Spring 2019

A Matter of Trust

It takes tenacity, preparation, patience and empathy for documentarians to gain their subjects' confidence

By Addie Morfoot

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet talks with filmmaker Liz Garbus at the newspaper's headquarters for her documentary series, The Fourth Estate. (Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Showtime)

In The Art of the Interview: Lessons From a Master of the Craft, author Lawrence Grobel advised his readers to "converse like a talk-show host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist, have an ear like a musician, be able to select the best parts like a book editor and know how to piece it together dramatically like a playwright."

Grobel's subjects have been largely celebrities, but for documentary filmmakers, the pool of subjects goes well beyond public figures to those who are often asked to plumb the depths of the most harrowing or painful events in their lives—all while the camera is rolling. The skill of interviewing such people goes beyond mechanics, and it's less taught than gained from years of practice.

Director Matt Tyrnauer compares the interview to dancing the waltz; Marina Zenovich likens it to mental sex, while fellow documentarian Alex Gibney equates the process to a therapy session.

"Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad," says Gibney. "And sometimes it's like talking with someone with multiple personality disorder. After one very long interview, one subject looked up and said, 'So, same time next week?'"

For Steve James, a successful interview means developing a mutual relationship with subjects built on respect.

"When you are making a documentary, it's really important to not be an asshole because you want to get access to your subject's innermost thoughts," James explains. "To do that, your subjects have to not only want to spend time with you, but also enjoy spending time with you."

Gibney concurs and adds that most people have a strong desire to be heard. "The trick or the art is to convince people that you are willing to listen," he says.


"Trust is built over time… As time went on, people stopped paying so much attention to us." —Liz Garbus on filming in The New York Times newsroom for The Fourth Estate (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix)

Have camera, will interview

Once a subject agrees to an on-camera interview, directors like James and Zenovich do not waste any time with pre-interviews.

"I know filmmakers who spend several months with their subjects before ever introducing a camera into the relationship in order to build that relationship," says James. "I can't do that, and part of the reason why is if amazing things are being said and I don't have a camera with me, I'm like, why am I not recording this?"

Instead of pre-interviews, James relies on humor, "even on my most serious films," to make subjects feel comfortable. "Humor is a great way of connecting to people and taking the nervousness of what we're doing out of the equation. It makes it feel like we're just doing this thing and having some fun."

James cites his 2011 documentary The Interrupters, about former Chicago gang members who come together to fight crime, as an example.

"I had more fun on that film than any film I've ever made," James says. "And yet, that was a very serious subject matter. I have found that I could never do what Frederick Wiseman does and shut up, stand over at the side of the room and document stuff, and feel like that is enough for me. He makes great films, but I want to engage with people. I have too many questions that I want to ask."

Others comfort subjects before the big interview by relating to them on a personal level.

Zenovich took close to a year to develop a relationship with, and eventually convince various members of the late Robin Williams' family, including his eldest son Zak and his first wife Valerie Velardi, to speak to her for the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.

"When I talked to Robin Williams' son for Come Inside My Mind, recalls Zenovich, "I brought up what it was like when my dad died and I started crying. Is that manipulative? I don't think so, because I'm telling him about a genuine thing that happened to me in order to have him talk to me about a genuine thing that happened to him."

Like their subjects, directors also get nervous about interviews. "When you're in the position of having to get something from people, it's very stressful," admits Zenovich. "Very, very stressful. So I get excited by interviews, but they make me nervous too."

Liz Garbus adds that the sheer awkwardness of showing up at someone's house with a camera makes the exchange initially invasive. "It's a huge imposition," she says. "But you have to believe that they agreed to be there and agreed to give you access because they feel like they have something important to say on the matter. You don't get into the room if they don't want to be there. There's a mutual interest going on."

Garbus adds that "trust is built over time," referring to gaining access to the hallowed halls of The New York Times for the documentary series The Fourth Estate. "In the early days of shooting vérité in the newsroom, there was 100 percent consciousness of cameras being around," she says. "And then as time went on, people stopped paying so much attention to us."

(Top) Steve James, with camera, films on location in Chicago for The Interrupters; (Bottom) From left, Lance Armstrong, director Alex Gibney and DP Maryse Alberti during the making of The Armstrong Lie. (Photos: (Top) Aaron Wickenden/Kartemquin Films; (Bottom) Photofest)

Research and preparation are key

For his latest documentary, Where's My Roy Cohn?, Matt Tyrnauer did copious amounts of research before he spoke to any subjects. That involved reading Nicholas von Hoffman's biography Citizen Cohn concurrently with story producers and combing through archival footage of the ruthless lawyer with his editors. "Generally, my research process means meeting with story producers and telling them what interests me," says Tyrnauer. "They then cast a very wide net of research and they start to see what's out there beyond what I know about."

The exploration culminates in a carefully prepared list of questions that the director writes either alone or with the help of his producers. "I inevitably veer from the list," he says. "One reason for that is because I'm trying to figure out what the correct flow of the interview is and invariably the flow is different than I anticipated."

Garbus, whose credits also include What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Farm: Angola, USA, also doesn't worry about adhering to her prepared catalogue of inquiries. "If you're following your written set of questions, you're probably not doing the interview as well because you need to hear the subject's responses so you can take turns speaking based on what they are giving you."

