“Should I Look at You or The Camera?” Documentary Filmmakers on Working With Subjects

“Should I Look at You or The Camera?” Documentary Filmmakers on Working With Subjects – full playlist of videos here

Filmmaker or not, the idea of shooting a documentary is exciting. Possibilities are endless, if only your idea can be conveyed. Access to subjects and environment is the first challenge.  Depending on the budget of your film, financing can actually be second to the former in what stands in the way of making your doc.

Once granted access, what is the best way to interact with the person with whom you are interviewing?

The dynamics of a person change completely once a camera is on, for better or worse. Making sure viewers see what they think a projected image of themselves should be, despite the best of intentions and commitment to showing the reality of a person or group’s daily life.

As many filmmakers can probably attest to, the line between the subject’s feeling of how they are portrayed versus the outcome of raw footage can mean the difference between a film’s completion or a hard drive worth of footage left on the cutting room floor.

Here are a few tips from some of the documentary filmmakers Film Courage has had the honor to interview on working with subjects.

Watch the video Best Advice On Getting Documentary Subjects To Be Natural On Camera by Patrick Creadon here

Film Courage: With the subject, when you do bring the camera out, maybe you’ve met with them a few times prior and you’ve built a rapport with them and there is a level of trust established but you’ve noticed that they’ve changed a little bit once the camera is on…maybe [their personality] is super “on,” maybe they are second-guessing themselves, and for lack of a better term (this is horrible I know) get the verbal diarrhea out of them?

Patrick Creadon:  How do you it out of them?  How do you get that acting-ness out of them?

Film Courage: Or nervousness?

Patrick:  I would say that is a bit of a challenge when you’ve traveled half-way around the world, let’s say.  Tips to spend time with somebody and they are not being themselves camera and they are acting.  That happens.  As hard as you try….(Watch the video on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview How To Capture Intimate Moments In Documentary Filmmaking by Patrick Shen here

Patrick Shen:  You definitely want as much conflict as possible to come up when you are shooting a documentary but (of course) it can’t be predicted or planned.  You try and focus in on subjects for films that have conflict inherent in them some how.  Like IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE I wanted to document on silence and the natural counterpart to that was noise, so I sort of had this built in kind protagonist antagonist kind of relationship just right there.  

But you can’t really plan for that thing.  You forget with documentaries you kind of just have to be rolling all the time and be paying very close attention to what is happening in front of the camera. And you become very intimate with your subject to where you start getting a sixth-sense of what he or she is thinking and feeling and where the story might go.  And you just kind of hope to have the intuitive sense to put…(Watch the video on Youtube here)

Watch the video The Making Of The Documentary CAM GIRLZ – Full Interview with Filmmaker Sean Dunne here

Film Courage:  When you would go into their homes [to film], how many people were with you?

Sean Dunne:  Oh…small…four or five people I think at most.  And when the shows were actually going on, when they were being filmed, just our cameraman was in there.  Because at that point I had already spoken to them.  I loosened them up, we had done this podcast style interview and the pressure was off them and now they could be themselves and kind of live their life (which we showed some of that) and do their cam show without worrying about us. Our camera guy was the only one in there when the shows were going.  But besides that, we only had a crew of five or six people at any given time. 

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Film Courage:  So when that camera guy was there, were there real live customers getting shows?

Sean Dunne:  Oh yeah.  We didn’t contrive anything or put anything on or do anything for the camera.  It was simply…we would just tell the girls “It’s not pressure.  We are going to show up, we are going to film you doing what you normally do” and that’s all we did.  We were decisive and bold in our decision making in terms of approaching the visuals beforehand and I think it pays off…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Watch the video interview Preparation A Documentary Filmmaker Goes Through Before Production by Leslee Udwin here

Film Courage:  Going back to the beginning of the film, did you already have the family members of these rapists lined up?  Did you know how to contact them?

Leslee Udwin:     Basically I started off brainstorming what I wanted the film feel like, to look like.  Really analyzing what were my objectives in making this film.  I then did a period of quite intensive research in terms of finding all the footage I could of the reports and this was a very, very well-covered, well-reported incident.  And I started writing a list of questions for the rapists and worked with a psychiatrist, had a forensic criminologist help me with some of those questions and started weeding around the whole subject very diligently…(Watch the video on Youtube here).


Watch the video interview I Had Never Made A Film Longer Than 3 Minutes Prior To LORD MONTAGU by Luke Korem here

Film Courage:  We understand Luke that it took you four years to work on [the documentary] LORD MONTAGU.  Was there any way you could have made it faster?

Luke Korem:  So it’s funny, the film started out not as a film, it actually started out as an interview.  I was asked to go interview this man who lived in this castle, his name was Lord Montagu.  And I was like “Absolutely!  Okay.”  I had no idea what I was getting into.  And I went and interviewed him and he started telling me his story and I just found it fascinating and it was like why like why has no one told this story? Come to find out the family and Montagu himself had remained silent about what had happened to him and never spoke.  And for some reason they started telling me the story and I gained their trust.  So that took about a year to gain their trust after the interview.  And then they said “Okay, you can make a film.” …(Watch the video on Youtube here).




