Interviews and overshares

Frances Bean, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

One of the interesting things about the fallout from this hacking scandal is that it’s made a lot of people re-examine issues of integrity in the press.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Guardian has (rightly) accused the other papers of being crass about Amy Winehouse, The Times‘s readers reacted with outrage after it published the Facebook updates of the as-yet-uncharged suspect in the hospital poisonings case, and in another post the paper complained about the giant amount of bulls*** that goes into the interview process. Overall, what people want is fairness and honesty.
The point about interviews was interesting: these days, particularly with “celebrities”, the settings are too controlled and sanitised. The closest I ever personally came to it was with Ogre back in 1996, where all the hacks were sent in one by one for 20-minute chats in which he gave the same responses to each of us. I don’t blame him: our questions were lazy and he must have got very bored doing so many in a row. It was a lot like that scene in America’s Sweethearts where Catherine Zeta Jones and John Cusack get so hacked off with the treadmill of inanity that they just start making stuff up. And, in fairness, Ogre did give us a lot in terms of honesty; it was just the surreality of reading the same quotes verbatim in two or three different magazines.

When it comes to Hollywood stars, they go further and sit with their PR agents in the room, giving lists of forbidden topics and walking out if they don’t like the line of questioning. It means that you never, ever get to see the real person, which defeats the entire point of doing in the interview in the first place. You have to wonder how it got to this.

Think about how people view each other in the workplace. You want to get to know the people around you in a basic way, and the more you know about them, the more it impacts on how you view what they do. You learn who is dating or related to whom, what eccentric hobbies they have, which of your colleagues ran a marathon, which one used to run a cheese shop, etc. etc. Some of that information is practically useful and other bits just add flavour to the dynamics and stop the place feeling so sterile. When one co-worker brings in a baby picture of your other co-worker, it’s cute. When they bring his foreskin into the office in a jar, it’s just weird. (It happened.)

That’s really how I view interviews – they add flavour to the “product” – album, film, whatever. It’s natural to want to know about them, in terms of both the physical and mental creative process. What techniques they use impact on that, and what they were thinking at the time also impacts on that. Knowing about both gives it a context. Yes, it’s not essential to know that – and there are many bands and actors it’s never even occurred to me to be curious about – but I still avidly watch the “making of” documentaries that come on the DVD and that shows me what to look out for. Many years back, I was friends with a circus crew and knew how every trick was performed, but knowing where all the trap doors were made it more rather than less amazing.

The hardest part of interviewing someone isn’t asking the questions, but sorting the answers. Certainly with my later interviews, I’ve been careful not to be like the lady with the foreskin in the jar: there are just some things you don’t need to know. I was once puzzled over the identity of one online correspondent and mentioned it to someone I was talking to, and within 20 minutes they’d pulled up broad information about where he lived, details of his last three ebay auctions and posts on some obscure forum about a car he was interested in buying. Even I was a bit freaked out by that – it’s far too easy to find out more than we ever need to about someone else and as careful as we need to be not to overshare, we should also set our own limits about how far we’ll let our curiosity take us. There are tell-all biographies I refuse to read because I ultimately just do not need to know all that.

That’s why I don’t have a problem with people getting their PR agent to check over the interview before it goes to print, because I want it to be accurate and I want it to be fair. It’s unavoidable these days, anyway, given that the process is generally different to how it was 20 years ago. Example: when I did this interview for a video game site, I sent off the questions via email to the marketing rep who passed them over to the subjects, who then answered and the email came back via the same publicist – so obviously anything contentious would have been filtered out. That didn’t bother me, because I wasn’t trying to be Jeremy Paxman. The readers and I just wanted to find about the mental and physical processes that went into making the games, which included learning a little more about the people who made them. Learning what I did on that occasion changed the way I viewed some of the things in the game, showed me what to look out for, and added a new dimension to my enjoyment of the product.

I think you can tell with the interviews I do that there’s a fondness there. Even before I ask any questions, I’ve generally read up quite a bit on the people I’ll be talking to and figured out that I like them, which influences how I write it up afterwards. Like with this old interview with dEUS. I did it when I was 19 or so, and though there’s nothing malicious in there, if I was typing this up now I’d have whipped out the references to ecstasy and the bit about Morphine. That’s not because I’m a toadying suck-up, but I’d just rather not get people into trouble. (It’s so historical now it’s not worth worrying about.) I think people would be surprised these days when they see how much I cut out – and that’s before anyone gets to check things over – because there’s just so much information and a lot of it is irrelevant if not downright damaging.

