Chapter 15 of 26 from Ken Burns

Conducting an Interview

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

Topics include: Put Your Interview Subject at Ease • Be a Visual Listener • Simple Questions Make for Wide Possibilities • It’s Not About You, It’s About the Answer

Ken Burns

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. 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.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking