Five Questions for Sarah Scoles, Author of “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”

Sarah Scoles, Science Writer

In April 2017, Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute, told me that there was a biography of Jill Tarter coming out in July. I was thrilled when I later heard that it was written by Sarah Scoles, a contributor to Wired Science. Last year when I was trying to get people interested in the crowdfunding campaign, Sarah and I volleyed some emails, and I was thrilled when she remembered me and agreed to do this mini interview. So, here’s Five Questions For…  science writer Sarah Scoles, author of the just published biography, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Making Contact by Sarah ScolesWhat drew you to write about Jill?

My first introduction to Jill Tarter came in fictional form, when I watched the movie Contact on a Friday night with my family. In Contact, a character named Ellie Arroway–partly inspired by Jill–champions the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and (unlike the SETI story in real life!) does find aliens. I had been interested in astronomy for years before that, since I was very young, but I didn’t know that anyone searched for extraterrestrial life in a really serious way. It was a huge revelation to realize that, and then, later, to realize there was this actual person who did the same thing. I thought the questions that the fictional character and the real Jill wanted to answer–How did we get here? Who else is out there?–were so compelling, and they led me into the world of radio astronomy. I ended up writing about that field, rather than being a researcher in it, and so when I decided I wanted to write a book, I thought about what had first inspired me to enter this particular kind of astronomy–SETI and Jill–and thought maybe others would be similarly interested and inspired.

What about her surprised you the most?

I think I was most surprised by how interested Jill is in this planet, and life here on Earth. I guess in some slightly subconscious way, I thought she must spend all her mental energy thinking about things beyond Earth. But she is very curious about and invested in understanding things close to home. One summer, I went with Jill and some of the SETI Institute’s interns to far northern California, where the Institute runs an observatory called the Allen Telescope Array. While there, we all trekked up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where some Institute scientists study the extreme life that lives at high altitudes, in snow, and in the hydrothermal pools flanking the old volcano. Jill not only stopped at every single interpretive sign and read the whole thing but also, at one point, stopped to do a calculation of how hot a given lava rock must have been if it took X number of months to cool off.

What’s the process of writing a book like this? How many interviews/how many hours, how much research, and related to this, how long did it take from concept to final draft to publication date?

From concept to publication date, the process took about three years, although there were only about six months when I was able to work primarily on the book. The rest of the time, I was also a full-time freelancer, writing magazine stories. To start the book, I left my job as an editor at Astronomy magazine and moved to California, where Jill lives, so that we could meet regularly without my having to buy 5,000 plane tickets. We met once or twice a month for about a year, and we would sit in her house or at the SETI Institute and do 2-3-hour interviews. Sometimes, we worked from a list she had of the “top 100 moments” in her life; sometimes, we would go through file cabinets of old scientific papers and conference proceedings; sometimes, we would check out the many photo albums she has going back decades. On my own, I read most of the SETI books out there, to know what other writers had already said; I read science journal articles about exoplanets and astrobiology and radio signal processing; I got archival newspaper subscriptions to see what people were saying about SETI throughout history; I used Google images to find pictures of the places she’d been that I hadn’t, and how they looked 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Then, I talked to others in the field who knew or had worked with her, to see how their perspectives matched up or didn’t. It was…a lot of work! But a fun challenge to try to recreate a scene in a place and for an event I didn’t myself witness.

You’re a professional science writer, the idea of “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science must rankle you. Any thoughts on how we got here?

I think both “alternative facts” and “disbelief” in science have always been around. I don’t think they represent a new phenomenon. I think Galileo and Copernicus, both of whom caught the eye of the Inquisitioners because their data and ideas didn’t place Earth at the center of the universe, would agree with that. And then there are the snake oil salespeople, literal and proverbial, who’ve been literally and proverbially successful for more than a century. I think in recent decades, the discoveries of science have had more bearing on daily life than they may have in the past — not that they didn’t always have some or significant bearing — as technology dominates, climate changes, bacteria resist, etc. And so science is more in the public conversation and communal life, which means opposition is, too.

In my film, Jill talks about Sputnik inspiring Americans to go into scientific fields. When I was a kid, it was the space program. Do we need something similar to that (sending humans to Mars, for example) to inspire the next generation and get out of this Dark Ages world view we seem to have regressed to?

