How to Conduct an Interview, Part 2: Asking the Questions

Andy Bowley, Cinematographer

Last week in How to Conduct an Interview Part 1, I dealt with preparation. This post features some pointers once you are sitting across from the interviewee with your questions in hand. Ready? Go!

(Note: Make sure to read this post’s comment by Andy Bowley. He’s worked with some great interviewers so he knows what he’s talking about. That’s him operating the camera, and me in the corner, trying to be invisible.)


You’ve organized your questions and they have an arc and everything. That’s great. But don’t be a slave to the pages in front of you. Interviews are best when they are more like conversations. With Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation (Arcosanti) and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, I’d ask one question and they’d answer it and the next few follow-ups as well. I’d then ask the next logical question without having to look at my printed questions.

Shut Up and Listen Some More

You are not there to impress the interviewee with your knowledge of their subject. You are also not there to tell them your personal history. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, when you talk to you’re saying something you already know; when you listen you might learn something new.

That being said you don’t want to be a question-asking automaton. Be friendly and personable, and judiciously share a brief anecdote  or two to show that you can relate to interviewee , but don’t go over do it.

Be Expressive and Responsive

You will not see or hear me in A Life’s Work, so it is important that I not talk while the interviewee is talking, and that includes no hmmms, ahhhs, or ooohhhs. And those interjections, under ordinary circumstances, propel a conversation.  So I nod a lot, smile a lot, frown a lot, raise my eyebrows a lot. This gives the interviewees something to respond to. You need to show you’re interested, after all, because then they’ll be excited to tell you their stories.

Silence Is Gold

Don’t be afraid of silence. There is the small silence necessary after an answer so you’re not stepping on the toes of the answer and making for difficult edits, but there is also a bigger silence. I will pause once in a while and check my page of questions to make sure I’m covering ground, and this bigger silence can lead to unexpected places. Often subjects thinks they’ve finished answering, but then something comes to mind that they want to add during that silence. This is often the real good stuff. Another reason to do this is you may want a shot of the subject sitting silently — these can be interesting shots — and these pauses can provide that.

Be Ready to Improvise

Some people are talkers and don’t need you to ask questions. David Milarch of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is one of those people. I had the great, mind-blowing pleasure of shooting an interview filmmaker Roland Tec conducted with David Hockney and he was this way as well. They are unbridled and there is no way to control them, so you just have to let them go. When they give you a chance, sneak in a question and get out of the way.

You’re the Boss

While some folks cannot be reined in, it’s important to remember that you are still the boss. Be confident. You did the work and deserve to be where you are. There’s nothing to fear.

This is not always easy to do, believe me, I know. When I had to interview Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, I was very aware that I was interviewing a man who not only had been interviewed many times, as all of the subjects of A Life’s Work had been, but also a journalist who conducted hundreds, maybe thousands of interviews.

Full disclosure: The first few interviews I conducted, I had this at the top of each page of questions.

Rephrase Questions When Necessary

Come up with a couple of different ways to ask the big questions. The big questions deserve being asked more than once, and sometimes a simple rephrasing will yield the answer you could only dream of. Do this, too, if you feel you were misunderstood or if the answer given wasn’t deep enough for you.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush it. And if you can, conduct interviews you think will be lengthy over two days. As I’ve said elsewhere, everyone gets tired after a couple of hours. Sometimes though, you are hard pressed for time. In that case, try to take a little break, go to the bathroom, get water, stretch your legs. Talk about something unrelated to the topic, joke around.

Don’t Be Selfish

Though you are the boss, there’s no reason to be selfish. Invite the interviewee to ask you questions. I always ask the cinematographer I’m working with if s/he has any questions they’d like to ask of the interviewee. Their questions, and the subsequent answers, have been very valuable.

This has been a public service from A Life’s Work.

Was it helpful? I’d love to add to it. If you have questions or tips, please send them my way.

How to Hug a Tree: A Clip

The Best Way to Hug a Tree

I was in a patch of Michigan forest admiring a pine tree, one tree among thousands. I stopped and stared at it. “There’s something about that tree,” I said. “That tree speaks to me.” I felt a little embarrassed that I said such a New Agey thing. David Milarch then instructed me how to hug a tree.

It was like a dream, or a memory of a dream, but the video below tells me that it did in fact happen.


