Movie junkets are tough. You wait around in a hotel, before being given minutes in front of a famous director or actor who’s been answering the same questions for hours. Jason Ward asks filmmaker Carol Morley, Artificial Eye PR Jake Garriock and Little White Lies journalist Adam Woodward how to make the best of them…
Arrive early and don’t overrun
Unless an interviewee lives in the city where the press activities are happening, a PR usually only has a small window with them. “Typically we get one day to do everything,” explains Jake Garriock, Publicity Executive at Artificial Eye. “If we have a big star that can mean something like 40 interviews or more, plus a premiere or TV appearance.” As much as you’re emotionally invested in your own interview, bear in mind that you’re also just one part of a crucial promotional day. This means being punctual and not taking up more time than agreed.
Get used to waiting around
That said, of the thousands of press junket interviews that take place every year, roughly three actually start on time. Everything from photoshoots to overlong lunches conspire against optimistic scheduling, so remain patient, friendly and pragmatic in the face of inevitable delay. “I’ve made a habit of taking a book,” says Adam Woodward, Deputy Editor of Little White Lies.
Be prepared to have less time than expected
The consequence of delays is that PRs sometimes slash interview lengths to fit everyone in, so your prearranged 20 minutes can suddenly become 15. Adam recommends buckling down and getting on with it: “Work with the time you’ve been given, and try not to interrupt the interviewee for the sake of squeezing in all your prepared questions.” Carol Morley, director of Dreams of a Life and upcoming film The Falling, suggests making your time count by focusing on what “ interests [you] the most.”
You’ve researched your interviewee to death: watched their early shorts, read articles they wrote years ago, listened to podcasts they’ve popped up on. You’d win a themed pub quiz single-handedly. But as you walk into their hotel suite you’re a stranger.
Interviewees can benefit from a gentle reminder of who they’re talking to, says Carol. “Even though I have it on a sheet, I can get mixed up and I like to know.” That way they can tailor their answers depending on whether you’re writing for a highbrow journal, a website for professional filmmakers or a teen magazine, say.
Engage with your interviewee
Along with enthusiasm, Carol believes what’s most conducive to a good interview is someone who really listens. “If you feel that the interviewer is just thinking of their next question, it’s not so great. It’s more stimulating if you feel you’re having a lively conversation and there’s a flow. You’re more likely to give interesting answers.”
It’s inevitable that interviewees have been asked the same things before, but Carol says this shouldn’t be a concern. “I find there are always a few questions that are the same, but on the whole the questions become an extension of the interviewer’s preoccupations and interests – which is a good thing!”
One of the biggest pleasures of arts journalism is getting to have conversations with people whose work you admire, but don’t go overboard in your praise. “Don’t suck up,” Adam says. “Directors and actors are used to getting their egos massaged. They don’t need you to add to that.” He elaborates: “I always try to strike a balance between being informal and professional – friendly, but not overly pally.”
Never forget that interviews are work for both parties and you’re a journalist doing a job, regardless of whether that star you’re interviewing was an adolescent crush or not. I’m writing this as a person who once somehow managed to interview Audrey Tautou without melting into a puddle.
Be respectful of your interviewee’s work
“Consider the fact that they might have spent years working on a project”, says Jake. For film, this means being diplomatic. “Don’t tell the interviewee if you saw the film on a screener DVD or online link,” he warns. “Unless the distributor wants to pay for loads of screenings it’s not possible for everyone attending the junket to have seen the film on the big screen.
“Directors and actors know this but it’s bad manners to discuss it during the interview. It’s going to affect their mood if you tell them you watched their film on a pixellated and watermarked online link on your bus journey into town.”
Avoid poor interview etiquette
The cardinal sin of interviewing is to request an autograph or selfie, but there are many other ways to misbehave. For a start, don’t make your interviewee physically uncomfortable. “I had two people come along once, from the same place,” Carol remembers. “I had one either side and they were both leaning in quite close and I felt pinned down and trapped. It felt more like an interrogation.”
Don’t try to rile your interviewee
A storm is brewing around someone newsworthy for professional or personal reasons, and suddenly you’ve been granted 20 minutes alone in a room with them. The understandable temptation is to poke the bear and see what happens. Jake says he’s never asked an interviewer to not ask specific questions, but has occasionally advised if a person isn’t keen to talk about something.
He points out the futility in a confrontational approach: “It’s worth remembering that the ‘hot topic’ around someone is going to be raised by every single person attending the junket, and they’re going to have a stock answer for that controversial question. The interesting material comes when the interviewee is relaxed and engaged, not provoked.” This doesn’t mean avoiding hard questions, but avoiding deliberately hostile ones.
Be wary of roundtable interviews
For those who haven’t had the displeasure: a roundtable is essentially competitive interviewing, where up to a dozen journalists sit with an interviewee, firing off questions whenever they can. Roundtables are a weird, stressful balancing act that no-one enjoys – “Never! Don’t make me!” is Carol’s response when I ask if she’s done one – but there’s an art to succeeding at them.
It’s helpful to make some rough calculations beforehand: if there are six of you and you’ve got 15 minutes, you might reasonably expect to ask three questions, depending on how long the interviewee’s answers are. Don’t be afraid of asking follow-up questions but try not to hog the conversation either. As Adam says, “Be courteous towards the other journalists, but assertive.”