Errol Morris: How to Interview Someone

My advice to all interviewers is: Shut up and listen. It’s harder than it sounds. Most interviewers feel like they’ve got to be Mike Wallace, laying out booby traps and gotcha questions in what amounts to verbal combat. I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation. You shouldn’t know what the interview will yield. Otherwise, why do it at all?

I started developing the shut-up-and-listen school of interviewing in the 1970s. I was in my late 20s and traveling around the country interviewing murderers and the families of their victims for a book. I spent hours in high-security and psychiatric prisons with people like Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who inspired the movie Psycho. I always used two Sony cassette recorders, and at some point I started playing a game with myself: Speak as little as possible. The cassette tapes got longer and longer—first 30 minutes, then 60, then 120—and the number of words I spoke became fewer and fewer. I was really proud of the interviews where my voice wasn’t on the tape at all.

Be well prepared, though. I’m surprised at how many people don’t prepare. When I interviewed Robert McNamara, he said he was shocked I’d read his books and actually thought about them. But I never go into an interview with a preconceived set of questions. I almost always start the same way: By saying, I don’t know where to start. Maybe it’s a nervous habit. But it’s also the truth. You fumble around for a beginning, and then suddenly you’re off and exploring.

As I was arranging an interview with First Lady Laura Bush for a short film that would air on the 2002 Academy Awards, her aide asked me for my list of questions. I told her I don’t prepare a list. She pressed, and we went back and forth on this several times. When I showed up for the interview, it was clear I wasn’t going to provide a list—so the aide handed me a typewritten sheet with not only the five questions I was supposed to ask but also the First Lady’s responses! When I sat down with the First Lady, I immediately went off script. The first question the aide had provided for me was, “What’s your favorite movie?” The sheet said The Wizard of Oz. So I asked, incredulously, is The Wizard of Oz really your favorite movie? She said, in fact, it’s Giant, the 1956 Western. As a young girl in Texas she’d stood in line for hours to be an extra in the film, which was shooting in her town, and it’s been her favorite ever since. That’s a story I never would have gotten had I been guided by a grocery list of questions.

A final tip: Don’t be afraid of technology. We think of technology as limiting intimacy. But think about the telephone. Certain kinds of intimacy emerge on a phone call that might never occur if you were sitting right next to the other person. Technology limits things, but it makes other things possible. In all my interviews for film, I use a setup I call the Interrotron. Basically, it’s a teleprompter in front of a camera. I stand in a different room, out of sight of my interviewee, who interacts with my image on the teleprompter—and effectively stares directly into the camera. When Robert McNamara is talking about the Cuban missile crisis in The Fog of War, about how close we came to nuclear war, it’s not me interviewing him. It’s him talking directly to the audience.

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