On Interviewing, Sex Lives and Chomsky

Still image from Is THe Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Still image from Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?

I interviewed Michel Gondry recently about his film Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? for this Metro story. There’s nothing like a French accent talking about neurolinguistics down a phone line to concentrate the mind.

I can only imagine what the hours and hours of unused conversation must be like, and I think it enriches the project that a Frenchman took on the task. Adding accents and sweet misinterpretations to long talks about the science of language fires up the neural pathways, for sure. I loved Gondry’s film for so many reasons. For whimsy. For his honest effort to understand rich concepts. For admitting when he was lost, and for persevering until he found the thread again. For just setting the camera up and doing it. For having a go. For taking his time.

Years ago on Radio 95bFM I interviewed Noam Chomsky. I had so many things I wanted to ask, but I got just one question in. I made the classic mistake of asking something like “Why do you think the left blah blah blah versus the right?”. Chomsky’s answer began something like “Well, first you have to define what ‘left’ and ‘right’ are – if you can reach a common definition – and then you need to examine why you are using those terms…” and for the next 20 minutes, he undertook the task of defining and examining those words, before finally giving a considered and open-ended answer to the question itself, and our allotted time was up.

It was vintage Chomsky.

It provided some of the most important lessons on the art of interviewing I have been taught on the job:

– know what you’re asking – or be straight up about what you don’t know (I love asking “stupid” questions)
– give some context in the question so that your interviewee can get to the point in the answer
– don’t presume that you and your interview subject have the same world view.

That last point was hammered home in another learning-curve interview from back then – again on 95bFM – with the playwright Oscar Kightley, whose play Dawn Raids was about to premiere in Auckland. The play looked at one fictional family during the 1970s NZ Government’s heavy-handed, early morning raids on Pacific Islanders who may have overstayed their visas. (Watch Damon Fepulea’i’s documentary about the shameful scheme here.)

At one point, I asked something clunky along the lines of “So, this Pacific Island issue…”

Oscar cut in: “It’s not a Pacific Island issue. It’s a New Zealand issue.” Polite but firm and, in my memory, followed by a dramatic pause, during which Oscar was probably giving me his winning steely-gaze-cheeky-smile combo.

The wonderful thing about 95bFM, and college radio in general, is the freedom to play and in doing so, learn how far you can go with people. My third most memorable interviewing lesson of the nineties came from bFM alumnus Paul Casserly, maker of such brilliantly weird shows as Eating Media Lunch.

Paul’s a total gentleman, and a gung-ho broadcaster capable of bending and warping any medium in which he works. Endlessly encouraging of others, his enthusiasm is infectious. Once, when I was trying to come up with questions for k.d. lang – probably the most famous person I have ever, will ever interview – he suggested “What’s the best sex you’ve ever had?”

I jokingly wrote it on my notepad alongside “Do you walk under ladders or go around them?” and “What’s the best meal you’ve ever cooked?”, knowing there’s no way I would ask it. But then I watched the other interviews she faced in the New Zealand media at the time. It was all “So, you’re a lesbian…?” “So, as a lesbian…?” and probably just “Lesbian?”

The artist was touring with her then-new album, All You Can Eat, and I remember opening the interview with “So, has anyone actually asked you about your new album yet, or are they all just obsessed with your lesbianism?” She laughed. She sighed. She shook her head. We talked about the album, and after a while, there was a warmth that suggested I could maybe get away with a few personal questions. So we did quick-fire stuff, and I threw the sex question in, and she laughed and replied “Oh, any and all sex, because it’s so few and far between!” and off we went up a side-road of conversation about the touring artist’s life.

The lesson? A little bit of context, a lot of judging the moment. World view comes into it, too. In NZ, k.d. lang was being asked about her sexuality as a quirk, a media angle, an “other”, but not about her sex life, as a bona fide sexual being.

Of course, here I am at the end of a blog that was really just going to be a link to the Michel Gondry article, and now I’m thinking about that k.d. lang interview in the shadow of Paul Henry’s “Did you have sex with Richard Branson?” moment the other week. Both questions were about someone’s sex life. Should I have asked it, even though she laughed? Should he have asked it, even though she laughed? What should and shouldn’t you ask a professional about their personal life?

It’s partly semantics, but I think, in the case of k.d. lang, she knows she’s trading on a cult of personality to sell her albums. She is the subject, even though her music is the topic. In Michelle Dickinson’s case, science is the subject and the topic. She knew the context, of course. People who know Paul Henry know what they’re getting into, and I’m all for wide-ranging, wacky interview techniques when they’re appropriate.

But I do also prefer an interviewing environment that encourages girls to get into science because they can save the world, or have Michel Gondry animate a film about them. Not because they get to sleep with the guy.

PS Enjoy John McPhee’s New Yorker piece on interview techniques in the pre-dictaphone age.

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