Around the same time that I made the decision to pursue journalism as a career – a decision that has since condemned me to a life of tiny income compensated by mid-sized anecdotes – I had read that in order to be a good journalist, one must learn how to listen. If a subject pauses, or stutters, or seems entirely unsure of what to say next, a good journalist should just wait it out. Although the immediate urge is to rush in with a shrill “WHO ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?”, waiting will supposedly produce the most interesting sound bite of the interview: it’s the things we find hard to say that are the most telling.
I’ve followed this advice religiously ever since, and for the most part, it’s worked. So when the film website I work for asked me to interview the director of a celebrated documentary, I leapt at the chance.
Did it matter that my interviewing background was in music, and I had never interviewed a filmmaker? Or that he was a documentary filmmaker? Or that his film was about AIDs? Of course not. I had interviewed eight people: surely that meant I was a pro. What I neglected to consider in my arrogance was the intellectual gulf between, for example, a 25 year-old bass player and in this case, a respected director in his fifties. Figuring him for a pussycat, I leap in with what I liked about the film.
“What I especially liked, was the way you waited until three-quarters of the way into the movie to reveal that one of the speakers has AIDs himself. Could you tell me your reasoning for doing that?”
He furrows his brow, and I know I’m about to get gold. “No,” he says “I actually reveal that in the first eight minutes of screen time.” Wait, what?
“No you don’t.” I say, mortified.
“Yes. I do.”
It suddenly dawns on me that I was late to the press screening, and had missed the first ten minutes of the film. “Are you sure?” I say desperately.
“Yes. Next question.”
From then on, the interview is a disaster. I laugh, nervous and loud. I stare thoughtfully at him so he thinks I’m contemplating the massive importance of his film, yet all my energies are relentlessly being pointed toward not making an arse of myself. Worst of all, my questions stop being questions. They are long, drawn out statements, said out-loud just so I can prove to him I’m not a total savant. While I desperately attempt to make a point about how audiences may feel that the AIDs epidemic is a thing of the past, I inadvertently misuse the word ‘nostalgia’.