Relying on other’s is scary, especially when you’re relying on complete strangers. Sometimes the subject of your film is a stranger, or in this case, a homeless musician. He doesn’t want to talk about what you want to talk about. So how do you make him talk? I find that the skill to pull specific (and usable) content from a subject is incredibly valuable and something frequently overlooked.
We were shooting the last monologue for my travel and music documentary, Dünyanın Merkezi (Center of the Earth), in Venice Beach, California. I wanted to end the episode with something great, so as we were shooting on the street, I was looking around for interesting personalities, which is plentiful in Venice…
I approached Bishop with a goal. I wanted him to talk about music, to talk about why he plays the guitar. I wanted to get something from him: perhaps a poetic quote, or at least a song. But Bishop didn’t seem to have any interest in talking.
The first thing I do is to start a simple conversation. I asked, “What do you like to play?” and he immediately started playing his guitar. That simple question led to a jam session, led by Bishop, but the music wasn’t sounding good.
So the second thing I do is to let Bishop do whatever he wants. He yells, asks for a cigarette, and abruptly stops playing once in a while. I don’t mind, and to pump up his confidence, I join his actions. I yell with him, I smoke with him, and I play when he is playing.
So up until now (after 10 minutes of interaction) we have no usable footage. We only had small talk, and a terrible jam. I’m aware of this, and I began thinking that Bishop didn’t have anything for me. So I started asking philosophical, open-ended questions, such as: “What do you think music is about?” This is a ridiculous question. It’s not specific, and the answer can be anything. However, it get’s Bishop (who might have been drunk) to talk about music. And so we get an amazing quote from him: “Music is a feeling. When it comes by, you grab the songs and say, ‘that’s what I wanna play!’”
After this I kept on leading and Bishop followed. I led a jam session, and Bishop did cool solos over it. I played a Turkish song, and Bishop joined in by singing in English. He had trust in me, because I trusted him in the beginning. I trusted Bishop that he could do something amazing for the cameras.
The most important thing about interviewing subjects is to ignore the cameras. All the while, I didn’t look at the camera, I didn’t talk to the cameraman (Ilgar Öztürk), and I didn’t care if the footage was usable or not. Fortunately for me, Ilgar didn’t need my direction, and he adapted to different situations throughout my interaction with Bishop. I wanted to be in the moment, to become friends with Bishop, and to experience things without worrying about the documentary. When trying to build a connection with your interview subjects, forget the lights or cameras, it’s all about the experience.
The thing is, Bishop wanted to talk. Sometimes (with sensitive subjects) people don’t want to talk, or they want to hide a fact. In the next article, I will be writing about how to get the most from subjects who don’t want to talk.