The Descent is a thrills and chills horror that draws blood from stone. Set in the claustrophobic depths of an uncharted cave, it is gory, tense and skittish. From loose foundations, Geordie director Neil Marshall builds a scare-fest worthy of the lineage it quotes – CarrieAliens and Nosferatu are among the most striking visual cues – with all rising to a blistering final act and brutally satisfying close. Certainly, it is hard not to think twice about ever going caving again as the credits role.

Some horror films establish themselves through broad and stock characterisation, with one protagonist in the film likely to be po-faced and another the class clown, allowing for a quicker segue to the meat of the thing. Here, however, this is not quite so. In an admirable attempt at would be realism, Marshall’s characters are less distinctive than one might expect and simply get on with their trials rather than innocuously following pre-set arcs and journeys. The result is a dynamic that feels a touch too mundane to prove effective and only adds to the confusion stirred by Marshall’s wilfully choppy approach to editing. That this mode pays off as the film progresses is undeniable; earlier, on the other hand, it is often hard to decipher quite who is doing what to whom.

Shauna Macdonald’s Sarah Carter is the most developed of the film’s six leading ladies, bearing, as she does throughout, the traumas of the tragic past we are privy to in an opening flashback. A year on from the death of her husband and daughter, Sarah travels to the home of – once much closer – friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) for a spelunking adventure in the Appalachian Mountains; the pair are joined there by: Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Burning), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Whilst there is little to distinguish the sextet as individuals – Sarah has anxiety issues and Juno’s a thrill-seeker – it is remarkable how unique it still feels to watch a horror film in which women are strong and resourceful as much as they are scared. The experience is mercifully unexploitative and wholly rewarding.

Strength and resourcefulness prove vital traits to possess as the group descend into a cave and find it a little more occupied than an ‘uncharted’ cave has any right to be. A cursory initial dependence on jump scares – ye olde flock of birds from nowhere trick – quickly submits to give way to a more satisfying escalation in tension. Marshall’s is a film which will surely benefit repeat viewings, even only to give audiences the opportunity to confirm whether they really did see that on the left of the screen. Flashes of diegetic light – blood red and uneasy green flares, headlights and infrared cinecams – illuminate the film’s pitch black set, revealing scraps but allowing the imagination to do the hard work. As it should be.

Impressively, nothing here belies the film’s small budget. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy does wonders with Marshall’s snatches of light, whilst one would be hard pressed to pin down the joins in Simon Bowles exquisite production design. Constructed and shot at Pinewood, the caves are viscerally real – damp, scabbard, airless – and believably intense; miniature model work does only to add to the scale of these sets. The prosthetic creatures within, meanwhile, are well mounted and gain memorability by virtue of the stylish choreography and broken editing that combine to give them jittery movement.

Holding back on any over-revelatory visual whole, Marshall enables frissons of true fear to bubble through the broiling tension of his structure. There’s gore aplenty for those who like their horror bloody but it’s the psychological entrapment at play in the film that’ll keep audiences awake.

“I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation.”

I’ve spent the past few years moonlighting as a local reporter.

My background’s in screenwriting, so it’s a job I came to kind of accidentally (someday I’ll write a book about it)! But in any case, I’ve learned a great deal – especially about the importance of a good interview.

Meanwhile, documentary filmmaking is a world I know well.

As a teacher with Lights Film School, I’ve had the opportunity to guide students from their first documentary proposals to finished products. And I’ve also found myself a collaborator with and champion of a particular documentary filmmaker, Garret Harkawik, to whom I happen to be married!

In 2011, Garret began making short documentaries, many of which are interview-driven. The more I’ve worked in my newspaper gig, the more insights I’ve gleaned into Garret’s films, and the more we’ve begun to discuss where our work intersects and where it differs.

And when it comes to interview techniques, I’ve found there’re far more intersections than differences.

Naturally, we’re here today to discuss documentary filmmaking. That is the heart of this piece.

But as I’ve grown and done my own research into the art of the interview, I’ve learned that there are a surprising number of interview tenets that hold true across mediums – film, television, journalism, podcasts, you name it.

What's the purpose of the interview? What do you want your subject to share?

Why interview someone in the first place?

