The Schwartz technique: how to get vivid colour and riveting detail from your interview

The Schwartz interviewing technique, originated by Stephen Schwartz, is a strategy for cracking those tough interviewee nuts. Veteran CBC doc maker Steve Wadhams describes why he was so drawn to Schwartz's alternative interviewing techniques.
The Schwartz interview technique was developed by Stephen Schwartz of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. (CBC)
You have a great idea for a doc, and the person at the centre of the story is willing to talk. So, you get them into studio and start an interview. But something isn't working. The story isn't gripping you, and your guest lacks emotion. You keep going, asking question after question … and nothing works. The story is falling flat. What to do?  

Well, this might be the perfect time for ... the full Schwartz. It's a specific interviewing technique originated by Stephen Schwartz, and it was created to crack those tough interview nuts.

The Doc Project'sJulia Pagel talked to veteran CBC producer Steve Wadhams about the late Stephen Schwartz. Wadhams recently retired from CBC, but for decades he was one of CBC's best doc makers. He is a firm believer in the Schwartz technique, and has used it in many of his docs.


 

In his own words, Wadhams describes why he was so drawn to Stephen Schwartz's alternative interviewing techniques

Steve Wadhams
In the '90s, when I was trying to figure out what makes a story tick, Stephen Schwartz was a beacon of light. Stephen's approach to storytelling was really special. He was one of the few people I've ever met who understood some of the substructure of the storytelling. As they say, the amateur gets lucky. But the professional learns the craft.

 

Pictures, show me pictures!

As doc makers we talk about how the secret of radio is pictures. It sounds so simple, but how do you get the pictures which really bring the story to life? This is where Stephen really gave me, and others, his gift.

He had a concept of the implicit camera movementin speech. He said that when we speak, if we want to be heard or remembered, we actually talk in pictures and we talk in a sequence of pictures. To me, that was a revolutionary idea.

Tip 

If they say, "Well, I must have seen ..." — stop them. No, what did you actually see?

He would dig into someone's past to find the key moments — the pictures — which would bring to life a larger story. Now, you have to do some digging. You have to ask some key questions.

Something like, "OK. When you think about that moment (for example) when you saw your girlfriend arrive after six months away, you were expecting her to be wonderful and it just didn't work and the relationship fell apart. Was there a moment in there that really nailed it, where you felt that's the moment that really gets to the heart of it?"

The moment is usually short, and it's captured in a small sequence of pictures.

This is what he was teaching us. It's digging and scrounging and asking.

Then you ask, "OK, what's the first clear picture in your mind now as you relive as you relive — you see — this moment from your past."

Tip

When you ask someone for a memory, the natural thing for them to say would be, " I remember seeing the knife in his hand." I remember. That's not a clear picture. The clearest picture is, "The knife was in his hand." That is clear and uncluttered. You can do this by simply asking them not to say "I remember...."

They say, "Well, it was a plane arriving in the sky." 'A plane arriving' isn't a clear picture, more a starting point — you have to dig for smaller, sharper images. Perhaps they noticed the glint of sun on the cockpit window as it came in to land? 

Next picture.

Maybe the tires gave off a puff of smoke from burning rubber when it touched down?

The first sight of the girlfriend. What did the person see? A face? Ok, what was the detail on the face? Or was it her dress? What detail on the dress? 

Dig, dig, dig. Ask always, "What did you see?"  

And don't be satisfied with muddy images. Keep pressing. If the memory is so important they will have sharp images — don't give up too soon.  

Usually five or six clear pictures which capture this key moment and then they fade. Your task is simply to get those pictures and arrange them in the right order so that the listener can follow.
 

Now you're ready for the full Schwartz

1. The first step is to find the moment and capture the pictures from the story that you're trying to bring to life (see above). That's the research phase.

2. Find a quiet space. It could be any quiet space any place where you're not going to be interrupted. There are no tricks no ambushes — this is agreed to. You are now working together to put on tape this moment that you both know exists.

3. Ask them to lie down. Put cushions on a floor, far better than a bed. Turn the lights off or down, light a candle if you have one. Have your subject close their eyes.

4. Get the mic really close. Possibly on a boom or something so you're not right in their face. Get your cheat sheet of questions close to you and maybe with a flashlight so you can just keep an eye on it and make sure you don't miss things.