I think I have a slightly less pessimistic view on this! While there’s certainly darkness and “anti-science” sentiment out there, I think it’s fairly matched by others’ interest and enthusiasm. We live in an incredibly productive time, scientifically. Scientists produce more results, take more data, and affect our world arguably more than they ever have in the past. In a report called “Condition of STEM 2016,” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the ACT organization found that about half of high-school graduates who took the ACT are interested in STEM majors and careers. Granted, ACT-takers represent a biased sample; not all of those students will go into STEM careers; and schools don’t prepare all demographics equally for STEM fields. But I think The Youth do care about science and technology, and do want to contribute to those fields. That said, a mission to Mars would certainly light a fire, rocket pun intended, under a lot of students.

Want more? Check out Sarah’s interview about the book and Tarter in The Atlantic.

Sarah Scoles, science writer.Sarah Scoles is a freelance science writer and a contributor at WIRED Science. (If you haven’t read A Rare Journey into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Super-Bunker that Can Survive Anything, check it out. It will blow your mind.) She lives in Denver, Colorado, and formerly worked at Astronomy magazine and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in Green Bank, West Virginia, where the first SETI experiment took place. She enjoys running up mountains and reading short story collections.

Order Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence on Amazon.

Cover photo of the Allen Telescope Array by Sarah Scoles.

The Probabilistic Universe: A Clip

The Probabilistic Universe

Here’s a clip I’ve been working on. As the title of this post suggests, it’s about how chance and the unexpected can play a major role in what we find ourselves doing, the discoveries we make, and the passions that fill us.


I’ve always thought of this clip as kind of the equivalent of a sidebar in a magazine article. Will it make it into the finished film? Don’t know. Some pertinent information is contained in it, but the whole thing? Maybe I’ll flip a coin to decide.

Another coin decision: When Tarter says “We … we? Jocelyn Bell and her thesis advisor….” Cut the “We… we”? Right now, I like it.

I’d really like to know what you think of this clip, since it’s quite different than the other clips up there. And please feel free to like it, share it, comment on it, etc.  You know I always love hearing from you.

You can help finish A Life’s Work. Yes, you! Donating to the film is easy and all amounts ($5-50,000) are welcome and appreciated.  More than $1,600 has been given to the film so far, and that without the big hyped up push of crowdfunding.

In addition to monetary help, there are many ways you can support A Life’s Work. Why not consider being a part of  the film’s growing community?

Conversations with Friends, Part 2

Not too long ago I was speaking with my friend S. about something other than film and art. He said, “In my experience, whenever you try to force something, it doesn’t work.”

Advice like this no one wants to hear, myself included. I believe I can will things to happen. It’s magical thinking. It’s how I deal with the uncertainty of my life at various times.

But it’s also true of film and art. Consider….

I have written before about one of my favorite lines in A Life’s Work, when Robert Darden talks about a setback the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project encountered. It’s in the following clip, the line is, “Okay. I need more faith.”


Not long ago I had been thinking about Jill Tarter’s response to my question about whether faith plays a part in her life. She said, “Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life.” I had also been thinking how I could juxtapose these two responses. I was twisting and turning the footage, trying to ram square pegs into round holes, and it wasn’t working. The problem is context — they are responding to different questions, Darden’s response is to a very specific incident and Tarter’s response is to a poorly formulated question from the interviewer (me). Sometimes you can make such disparate things work, sometimes you can’t. And when you can’t, you can’t, no matter how much you force it. So, I’ve moved on. Darden’s response has a very definite place in the film, Tarter’s, we’ll see, but I think not.

Life lesson learned? Probably not. I’m sure I’ll keep trying to force things. But maybe yielding this time will result in keeping a confusing scene out of the film, and that’s no small thing.

Related: Editing a Setback Sequence – Process

Documentary Dilemmas: The Neverending Stories

Do Scientists Pray? Albert Einstein Responds. So does Jill Tarter, in a Way

There’s a nifty website called Letters of Note. Two letters of note you’ll find there are an exchange between a sixth grader named Phyllis and Albert Einstein. Here’s the exchange, which  LoN took from the book Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children.
Albert Einstein

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,



January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

I asked Jill Tarter a similar question:  was faith a part of her life? I found it a difficult question to ask her, and I hemmed and hawed my way through it. Thankfully, Tarter indulged me and answered with her typical eloquence.

Jill Tarter looks up at the sky

Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life. Marvel, looking at this universe that we have and then being blown away by how spectacular it is and enjoying the prospect of figuring out how it works, that’s a big part of my life. Here we are, literally stardust. We are the remnants of long dead stars. The iron in your hemoglobin was inside a massive star billions of years ago. But somehow, here we are, stardust, able to puzzle out a lot of the story of how we got here. That’s amazing!  Right? How could you not be turned on by that, and it’s really empowering and exciting. And I don’t find any need for some formalized religion.