I’ve been the interviewer and I’ve been the interviewee. I’ve been the one printing up stupid things people have said while drunk, and I’ve been the one saying stupid things while drunk. I’ve been the one getting friends to check over my answers before I send them off in case I sound like an idiot, and I’ve been the one getting people to check my questions. Both sides of that are pretty terrifying, especially when you’re the subject, because you feel so terribly exposed. It doesn’t matter how you answer, you’ll wake up a few days later and think how you should have said it better. When you’re on the other side of the table, you’ll kick yourself for asking such a stupid question.

There’s the danger of being like Patrick in Almost Famous, who lets the band walk all over him when they don’t actually seem to like him very much, and allow your piece to be whittled away to that seven-minute-Hollywood-celebrity sanitised piece of garbage that doesn’t give any real insight into the character of the person you’re interviewing – at which point it becomes a worthless waste of time for all concerned.

On the other hand …

Yesterday, I was chatting with one of my Collapse Board colleagues about Courtney Love, and she mentioned the Vanity Fair interview, which I’d never read. I looked it up, and felt even sicker than usual.

The first thing that struck me was the tone it establishes: catty remarks about makeup, vicious swipes about clothing. She even outright calls Courtney “awful”. Then it went on to deliver a painstakingly thorough character assassination through brief observation, rumour, hearsay and just plain making-it-up. In spite of it all, I liked the Courtney I was reading about, and developed a distinct aversion to the interviewer.

Perhaps that’s why interviewees have become more defensive – because they’re all worried about being stitched up like that. I think it takes a contract of sorts on all sides: from the interviewer to be kind and respectful, from the interviewee to be open and honest and reasonable, and from the reader not to lap up cruel and harmful gossip. I think we all have to expect better, and that expectation really starts with ourselves.

4 comments on “Interviews and overshares

  1. It’s something that has been plaguing my mind since the NOTW scandal and the sad end to Amy Winehouse’s life and coverage of it. I believe as a matter of human rights it’s important to create some new laws to protect the individual. We all sort of envy the rich and famous on one level, but time and time again we are getting to see train wrecks of fame. The ones crashing the trains are the heartless journalists. It’s like the insecure bullies in school. They ruin the successful kids’ lives and try to take down the popular kids with malicious rumours. The stalking that is legal so long as they are taking photos for the press is intimidating to the person it’s being done to. And no one does anything. We all have to make a living. The famous are often the most f**ked up… a healthy normal person has no psychological void to push them towards acquiring fame. Fame is practically a mental illness in itself. We owe it to those concerned to protect their privacy at the very least their rights to go to the local shop to buy milk for their tea and a paper. I can’t understand how it can be allowed that people are made to feel under siege in their own homes just for the crime of entertaining people for a living. It’s all about competition. Once one publication starts acting inappropriately then the others follow suit to compete, otherwise they lose. I also think there should be a law to protect people who withdraw from working in the public eye from being tabloid fodder. I think if someone uses publicity to help their career, it’s one thing to harass them. But if they don’t want to be harassed as a price for their career, there should be a law that prevents them from being photographed once they have opted out of that fame. The rest of europe have laws on privacy much better than UK and USA. The french for example would have managed to keep Amy Winehouse alive until old age.

    I know it’s fictional but in an episode of Sex And The City the character Carrie gets stitched up on the cover of the New Yorker magazine (or similar) and it seems to be as a direct result of arriving an hour late for the photo-shoot and interview. The same thing seems to have happened with Courtney Love in that Vanity Fair article. Both Carrie and Courtney were excited about their glamorous forays into the world of glossy magazine. The allure of starlight and attention and recognition. Either the hatched jobs were planned in advance, or the journalists involved were so egocentric that the idea of a famous person standing them up for an hour was excuse enough to ruin lives.

    I imagine that the less scrupulous journalists will get the scoops and gory details and salacious gossip and sensationalist fictions. But they will never be trusted a second time and will be forced to resort to phone hacking disgusting violations in order to continue to compete and ‘get the story’. The decent honourable journalists will finish last as most nice guys do… but the advantage of finishing last is that they will still be in the running for future interviews long after the hatched-job-hacker-hacks have dug their own holes.

