07 March 2008

Once upon a time, for the space of about a minute and a half, I worked as a freelance journalist. I started off writing website reviews for the now-defunct Yahoo Internet Life magazine, and then wrote columns, features, and reviews for now-defunct online magazines like The 11th Hour and MediaSharx. I had a cover story in a tie-in mag, but it was my least favourite job ever, as it involved attending a convention, recording all the panels, and then passing off the transcripts as one-on-one interviews, per the request of my editor. It paid my rent, though. Rent is always important.

My favourite thing, however, were interviews. And I learned how to do them pretty much on my feet, because no writing class I'd ever taken in school actually prepared me for spending 15-45 minutes in someone's company and then turning it around into a 4000 word feature. People are always asking me how I managed to get interviews as a fan journalist, often for fan websites, and so I figured, why not write it all out?

So, here is what I figure you need to know...

First off, unless you know the subject personally, you send a query letter to their agent or manager. If they are an actor or a writer, their agent's contact info will be on file with their union. SAG or WGA will have it on file, and you can get up to three people's agent of record I believe for free. Invest in IMDb Pro. It will save you legwork. Be polite. Be professional. Send letters from your personal or business email--preferably a login in with your real name, not a fictional character, or fan website domain unless that's the fan site you're contacting them on behalf of. Even then, use your real name, not an internet chatroom handle.

Tell them the name of the publication or website, and say you would like to arrange an interview to publicise a specific project, on or around a specific date range. Be flexible. Tell them if you have samples of your work available, to prove you are legit and competant. Accept that not everyone will say yes. Do not get pissy and blog about it in public. Managers and agents and actors and writers are on the internet, and not stupid people. They spend the wee hours of the morning doing vanity searches on Google just like you do. Don't be an idiot. At least not where anyone else can witness it.

Face-to-face or phone interviews are best for one main reason: you can record them. If you record them, you can make an accurate transcript. If you can make an accurate transcript, you will not fall into the worst kind of fakery--passing off paraphrased quotes from memory or shoddy notes as actual verbatim quotes. This isn't about how good you are as a journo. This is about ethics. And it may not mean much at all, but sometimes it means a subject will actually want to talk to you again someday, and that's good for you. People remember being horribly misquoted, or having their words twisted to serve the journalist's own aims. They will remember, and they also talk to one another. Use your brain, and don't be an idiot, and you'll be fine.

A minicassette recorder that plugs into your phone, or can be carried in a handbag is your best friend. I've heard some people have digital ones now. Good for them. I like my Diane, but that's because I'm a dinosaur. Have enough tapes. Always buy new batteries. Test it before you get on site, or before the phone rings. This is important.

First thing you do after your query letter is accepted is research. Read recent interviews with the subject, so you don't ask the same questions that have already been answered in print in multiple places. Google. Fact-check. Get the names of their siblings correct, without making it sound like you're stalking anyone. Know what their next two projects will be.

Make up a question list--which works as a sort of combination checklist and rough outline. First off, this way you can be certain you've covered all the subjects you want to cover. Secondly, it means you'll never hit a brick wall in the middle of an interview, as you try and think of something to ask, off the top of your head. You do not want to waste either the subject's time, or you own. You want to be prepared. Also, some agents and managers will want to see the question list before you actually get the interview.

If it's a phoner, you will be told when the subject will call you, or when the manager will call you and put you through to the subject. Be there to answer the phone (duh). If the subject gives you his or her private phone number, this is not a coup. This is your job. You do not ever ever ever brag to other people about having it. You do not pass it on. You do not fancy that because you spoke with someone on the phone for 15 minutes, that you are now their best mate forever. You are being trusted with something private. Keep that trust, and you may get another interview. This is your goal--to make the interview painless and enjoyable, make the final piece interesting, and help the subject get his or her message across, even if that message is "Please watch my TV series when/if it comes back in January".

If it's a face-to-face, meet in a quiet hotel lobby corner, or restaurant. If at all possible, let the subject pick the locale, so they will be comfortable and at ease. If you like their work, tell them so. No-one ever doesn't like to hear their hard work has found a receptive audience. Do not spend loads of time gushing. You do your job, and if you've done it well, someday, you may get another interview.

Important note: people like to fill silences. Listen, and allow for those silences, because you may get more than your bargained for. Do not make the interview all about you. An actor or writer does not want to know how clever you are. They want to talk about themselves. Let them. Every question may not lead to an answer, but most will. And that answer may lead to 2 or more follow up questions. This is good. But make sure before you go, you've covered everything on your list. Make sure you've thanked them for their time. Make sure you tell their reps thank you for arrnaging it. They did you a favour. You are doing them a favour. It's how the publicity machine works. But they don't owe you anything other than their time. And you don't owe them anything other than doing a good job and writing up a good interview.

Do not pry into the subject's personal life. Ever. If something is offered freely while the recorder's running, good show. But do not expect Lois Lane scoops. If something is said off the record, then it stays off the record. If after you've turned the recorder off you sit and have a gossip, that's all well and good. But that stays between you and the subject. This is not meant to be a social opportunity. This is a job. Do the job, and do it well, and it may lead to more jobs in the future.

Think of fun questions for the end of the interview. Things no-one ever gets asked. "What's your favourite ice-cream flavour?" is always a good one. As is "what do you never get asked, that you wish people would ask in interviews?" is another. Sometimes the answers you get will surprise you. Do no ask them the "Inside the Actor's Studio" questionnaire. It's wanky. No-one actually likes James Lipton. Trust me.

Transcribe the interview. Edit your own questions and comments down, or out (if the material cna stand on its own). People do not want to read about your thoughts. They want to read about the subject's thoughts. Do not infer or imply. Stick to the facts. Do not editorialise. Do remove vocalised pauses, and clean up grammar. People ramble. They start sentences and hen leave off in the middle. They ramble. They are not always eloquent. Make the subject sound articulate, without changing the essence of what they are saying. Do not paraphrase. You will end up sounding like a wanker. And no-one likes a wanker.

Arrange the transcript into a logical progression. You will move things around. That's fine; it's to be expected. Do not take things out of context, to make the subject sound like they were saying something they were not. Keep enough background to give context, but do not spend paragraphs and paragraphs explaining things the reader already knows. Do not pad the finished piece. If anything, pare down to the truth and the essence of things as much as possible. Get in, make your point succinctly, and get out cleanly.

If you are working for an editor, then listen to your editor. They are your editor. This means they are always right. Even when they are wrong. Do not argue. Just make the changes and turn the piece around in a timely fashion. Offer the reps the chance to read the finish piece, if possible. 9 times out of 10, they will be fine with it, and want a copy of the finished piece for their records and press packets.

Act professional, and you will be treated like a professional. Don't fuck it up, and you'll get to do it again someday. And maybe even get paid for it.

There. That's all the wisdom I've got. Have fun.

1 comment:

Mr.SFTV said...

Catching up on some blog reading and came across this post with interview tips.

Definitely good ones, some I've figured out myself in the few interviews I've done. A tip for recording capabilities is that you can get a microphone that connects to your iPod that works well as a recording device to be able to do an interview transcript. Not really well enough for a podcast (it picks up a lot of extraneous noise, especially if the iPod is in your hand).