Watch the video interview The First Meeting With KIDS FOR CASH Judge Mark Ciavarella by Robert May here

Film Courage:  So how does this feel to you that you have the last footage of both these men’s lives?  What kind of responsibility does this place on you?  How did this affect you during the filming?

Robert May:  The responsibility that I felt through all of the project was we are handling people’s lives. You know even the villain’s lives, these are their lives.  And even though Judge Ciavarella took the money, he shouldn’t have taken the money, he admits to taking the money, he admits that that part was wrong.  He may never admit the Kids for Cash.  But he also destroyed his family, his entire family and his friends and all of it.  They have to live with his legacy.

I think for us, we just wanted to have an honest portrayal of the stories and we said that we were not going to take anything anybody said says out of context.  We had 600 hours of footage.  And you can always take and flip when you are editing you know something that somebody did…in reality shows that’s what it is…it’s a constant flip of what people say. 

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So we had to make sure that we stayed true to all the stories.  And we did and I am very proud of that.  And literally fro journalists to the families to the judge’s daughters, no one has come to us and said we got it wrong, we took something out of context, no that’s not right.  That’s not what I meant, no one has said that.  And I feel really good about that…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).







Watch the video interview My Interview Tips To Documentary Filmmakers by Paul Blackthorne here

Film Courage:  I see from your website you’ve said that you’d never really done interviews before and so you Googled ‘How to People?’ which I thought was great.  What did you find out?  I understand you took psychology classes previously?

Paul Blackthorne:  Yeah, I studied the psychology of acting, spiritual psychology of acting.  Well it’s very strange, the only person that I’d interviewed ever prior to this film was in fact the Dalai Lama, which was a bit strange to have that on the resume of a one-time interview.  And that’s because I was involved in a documentary with some people and John Salley (the basketball player) and Gustavo Santaolalla (the music composer), and myself were sort of chronicled on a journey across India through various sort of religious.  We were in you know “Hindu country,” we were in “Sikh country,” we were in “Muslim country.” you know.  And it culminated with meeting the Dalai Lama and being able to ask him a few questions.  So that was the only person I’d ever interviewed before (and I say interviewed but it was two questions).  But [for Paul documentary] this was six months later and now were are going to travel across America and ask all sorts of questions.  I

I remember the one thing that stuck in my mind was “How do you feel about…?”  “How do you feel about the state of the country at the moment?” Not like “What do you think of this?” or “What do you think of something?”  And then it was the “How do you feel?” or “What makes you feel that way?” that I just remember hanging onto those words in terms of interviewing….But regardless of whatever I may or may not have discovered on Googling the interviewing technique, the one thing that was important to me at that time was….(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).






Watch the video interview Best Way To Approach Someone To Be In A Documentary by Mary Wigmore & Sara Lamm here

Sara Lamm:  One, I think as a documentary filmmaker, the film finds you a little bit, right?  If you keep your eyes and ears open and wait to feel that sort of thing that makes you move forward, right?  That’s a big part of it.  And it was very lucky and we feel like we were the right people to do this story.  We were in a place where we had recently given birth.  We both cared about the topic a lot. And sort of just new about the topic a lot because our lives had led us in that direction.

But I also think that in approaching Ina May [Gaskin, the mid-wife of BIRTHSTORY] we held it very lightly. In other words we said well let’s see.  Let’s just take the first step toward getting to know her.  Let’s agree that we will come and do a long interview for the weekend and it doesn’t mean we are going to make a movie.  It doesn’t mean you’re going to sign a release form.  It just means we are going to come and get to know you and  get a feel for what’s there. And so that went really well and I think our questions helped her to feel comfortable.  She sort of got a sense of what kinds of things we were thinking about.  So then we were able to start to structure the conversation a little bit more about how we’d like to make a feature film about you.  I remember we sat in her bedroom and she sort of said “Well what would this be like?”

Birth Story captures a spirited group of women who taught themselves how to deliver babies on a 1970s hippie commune, rescued modern midwifery from extinction, and changed the way a generation thought about childbirth.

Mary Wigmore:  But you always start out with some naïveté when you’re starting a film.  I mean you have the enthusiasm but you don’t realize…we didn’t realize going into the film it would take four years to make.  But I also just want to add that it’s chemistry. And Ina May said to us “I’ve had people come to me and want to make a film before.  But I never had two mothers come to me.”  And she said “I’ve always trusted my intuition, that’s how I’ve made decisions throughout my whole life and this is no different.”  And it was a conversation on her bed.  And she said “Okay, let’s just go forward.”  And we were so thrilled!  We were….….(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).