Gibney keeps his notes handy but attempts to conduct all of his interviews without an agenda. "I don't go in looking for something," he says. "I go in ready to listen and full of curiosity."

But what about the subject who can't get to the heart of the matter, refuses to be candid or isn't telling truth?

"Sometimes when people are lying to me, I know that they are lying to me so I ask the question another way to see if they are determined to lie to me or not," Gibney explains. "What you as the director have to recognize is when people are trying to be dishonest and find a way to call attention to it in the final film."

Gibney says that Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie) and Eliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) are two examples of subjects who have been untruthful to him during an interview.

"When you are asking questions, you have to be in the moment," he says, "and I tend to be more forgiving and gullible in the moment, which I think in a peculiar way is a virtue because it allows the subject to go more easily where they want to go. It allowed (Armstrong and Spitzer) to tell the story they wanted to tell, which I'm OK with. But it becomes a paradox because you have to be willing to re-examine your own gullibility in the cutting room."

In the case of both the Armstrong and Spitzer films, Gibney will counter dishonesty with facts, either from law enforcement officials, other reliable sources, or in the case of Armstrong, drug test results. "Sometimes I will point out what other people have said, but I rarely stamp my feet and say, 'That's a lie.'"

(From Top) A still from Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. (Photos: (Top) HBO; (Bottom) Courtesy Marina Zenovich)

Knowing when to back off

In 2010, Liz Garbus began filming There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane for HBO. One year had passed since Diane Schuler, a Long Island mother of two, drove the wrong way on New York's Taconic State Parkway, killing herself and seven others, including her 2-year-old daughter and three nieces. Chronicling one of the worse motor-vehicle accidents in the state's history, Garbus set out to explain what the country was desperate to know: What drove Schuler—on paper a perfect mother—to drive while both drunk and high with five children in her car?

With Schuler dead, Garbus relied on obtaining answers from living family members and friends. She made cold calls, emailed and wrote handwritten letters of request. When that didn't work, she repeated the process again and again. Eventually, Garbus secured interviews with Diane's husband, Daniel Schuler, as well as a handful of other key relatives. But the director could not convince Jackie Hance —Schuler's sister-in-law and the mother of three children who died in the accident—to speak to her. As one of the last people to talk to Schuler, Hance could have potentially provided the film with critical insights. Despite her many attempts to connect with Hance, Garbus, not someone who gives up easily, finally threw in the towel.

"At a certain point, I knew that the right thing to do was to leave her alone and respect her peace," explains Garbus. "In a situation where there's trauma like that, I'm not going to show up at their door with a camera. It's different if you're making a political documentary and you have a political figure who is responsible to answer for something. Then maybe don't take no for an answer. But in the case of the Diane Schuler documentary, that's a place where humanity is more important than any one particular interview."

For Zenovich's Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Williams' second and third wives refused to participate.

"In a perfect world, I would have got both wives, but neither of them wanted to talk to me for various reasons," Zenovich explains. "I knew that I couldn't push them because it was a very sensitive topic that involved suicide and illness."

As for her 2016 film Fantastic Lies, about falsely accused Duke lacrosse players, Zenovich had to completely rethink the 30 for 30 documentary when the three athletes declined to be part of the project. Ultimately, the director decided to rely on the parents of the players to tell their side of the story.

"I'm a parent so I was interested in what the parents of these boys went through," the director says. "I wanted to know what it was like for them, and for me that was enough for this film. If one of those boys had reached out late in the process saying they wanted to talk, of course I would have done the interview, but [it] didn't happen."

For her latest documentary, which is currently under wraps, Zenovich recently took a road trip to San Clemente, CA, to meet with a potential subject after sending a handwritten letter requesting participation.

"When I got to her house, the woman told me that she got my letter and looked at it every day for three months," Zenovich says. "I was blown away. I'm still not sure if she's going to let me interview her, but when I was leaving, she said, 'Thank you for being kind.' That's what it all boils down to—being respectful of people and their experience."

Jason Epstein, above center, reflects on his relationship with Roy Cohn to director Matt Tyrnauer, sitting opposite, for Where's My Roy Cohn? (Photo: Altimeter Films)

Assembling the pieces

While there might be mutual interests at hand, ultimately the director holds all the power over the interview. During the edit they, not their subjects, decide what to use and what to leave on the cutting room floor. Thus, the director can make a subject look good or bad. It's a power that comes with plenty of strings. While some documentarians become friends with their subjects, others become foes, while still others maintain a distant-yet-professional relationship.

For James, who admits to having had difficult conversations with his subjects after a film's release, it's important that they don't regret their interview with him. "I want my main subjects to know that we are making the film together," James reveals. "That we have a real relationship. And even though I get to make all of the final creative decisions, I try to make it clear that I care very much about what they think of the final outcome. That informs everything in how you deal with people throughout the process."

Known for his documentaries about infamous public figures, including his most recent film, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about Elizabeth Holmes, Gibney says that he, too, thinks quite a bit about how his main interview subjects will respond to the final product.

"My ultimate allegiance is to the audience," Gibney notes. "I'm committed to telling a truthful story. That said, anything I include, I have to be able to imagine myself sitting and watching the film with the interview subject and I have to be able to defend to them why it was I included what I did."

No matter the subject's response, Zenovich says when it comes to the documentary, the interview is the foundation. "If the people you have chosen to interview aren't engaged, the film is, well, just boring."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on documentary films.

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