I asked this question as I was approaching my half-century mark. But I was very pleased to read that essentially the same question was posed to the most famous scientist of the 20th Century by a sixth grader (age 11 or so). After all, A Life’s Work is essentially told from the point of view of a pre-adolescent, that wondering self many of us left behind when other matters took precedence in our lives.

Science and faith —  Reconcilable? What do you think?


Listen Up! A Clip featuring the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter

Last week’s post, Please Forget Me, inspired a comment from friend and A Life’s Work subject Robert Darden:

I teach my Journalism students that they need to be invisible when they do interviews. I don’t want them to speak much and I sure don’t want the interviewee to know their political or religious views. In fact, I don’t know what any of the good reporters I’ve interviewed through the years think about such things … including the ones I see regularly. Their job is to get out of the way of the interview, to let the interviewee speak.

This reminded me of a comment left on How to Conduct an Interview, Part 2: Asking the Questions by friend and one of A Life’s Work’s cinematographers, Andy Bowley:

i think rule #1, to listen is supremely important. if you are listening — really listening and thinking over what the person is saying to you, they can really sense it. and if you’re doing it right, you should be listening and thinking. i mean you’ve got a lot to think about: you should be cutting their sound bites in your head, evaluating their ideas/stories for clarity, and maybe most importantly, letting your natural curiosity push you towards the next question. it’s nice to tell your interview subject that you’re just having a conversation — but if you ask questions that satisfy your curiosity or that clarify something — guess what? you really are having a conversation!

best of all, when you work this way your natural listening responses (nodding, smiling, scribbling, eyebrows whatever) tell that person that you are with them. no fake nodding necessary . . .

This in turn reminded me of an exchange I had with Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. Why, I asked, is the Institute only listening for signals, and not sending them? What if everyone is just sitting around listening? (This is a hot topic in the SETI community.) She responds in this outtake.

What do you think? Should we be transmitting messages as well? And what should that message say? Write your thoughts in the comment box. I love hearing from you.

Bitter? Who Me?

I think often of something Jill Tarter, ex-Director, Center for SETI  Research, said when I asked her about working on a project she might not see “completed” in her lifetime:

I’m not going to be bitter and disappointed in my old age. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of getting something started that has the potential of having a profound impact….

Tomorrow, the SETI Institute may fold up its tent and go away because we can’t find the funding to keep it going, but it’s also enormously satisfying and there’s something about the opportunity, the privilege to work on a scientific question that everyone can relate to. That’s it. You can’t say anything else other than it is a privilege to be able to spend a career doing that.

Even though I have the memory her saying this to me directly, and have her saying this captured for posterity, it’s still easy slip into the role of the bitter aging artist. The work can be slow and tedious and it seems never to go right. And will it ever be done? And why aren’t people returning phone calls? And why has the computer decide not to open the damned file? And why does everyone  on Facebook have such a fabulous, successful yummy life? And what’s the point of making a movie anyway when people are just going to watch 58 seconds of it on their iPhones and then stop to text friends and check email and go on Facebook and read The Onion headlines and never return to your film again? Why ef’ing bother? Nobody cares. What’s the point?

Yes, it’s easy go down this road.

Which is why on the days I have to work on MY work, I drink my coffee out of one of three mugs. These mugs have magical powers; they can (sometimes) keep the bitterness at bay.

There’s this one, purchased during my first artist residency (Centrum Creative Arts and Education in Port Towsend, WA). I walked to the nearby Port Townsend Marine  Science Center and bought this mug because of the curious octopus.  I left a favorite red mug I had brought there and this came back home with me.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center mug

There’s this one, which was a gift from an estranged friend. I’ve always loved the paper cups with this design. But more than that, the words resonate: “We are happy to serve you.” It is important for me to remember that I am serving the film and whatever else I happen to be making, that those things are bigger than me.

We are happy to serve you  

And then there’s this one, purchased when I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. I save this one for days when I am way on the low and bitter side of the spectrum. It bolsters my ego a little to remember that some folks thought highly enough of my work to let me in their club. But also this mug reminds me of one specific moment.

MacDowell Colony mug

I was in my rustic studio editing. I had set up my work area so that when I sat at the computer I looked at a wall with my notes on it and positioned a moveable wall to block any chance of gazing out of the window while I was at my desk. One could gaze out those windows for hours if you weren’t careful.

I took a break and made a cup of coffee. My guitar sat in an armchair, stories and a dictionary consumed another desk, a book of Flannery O’Connor letters rested on the nightstand. I looked out the window and down the tree-lined dirt road. It started snowing and suddenly I felt blessed. Blessed to be where I was at that moment (MacDowell makes it easy to feel this way), but also blessed to be able to do what I do. What a privilege to be given time and space, and not just at residencies, but in my life, to do these things. To read, to play music, to write, to work on a film with amazing people about amazing people. I was profoundly happy that moment and I said out loud to myself, “Remember this. Remember this. Take this with you to the grave.”