When Milarch started schooling me, I told Wolfgang Held he could turn off the camera , but he kept rolling. I’m so glad he did because this is one of my favorite bits. I suspect it won’t make it into the film, but I’m so glad I have it. And I’m glad I can share it with you.

The other shots: writer Jim Robbins (The Man Who Planted Trees) relaxing against a giant redwood tree in Roy’s Redwood Preserve, California (where I’m told they shot the speeder bikes scene in Return of the Jedi), David and Jared Milarch visiting some of their friends in a forest in Michigan, me among the Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains of California.

Also see: Jim Robbin’s guest blog post.

The Man Who Planted Trees – Guest Blogger Jim Robbins

I met Jim Robbins when I followed David Milarch around a grove of Redwoods in Northern California in the fall of 2007. It was a tense shoot (you can read about it here), and Jim’s cool presence did a lot to settle my nerves. We’ve kept in touch, and when he comes to NYC, we try to catch up in person. I asked if he’d write a few words about his recent book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, for the humble A Life’s Work blog. He graciously agreed. Thanks, Jim.

Screenshot of writer Jim Robbins taking a photograph at Roy’s Redwoods.

In 2007 I visited Roy’s Redwoods, a park in Marin County, California with David Milarch and David Licata. I was writing an article for the New York Times on Milarch, the founder of the Champion Tree Project, and his efforts to clone some big honking redwoods. The project was struggling, things seemed a long way from the goal of cloning the big, red trees and growing hundreds of copies. But five years later seems like an eternity. After several years of looking into the role of trees in the world I realized how precious little we know about them. Based on the few things we do know, I realized they are vital to life on the planet. In the meantime, Milarch raised millions from an angel investor to help realize his goal, and I not only wrote an article about Milarch, I wrote a book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, which comes out this week.

You can order the book on Amazon. I’m reading it now (the perks of being a friend and a blogger, you get stuff early!) and I can tell you it’s worth picking up. And not just because I’m mentioned on page 90.

And if you’re eagle-eyed, you can spot the camera-totting, camera-shy Robbins in the Redwoods section below. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

Is Production Really Over?

Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter a dilemma: how do you know when to say, “production is over.”

You can always shoot more, especially now with video. For Grey Gardens, a film I reference frequently, the Maysles shot more than 70 hours of footage over the course of six weeks. That’s film, not video. And film stock and processing was very expensive back in 1973. It still is. Today, 70 hours of footage would be considered a paltry amount for a 90-minute film.

But expense and shooting ratio aside, the bigger question is, how do you know when you’ve shot all there is to shoot? With a documentary like Spellbound there is a built-in ending. The spelling bee competition. The winner is exalted. The losers cry. Epilogue.
With a film like The King of Kong, though there is a contest to see who can score the most points, there is always the potential for a new record once you’ve yelled, “That’s a wrap.” (This is in fact the case with the chase for the Donkey Kong high score.)

With A Life’s Work I can always shoot more. Stuff always happens. The ATA goes into hibernation, for example. Or the Champion Tree Project changes its name to Archangel Ancient Tree Archive and sets out on a new expedition. Or a new duct is being constructed at Arcosanti that will capture the heat from the greenhouse and passively bring it up a building on the mesa. Or the Black Gospel Restoration Project is sent a piece of vinyl on a label no has heard of before.

And then I look at footage and I think, wouldn’t it be great to have footage of Copemish, Michigan in the spring? Wouldn’t it be great to shoot the Milarchs amidst blooming trees?

But I must remind myself that A Life’s Work is not about documenting the progress of these projects. That would be futile and quite beside the point of the film. The opposite of the point, really.

So I can declare that  production is over because I have the footage I want and the interviewees say things that propel the narrative. I don’t need to shoot latest developments.

But then again, wouldn’t it be nice if …

I’m sure there will be more on this topic as the edit progresses, as I come across sequences that could use a shot of ____ to really make it perfect.

Why These Four?

In previous posts, I wrote about other people and projects I considered for A Life’s Work and why I chose four subjects instead of three or five or twenty-seven. But neither of those posts address why I chose these four people.

A Life’s Work is very simple, really. It’s me searching for an answer to the big question: why are we here? I knew I didn’t want to have four artists or four scientists or four philosophers or four clerics addressing that question. I wanted people who were doing different things. I also wanted people who were doing things I was interested in because I knew I was going to spend a lot of time with this film.