    The Nirvana song Rape Me is about the same thing. It’s time the media started reporting the news and not created it with lies and by pushing dramas with their criminal actions. Kurt Cobain killed himself. Amy Winehouse died. They were loved people. Documentary film makers don’t step in and save lives in war zones, they capture what is going on. But what IS going on? What I see is not so simple as the war story- I see the journalist in the story cold heartedly telling the story the way it is as if they are not there… but they ARE there. They could get in the story and join the human race for a change, save the life and then TALK about what the outcome would have been if they hadn’t been there. All I see is a lack of humanity masquerading as professionalism. What have we come to?

  2. I like your point about ‘what do we really need to know’ about these people. Personally, I like titbits about what they like to wear or drink and where they like to go and do in their free time. Things like that to build a picture- to ‘get to know them little by little’ as you would with a new friend. The process is thrilling because they are famous and off limits to you as a friend. You wouldn’t require a friend to tell you their entire life history though, nor all their personal problems unless you proved yourself to be worthy of trust and sympathetic in motive. Whatever happened to enjoying the mystery of other people? Isn’t that the grandest allure of all?

    Like that Song Clouds, I think I prefer the illusions. The cold hard truth is less romantic and how do we fall in love without a touch of romance to the story?

  3. The lies and BS written to accompany boring scenes that the paparazzi get of celebrities are like a desperate attempt by a reject to pretend that they know the celebrity and are ‘close’ to them. It’s like the geeks in school who want to attack the popular kids because they feel ignored. Sort of. This is sort of like the process mentioned above, but the malicious version. These people don’t want to be friends. They seek to exploit. If they don’t, someone more ambitious or with fewer morals will. Therefore the only solution is new laws to protect people in the public eyer. This is becoming an even more important issue in our internet driven lives. We are all in the public eye to some extent online.

    • A LOT of great points there!

      To take your first comment, the reason I started interviewing in the first place was that I wanted to know what was different about the people who were successful in music compared to the rest of us.

      I found the answer nine years later when I was standing on stage with the band I was in, and thinking, “Those people over there, they hate me, and always will and there’s nothing I can do to change that. Those people on *that* side love me and always will, no matter what I do. And those people in the middle, they’re just having a good time.” I realised that having won over those middle-people, I’d proved any point I had ever been trying to make, and didn’t need to do it over and over. I only needed to be “validated” by about 30 people in that audience and that was enough – whereas for the people who need to be famous, no crowd will ever be big enough. Even if 100,000 people tell them that they’re great, they won’t believe it themselves and will always be dissatisfied because they rely on other people for their sense of self worth.

      Re the paparazzi, I spent a few weeks working for a television company many years back, and they were somehow involved in the BRIT Awards and we all got tickets. As we were heading in, someone – Steps or some pop band like that – got out of a limo behind me, and all these camera-flashes were going off. It was absolutely petrifying – I was completely blinded – rabbit-in-a-headlight doesn’t cover it – and felt just completely exposed even though they weren’t even looking at me. A colleague had to nudge me in because I was just frozen. I could *not* cope with that on a day-to-day level, and just do not understand how anyone could want that.

      Re the “how much do we need to know?”, it’s a very good point and one we’d do well to remember. I think it’s very easy for those boundaries to be blurred because someone opens up to one writer and tells them a lot of personal information and then later regrets it and is more reserved with someone else. There’s also no account taken of changes in mood or situation – like they might be angry with someone and say something on one interview and contradict it later because circumstances have changed. Or they might express a viewpoint that changes as they get older, and you lose the context of how people change over time. I find the clothes stuff fascinating because it’s something we deliberately do to make a statement about ourselves, consciously or otherwise.

      Re your last comment, I just don’t get that malicious mindset. So you might earn a few extra quid or get in with the hip crowd now, but what about later? Nice guys might finish last, but nasty ones tend not to finish *at all*. One of the things that fascinates me about the more “powerful” people I’ve met is that they’re always really pleasant and friendly – and they have to be! Because if you’re a git, nobody will lift a finger to help you when you need it, but if you’re nice, people will pull out all the stops to get you what you need.

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