Last time, I gave you important introductory pointers on how to conduct interviews. Most importantly, I talked about researching your subjects, holding a conversation and not an interrogation, keeping eye contact and making your interviewees feel comfortable. Here are a few more tips that have helped me over the years.
PUBLICISTS CAN BE YOUR FRIENDS
You’ll run into several kinds of publicists if you’re interviewing celebrities. First, there will be the studio, network or set publicists for the project you’re discussing. They will primarily be your friends: they want you to get the interview and they want it to go smoothly. They will know you’ll have to ask some extra questions that aren’t related to the topic at hand, but as long as that’s a small percentage of the time used, they’re OK with that. They’re pros, they do this all the time, they’ll help in any way possible.
PUBLICISTS MAY NOT BE YOUR FRIENDS
Then there are the personal publicists. Most bigger or semi-big stars have their own publicists to watch out for them. I’ve dealt with them all over the years and they can be pit bulls – they have to be, since they are looking out for their important clients. All they want out of an interview is for their client to look good and be happy and you probably want that too, but there are always those pesky personal questions you’ll probably have to ask.
Many of these publicists will simply tell you not to ask anything personal, but your bosses might have told you that you have to. So you’re stuck. As I said before, the publicists should, instead, prepare their clients for the questions – have the client come up with some sort of stock answer that will get them through it without saying anything controversial.
So you’ll have to ask, then, most likely, the publicists will interrupt the interview, maybe even stop it and then everyone will be unhappy. It’s better to have a discussion with the publicist before the star comes into the room and figure out how to get the interview done. If they’re adamant, then you have to push on and expect the worst. Save it for the end.
One of the biggest, toughest of the legendary publicists was Pat Kingsley (now retired), who at times handled Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock – big names. Pat never told us we couldn’t ask anything. She just cut down our time. We’d be expecting fifteen minutes and she’d cut us down to seven. So, if that happens, then you can’t waste a lot of time with extra questions or you won’t have anything at all. Very smart. You have to be prepared for that and prioritize what you need out of the interview.
You may also run into the first-time, very inexperienced publicist. That can pose a problem when you’re on a film set and they’re scared to actually go and bring get the stars to you for the interviews. I’ve waited hours and hours, thinking the star was just busy, but instead it was just a nervous publicist who didn’t want to bother them. If that’s the case, you have to go around that person. If the star’s personal publicist is around, ask them to get things moving, or ask the Assistant Director, who really is in charge of all the scheduling on a set. He or she is used to this kind of thing and they aren't afraid of the stars – they’re usually his or her friend.
WHO CARES IF THEY’RE NICE?
Most celebrities are pretty nice. Some are amazingly nice. Like Johnny Depp, who greets every person in the room himself, from the reporters to the crew, the grips and the interns. Reba McEntire does that too, as does most every country star (country singers tend to be the sweetest).
The opposite is also true and not everyone is as nice. Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t be categorized as friendly, he ignores pretty much everyone in the room, except whoever is doing the interview. So what? Because when he does the interview, he’s good. He knows what you need and he gives you all that and more. So don’t expect to be best buddies with your celebrity interview subject. Just know that they’ll give you what you want and get the job done.
WHAT IF THEY WON’T TALK?
Some stars have trouble doing interviews. Like Robert De Niro. Nice guy, always tries hard, but he’s uncomfortable doing it, so you get what you get with him. You can’t make him be verbose and tell grand stories. Treat someone like that with kid gloves and get the best you can out of him or her.
I had one TV star, who shall remain nameless (because he never got big, but he still works regularly), who just wanted to be a pain-in-the-ass. We were doing a story for 'Entertainment Tonight' on a week-in-the-life of a sitcom. We shot a full week, from the script table-reading through rehearsals up to the day of the taping. All the prep stuff went fine. Then the taping happened and we had to get a final wrap-up interview with the star of the show.
He was in a bad mood for some reason. Maybe he was tired after that full week of work, who knows? but he brought a hockey stick with him and just kept poking me with it throughout the interview, not really answering any questions. He thought it was funny. To make matters worse, we did the interview in the middle of the sitcom stage, with all the show’s producers and writers in the bleachers watching the whole thing, laughing at him poking me with the hockey stick. Not a great situation. So I cut tape (stopped the camera rolling), leaned in to the star and said quietly, just to him: “you better give me something I can use or we won’t air a damned thing on your show.” He got it. The rest of the interview wasn’t good, but it was enough. That’s the kind of thing you may have to go through. So threaten them if you have to.
