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Story Depth: The Research Interview

By Kevin Shah · June 6, 2011

How do you make your screenplay original?  How do you make it feel real?  How do you make it so that the scenes you depict, especially if you haven’t lived them yourself — feel honest and believable without simply drawing upon existing material?  How do you make your characters multi-dimensional and come alive and off the page?  How do you find your character’s voice?  Answer: Fun Research.

If I don’t put the word ‘fun’ next to research, most will check out right here.  But the truth is research for a screenplay or novel or any kind of story can be fun.  It can also be thought-provoking, great conversation and a valuable experience – especially if you’re face to face with another human being.   

‘Fun Research’ is a personal and social tool that can be used to build a solid foundation upon which to write your story and develop your characters.  It can also help you solve road-blocks along the way and inspire you when you’re stuck.  The primary ‘Fun Research’ tool I simply can’t write without (and the item that I feel is the most important tool in the writer’s arsenal) is ‘The Research Interview’. 

THE INTERVIEW:

At Sabi, one of the best parts about our job as a writer, producer, or director is our constant desire to hear stories.  To hear biographies, quips, real life anecdotes, histories from people that are related to the characters or story we’re working on. It could be their profession, or it could be their personality that necessitates the interview – but as long as it’s fun, it will be fruitful.  The interview shouldn’t bore either the subject or yourself – you just want the juicy details – and that doesn’t come with clinical examination; that comes with conversation.  And only a ‘dialogue’ can bring forth inspiration.

I’ve had the privilege of several years of refined experience interviewing producers, directors, talent, and various department heads and crew for dozens of ‘making-of’ behind the scenes documentaries I’ve produced for large studio campaigns.  But nothing compares to hearing on-the-ground stories from the layperson, the blue-collar worker, or conversations with the man or woman that does what your character seeks to do.  They have the best stories, and tell them in the most interesting way – and they have the original details you need to feed your vision.  Your job is simply to engage them long enough to be inspired by them.  And that’s fun.

For my thesis screenplay Lone Tree Hill, I was writing a period survival story about a steam train accident that takes place in the snowy mountains.  Aside from researching countless books and newspapers from the era, including maps, costumes, vernacular, etc., I also made sure I took a ride on a steam train, so I could feel what it was like to shake around in a passenger car.  I also made sure I met the engineer and the fireman in the Locomotive and wound up shoveling coal with them to see what the heat was like & to talk about what breakfast was like in 1910.  It’s pretty amazing what people will invite you in to do if you explain to them you’re writing a story about their profession, hobby, or interest and you’re looking for authenticity and ideas. 

For a family drama about a father with Leukemia called A Sort of Homecoming, I read stacks of books on end of life care, physics (his profession), talked to doctors, hospice nurses, and a scientist.  And of course was inspired by conversations with a man dying of Leukemia. 

For A Falling Rock, my most recent screenplay (which heavily involves the police department and a homicide detective), I made sure I got at least a couple hours with a real homicide detective – to ask him questions I couldn’t uncover in the books I was reading.  I had given up on watching TV shows for research, I didn’t want to be jaded – I just wanted to talk to the source unfiltered through a writer’s imagination already. 

Based on that insightful meeting with Thom Carter of the Harrisburg Homicide Unit (which inspired countless moments, scenes, dialogue and character details) – I formulated a few ‘rules’ for myself when interviewing people of his caliber so as to get similar results in the future.  Perhaps this may help you too as you go about this incredibly important part of your research stage:

WHEN INTERVIEWING FOR RESEARCH:

1. Meet the Right Person to Inspire You.

This means going for it.  If you’re writing about a Governor, contact the Governor.  If you’re writing about an accountant, sit with one for a day.  If you’re writing about a surgeon – shadow one through the volunteer office (and get your hands dirty helping).  It doesn’t matter how old or young you are – show a real and smart interest, and they’ll open their doors for you.  You’re not asking for anything but time, and you’re showing an interest in them.  Find a way to go meet the person who lives the profession that your character does, and gain insight into what it is really like.  This, in my opinion is the only way to be able to then fictionalize what you’ve gleaned properly (without drawing upon what you’re getting from TV depictions).  Besides, you’ll get so many original ideas this way.  If your city is too fast and crazy to be able to arrange a meeting with someone like an active homicide detective, then ask to speak to retired ones.  Or drive to a much smaller city where you might be able to get further.  Chances are in a place like that – they’ll be that much more excited that you’re ‘making a movie’ and will cooperate.

