Film & TV

Conducting an Interview

Ken Burns

Lesson time 12:07 min

Learn Ken’s interviewing techniques to help you connect with your subjects and draw out their most compelling stories.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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I am nervous before every interview, because I feel that, any time there is a kind of arrogance or a sense of "I know how to do this, I'm a good interviewer" is where something always inevitably goes wrong. And so I remember the sheer terror of the first interview I did in January 1972, when I was, you know, not even 19 years old. I was 18 years old. And I try to not recreate it. I just want to be humble enough to realize that we've got to put our position and our people in the best light, and I have to put myself in a position to get the best possible stuff. And I can't take anything for granted. That's the most important thing. [MUSIC PLAYING] Part of the reason that I consider myself a student, every time I do an interview, is because interviews can go wrong. And you can have a conversation with somebody beforehand and think, oh, this is going to be a great interview. And then it's not. And sometimes it's stuff that's going on in them, and sometimes it's poor questioning or poor listening, or whatever. I always will take the blame. If somebody doesn't work, it's all my fault. What I always do for every interview is also, I realize, for those who are nervous, a process of relaxation. I say, I'm not Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." I don't have your tax returns for the last 10 years. And I'm not going to ask you a tough question. Here's what it's going to be. I'm sitting next to this camera, but you can ignore it. In fact, I don't want you to look right directly into the camera, but I'm going to be right up next to the camera. And hopefully, you can forget that the camera and all this other stuff is here. And then I'm going to ask you a question. And I don't need a one-syllable answer, a yes or a no. I need you to talk, but I don't need a chapter. I need a paragraph. And just remember that my question isn't in it. So if I ask you, do you like chocolate ice cream? If you say yes or no, it's meaningless to me. But if you say, I love chocolate ice cream, you've just put my question into the answer. And then you can say why for however long you want. And I am able to edit. And there are no mistakes. We have more than enough film than you will have energy to talk. Let's get started. And I've sometimes stopped in the beginning of a roll, and I say, look, the light is not right. And then the light's fine. But when I turn to them and I say, you're fantastic. This is great. Even if they're not, if you see they're nervous, I said, this is great. Are you a pro at this? I mean, do you know how to do? You've done this before. And they're going, no. I say, well, it's just great. Let's just do that. And we'll go. And I've just used the excuse of making a technical adjustment. Or often, it's at the end of the first roll, if I need to. Or in the case of somebody, you just are struggling and you don't know what to do. And then you find a way in, and you ask something that prompts an emotional answer. And then, once that happens, then thes...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It has given me the confidence and tools to take on producing my first multi-episode documentary series for PBS. Thank you Ken!

Very informative class from a master documentarian!

It was hard to look away. Great information on Ken Burns' process and many ideas to consider in improving my own. Time well spent. Thank you!

Five Stars are not enough for this Masterclass. Relearning a skill and unpacking a dream of completing my Documentary are now possible.TY


Russell Warren K.

I've been racking my brains trying to figure out how to speak with Arizona teenagers. After school, where do they go? I tried to speak with teenagers @ Chandler's Mall but go told no by Security. There's never any children in any of our parks. So 98% of teenagers are home on their phone or gaming? 82% of Americans are overweight or obese. That's not surprise to me.


Who would have thought that the interview process could be so daunting? In putting together my listing of possible experts or colleagues, I never thought about what could happen if the interview did not go will, or the possibility of having to edit the words of an expert who went on too long. Another great lesson.

Shayne O.

Part of the family. Many interviews are so heartfelt it would be difficult to dismiss after the event. Wonderful attitude.

Michele H.

Conduct an interview as if you'd be fine meeting that person on the street later. Pretty good takeaway in general.

Var B.

I love how Ken says he get's nervous before every interview! Keeps him humble and leaves true exploration for the interview. Great Lesson!

Ed S.

Hi All- Very cool. Good tips on interviewing from Ken Burns. I love the interview with Wynton Marsalis. Great how he got Wynton to explain things with such spirit and enthusiasm. Too interview with Arthur Miller too. It really helps to be prepared. People appreciate that. And be early for the interview too. Sincerely- Ed Skirtich

Carol G.

Ken was not expecting much from this interview as Miller said he knew nothing about Brooklyn Bridge .. but he got some of his best material.. I find that..when just chit chatting or after you've turned off the camera ..always seem to get the best lines...

Meg N.

Arrgh! I did an interview with two people in October that would have benefited greatly from the pointers in this chapter. Well, best to do what I can with what I have, and do a better job next time. I am very grateful to Ken for sharing all this with us.

Sunny N.

My take away: An interview is a work-in-progress until it is finished. And finishing includes editing out my question to distill the actual answer.


"It's about the answer..." Love the suggestions of how to put the interviewee at ease. And, treat that person as if you may meet them on the street tomorrow, essentially the golden rule of interviewing.