Ask Andy: How do I shape my interview into a story?

NW Documentary’s Artist in Residence Andy Blubaugh is here to answer your non-fiction storytelling questions.

I shot a three hour interview with someone, but I have no idea how to shape it into a story. How do you recommend I get started? -Caitlin

Dear Caitlin:

Digital tools are a real two-edged sword for doc makers.  One one hand, you can shoot as much as you want, but on the other, that means it’s easy to gather so much information that finding the story hiding in the midst of it becomes a major hurdle.

As revealed in Jessica Abels’ documentary-style comic book Radio: An Illustrated Guide, master storyteller Ira Glass developed a method for distilling interviews down to their core elements when he was cutting his teeth as en editor for All Things Considered: Have a notebook (or keyboard, if you’re a fast typist) at hand, play the footage without stopping, and simply write what sounds interesting.  This isn’t a transcription; rather than typing every word, your goal is to list, in your own words, what actually strikes you as relevant about what’s being said.

What I like about Glass’ method is that it forces you to trust your instincts.  But his rule about never pausing playback feels a bit dogmatic, and simply isn’t feasible for a long interview. It also doesn’t provide you with a tool for going back to find what you loved in that massive sea of footage.

To address this, I make a few adjustments. To try my method, you’ll need:
A spreadsheet program.  There’s a free one as part of Google docs.
A way to view your footage that allows you to see timecode.
A timer.  I use my phone.
Set the timer for three minutes, and start it and your footage playback at the same time.  Just like with the Ira Glass method, start typing as you hear things that seem interesting.  Use a carriage return (i.e., hit “enter”) when you feel like a new idea or a new statement is beginning.  When your timer goes off, stop the footage, and write down the timecode in the cell just to the right of the last thing you typed.  Continue for the entire interview.  When you’re done, you’ll have annotated the most interesting parts of your interview, while also creating a roadmap of your footage that will allow you to find the piece you’re looking for within a three-minute span.

I hope this helps, Caitlin. And just remember: as you struggle to turn that mountain of footage into a gem of a story, you’re in some very good company.

Best,
Andy

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