2. Extensive Preliminary Research.

Why?  Because when you do your preliminary research, you don’t waste everyone’s time.  Do as much research as you can before hand so that your questions are IMMENSELY more informed (detailed and specific).  Also preliminary research prevents you from asking questions you can learn elsewhere (which bore everyone).  For instance, a first instinct when sitting down with a Homicide Detective might be to ask him to walk you through a crime scene.  This is a terrible idea.  It’s like asking him what kind of gun he’s carrying.  You can get this information elsewhere, he’ll just describe procedure.  It’s much better to launch in on something specific and interesting to think about, maybe asking him to describe his strangest or most surprising case.

3. Ask the Right Questions.

These are the thinking questions.  The questions that mold, shape, and reveal the character you’re trying to build.  These questions help you find the voice of your character.  Thom Carter was a unique kind of thinking cop.  He gained respect when he caught a serial killer (meaning a killer that’s outsmarted the law and has murdered again and again).  It was one of the worst serial killer cases in Harrisburg history: a man that was sodomizing old people, breaking their necks and their backs – and setting them on fire.  But Thom Carter was the man that brought him down.  So I wasn’t going to ask him ‘what’s the first thing he does when he walks into a crime scene.’  This guy was tough as hell, tan trench coat, African-American – he wore sunglasses for the first few questions.  This was all real, and I wanted the questions to be real. So I asked him what we might refer to as psychological questions: 

“What it’s like to look at the city through your eyes?  What’s it like to see doorways and streets and houses where you found bodies?  Do you think of those cases while off duty (when you’re getting groceries, for instance)?”

He told me, “Yes, you can’t help it. If you think about it, you still see the bodies everywhere.  But you don’t let it bother you.  You can’t let it bother you.” He also told me he distinctly remembers the face, name, and address of his first victim. 

I asked him what he thought about the statistic that 1 of 2 homicide detectives take their own lives after the retire?  He thought about it.  I asked him “Why?” He said without hesitation, “Cold cases.”

I followed up with, “Why then – at its core do you do this?  To see justice served for the dead?”  He took off his glasses, and his eyes were really red (I remember thinking this man doesn’t sleep).  He looked up after thinking about it and said in a deep confident voice, “Maybe it’s the challenge.”

I asked him how he deals with it: the stress, responsibility?  He said, “I like to work out.  The bigger the challenge, the more I work out.”  

I followed up by asking what he thought of the cop shows on TV – did it annoy him that they’re ‘not real’ and that ‘they don’t get it right.’

He smiled and said, “No way, are you kidding?  I love those shows.  I watch them all the time.  If you were trying to write exactly what happens, that would be boring as hell.  The most exciting thing you’d see is the boss screaming and stamping his feet, or spilling coffee by the typewriter.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but I felt like I was somehow gaining insight into my character.  Thoughts, voices, notions that I wouldn’t have garnered if Mr. Carter was prompted to explain what the Medical Examiner does when he arrives, or how the Techs collect evidence.  (That information is important and I investigated it in great detail in my ‘reading research’).

The questions that I did ask humbly tried to get to the heart of what it’s like to be a homicide detective.  How their mind works.  The right questions are the thought provoking ones – those that naturally lead your subject to open up.  The right questions, when asked correctly, always feel like a conversation instead of an interrogation.  They lead to stories.   

4.  Get References for Future Interviews.

Lastly, take good notes the entire time, and ask your subject for further references of other people you could speak to. This can lead to an amazing chain of knowledge.  Everyone is willing to refer you to someone else they know if you show that your questions are engaging and not a waste of time (that you’re serious and a professional). 

In the case of detective Thom Carter, he was a referral from a very friendly beat-cop that I was having coffee with earlier the same day.  That was a brief meeting arranged by my father – and this cop was telling me what it was like from his perspective, a rookie on his way up the ladder toward Homicide Detective.  When I asked him why he wanted to be a detective so badly, I remember the same sentiment, “It’s the challenge.”

At the end of the interview, I asked him if he could refer me to a homicide detective, and he drove me in the squad car straight to the desk of Thom Carter.   A Falling Rock – a film by Sabi would not be what it is if it wasn’t for these events and my efforts to conduct research interviews.  And yes, even though it is research, it is more than just thought-provoking and insightful.  It’s fun and one of the best parts about being a writer seeking originality.

If you have other interview techniques you use for researching subjects, I would love to hear them.  Reach me on twitter @kevinkshah.