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Arts & Entertainment

Selecting Interview Subjects

Ken Burns

Lesson time 8:58 min

The people you choose to interview help bring your film to life. Ken teaches you how to identify, approach, and vet the right subjects for your documentary.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-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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One of the central elements of our film are the interviews. And they are hugely important for many of the films. Sometimes we have very few of them. But most of them are contemporary people who have been involved with it. But also, we have historical interview people that know something about the subject. Getting them is totally different. The-- the historical people are pretty easy. You can't interview Abraham Lincoln, but you can interview Shelby Foote. You can't interview Frederick Douglass, but you can interview Barbara Fields. So that's what you do. And that's pretty obvious. And you get a list and you go out. And you set up a time and you conduct the interview. With the subjects that are part of the story of the film-- veterans of the Second World War, veterans of Vietnam, people in country music-- that's a different sort of thing. You're reaching out, hoping to find the best person. That's a different set of questions than if you're finding a scholar who knows something about the Civil War, or knows something about the Roosevelts. A lot of it involves some of the most significant digging we do. And the others are sitting right there in front of us. And-- and we need to just go out and figure out who that cohort will be. [MUSIC PLAYING] We go to lots of lengths for everything, whether it's an archive or diaries or journals. And the interviews are no exception. In the case of Vietnam, where we ended up shooting about 100 people, we probably talked to over 1,000. And it's-- it's trying to identify those people-- casting the net hugely wide, 10 to one, 100 to one-- that we might talk to, and then eventually getting to those interviews. What you want to do is ask them to tell you about their experience, and take furious notes. And you're not only writing down the details of what they've done, but you're also noting how well they tell a story. And I have had an instance in "Huey Long" film where I was interviewing a retired judge in Louisiana who had been fiercely anti Huey Long. And in the lead-up to the interview The guy could not shut up. And I just thought, oh no. This is going to be terrible. And we just-- I didn't know what to do. But somehow, turning on the camera, he gave it in bites. He's a huge part of the film. Sometimes everything that you've got written down goes out the window. They're not going to tell that story again. You can try as best you can to do it. And they might even say, well, I'm not comfortable saying that again on camera. Sometimes you realize they are not going to be a good interview. They're-- they're too anxious about it. Even in the pre-interview, they're stumbling. You don't want somebody to be-- to fall apart when you put the camera there. And that's happened, where they just have clammed up and been unable to do stuff. And sometimes you've been able to pull us out of a nosedive and get us-- get us something good. And that's-- those make for good-- good stories about intervie...

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.

I need part 2. Super enjoyable to listen to Ken speak!

This class has given me a huge new perspective of documentary filmmaking. Ken Burns is now my greatest inspiration in this field, and I can't thank him and everyone enough to put together such a quality class. I just want to go out there and make films!

If you finish a lesson, you have to reload the page to watch it again... not cool

lets me know its ok to do the best i can and to build with focus and hope and humility.


Phil N.

Short lesson but enough to make me want to get out there with the camera and light and microphone. I would have liked to have seen a hands-on how-to set-up of the equipment and where to position the subject in the viewfinder.

Shayne O.

Beautiful words in the last interview excerpt. And the Congresswoman, brilliant.


Holy Crap. The surprises that come with this work. The stories, the storytellers. Things you never could have orchestrated. Words that flow outward to change our perspectives and understanding. I love this so so much!!!!

Charles B.

Location scout - get there before shooting and make sure it is a good/great location. Interviewing - Get to the person to be interviewed, discuss it with them, if they are good and can handle being on camera, get them on camera. I have a subject in mind and when I contacted him over the phone he immediately began to answer as if I were already doing the interview. I had to distance myself. He is/was well meaning but so into it he couldn't hold it all back. I now have enough time to approach this subject and topic again. Secondarily, I was doing some photography on a bridge at night locally. The hand rails of the bridge are covered with spider webs. I put my hand out to touch the rail and could feel a spider touching me with her legs to feel me out. ever so slight touches, like a bird feather might feel on the wind brushing up against you. I brought my hands back to myself and thought that I won't be touching the railing again, but the metaphor I want you to think about is, she was feeling me out. I think you have to feel out your interviewees as well to be certain they can and will be able to handle the situation.

Sunny N.

I learned that interviewing for a documentary film is an art that must be approached with care, creativity and a very delicate brush. Otherwise, subtle colors will be missed.

Garrett W.

Been going through this process of selecting potential interviewees...have a good size list to cover the film... Ken, few questions: 1) How many are too many (interviewees)? 2) Is there some magic number of interviewees to aim for in a 90 minute documentary? Or do you just do what it takes to tell the story? I guess I wonder if viewers can generally only handle so many faces telling the story.

Bob Z.

Pre interviews are a great idea. I've interviewed a few people who turned out to be not anything what I thought they would be once the camera was turned on. After driving 150 miles and spending the whole day for nothing it is not a good use of your time. Others just are great.

Betsy B.

I love it when a celebrity is surprised that you have done your homework....that changes everything and I have learned more about my own subject with every interview filmed. It made me realize how little I knew....I love finding out their inspiration.....what has shaped their lives to become whom they are.....just as Mr. Burns does so eloquently in every film.

Michael B.

Wow, I really enjoyed this lesson. It was such a good reminder of the bumper-sticker my dad had on the glove compartment of his old Chevy Nova (one of the ugliest cars he ever had, and also one of the ugliest in history): it said: Expect The Unexpected. I'll never forget sitting there in front of that sticker, and Ken, you just reminded me of it ;-)

Aradia M.

what I struggle with..with all these master that what I hear with all these amazing master class artists who are at the top of their genre in the arts and people at the top of their professions in this time that I am alive and given the opportunity here in this particular platform to that..what they say in their classes .is what all humanity needs to hear....I think it could change the world for the better...I'm constantly blown away with everything I've heard. I'm too old to be in school..I was young and a college student back in the 80's. I'm the same age as most these speakers...I am only listening to these amazing people because I want to hear what they have to say on a deep personal level...because it opens and heals my own know such special people are out there in our world today fighting the good fight through their art and particular professions...liberating the world inch by inch time passing by time passing...with their amazing creative talents that speaks truths.. I find myself constantly wanting to share what I hear with all my friends and children......And like all the classes I've seen..Ken Burns..just blows me away with his poetic articulation..his genus..his mystical wisdom and intelligence for fairness for all people and what a better life, could and should be for showing the horrors and short comings of the past and old conservative, old ways in the works he creates....He's just brilliant........oh..sheet..I've had a glass or two of wine while watching this and am sure I sound like I'm just babbling now........please get people like Morrissey and Robert Redford, and John Lydon, etc..and all the Rebels that challenge the old ways and even current mainstream that gets stuck following the cattle down the slaughter shoot unknowingly......I'd love to hear how they kept their pure stay on their path when I'm was constant struggle both mentally and financially going against the grain....this video has hit a chord with me and feel that some of the things he's said will become quotes that will last from here on into far as relating to the human experience.