It seems there’s a big difference  between someone, even someone you greatly admire, explaining to you why you’re privileged and apprehending it first hand. And I can’t always summon that feeling, but I can remember that I had it, that I understood with all of my being what a privilege it is to be able to spend a life doing this. Sometimes all I need is a mug, sometimes  that’s enough.

Do you have a mug, pen, notebook, article of clothing, etc. that has special powers? I’d love to hear about it, or see it. Leave a comment or send a photo. Really, I mean it!

Science Literacy, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter


Did you read the Op Ed in last week’s New York Times about how our society has become “ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science”? (Read Welcome to the Age of Denial by Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.) It’s a scary read, but one worth reading and getting riled up about.

I’d like to address a couple of sentences in the article.

“During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today… The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us.”

I shared the article with a scientist friend and we had an interesting exchange about it on Facebook. Here it is.


Me: It’s funny, I had an astronomy class in 1983 or 84, and I remember asking my professor about Sagan and he was dismissive, too. Like it was a bad thing to be a popularizer!

Scientist Friend: Well it was because if you were popularizing you probably weren’t doing research yourself or publishing in scientific journals.

Me:  I suppose. But it seems like tunnel vision to dismiss him and his popularizing. But I guess this is the case in many fields, not just science.

SF: Yeah, I guess it’s analogous to making a Hollywood film or having a hit on the pop charts.

Me: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Suddenly, you’re not doing the “important” work, you’ve sold out, and you’ve lost the respect of your peers.

SF: Although now he’s seen as an inspiration. And I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is everybody’s hero.

Me: He is. One of the most vivid memories I have of interviewing Jill Tarter was when I asked her about Sagan. (They were colleagues.) She said, “Carl was SPEC-TACULAR!” I think NDT has filled that void a little bit. His passion really comes through.

This article also inspired an exchange between me and another friend, DL, who posted the link on his Facebook page.2+2=5

DL: “we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.” from the above link. Why? WHY? and as David Licata said, what to do about it? This is really eating at me.

Me: Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, some people started confusing science with faith. “Believe” in evolution? I fear mathematics is next. “2+2=4 for you, but I choose to believe 2+2=5, so there.” From there, it’s straight down the crapper.

DL: Yeah, if math goes it all goes. I think part of the problem is misunderstanding coverage in the press about the latest study and the trending hypothesis. These are confused with scientific “facts” and it creates the illusion that science is constantly being overturned, so in the long run nothing science tells us can really be trusted.

Me: I think you nailed it. And no one seems to be educating people about how science “works,” about the scientific method. Welcome to the Middle Ages!

Now if I may, I’d like to end this post on a more positive note and return to when I spoke to Jill Tarter about Carl Sagan.

I first met Carl at a really really special meeting one afternoon at the Lawrence Berkeley labs when Luis Alvarez and his son Walter talked about their results of finding a fine layer of iridium right at the boundary layer between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary geological periods where the dinosaur extinction happened. And their thesis that what had killed off the dinosaurs was an impact from a comet or an asteroid which has a richer, enrichment in iridium relative to terrestrial values. And that this had produced an cataclysmic explosion and a dark ages, a winter that had killed off the dinosaurs. And so that was the first time I ever met Carl, at that meeting, and it was the start of a wonderful scientific adventure story…

Carl Sagan was actually a member of the board of trustees of the SETI Institute at the time of his death and we talked to him about what it was like to do SETI. He was in a number of workshops with us on this question because if anybody was thinking about the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence Carl was always invited and we were, too. So it was a great opportunity to talk. And so he knew about the technologies we used. He knew about the look and feel. What it would be like. The kinds of signals that we were capable of detecting. And all of that went into the background for Contact. Which is why the science is so good in that novel.


And as we all know, Sagan based the Ellie Arroway character in Contact (Jodie Foster in the movie) loosely on Tarter.

What do you think? Is the world going to hell in a science-illiterate handbasket?


Children’s Wonder

Last week I had a most pleasant earworm, the Hollies He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I’ve written about this song before, and the important thing for the sake of this post is that when I was eight years old, I was obsessed with this song and played the 45 over and over on my little plastic record player. I still revere the Hollies and that song, though to be honest, He Ain’t Heavy is the kind of schmaltzy song (all those strings) that would make me cringe as an adult.