A documentary interview can serve multiple purposes:

It may be an opportunity for an expert to share scientific, historical, or other information so as to educate the viewer and support a point. It may reveal someone’s feelings or reflections on an experience that’s significant to the bigger picture. It also may be an opportunity for someone to share their side of a story, if you’re presenting contrasting views.

Whatever the purpose, depending on the style of documentary you’re making, interviews will be central to your film. And it most likely will be YOU who conducts them. Which probably means you’re asking questions like, “How do I actually do this? How can I make sure I get a good documentary interview?”

In answer, I’ve drawn on my reporting background, teaching experiences, conversations with Garret, and advice from other professionals to provide a well-rounded overview of how to do a documentary interview. My hope is that you’ll feel empowered and excited to get started on the process!

To get the ball rolling on our conversation, let’s break down interview best practice into three points, beginning with:

1. BE PREPARED for your documentary interview

When it comes to a documentary interview, there are two elements to preparedness:

The first is your camera and gear. The second is the interview itself.

Regarding your camera and gear, it’s usually a good idea to check out the space where you’ll be conducting the actual interview.

As Garret says, “Knowing where you’re going to shoot and what the challenges are, that part is just like any other location shoot. What is the sound like? Will it be noisy? Will there be natural light that’s going to change? If your interview may last two or three hours, the light will be different. Pick a location where you’re not worried about that or sound.”

If you’re controlling the light, a whole new world opens up to you!

A 3-point lighting setup is traditional, combining key, fill, and back lights. You could go for a soft and gentle appearance or something much more dramatic and contrasty… It depends entirely on your vision, the location, and your tools.

Where will you be shooting your documentary interview? Know the location!

Whatever your lighting arrangement, keep track of “eye line”, which is where your interview subject is looking. Nine times out of ten, it should be consistent throughout the whole interview. Are they looking at you? At someone off to the side? Into the camera? Check in with this from time-to-time to make sure that it doesn’t change.

Garret also notes the importance of confirming that you have enough media to store your footage. “Pick a camera that will let you shoot non-stop,” he advises. You want to avoid swapping out cards every few minutes, since that can really interrupt the flow for an interviewee.

In terms of sound, you want to ensure a clean, high-quality signal. But also choose a setup that won’t impede your subject. “If you have them wired to a lav that runs into a soundboard, if they want to get up and walk around, it’s a whole production,” Garret shares. “Using a boom on a pole or a wireless lav is easier.”

In terms of the documentary interview itself, arrive prepared, knowing what you want to talk about!

This applies across mediums. Whether you’re interviewing someone for a news article, podcast, or something else, you should have some familiarity with their background and relevant topics.

How to make the most of your limited time

In my own experience, when I’m working on an article, I typically get just ONE SHOT to sit down with a subject. In that time – usually anywhere between a half-hour and two hours – I need to learn everything I can from that person, as it relates to my article.

So if I’m meeting John Doe to discuss his experiences as a state legislator, I need to spend the time I’m given asking him about – and being genuinely curious about! – his time as a state legislator.

And naturally, to make the most of the time we have together, I need to go in prepared. This often means considering any of the following:

  • Why am I interviewing this person? What unique perspective can they offer?
  • What do I need this person to explain?
  • If I’ve done a pre-interview, what have they already told or revealed to me that I want to get them to tell or reveal again, this time on-camera?
  • What facts do I need to come away understanding or capturing?
  • If the purpose of the interview is to have the subject recall something that happened in the past, how much of that event do I need them to recall?
  • How do I want them to reflect on the event? If it’s a historical topic, perhaps I want them to provide context. If it’s a personal topic (or if they lived through the historical event), perhaps I want to capture their feelings.

Personally, I find it very helpful to develop a list of specific questions that I plan to ask. Of course, the questions vary greatly, depending on who I’m interviewing and for what purpose! Here’s the key point, though:

That list of questions is just a jumping off point.

Remember, your list of interview questions is just a starting point.

In other words, I’ve never conducted a good interview that relied solely on my prepared questions.

My best interviews happen when I’m fully present with the subject. Yes, we’re having a conversation about a specific subject in their life. But if I stay too tied to that subject and my questions, I miss a lot. I have to truly listen to what that person is saying, and improvise questions based around that.

Which brings me to what I believe to be the most important aspect of the art of the interview:

2. BE CURIOUS during your documentary interview

I used to be terrible at making conversation.