5. Do a little bit of deep breathing, just to calm ourselves down.

6. Then, you tell them "OK, let's go back now to these pictures that you have told me about. What's the first picture?" Then simply walk them through. Go back when you need to a picture, ask more more detail. And hopefully they deliver the sequence of pictures that you've agreed on.
 

Two Schwartzing success stories  

a) In this clip you'll hear me working with Pedro Mendes to extract 'the story behind the suits' for Men of the Cloth

Pedro had been given a number of bespoke suits originally owned by a man who had died. He noticed how the shape of the suit jackets changed over the years and wondered why — whether he could trace the man's life through his suits.

But Pedro got stuck as he made the piece. He knew how deeply he related to the man and his clothes, but he couldn't seem to illustrate that for the doc. He came to me and asked me to give him the full Schwartz. The audio clip is of me working with him to extract this story. 


b) The Barcelona sequence from Residents and Strangers

This bit of tape is interesting because it also reflects on Stephen Schwartz's concept that when we speak, we use what he called "implicit camera movement" — talking in "shots" as it were. Just like TV people: wide shot/tight shot/extreme close-up/zoom/pan/tilt etc.  

Schwartz told me to edit the sequence with this in mind. Paying attention as much as possible to the "visual grammar," just as a video editor would, and to close my eyes when editing it, to "see" the shots better.

The central question of the doc is Miles' sense of his Jewish identity. It's now an issue because he'd fallen in love with a non-Jew and was thinking of asking her to marry him. But he knows the Jewish establishment in Toronto and North America discourage this dilution of the faithful, and there is a lot of pressure not to marry non-Jews.

In the doc there are many "predictable" scenes for this kind of story — family Friday night meal, checking out Jewish friends who'd wrestled with this issue already. But he kept coming back to something that seemed to have no obvious bearing on the issue at all — a trip he'd made ten years earlier backpacking in Spain. Specifically, a trip to Gaudi's very odd looking cathedral in Barcelona. 

I had no idea why this seemed so important to him but decided not to "shut him down," to keep an open mind and to pursue it since he kept coming back to it. So, I decided to use a "half Schwartz." I had him close his eyes for recording, and we sat together side by side on my office couch. I didn't get him to lie down on the floor — so "half Schwartz!"

So to the audio.  And the visual underpinnings of the scene.

Miles Kronby's opening comments about going through the Barcelona suburbs are wide "establishing shots" to set up basic location.

Then he sees Gaudi's Church of the Sacred Family in the distance — medium shot.  

Then the comment, "It rises up, not entirely ugly." Zoom in and tilt.

Then he zooms in more to see detail of the construction, sees granular structure of the building. What motivates this shot? The reason why he always remembers this trip to Barcelona: he knows the church was built block-by-block by public subscription — people paid for each stone. 

Each stone is an individual article of faith — he returns to this idea later and draws his conclusion and the lesson it contains for him about how Jewish he feels and whether he should marry a non-Jew. He comes to the conclusion that a religion is only as strong as the individuals who belong to it — and how it can be weakened by individual decisions to move away from it, or in his case, "dilute" or weaken it by intermarriage.

Stephen Schwartz and the 'scenario approach' in feature doc making

By Jacob Kreutzfeldt

Stephen Schwartz had a voice you needed to listen to: energetic, insisting, yet not forceful. He had learned Danish as a young man, and spoke it fluently, with a slight dialect that gave him up as an American. But it was the boundless care that he put into every word that came through, for instance, when he first appeared in Danish radio saying carefully as if playing a new instrument (in Danish): "I am an American visiting Denmark." 

It is ironic that Schwartz came to be known as the man who cut himself out. Having come to Denmark in 1961, he made debut in Public Danish Radio (DR) in 1964 and was tutored by the 'father' of Danish feature Willy Reunert, who was also an immigrant. Yet he quickly stooped using his own voice in features. He did away first with the interviewer, and then with the narrator.

Biography

Stephen Schwartz was born in Detroit in 1940. He spent time as an exchange student in Denmark, and in 1961 returned there after a few year of studies in New York. In 1967 he was hired in a position to produce features and develop the radiophonic language at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, where he stayed until 2003. He was awarded the Prix Italia for features in 1982 and 1992. Stephen Schwartz passed away in 2013.

