Tommy Flavin: Shut Up And Listen: How To Control People’s Minds

Recently I had the good fortune to be working on a terrible TV show. The show was made up of a variety of interviews between the presenter and her guests. As I edited these interviews, I noticed something- every time the interviewer asked a question, the light would go out in the guests’ eyes. Some would even grimace. And none of them would relax and open up to her. So the interviews, while informative, were boring, uninsightful and, God help us, flat-out cringe worthy at times.

Which served to remind me of just how difficult interviews are. For many documentaries, the interview is the backbone of the film. But, interviewing a subject isn’t as simple as just asking them questions in front of a camera. In reality, it’s part a battle of wits, and it’s mostly a form of mind control on the filmmaker’s part. For me, the interview is always the most exciting part of the documentary making process. If I could, I’d make a film entirely out of interviews and forget all that nonsense about pretty pictures and the like. Maybe I should have become a radio journalist…

So as a filmmaker, when preparing for an interview, you’re put in the ethically-dodgy position of attempting to control the subject’s thoughts, to guide them into talking about the things you want to hear and, most difficult of all, to talk about issues that are deeply personal and painful to the subject. So how do you do this? Strangely enough, it’s by shutting up and listening. Once you start to empathise with your subject, they start to feel safe. Once you start to listen, they start to talk. And if you can shut the hell up for an hour at a time, then they’ll talk a lot.

Errol Morris is, to me, the master of the interview. When he was starting out in documentary, he decided to play a game with himself. He’d listen back to his tapes and take a note of how often he’d hear himself speak. And with each new interview he’d do, he’d try and speak less and less, to the point that his hour-long tapes would have only the subject’s voice on them. And Errol Morris, as any documentary fan knows, is the master of getting his subjects to open up to him.

This is, without a doubt, the hardest part of interviewing. When you ask a question, the subject will answer with the first thing that pops into their head, which is usually uninsightful and usually untrue. And then they stop talking. And this is where, in a normal conversation, a normal human would reply. But documentary makers aren’t allowed to be normal humans. We have to do like Errol and not say anything. Hold the awkward silence. Since they’re expecting you to answer, this silence can feel like a million years for both of you. But all this time, they’ll have been thinking about your question. And suddenly, they’ll start talking again. And more often than not, they’ll give you a long and amazing answer. One you weren’t expecting and one they weren’t expecting either. Oftentimes, this will have been the first time they’ve ever thought these thoughts. Even though it’s only a conversation, it’s an exhilarating feeling seeing your subject opening up in front of your eyes.

On the Faroe Islands recently, all my interviews were conducted through Faroese. I had to teach my Faroese producer my interview technique so that she could do the talking for me. One night, when we were out in the pub, she came up to me. “You’ve ruined me!” she said. “I can’t have normal conversations with people anymore, I keep getting them to reveal their innermost secrets by accident!”


One of the victims of the author’s mind control experiments


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *