Arts & Entertainment

Selecting Interview Subjects

Ken Burns

Lesson time 08:57 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.

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Topics include: Vet Subjects With a Pre-Interview • Find Experts Who Paint the Details • Be Honest, Be Persistent • Stay Open to Possibilities


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...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Ken Burns

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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