each narrator.

I would also argue that as a result of being able to put herself actively and physically into her interviews Charlene is able to create a more engaging conversation and dynamic presentation for the film’s viewers. The spaces where she conducts interviews are typically where her narrators work, where they play, and where they live. She can capture them in their element and invite them to walk her through their own setting just as they do with their memories. It provides a visual context to viewers for who they each are as characters, but in the moment of the interview I get the sense that it also contributes to a valuable and expressive interaction.

I’ll admit my attention is drawn to Charlene’s style of interviewing in part because of my own fantasies of being able to conduct interviews that way. So often I have thought, if only I had a set of wireless lapel mics he could hop up and show me some dance moves, she could take me out to the garden, we could go for a walk, swing on swings, cook together, ANYTHING but just sit here. I love listening and talking, but I also wonder about those tactile memories that get to come out when you’re working with your hands and letting your body move. Seeing it play out even a little on screen is gratifying, and while it may be the magic of editing, it seems to really work.

In the case where she and her narrator are playing pool, the turn taking of the game echoes that of their conversation. After asking a personal question, Charlene would lean over with her pool cue, botch a shot, make a face, and step back for his turn as he talked through and thought out his answer. The playfulness of the moment manifests in a playful banter about the triumphs and pain of lost love. Any awkwardness of the situation is an icebreaker of humor. Also, because Charlene is a clear character and participant in how their conversation and his stories are represented, she is free to break into cacophonous laughter at any moment. There is no concern that she will ruin her tape by doing so, and as a result the conversation feels more natural. As someone with quite a loud laugh myself, I’ve learned to quiet it in recorded conversations to prioritize the voice of the narrator. As a character in her own documentary, this is a precaution Charlene can dispense with.

The actual dialogue in Charlene and Nina’s interviews is also a fertile ground for comparisons between different interviewing styles. Because, in Paper Heart, the production team are all characters, their preparation for interviews becomes part of the plot. They show moments of the director trying to get Charlene to plan out what her questions are going to be, and they play up the comedy of her avoiding him. I feel that exact dialogue in my head preparing for an oral history interview, crossing my fingers and wishing that I could wing it, hoping that my research will carry me, that the narrator will be fascinating and verbose, and that I won’t need to rely on a script.

In Nina’s case her preparation for interviewing doesn’t make it into the story, but she does provide us with a running voiceover of her internal monologue during the interview, including her personal thoughts and responses. She represents herself as struggling with the finer points of her own narrative, her own relationship, and seeing her own worries and fears reflected back to her in the stories of her narrators. At times she reveals herself to be clearly hoping for certain answer, or a certain story that would give her hope about her own life. She finds herself wishing she could be more like some of her narrators, or in other cases being personally thrown by their advice.

The following are excerpts from an interview they each did in their documentary. Nina’s is with one of her “old spinsters,” and Charlene’s is from the pool game interview. Where the answers are very long, I’ve edited much of the text out so you could get a sense mostly for the questions that are being asked and in response to what.


– I gave him up. My mother told me that’s the best thing you ever did Edith. I gave him up.
+ Why? Because he was married?

– That’s right.
+ So he was in love with you too? [long pause]
– Went on for seven years the family knows that. Janet and Joyce they know that.
+ And you weren’t sad when it was over?
– I gave him up. My mother told me that’s the best thing you ever did Edith.
+ It wasn’t difficult?
– Of course it was.
+ So are you–?
– But I wanted to go to heaven. I didn’t want to go to hell.



+ Have you ever been married?
– Yes, I was married for 11 years and then I got divorced…
+Why wouldn’t you get married again?
– Because I don’t want to go through the hurt again… True love only comes once in a while, once in a life time.
+ Have you had that?
– Yes I have.
+ Was that with your ex-wife?
– No, as a matter of fact [laughs]. It was, god it must have been twenty years ago…
+ Why didn’t it work out?
– She was dating somebody else at the time and she was like this close to giving it up and being with me. And she just couldn’t do it.
+ Did you know she was dating somebody else at the time?
– Yeah, but what does that matter? If they’re not married or engaged they’re fair game.
+ You think so?
– You know what I mean? Yeah. I mean it’s just a boyfriend. I mean, because you could be the one she’s really looking for. Right?… See you got me talking about love and I can’t even shoot pool anymore.

In Nina’s interview I feel like there are two conflicting narratives. One is Edith’s, the narrator. She describes an old memory that she has recounted for herself many times. It is a difficult decision at a difficult time in her life, and so it becomes necessary for her to give the story of that decision a fixed meaning, one where she is forever certain that she did the right thing. To remain constant in that knowledge, she is wary of dwelling on the complexity of the true emotions of the time. She is willing only to describe the experience in terms of its positive conclusion. The other narrative is Nina’s. She wants to understand the finer details of when someone knows for sure that they have found “the one.” She wants to understand that feeling for her own life, so that she can be confident that she is doing the right thing if she waits for her partner to feel more ready to commit. So what she’s working to draw from Edith’s recollections are the emotions of affection or conflict. Was this person the one? How did she know that for sure? And if she did, how could she have chosen to let him go? Nina never gets that clear picture, because to obtain it would’ve been in conflict with the narrative that Edith needed.

In Charlene’s interview there is a different tone. The topic is still about lost love and infidelity, but the conversation isn’t as difficult. It actually seems fluid and almost jovial. It may have been that they were playing pool and speaking casually, but when I compare Charlene’s questions side-by-side with Nina’s I suspect there is another reason. Each of Charlene’s questions is a follow-up question directly responding to something her narrator had said. He’d make a statement or tell a story and she’d ask either for clarification or more detail. Even her closed questions manage to invite long responses. In a way she lets her narrator act as a teacher. She takes all of his narratives at face value. While there may have been hidden meaning that she missed out on by not challenging him to see his memories in a new way, she didn’t have any personal, or research motivations for doing so. In this and other interviews she shows herself to be interested in gathering people’s stories just as they told and interpreted them.

In Paper Heart, the interviews are like self-defined portraits of each narrator. Her style of interviewing is very improvisational, and responsive to each individual, inviting them to direct the content. I wouldn’t say that they go very deep, or question anyone’s assumptions, but that isn’t what she is going for. A positive result is that she could comfortably and candidly invite conversation about personal and potentially sensitive subjects. Edited together the interviews are a mosaic of completely different notions about love. Their relative absurdity is perhaps their most telling feature. Confusion is justified, but most people would willfully abandon sense to try for love.

In Always a Bridesmaid, Nina seems to thrive in the awkward. Her questions are blunt, and often leading. As a viewer I get the sense that she is digging for something, but by the end I wasn’t at all sure if she found it. She and her narrators are exposed in a way that makes the film into a portrait of anxiety. It was the emotion she started with, and one she surely shares with other women facing similar pressures. Her interviews may not have exposed what love is, or any true notion of what it is to find “the one,” but taken together they are a fair depiction of what it means to be women in a certain, time, place, and culture.