Down the rabbit hole

So, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole this morning and somehow nearly 2 hours has gone since I finished my meeting with Raindance mentor…  In the meeting we were discussing how I want to make personal portrait type films in which the person narrates their own story guided by interview questions.  We were discussing how these do not necessarily follow the three act structure – they can be a snippet in time and may be describing a change that occurred in the past but also maybe a viewpoint.  I was hoping of finding some literature to support the greater freedom of the style, and that is when I fell in the rabbit hole.

An interview in the International Documentary Association Documentary magazine alerted me to the work of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.  He is a portrait photographer and documentary filmmaker in which he has made a number of ‘list’ films.  The list films which include The Black List, The Out List, The Women’s List, The Boomer List are people talking directly camera providing some understanding about them.  Timothy has set up his rig so that the interviewees are talking directly to the camera looking at a teleprompter of an interviewer in the next room.  He chose this technique to make it appear that films are moving portraits similar to the stills that he might shoot in his photography studio.  Despite being entirely talking head, the interviewees are captivating; you are drawn in by the direct gaze and feel that you are in a one-to-one conversation with them.  It is not the fact that talking head is effective in this circumstance is what is of interest to me though.  It is the powerful stories that each individual is able to tell in just a few minutes of screen time.  This is what I would like my subjects to achieve, narrating their experiences and in doing so providing a compelling story.

I tried to dig deeper finding Greenfield-Sander’s techniques for getting these compelling stories or thoughts.  Here is what I found…

For the few minutes interview seen on screen, he may spend two to two and half hours with each subject. Some of that time might be spent setting up, putting the person at ease, and maybe an hour interviewing.

Depending on the topic, in order to treat the topic and interviewee with sensitivity, it maybe needs to be someone from within that community who conducts the interview. Greenfield-Sander collaborated with Elvis Mitchel for The Black List, Sam McConnell for The Out List, Maria Hinojosa for The Latino List, and Sandra Guzman on both The Women’s List and The Latino List.

Sandra Guzman identifies that a genuine interest in people is key, but beyond that taking the time to “create safe spaces so that intimate, honest, and courageous conversations can take place”.  (Guzman, 2015)

All logical stuff but not really so much details of how this type of honest interview is achieved, I went on to watch some of the episodes from presents Interview Project.  The Interview Project, the brainchild of Lynch’s son Austin and his friend Jason S., is a 121-part series of short interviews with the people that they met on their road trip across America.  The interviewers achieve the same level of honesty as the Greenfield-Sanders team achieved but in varied surroundings and often the stories were less upbeat covering murder, abuse, homelessness etc. The interviewees are also shown in more varied settings (which may be the side of the road if they are without home) and there is more b-roll covering the interviews though often quite simple, location-based shots.  Again though, it is the interviewing technique that would be of most interesting to me and how the filmmaking team could be so successful in approaching strangers and interviewing to elicit heartfelt, genuine stories.

In an interview with Big Picture Magazine, Austin Lynch describes the interview process“We asked them a series of biographical questions, like ‘Where were you born?’ or ‘What was your early childhood like?’, as well as a series of more open-ended, subjective questions, for example ‘Do you have any regrets?’ or ‘How would you like to be remembered?’. We tried to structure the interviews in a very simple and straightforward manner that would allow the people to tell their stories, or speak their mind, as effortlessly as possible.”

 So, how did going down this rabbit hole help me?

1) Identification of people to learn from

2) The reassurance that great stories exist which do not necessarily follow a dramatic structure

3) Some tips as to interview technique


Fortunately interview technique is one of my Negotiated Film Projects up next 🙂



DavidLynch.Com Presents the Interview Project. (2010) Available from: .
DONALDSON, A., 2009. Straight Stories.
GREENBAUM KASSON, E., How Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Brings His Portraits To Life.
The Women’s List. (2015) Directed by T. Greenfield-Sanders. Perfect Day Films.
The Boomers List. (2014) Directed by T. Greenfield-Sanders. Perfect Day Films.
The Out List. (2013) Directed by T. Greenfield-Sanders. Perfect Day Films.
The Latino List. (2011) Directed by T. Greenfield-Sanders. Perfect Day Films.
The Black List. (2008) Directed by T. Greenfield-Sanders. Perfect Day Films.
Guzman, S. (2015) .
SMITH, E.W., ‘American Masters: The Women’s List’ is Finally Here: Interview With Director Timothy Greenfield Sanders. Bust, .



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