This one error in thinking is absolutely insidious and can sabotage so many parts of your filmmaking. And until we confront it, we don't really have any hope of overcoming it.
But first, a story.
A couple years back we were doing a rather high-profile video for a large cancer hospital. By "high profile: I mean that it had billboards in airports all over the United States, and a large media buy to ensure that the story would be seen.
The story was all about the misinformation around cancer treatment and the stronger methods offered by this hospital. We touched on this story a little bit in our "What is Storytelling?" article.
The whole piece was to be told by real doctors. We’d done our best to get pre-interviews with each person, do our research, and really get to know each one. From these people, we'd select the best ones for the piece. Doctors are normally hard to schedule appointments with. Imagine requesting a pre-interview (that may lead to an additional on-camera interview) to get to know them, not for the sake of a patient, but for a marketing video.
On top of that, the agency really wanted these real doctors to feel like real doctors, so they asked for interview locations that were in and around the hospital environment.
I can remember the first interview we had. We’d shown up at something crazy, like 5:30 a.m., to get set up and make sure that we were ready to roll just after sunrise. The shot was in a long hallway, and the doctor would be standing in the middle of it with lots of light spilling in from the windows, and gorgeous architecture in the background.
To balance the light from the windows we used an HMI as our key light. To make sure it was soft we had an 8'x8' silk up. We added flags for negative fill (hospitals love white walls). And since this was also a print campaign, we shot everything on Red in 5K. The hallway was rather tight so to get the right angle the camera was backed up against the wall and rather close, just a few feet away, from where the interviewee would stand.
Just as we finished tweaking, our first doctor showed up. The interview focused on patient success stories that had really moved each doctor.
The problem was, as I was doing this interview, it didn’t feel all that moving. It felt dry, disconnected, and not at all something that would inspire people to check out this hospital.
As time ran out, the doctor left and went about his day. It was then that I realized just how terribly it had gone. One of our crew members walked up, and trying to console me, said:
“Don’t worry, the next doctor will be better at this.”
The problem was, I knew deep down that it really wasn’t his problem, it was mine. As the storyteller who was entrusted to draw the story from each of our characters—it was me, I was the problem.
I had just asked a man with little interview experience to stand in the middle of a hallway with an HMI blasting in his face and a large, intimidating camera only feet away. Then I showed up–somebody he didn’t know–and I expected him to pour his heart out about people’s near-death experiences and how it had moved him.
There’s this common saying that is uttered when relationships deteriorate, and one person wishes to leave a little more than the other: “It’s not you, it’s me.” People often say that to try to console the other person, to assure him or her that there was nothing that could have been done. Instead, the issue or challenge lies within the one doing the breaking up.
But when it comes to interviews, and epic failures like the one in the hospital hall, we often invert that into what we at Muse like to call the “It’s Not Me, It’s You" Syndrome. In this case we put all the responsibility on the interviewee, thinking that surely it’s not our fault if he isn't passionate enough, succinct enough, or his answers are just plain boring.
As filmmakers, journalists, or podcasters, we’re really not alone in our tendency to do this. A while back we talked about the Woeful Gear Bias, which is when we displace any filmmaking failures onto our gear and the idea that it's not good enough, thinking that a better camera, light, or lens will make up for all thats going wrong.
With interviews, we don’t blame the gear, we blame the other person.
But here’s the reality:
It’s you. And in that situation, it was me. The interview's failure came from how I chose to conduct the interview, including everything that led up to it, and the experience I set up for him. This doctor was surely capable of delivering a passionate interview, in fact, we knew this was true. His colleagues had mentioned how much he loved his work.
The "It's Not Me, It's You" Syndrome occurs when we blame our characters—the people we're interviewing—rather than take responsibility as the storyteller.
He was capable of much more yet I didn’t fulfill my role as the storyteller to empower him to be his best.
Here’s the insidious thing about this “It’s Not Me, It’s You" Syndrome. If we always shift the blame onto the person being interviewed then we have no hope of doing better next time. We’ll continue to do the same thing, over and over, yet hoping for different results. And you know what that’s the definition of, right? Yep: insanity.
If we want to get something different, something deeper, out of our interviewees then we need to be ready to do something different.
For our documentary #standwithme we interviewed Lisa Kristine, the international humanitarian photographer. She's someone who has done hundreds of interviews, has a TEDxTalk with a million views, and spoken at big events like the Peace Summit. Many of her thoughts, insights, and philosophies have already been published and shared several times over with the world.
So what could we do to get something different—something deeper—out of our time with her?
Surely, we couldn't expect to just sit down, ask a question, and have her deliver the best answer of her life. Our cameras, lights, and lenses surely won’t impress on her to be her most authentic and passionate self. Of the hundreds of interviews this lady had done, what could we do that was different? And what could give us the opportunity to get something new?
Well, one of the first things is to step into our humanity. Be a real person who is there, present, and connected to the person in front of you. We didn’t read off words and work through a checklist. We had an intelligent conversation and genuinely cared about the ideas she had to share with us. We stopped focusing so much on a list of questions and a piece of paper, and focused on her experience and creating a space where she could share deeply and openly.
The first step to deal with a problem is to recognize it. Until we confront our own “It’s Not Me, It’s You" Syndrome then we’ll have no hope of getting more depth out of our interviews.
And it’s more than just interviews. When we first meet people and do pre-interviews, it’s at play here too. And when we shoot b-roll and other scenes with our characters, it’s at play here too. If you’re working with real people, we need to remember that they're not actors, they aren’t used to the gear, and an interview environment is not familiar to them.
Our first step towards to treat the syndrome, is to admit that "No, it’s not you, it’s me." Realize this, and then take on the responsibility of being a stronger storyteller, one who develops the abilities to draw the most depth, passion, and honesty out of anybody you’re working with. Sure, we all have a natural level of talent, and some people are more passionate than others, but that’s beyond our control.
What we can control—and what makes all the difference—is the experience we create. It's about how comfortable, safe, and valued we make those who we feature in our stories feel.
Our course, How to Conduct Remarkable Interviews, will give you tips on how to do exactly that - conduct better interviews! It's an invaluable tool that empowers you to combat the "It's Not You, It's Me" Syndrome head on.