In the run up to the London Screenwriters Festival I found myself with a Tiger by the tail.
We had been attempting to get publicity for the festival, and one journalist had perused me for a story about the film industry. And she was clear, she needed a story with some meat on the bones. Cutting a very long story short, after a good half hour of searching for a story, I made one point about budgets needing to come down, about how innovation should lead the future for British film, citing ‘Monsters’ as a good example – the journalist seized upon this idea and expanded.
‘So where are producers wasting money?’ she asked… I explained that I was not privy to actual budgets so I could not say specifically. But I did know that many films I had seen should not have cost as much as they apparently did. I suggested that we should make more films, that we should work harder to find audiences and that we should innovate new models, both as stories and as business models. Again she asked for specific examples of budgets being wasted… And so I offered a few like ‘do all actors need a driver?’ and so on.
I was actually on holiday during the weekend of the interview. And so after maybe six calls from this journalist, things got a little strained. I knew from the way that we chatted that she was tough and that we were also committed to this story. If she didn’t finish her article, she would not get paid – and so I knew she would finish it with, or without me. So I stayed the course.
The following Sunday the article was printed in the Sunday Observer – you can read it here if you haven’t seen it already (complete with 2 enforced amendments from film makers)
While I agree with the article in character, I felt it was also reduced to headline grabbing phrases and statistics that while technically ‘accurate’, didn’t paint a true picture.
What followed was simply breathtaking.
First, what amazed me was how many people came to me and gave me a thorough dressing down. Like I had actually committed some unspeakable crime. I don’t want to go into specifics, but some things that were said to me were really upsetting. Not for me personally, but for the future of the British Film Industry. Some things said were amazingly narrow minded, territorial and self righteous.
I reminded everyone I spoke with that what was written is not what I said, even if I was in broad agreement with character of the piece.
And within 24 hours I was on the Today program on Radio 4, just after the Prime Minister! You can hear it here… (which also led to my own personal epiphany about the UK film industry – you can read that here)
Download the MP3 file here for your iPod.
Following that I did about ten further radio shows which culminated in a character assassination on the Guardian Blog. Now this is a blog, but it’s also written by a professional who will have been paid for it. For me, this article is all that is wrong with the UK film industry. Fine have a go at me, I can take it. But if you do, please be factually accurate. But most of all, SEPARATE THE MESSAGE FROM THE MESSENGER. It’s so petty.
You can read that entry here…
OK so what did I learn from this little spat with the press?
1. It’s pretty easy to stir up controversy. You just need a ‘story’ AND a reason why YOU should be in a position to offer that story (I was creative director of The London Screenwriters festival at the time, a fancy title that made me sound ‘important’).
2. A good journalist will work to put you at ease, to tease a story out of you, help you say things you might not normally say, or at least massage comments out of you. The Observer journalist used NLP on me (using my own phrases back at me to create connection and security). So be aware, they are not your friend, they are after a story.
3. Try and get media training* before any recorded interviews – I worked hard with several people before my radio interviews, to make sure I stayed ‘on message’ and didn’t loose my cool (and these were tough interviews in the moment I can tell you).
4. Always be polite and courteous and thank any journalist for their time. They are, on the whole, just doing their job. It’s the world we live in. Plus, you never know when your paths may cross again.
5. If you don’t want it printed or reported, don’t say it. They can of course read a phrase back to you and say ‘Do you agree with that…?’ Again, you can say ‘no’.
*What is Media Training? In short, this is about rehearsing interviews with experienced media people, getting them to ask you tough questions under pressure. Of course you never know what you will be asked in the real interview, but you can certainly rehearse what you suspect they will ask. And any good media trainer will also ask you heaps of questions you might never have considered and may have been caught off balance with.
Matthew Hurst, who offers Media Training, offered these further tips…
1. Don’t get bounced by the journalist’s sense of urgency into bluffing off the top of your head. You’ll regret it. Tell them you’ll help but can you phone back in ten minutes. And do phone back in ten minutes – don’t piss them off unnecessarily.
2. In that ten minutes, write down three bullet points summarising what you want to say. Just two or three words each, and certainly not to read out. They’re just prompts, as you’d use in a pitch. Have them in front of you when you’re being interviewed and if you feel yourself being derailed into saying something you didn’t want to, divert back onto one of three points. Phrases like ‘but the main thing is… ‘ are handy here. And a third one I’ve just thought of is that most don’t mind you emailing quotes, which means you can pick your words more carefully. Best to make it sound like dialogue though.
Great stuff Matthew, thank you. Here’s his site http://www.matthurst.net
I also just pulled this list from one of my books, The Movie Blueprint.
Dealing With The Press
1. Have a list of questions prepared which you can offer to the interviewer (who probably isn’t prepared).
2. Most of the time you will be asked very similar questions. Be rehearsed with answers that are poignant, concise, profound, amusing etc. Ask to see the questions in advance, ideally faxed the night before.
3. If you are being recorded (opposed to live), pause before answering. This will give the editor a clear editing point.
4. Say the name of your movie and not simply refer to it as ‘the film’ or ‘the movie’. If people don’t know what the film is called, they won’t go to see it.
5. Wear something interesting so that you will at the very least, stand out.
6. Some interviewers may have an axe to grind. If you don’t want to answer, politely decline. Or you can simply launch into something that you want to talk about, namely, your movie. Watch politicians who are expert at not answering but sounding kind of like they did! Always stay cool and if caught off guard, pause and think before you answer.
7. Always have your stuff with you – press pack, stills, EPK, poster etc. You never know when they will come in useful.
8. If at all possible, be amusing. Anecdotal yet relevant stories are always a winner.
9. Ask the interviewer how long they want you to speak for. There is a world of difference between a fifteen-second soundbite and a five-minute interview, especially when you have to get the name of your movie across.
10. Prepare a business card with your name, how you would like to be credited and phone number. This way you can rightly complain if they spell your name wrong.
11. Don’t be afraid of having words put into your mouth by the interviewer… Can you say it like this?… Use your brain though and don’t say anything you feel uncomfortable with.
12. If you want it to stay out of the press… I slept with my lead actor…etc. then don’t say it. Nothing is off the record.
13. Always be complimentary about other filmmakers and their films, and about the people you have worked with.
OK, good luck with your media interviews. It can be like juggling knives at times, but it’s also essential to the success of your films.
Onwards and upwards!
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author