I was at an awkward family barbecue about ten years ago, and I found myself talking to the husband of the friend of a family member. We were many degrees removed from really needing to take a serious interest in one another, but there we were.

Neither of us was particularly good at making small talk. Eventually, I remarked that it was a beautiful day out. A minute later, his wife came over to offer him a drink, and he said, “Oh, thank God! Someone’s here. We were starting to talk about the weather.” 😳

Arguably that guy was worse at making conversation than me. I mean come on, who says that? But since I started doing interviews for the newspaper a few years ago, I’ve definitely become an increasingly good dinner party guest. I also kill at wedding cocktail hours, wakes, funerals, and awkward family barbecues.


Because good interviewing relies on curiosity, and so does being a good conversationalist.

If you know how to get someone talking about themselves, and you know how to be — not act, but BE — genuinely interested in what they’re saying, then you’ll never find yourself talking about the weather again.

Oh, and your documentary interviews will improve exponentially!

Keep an ear open

One of my favorite TV writers, Emily VanDerWerff, interviewed American journalist Dan Rather about interviewing (metaaaaa)! I was exhilarated to find that Rather’s views on interviewing 100% line up with my own:

“The keys to doing a good interview are … the first three things are preparation, preparation, and preparation. Once you get past those three, the other key is to be a good listener. Often, the best questions come not from what you have prepared to ask, not from your list of questions in your notebook, but from listening to the interview subject very carefully and picking up questions from what your interview subject says.”

Bryan Glazer – a famous film producer who often collaborates with director Ron Howard – also wrote a book on curiosity. It’s called A Curious Mind, and in it, Glazer recounts his 30+ years of curiosity.

Over the course of his career, Glazer conducted what he calls “curiosity interviews” with people he found interesting. “The technique is the same – asking questions – regardless of the subject,” Glazer writes. “But the mission, the motivation, and the tone vary. The curiosity of a detective trying to solve a murder is very different from the curiosity of an architect trying to get the floor plan right for a family’s house.”

He goes on to claim that regardless of subject, regardless of who’s doing the asking, curiosity can serve nearly anyone well:

“One thing I know about curiosity: it’s democratic. Anyone, anywhere, of any age or education level, can use it.”

Or take it from Errol Morris, regarded by many as a master of the documentary interview:

“I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation. You shouldn’t know what the interview will yield. Otherwise, why do it at all?”

Follow your curiosity! Be open to where it may lead.

Be curious. Listen to and truly engage with your interview subject. And be YOU!

3. BE YOU throughout your documentary interview


YOU are the one conducting the documentary interview, after all. Since an interview is essentially a conversation between two people, that means you comprise 50% of the atmosphere and play a large role in driving the results.

You set the tone for the interview.

If you want it to be serious, you should be serious. If you want it to be fun, loose, and free-flowing, then you should be all three of those things. Your subject’s tone likely will reflect yours.

Remember, too, that you can edit yourself out.

My reporting work winds up in print, so these days, I don’t have to deal with putting my voice out there for others to hear. But one of the most painful parts of beginning to interview people was hearing my own voice in my recordings. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I am not the story, and I don’t really need to be too concerned with how I sound in playback.

Some documentary filmmakers choose to include their own voices and selves in their documentary films. That’s their style; that’s fine. Others prefer to cut an interview into a film in such a way that it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone there at all asking questions. Also fine.

It all depends on how you want to tell your story. You may not love how you sound in playback, but please let that go when you’re doing the interview. You are not the subject!

Assuming it’s ethical and respectful, whatever you need to do and say in the moment to get your subject to open up, you should do. The best interviews are the ones in which both the interviewer and interviewee become unaware of the artifice of the interview.

In other words (and to reiterate), your documentary interview should be, more or less, a conversation.

Whatever the medium, a good documentary interview tends to feel like a good conversation.

Think about post-production

Even so, one of Garret’s most important tips for conducting documentary interviews is to keep an ear open for how your subject’s answer can be edited. Encourage them to answer questions in ways that will make sense if you were to cut out the question.

So for example, if you ask someone their favorite color, encourage them to answer with, “My favorite color is green” instead of just “green”. This will lend a lot of flexibility in the edit.