So, with that song playing in the background of my head, I started thinking about an email exchange I had with playwright and friend of A Life’s Work, John Yearley about a film that floored him, Ashes & Diamonds. The film is great, make no mistake, but I wasn’t as moved as John was. It made me think of a John Landis quote, “Everything about a movie … is who you are and where you are when you saw it.”

Who was I when I was obsessed with that Hollies song? I remember the thing that struck me about it was “my broth-er-errrr.” Lyrics rarely initially lured, melody and rhythm grabbed me first, then the lyrics (this is still the case). But I remember feeling this deep deep love for my older brother while listening to that song, and though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I believe I had an epiphany centered around the idea of “brother.”

Soon after connecting these two dots, I came across this interview with Jill Tarter.

Here’s the text:

Jill Tarter with her father.

As a child, astronomer Jill Tarter would walk along the beaches of western Florida with her father and look up at the stars.

“I assumed, at that time, that along some beach on some planet, there would be a small creature walking with its dad and they would see our sun in their sky, and they might wonder whether anyone was there,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “But I never thought about it professionally until graduate school.”

I’m probably extrapolating more than I should, but what I find really fascinating about this is that in both cases, the epiphanies involve a realization that there is something beyond one’s self. But with Tarter’s it’s a bit more than that. She was wondering about a doppleganger. On another planet. Orbiting another sun. Wondering about the existence of her!

As mindblowing as this is I don’t think it’s uncommon. I think many children think such things. But not many keep that wonder burning into adulthood.

I’m fascinated by the moments of wonder we experience, big and small, as children and as adults, and how those moments can lead to life decisions. Or a life’s work.

Would you care to share yours? I’d love to hear about it.

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 Conduct an Interview, Part 1: Before the Questions

So, You Want to Conduct an On-Camera Interview…

I don’t usually do how-tos, but a few times in the past year I’ve been approached by people who want to make a documentary and they always ask me, among other things,  how to conduct an interview. This surprises me, because it seems like this is intuitive, but maybe not. So, for you future documentary filmmakers out there, here are some pointers.


In order to ask informed questions, you first have to be informed. So read up on your subject and their passion. If they’ve written books or articles, read them. If they’ve been on TV or been written about somewhere, track those down and watch and read. There is an irony here: when I interviewed Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project for A Life’s Work, I had to ask questions that elicited answers that would give all the relevant information to a viewer who had no knowledge of  gospel music, its importance, and why its recorded history is disappearing.

Be Prepared

Make the big decisions well before you even set up the interview. Will the subject be interviewed “portrait” style, that is, sitting in a chair opposite you in a controlled environment? Or will you conduct the interview while you both sit atop a mountain? Will you be seen asking the questions on camera? Will you be heard asking the questions? If not, make sure to tell your subject to restate the question in their answer. (People are more adept at this then they realize.) How will you light the subject? If you found the perfect spot on a Sunday afternoon, nice and quiet, say, and you’re interviewing on a Monday at 3 pm, go back on a Monday at 3 pm. The last thing you want is to discover that there’s a schoolyard beside that space and it’s swarming with screaming hyperactive kids right when you’ve scheduled the  interview.

Organize Your Questions

I like to start off with simple, biographical information, and I will often ask the subject to state his/her name and title. Then move on to how they became interested in the thing they do. This is the easiest ground to cover and it relaxes them and you. When it comes to the more complex stuff, start broad and get specific. Save the hard-hitting questions for last.

My Frank Zappa concert t-shirt from his 1978 tour.
My Frank Zappa concert t-shirt from his 1978 tour.

Dress so you don’t call attention to yourself. For example, don’t  wear your Frank Zappa concert T-shirt, complete with the cryptic lyric “zorch stroking fast n’ bulbous” and a lone baby doll’s leg. A plain solid shirt and jeans will do. The idea is to be as invisible as possible. You don’t want your clothes to distract the subject.

Also, greet your interviewee and make small talk, but don’t engage them in your interview topic until they are in front of the camera and you’re rolling. Often an interviewee will start talking about the topic before you’re ready. Politely ask them to save it for the camera, explaining that the first time they tell a story is usually the best. Everyone can relate to this, but we could all use reminding from time to time.


Make sure the subject has water nearby. Give them a comfortable chair to sit in, but one that doesn’t swivel and doesn’t invite slouching. (Unless you’re interviewing a rock star, in which case all the rules go out the window.) I tell them that I am inarticulate at times, and if they don’t understand a question, just say so and I’ll try again. Let them know that if they are unsatisfied with their answer, they can stop any time and start over. I’m not making an investigative film, so I don’t pry too much into the personal. I let my subjects know if they don’t want to answer a question, they should just say so.

 To Part 2, Asking the Questions