Part of my job in casting was occasionally interviewing people for directors who were more interested in stories than in trained actors. They looked for cast who could naturally relate to their characters because they were that person rather than someone imagining what it was like to be that person.
For one of these films we had to interview a bunch of real prostitutes. This was something we had to do very cautiously because (as in most places) prostitution is illegal and many of these ladies are understandably cautious about checking the veracity of unsolicited contact from people.
To prepare for these interviews, my boss often told us "channel your inner Terry Gross". Gross's style of interviewing is extremely low key and open, she's done her research to be familiar with the person that she's interviewing and she really cares about the information she gets. This makes people want to share with her. I strongly recommend you review some of her work, how she asks questions and how she paces interviews.
Create a safe space, physically.
Really make them comfortable in the space.
- Minimize the distractions - the fewer people in the room the better.
If there is only one person they have to tell their story to, they'll be more likely to share.
- Arrange them so they're looking at you, with the camera just to your left or right, over your shoulder.
Ignore the camera and focus on having a conversation. You need to forget the camera if you're expecting them to.
- Don't immediately go to the heart of the situation and get straight to the deep stuff... start off with some softball questions.
When we would audition kids, we'd always start off asking them questions like "what's your favorite color" or "do you have a pet? What's its name/what type of animal is it?". These questions are easy to answer. A kid who was scared of the person running the audition will relax and do a better job in their performance. You don't need to use these questions for adults but a similar collection of easy-to-answer, slightly personal but not too personal questions will give you a start to build some rapport.
- Really listen, don't judge what they say.
When people feel like they're being judged, they stop talking. Let them know that you respect them and you're taking them seriously.
- Take your time.
We only had 15-30 minutes in our auditions but two or three people and a camera in a room can get pretty comfortable quickly. If you can, give it an hour or two.
Ask the right questions.
There are two main types of questions closed ended and open ended.
- Closed ended are generally yes/no questions.
You'll need some of these to know what open ended questions to ask but they tend to not give you much more than a one-word answer, which isn't very useful for a documentary.
- Open ended questions are the 5 Ws (who, when, what, where, why) and How.
These questions require more than a one-word answer and start a dialogue. Focus on these open questions. You're already working with a "what" question but I think this is too broad. You need to get to know them a bit first and then tailor this question to their specific story.
Assuming they know why you're talking to them (hopefully you've set up a time to meet in a place that you've prepared), start out asking them about themselves - general questions, ask about their childhood - a good memory. You're about to walk them through some very troubling parts of their lives, start with a happy one. Then, when they seem more comfortable, ask for them to tell you about their first experience with a substance, ask some follow-up questions about that and how they felt at the beginning, then ask them to talk about their descent and when they knew they'd reached bottom and how things were different at that point. I don't think you can really cut corners and just ask them to tell you about the worst part without worrying that they won't be honest about their experience.
Being open to someone changes what they say. If you just sit them down and ask "So, tell me about the worst thing that happened to you in relation to your drug use", they're going to balk. They're not going to be in the right frame of mind. You have to work them there to get the good stuff, the valuable stuff. They may try but it's not going to be the same.