So with that in mind, I proceeded. Actually, it was more like I kept my eyes open and my antennae alert.

Paolo Soleri was the first to sign on. An architect and a philospher: a builder, an artist, and a big thinker all in one. Perfect.

I knew I wanted someone doing something with living things: animals, insects, trees. I was also thinking about water a lot; I was thinking elemental. When David and Jared Milarch of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (then Champion Tree Project) came to my attention, and when I learned there have been four generations of tree-farming Milarchs, I salivated.

SETI was a no-brainer. I had been fascinated by this endeavor since I was a teenager. The question was, who at the SETI Institute. I was torn between Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, and Jill Tarter. They were all intriguing possibilities, but as I read more about each of them, it seemed Tarter would be the best fit in this film.

I knew I wanted some kind of preservationist, too. Originally I was thinking along the lines of someone who actively seeks out lost silent films. I didn’t know of any such person. Lost silent films seem to become found because someone stumbles upon them, not because someone is actively seeking them out. I toyed with the idea of a conservationist who specializes in Tibetan textiles. I liked this idea because textiles are doomed: at best, you can slow down deterioration, but eventually, it’s going to disintegrate. But when my friend Roland Tec brought Robert Darden and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project to my attention I knew I had my final subject. Robert is a multi-hyphenate (writer-teacher-musician-gospel music fanatic), and included in that litany is deacon. I thought this brought in an element that had been lacking. The prospect of including gospel music in the film was gravy.

They did very different things. I loved that they lived and worked in different parts of the country. They were articulate and passionate about what they were doing. I thought they would complement each other in ways I couldn’t script, and that’s turning out to be true.

So that’s why these four.

See also the “How Do You Find These People?” posts.
Robert Darden
David and Jared Milarch
Paolo Soleri
Jill Tarter

Happy Arbor Day! A Clip

Here’s a clip I put together just for Arbor Day. The bulk of this clip was shot on our first visit with the Milarchs in 2007. (Please pardon my little artsy interlude which was shot elsewhere.) This is one of my favorite bits of footage and I’m so glad cinematographer Wolfgang Held kept rolling, even though I told him he could stop shooting. (In 2007 I was adamantly against being in the film in any way.) Like several of the other clips on the blog, I don’t know if there’s a place for this in the film, but there’s a place for it here!


For more clips featuring trees check these posts out:

Cloning Redwoods Redux

Ask the Filmmaker: Turning the Tables

Prometheus, Older than Methuselah

Cloning Redwoods Redux

In your Sunday New York Times, an article on Archangel Ancient Tree Archive’s efforts.

On your monitor, a segment from the documentary, A Life’s Work (in post-production), featuring David Milarch of AATA (then known as Champion Tree Project).

And while you’re here, why not take a look at 10 Ways to Support A Life’s Work.

More clips from the work in progress:

Here’s a “Trailer”

Arcosanti architect, Paolo Soleri, at his first commission, Dome House

SETI astronomer Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s

Searching for Gospel Vinyl with Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

Look Up!

What is it that makes us look up?

We look up at trees, at buildings, to the sky to see clouds, stars, planets. If we are inside and we’ve been asked a question, many of us look to where the wall meets the ceiling, as if there’s a clue there, before we articulate our answer. Many times we look up when we listen to music more intensely.

I can’t say when I chose the four subjects this was a primary consideration. “They must all be involved in activities that involve looking upwards,” because in truth I was considering working with people who look down, but that’s another post.

But if it wasn’t a primary consideration, I can also say it wasn’t an accident either.

Milarchs and Reforestation in the News

Yesterday the Associated Press ran a story about the Milarchs efforts to clone the biggest and oldest trees for reforestation projects, and now it’s everywhere. Here it is on the NPR web site.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to revisit a clip from A Life’s Work, so here you go: David Milarch talking about cloning redwoods.


See also:

Here’s a “Trailer,” featuring the Milarchs and the three other subjects of A Life’s Work.

Prometheus, Older than Methuselah, a clip featuring Jared Milarch speaking about Bristlecone Pines and the tragedy of the Prometheus tree.

Ask the Filmmaker: Turning the Tables, a clip where David Milarch explains our relationship to trees.