In Willys Verden [Willlys World] from 1969 he found a dramatic feature form, where scene follows scene without outside narration. Schwartz wanted his persons to talk directly to the listeners, and the scenario style he and his colleagues developed became immensely important for the Danish feature in years to follow.

For Nattevægteren [The Night Watchman] in 1971, Schwartz faced the challenge that the story could not be recorded on the scene. While the unemployed Willy and his family had been recorded in the apartments, coffee bars and backyards of his neighbourhood, the unnamed person telling the story had already been interviewed on the scene. Schwartz had listened to the recordings, and decided not to use them.

Still he was interested in the story: a young night watchman at an Anatomic Institute, trying to cope with the impressions of skeletons and floating decapitated heads appearing for his flashlight during dark night rounds. How could the story of his slow mental erosion be told effectively?

Schwartz invited the interview person to visit the radio studio. Told him to lie down on the floor, turned of lights and lit a candle. Sat beside him, and asked him to close his eyes. "You are entering the Anatomic Institute. What do you notice," he said, and the interview started. Or was it an interview? Schwartz himself has also described the situation as suggestion and as a psychological situation.

He asked questions like: "What do you see," "How does it smell," "What is the colour," etc. The whole purpose was to bring back a memory and to produce the remembered space in present tense. Instead of placing the person in the scene, Schwartz wanted the space to be produced by the person. In the feature, of course, the interview is heavily montaged, and listeners only hear the night watchman:

"The first thing that hits you, right when you enter, is a disgusting stench of formalin, th-that is the characteristic smell of that building. There is something uncanny about that smell, something clammy… a clammy strong smell… Of course you get used to it. And you say: well, you have to get through the shit. Like a floor that can be slippery, when it has just been polished. [lowering voice] It is some time since that has been done. It is almost bordeaux, I think. Dark red to bordeau. You cannot see it in the darkness…." (Nattevægteren DR P1 30/7 1973 24:16-25:00)

It is not easy to reproduce in writing the very particular kind of narration here. Clearly the person is in a sleepy and half-conscious state. He talks slowly and his voice is nasal. The recording is super close, and the effect is that of an internal voice or a stream of consciousness late at night in a dark world. Schwartz mixes the narration with sounds of steps, keys rattling and doors opening and slamming – effectively producing the space that the night watchman passes through. We are there with him as listeners. We feel his chill, and how he tries to get a grip and keep sane, while we cannot avoid noticing that he seems to be slowly falling apart.

Stephen Schwartz, who often taught radio production in Denmark and abroad, would later refer to this method as "Capturing the Moment," a part of the "Scenario Approach" — important for Danish features since the early 1970s. In a manual on the approach he writes: 

"It [the interview technique] involves a high degree of staging and is used to create vivid 'flash back scenes' in your story. Usually you use the research interview to find plot points ("moments"), which you want in your story – and then go back to your interviewee to record/capture these moments." 

In his Prix Italia rewarded The Minds Eye from 1982, Schwartz would take this approach to a new level when the point of view was a person, who had lost the ability to talk. Still refraining from adding narration, Schwartz captured the perspective of the interviewee by the use of binaural microphones, recording what the person heard in different scenes: music, his humming and rustling with the kettle in the morning; voice teachers and therapists talking to him and himself trying to form words in response at the clinic. 

Having developed the scenario approach to an extreme, Schwartz later in his career turned around and reinvented the narrator. First in the form of cool TV-like speakers offering a mediatized perspective on subjects like violence in Notater fra Lossepladsen (Notes from the Junkyard) from 1987 and on war in Prix Italia rewarded Snigskytter (Snipers) from 1992.

Surprisingly, but also quite fittingly, he re-emerged as a personal narrator in features like En Indvandrer I Frejas Sal (A migrant in the Hall of Freja) from 2001 and Vinterbilleder (Winter Images) from 2002, where the formerly so invisible 'director' suddenly appeared with very personal reflections on the world around him.

Jacob Kreutzfeldt
The man who cut himself out had cut himself back in. Or so it seemed. But clearly, he was there all the time: directing listeners through worlds of noises and voices: "You are entering the Anatomic Institute … what do you notice? What do you see? How does it smell? What is the colour?...
 

Jacob Kreutzfeldt is a researcher in radio and sound studies. He has been a member of the national Danish LARM project, making Danish radio heritage available to researchers, and more recently the Transnational Radio Encounters Project, exploring radio beyond borders.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.