STRETCH THE TRUTH
Always say you love the movie or the TV show, even if you hated it, because the cast and the crew worked very hard to make this movie or TV show and they all love it. Being honest will blow things for you if you didn’t like it. Don’t even say “well I’m not the audience for this” or anything like that. You loved it. Give examples of why you loved it.
I have worked with reporters who refuse to lie – and they find themselves in uncomfortable situations.
So fib. It’s for a good cause.
DO NOT GIVE OUT QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE
I’m going to repeat that because it’s very, very important: I NEVER, EVER GIVE OUT MY QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE TO MY INTERVIEW SUBJECT.
Because how can you get an honest answer from someone if they know what you’re going to ask? That’s not a real interview then, it’s just some scripted nonsense.
If someone’s really nervous or if a publicist is very demanding, then I’ll tell them (never in writing, just verbally) what topics I hope to hit on, but I never give out the actual questions.
I have worked as a researcher on a History Channel documentary and their policy is to always give out the full question list in advance. I think they have a point if they’re doing long, in-depth interviews with experts and scientists and pundits who might need to research some answers, so I get that. I still don’t like it, but I understand it.
GET THERE EARLY
You want to be at the location for the interview early in case there are any problems or unforeseen difficulties. Sometimes on a press junket, the star is running early anyway, so you better be there and sometimes, there might be a technical problem you have to solve.
If you’re doing an interview on a TV or movie set, then you really need to be early. It takes a long time to check onto a studio lot, find the location, get the equipment in. Don’t rely on your crew to get it all done. They might need someone to intercede with the publicist or the assistant director, or you might see scenes happening that will help you with your questions.
At premieres and red carpet events, it really helps to come early. Most reporters and producers leave this up to their crews – getting on the carpet, finding the location, getting set up. Don’t leave it to them. When I first started coming to events, it was first-come, first-serve, so I had to be early to get a good spot. Then they started assigning spots – but sometimes they get it wrong. You have to deal with it if you’re in a crummy spot with maybe a lamp-post in the way or not enough room to stand. I’ve also been there when the publicist for the event didn’t know how to set it up. What every TV crew needs before an interview is nice b-roll footage of the stars posing for the photographers on the carpet (and please don’t call them paparazzi – they are professional, invited photographers who are doing their jobs). An inexperienced publicist has frequently put the TV crews first, or put them in a totally separate area so they can’t get any arrival shots of stars. That’s why you see coverage of premieres where the only shots are those of stars being interviewed – somebody screwed up the set-up. If you’re early, you can change that.
Some stars have specific requests for their lighting in interviews. Ask about that. My policy is: I want the star to walk in and see the lighting set-up they’re used to, so that then they’re comfortable and ready to talk.
Sylvester Stallone sends a lighting diagram. My crews always fought back, saying he was doing film lighting, not TV interview lighting. Not true. Mr. Stallone knows what he wants and he’s right. He knows how best to light his face – of course he knows! Don’t argue!
Meg Ryan and Salma Hayek both (if memory serves) like bounced lighting from the floor. Now that’s something you have to plan for – and you have to bring the right equipment. Once again, your cameraman may fight you on this, but I say: do what the star wants. They’ve been lighting themselves for years and they know best.
Stars also have preferred sides. Sophia Loren, one of the nicest people who ever walked the planet, came into our complicated lighting set-up and meekly asked if we could change it because she preferred the left side of her face to be shown. Well it took us a bit of re-jiggering, but it was fine. You can forestall any problems or delays by just asking in advance.
It’s an interview, not a fan-fest. You’re not there to get selfies or to have the star do voice-mail messages for your mother. You shouldn’t ask for any of that. Be happy to get your interview.
Most stars will put up with selfies, but I can tell they hate it. So unless they offer, don’t ask.
Sophia Loren did that. My reporter, Leonard Maltin, always got a photo with the stars – this was something that we set up in advance and the stars were fine with it. So he got his photo with her and she looked over at the rest of us in the room (I had a crew that day of maybe twelve or so) and said “Don’t you all want your picture taken with me?” Well of course we did, but not all stars want to do that, so tread carefully.
