Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Are all of these anecdotes leading anywhere? Don’t let your interviewee sidetrack you.
While I touched upon this issue in an earlier DDF about tributes, that post was more concerned with the overall topic of your film. For the purposes of this entry, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that at least you have already identified a potentially compelling story you are attempting to tell, and are not just filming a vague appreciation of your uncle or guidance counselor.
So, you have found a solid topic that seems worth exploring, and have lined up interview subjects to offer their perspectives. You selected them because you are reasonably certain that they have information or opinions about your topic that will likely add something of value to your documentary. Depending on what that topic is, you may have a working thesis or a specific angle you hope plays out in the course of your interview – for example, you’re investigating a case of wrongful conviction and you are talking to individuals who you believe can provide information as to your protagonist’s alibi.
Ideally, you’re open to being challenged about your working theory, because this could lead you to potentially richer terrain. When that eyewitness reveals a kernel of info that you hadn’t expected, it might change your entire approach to the film. However, that said, not everything your interviewee says is necessarily game-changing or even pertinent, and you have to be extremely judicious about what you include and what you don’t.
Some interviewees just have the gift of gab and like to tell a good story. Often these types of people are pretty charming and maybe even genuinely funny, or they may be kind of eccentric and have wacky conspiracy theories. Even if they veer off-topic, they may make you think, “This story will be great for the film! Audiences are gonna love them!” Sure, their anecdote about that time when your protagonist was so drunk he claimed to be probed by extraterrestials might be hilarious, but before you include it in your film, you have to assess if it’s really relevant to the story you are trying to tell. Unless you’ve changed your theory to include an alien doppelganger as the true culprit for the crime for which your protagonist has been convicted, I’m not sure that story belongs. Your interview subject might be a fascinating figure on her own, but, again, unless you make a radical change to your project, it’s not about her. Maybe consider making another project with her if you believe there’s a story there, but, for the purposes of your present film, keep your focus.
I’ve run across projects where the filmmaker lets multiple interviewees tell colorful, but not altogether relevant, stories. In excess, indulging your interviewees’ propensity towards random anecdotes can impart a choppy, structureless feel to your film, leading the viewer to conclude you don’t really have a handle on your story. In some ways, making the decision to edit what you might think are delightful character moments is a version of the old writing advice to “kill your darlings.” Consider carefully if a particular anecdote adds something of substance to your film, or if you just like it. If it’s the latter, does it also potentially distract from the main point of your project? Ultimately, it’s your film, so it’s your choice what to include and what to remove, but always remember that usually you are making your film to connect with other viewers – give your film the best chance to do so as effectively as possible.