And finally, don’t forget that visuals matter in the medium of film! When you’re choosing a location, consider how you can reflect your subject in that location. If you’re interviewing a veterinarian, then it could make sense to interview them in their office or at a dog park instead of, say, a nondescript shopping mall.

In Conclusion

What do you think? Have you ever conducted a documentary interview? What are your favorite techniques? We’d love to hear about your documentary filmmaking experiences in the comments below!

Also, if you’re looking for examples of fantastic interviews in films and television to inspire you, a few come to mind, in no particular order:

Check out Errol Morris’ classic The Thin Blue Line; anything by Werner Herzog, who often inserts himself into his films; Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary, The Act of Killing; and The Jinx. Yes, that last one’s a television series, but it’s worth investigating, since it concerns the relationship between the subject and the interviewer.

We were waiting to see which European country would be first to announce before publishing our famous Oscar submission pages. But an African country surprised us by being first up to bat. Word is in that Algeria will submit Papicha as their Oscar entry this year.

Papicha centers on a teenager (her nickname being the title) who dreams of being a fashion designer despite conservative bans. The film, a debut from the 41 year-old director Mounia Meddour, premiered at Cannes. No word yet on US distribution. This is the second consecutive submission from Algeria by a female director. Only two previous women have been submitted by Algeria: Yamina Bachir (Rachida, 2002) and later her daughter Yasmine Chouikh (Until the End of Time, 2018) 

African cinema has been largely ignored by the Academy over the years for we think three primary reasons. First, the continent’s most prolific spot for cinema is Nigeria and “Nollywood,” as its known, largely produces English language films which means they can’t be submitted in this category (The Academy changed the title of the category from “Best Foreign Language Film” to “Best International Film” just this year but the restriction that the films can’t be predominantly English remains in place). Second, apart from Egypt (33 submissions, no nominations), Morocco (14 submissions, 1 finalist but no nominations)  and South Africa (15 submissions, 2 nominations, and an additional 2 finalists that weren’t nominated), and Algeria (which we’ll get to in a minute) no African countries submit to the category on an annual basis — and you can’t be nominated if you don’t submit. Lastly, though not unimportantly, Oscar’s taste in international film definitely runs to the European as Latin American countries and Asian countries submit with great regularity but (mostly) struggle to secure nominations.

Over the years though Algeria has proven the exception to the rule in terms of Oscar ignoring Africa, helped surely by its close but tense former-colony ties with France. 

Algeria’s Nominees
Algeria has submitted 21 times over the years with 5 nominations and 1 win to date.

Jean-Louis Trintignant (Cannes winner Best Actor for “Z”) . Trintignant has been the star of 3 winners in the Foreign Film Category: A Man and a Woman (1966), Z (1969) and Amour (2012).

  • 1969 ★ “Z” (Costa Gavras)
    “Z” was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture and won two: Film Editing and Foreign Film. It was only the second foreign language film ever nominated for Hollywood’s top prize and the first nominated for Best Picture after the creation of the Foreign Film category. It was also the first African film ever nominated.
  • 1983 Le Bal (Ettore Scola) 
  • 1995 Dust of Life (Rachid Bouchareb)
  • 2006 Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb) 
  • 2010 Outside the Law (Rachid Bouchareb) 

Bouchareb is their most Oscar-submitted director, with six films selected over the years, the runner up being Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (4 submissions, the most famous of which remains the 1975 Palme d’or winner Chronicle of the Years of Fire) though none of Lakhdar-Hamina’s films were nominated.

Other African Films That Have Been Nominated

  • 1976 ★ Black and White in Color (Ivory Coast, d. Jean-Jacques Annaud)
  • 2004 Yesterday (South Africa, d. Darrell Roodt)
  • 2005 ★ Tsotsi (South Africa, d. Gavin Hood)
  • 2014 Timbuktu  (Mauritana, d. Abderrahmane Sissako) 

The Film Experience’s coverage of the Best International Feature Film race was a deep dive before even the trades seemed to care that much but now everyone covers it. Which is good because it deserves coverage and bad because we no longer get any credit or respect for it. But we realize that’s a personal gripe unrelated to the beauty of seeing these things widely covered. So we hope at least that you appreciate us and share our pieces and our charts on this race on social media from time to time rather than just retweeting Variety or whatnot. Please and thanks xoxo 

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