DON’T GEEK OUT
Just like the previous entry, you’re not there as a fan-geek. So don’t start raving to them about what a big fan you are, that you’ve seen every episode, that you know all the trivia, you’ll just scare them. Be professional. You liked the show or the movie. You like their work, but don’t get stalkerish.
I have to say the few times I did get geeky and asked for autographs and such, it ended up being uncomfortable. So I’d advise against any of that.
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED
Some celebrities may test you to see if you’re intimidated. Just push forward and do the job.
I had a big lighting set-up once with maybe twenty people in the room. The director, Brian De Palma came in, sat down, gave me a withering stare and said “Clear the room.” So I did – just me and the cameraman were left and it was tough at first – he was trying to see if I knew my stuff. Fortunately, I’d done the research, I knew his films well and it turned out OK.
Similarly, the legendary actor Bruce Dern didn’t want to do an interview. He said to me “well, I’ve only ever worked with two geniuses” and I immediately said “sure, Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Trumbull” (Douglas directed 'Silent Running' and was an amazing special effects creator). He sat down and talked to me nicely for a while, because I’d done the research and knew what I was doing.
ROLL WITH IT
Things hardly ever go as planned. People run late or early. Someone gets sick. The power in the building goes down for half an hour. Your time gets cut in half, or you suddenly have to interview someone you didn’t expect. Just know your material and roll with it as best you can.
If you end up interviewing someone you know nothing about, you can admit it – say you don’t know the project and ask questions, what role do they play, how did they become involved, or go even more basic, ask how they started their career, what do they think of how far they’ve come. Get them talking and then have a conversation with them.
YOU WILL GET BRAIN FREEZE
Even with all the research, preparation and memorization you can do, sometimes your mind goes blank. It just happens and you should just have some stock questions ready if it does, like, "how did this project attract you? Why did you want to do it? How is this different for you?" comes into play – have those types of questions in the back of your mind ready for if you get stuck. One reporter I worked with always used the line, “what do you want people to walk away with when they see this movie?” That will get them talking, which will give you time to organize your thoughts.
This happened to one of my reporters, a very good reporter, but like I said, stuff happens. We were doing the premiere of the movie 'Magnolia'. Tom Cruise came up on our interview platform and I saw her eyes go blank. She didn’t know what to say and this was a premiere where you don’t have much time. So she said “Dennis just got out of the hospital” and pointed to me (yes, I had surgery on a kidney – all is good now, so nothing to worry about)and Tom, being the nice guy he is, wanted to know all about it and was worried about me, which is fine, but we only had three minutes. So I just quickly said “I’m fine, Tom, but we really have to talk about your movie!” and that gave the reporter time to get back on track.
I hope all these tips work for you. I know you can’t use them all in every interview situation, but use the ones that help.
Next time, I want to go into more detail about what it’s like to visit the set of a movie or TV show and how you deal with situations that crop up there.
About Dennis Coleman
Dennis Coleman has written, produced and directed countless hours of broadcast television. He has met and interviewed thousands of celebrities and Hollywood movers-and-shakers ranging from Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise and Will Smith to James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, as well as legends like Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, Hal Roach and Lauren Bacall. He’s been on the sets of thousands of films and TV shows, including Cliffhanger, Mission Impossible 3, NCIS, the Lethal Weapon films, Everybody Loves Raymond, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Friends and the X-Files. He’s covered just about every award show: The Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Golden Globes; and more movie premieres than he can remember: The Matrix, Toy Story, Titanic, Harry Potter – the list is endless. Dennis spent over ten years at Entertainment Tonight as a segment director. He was also supervising producer on the FX show DVD ON TV and post producer on the History Channel series SOLD. He co-produced the documentary Women Who Made the Movies with film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon. He executive produced the short film Iguana Love which was featured at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and was bought by Creative Light Entertainment. He’s written over a hundred articles on the entertainment industry for numerous websites including, My Fox, Entertainment Connection, EHow, Helium, AnswerBag and Demand Studios. He was a segment producer and writer on the Sarah Purcell-hosted interview show Public People Private Lives and a freelance field producer on shows for MTV, VH1, A&E, ESPN and PBS. He started directing and writing the hit shows, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, Runaway with the Rich & Famous and Fame and Fortune & Romance. Dennis got his start in the movie business reading scripts for Francis Coppola, Fred Roos during the day and managing a movie theatre at night. He’s seen lots of movies. Almost as many as Leonard Maltin. But not quite.
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