Making a Documentary? Three Ideas That Really Work

When it comes to making a documentary, when and how you contact people to interview depends on the person, their interest in your project, your level of credibility and how much time you have to build up the relationship.

Are you trying to interview the President of the United States or a weaving expert? If it’s the President or a high-end celebrity, you will need to go through all kinds of “gatekeepers” and public relations people. It’s usually fairly easy to find contact information for your expert through a Google search.

Typically, the first step is to reach out to the person with a short letter or e-mail of introduction and request for the interview. Explain that you’re making a documentary and make your pitch as credible sounding as you can (list your partners, other people you’ve interviewed, etc). If they don’t reply, you may need to change your angle.

making a documentary

Making a Documentary? Three Ideas That Really Work

When it comes to making a documentary, try to understand who the person is and what they might respond to best. The key is that they need to feel some level of trust from you that you are worth their time. If the person is reluctant to be interviewed, this is where the relationship building must come in. Stay in touch with them. Take note of opportunities to reach out to them in a positive way. Send them a note of congratulations if you happen to see that they won an award.

Use those creative skills of yours to figure out what the person might respond to. Maybe it’s reaching out to them through Facebook or Twitter? A word of caution: never ever be a pest. Be courteous and respectful at all times. Even if they turn you down, kindly thank them for their consideration and, if appropriate, ask if they could recommend someone else you could interview.

1. How To Set Up The Interview

Once your expert agrees to be interviewed, find out when and where is most convenient for them. This shoot is not about what’s convenient for you, it’s about making this process as easy and comfortable for your interviewee.

Ideally, you want to interview them in a place where they are most comfortable such as in their home or place of work. You also want the background of the interview to match the subject they are discussing. For example, if the interview is about solar power, set up in the interview with solar panels in the background.

Be respectful of the person’s time and set proper expectations. Make sure your expert understands that you will need 30-minutes to an hour to set up the shot so that they can plan their time accordingly. And even if you think the interview will only take 20-minutes, ask them to schedule an hour so that everyone can be relaxed throughout the process.

2. Why You Should Not Pay Interview Subjects

In news gathering and documentary filmmaking, interview subjects are typically not paid. The idea is that as soon as someone is paid, they are saying whatever you want them to say so it muddies the waters in a journalistic endeavor. Plus the subject expert is often motivated to participate in a film in exchange for the publicity and the credibility it brings to them.

Or it may simply be an ego boost that you asked them for their opinion and they will be excited to sit down and share their information for the simple exchange that someone is listening to their opinion! With that said, some experts make their living as consultants/experts and they will expect to be paid for their time. This is where you need to do your research in advance and understand who you are dealing with before approaching them.

3. How To Get Subject Experts To Care

If you are Ken Burns, trust me, they will care about your project. The more credibility you can bring to your project, the better the chance you can get their attention. If you are a sixth grader making a documentary as a school project, perhaps you could get your teacher or school principle to reach out to your expert. The key is to understand how the expert would benefit from being involved with your project and approach them from that angle.

If you want more information on how to make a documentary, you might want to check out the Documentary Proposal Template and the Documentary Budget Template and Budgeting Guide

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Faith Fuller is the primary author of Desktop-Documentaries and the director of the award-winning documentary Briars in the Cotton Patch: The Story of Koinonia Farm which was broadcast nationally on PBS from 2005 – 2010.

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