Roundtable Interviews Suck

     August 11, 2008

Written by Charlie Mihelich

2 weeks ago I did my first press junket for Collider. I was lucky enough to do four individual, one-on-one interviews with the stars of “Hell Ride”, and though each one was only four minutes long, those four minutes were mine. I asked the questions I wanted to ask, I got my answers, and I was happy.

On Saturday, I attended my second junket, only this time the interviews consisted of two thirty minute roundtable-style interviews, one with Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming (the writer and co-writer/director, respectively), and the other with the film’s star, Steve Coogan. It’s a whole different bag, and nothing will suck the life out of a person quite like a roundtable interview.

First, however, it bears mentioning that the interview took place in what is being affectionately called “The John Edwards Room”. Yes, this was the room where Edwards and his aide made sweet, sweet love, a forbidden love that threatened to tear the world apart. Though the room was decent enough, I’d have to say: not my first choice. The man spends four hundred dollars on a haircut; he could at least pop for a suite.

Anyway, the roundtable consisted of eight journalists (including myself) crowded into a corner of this relatively small-sized room, waiting for our interviewee(s) to arrive. People fake polite conversation while checking the fidelity of their digital recording devices, making sure they won’t miss a single moment of their own asinine questions or the bewildered subject’s awkward response.

As the interview subjects entered the room, everyone got their game faces on. Recorders were shoved to the front of the table for prime audio-capturing, and people who (I’m guessing) have never told a joke in their life suddenly become jokesters. Instead of asking questions that might illicit funny responses (you know, from the professionals), everyone tries to be in on the joke. I walked away from these interviews with an hour’s worth of audio, and perhaps five minutes of it contained anything of use.

The questions lobbied at these poor people ranged from the pointless (“Did you have a drama teacher as zany as Dana?”) to the blatantly inappropriate (“How are you and Owen Wilson doing, Steve?” Note: I have to give Steve Coogan massive credit for the answer he gave for this question. It was a fucked up thing to ask, but he handled it professionally), and while some of them were remotely relevant, they always remained squarely in the “no one cares” area of interest. My personal favorite was a five-minute discussion over whether or not the plot of “Night At the Museum 2” would make sense, and whether or not there would be continuity errors. Oh. My. God.

The roundtable discussion is a necessary evil, because actors, writers, producers, and directors are busy people who can’t give everyone individual attention, but it kind of sets the stage for a lackluster feature. You don’t get to ask all the questions you want, and when you do finally get your own question in there it may be ten minutes before you get another opportunity. Plus, you have the problem of association. Because there is a sort of biorhythm that takes over the interview, with there being a kind of journalistic body rather than an individual journalist, interviewees may associate their experience in a particular roundtable with questions they found particularly obtrusive or invasive (like the Owen Wilson one). Though deep down they know we’re all from different outlets, when someone asks for what is basically tabloid gossip material, it’s natural for them to think to themselves “Well I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here”, and Steve Coogan couldn’t. As we were finishing up the interview, he was already out of his chair and walking out the door as the last question was being asked. It kind of sets off the mood of the room.

I really just think people need to ask questions they know others will care about. I know I’m new to this game, but when being in a room with these people makes you uncomfortable (and it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable), it doesn’t make for the best environment to get openness and candidness from an interview subject. It’s a competitive field, but in that situation what’s good for one of us is best for all of us, because we all get to write down everything that was said, regardless of who asked the question. Wouldn’t we rather the person we’re interviewing liked us enough to want to share information with us?

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