Thursday, June 16, 2022

What I'm Watching May Update: Being Erica, Flight Attendant, Winning Time, Pentaverate, Adventure Beast



Adventure Beast (Netflix)-Bradley Trevor Greive (AKA BTG) is a field zoologist who is so enthusiastic about animals, that he regularly gets mauled and nearly eaten by them on an episodic basis and does so with effective zeal. In other words, he's a pretty zany character and the actor has an easy time selling the part. After all, the character is heavily based on the actor who is an ex-Australian military paratrooper and naturalist who has appeared on Animal Planet series such as Fear Island: Fortress of the Bears and Nature's Strangest Mysteries: Solved.

BTG is joined by two extremes as his side kicks: Overly timid field assistant Dietrich and exuberant niece Bonnie. Both push the extremes of their characters for great comedic effect.

Each episode is set in a different ecosystem with solid plotting and has a semi-educational nature, as BTG spews animal trivia like he has tourette's syndrome. On the whole, it's mostly a lot of fun. HIGHLY RECOMMEND


Pentaverate (Hulu)-Mike Myers plays separate members of a secret cabal of five highly influential people who secretly control the world or some junk. Myers also plays a washed-up reporter investigating this titular cabal as his last big scoop. Pretty much the only non-Myers characters are Keegan Michael Key (and later Ken Jeong) as the audience surrogate who is inducted into the Pentaverate mid-series and they’re both pretty refreshing additions because we can only watch Myers ham it up so much.

Through four episodes, I’m thankful there aren’t as many characters as gross as Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard or midget humor (AKA Mini-Me) as Mike Myers has been known to go overly blue before.

The thing is I want to like Myers: His versatility on Saturday Night Live and his commitment to a comic concept is pretty admirable, and in some ways he’s pioneered comedy. However, even if he’s safely veering away from gross, the series still runs out of steam. For the deep dives that Myers does into certain topics like Eastern mysticism (The Love Guru) or, in this case, conspiracy theories, there’s a tremendous laziness in the world-building aspects of the show. Instead, it feels like an excuse to do impressions. 

Winning Time (HBO)-Possibly my favorite show of the year. This docudrama about the beginning of the Magic Johnson era is apparently completely detached from the historic story. At the same time, maybe it's better in this age of hyper scrutiny to just throw an honest attempt at documented history out the window and rely more on the "based on a true story" moniker at the start of each episode? The advantage is that it allows producer Adam McKay to tell the most exciting story his imagination can muster and it's pretty damn exciting.



Being Erica (Soapnet, available on Hulu)-A woman goes back in time on an episodic basis to readjust her life so that she can’t be a failure. Let’s first clear this up: Is she really a failure? She’s 32 and unmarried and didn’t use her high-powered degree but is pretty independent anyways. Can we stop with the single-shaming?

The show is a mix of Hallmark Channel female-centered wholesomeness (with Erin Kapluk ably filling in the plucky female protagonist) and the kind of thinky what-if scenarios that populate good low-stakes science fiction.

One last thing to note:  Plot congruity might not be this show’s strong suit as the butterfly effect is treated extremely casually here. The kind of scrutiny that fans have deployed on Marty McFly’s time-travelling would just not work here. 

Flight Attendant, S1 (HBO)-Loved this black comedy about an impulsive flight attendant who's one-night stand leads to Breaking-Bad-levels of terror as the FBI, crime lords, and an enigmatic assassin are after her. The show’s efforts to evoke horror through quick-take psychological flashbacks (a bit like Homeland’s opening credits) fall a little short, but most of the show manages a lot of moving parts well. Shows where characters are trapped in humongous illicit messes of their own making are plentiful on TV and this is narrowly unique, well-paced, and enjoyable enough to stick out of that pack.

Monday, June 06, 2022

TV Recommendation: Peacock's Killing It

Two broke Floridians, Craig (Craig Robinson) and Jillian (Claudia O’Doherty), team up for a contest to kill an invasive species of snakes. As the season goes on, the plot places its two protagonists within a web of the type of opportunist Floridian characters that originally showed up in Carl Hiassen or Dave Barry novels, and have now become meme-worthy.

Initially, the show seems like a pedestrian odd couple comedy with a standard hook, albeit one a bit squicky (fortunately, the serpentine death blows are mostly off screen). However, there’s a lot to appreciate with this show as the stakes increase.

Like “Superstore” or “Raising Hope”, the show aims to tell a story of the lower class, and does a superb job of translating the disparity between the haves and have-nots to solid comedy. Jillian, for instance, is an uber driver, task rabbit, snake killer, web cam star (she caters to perverts who want to watch her eat exotic foods), and rents out her cab for billboards while also helping control the snake population. In the premiere episode’s go-big-or-go-home comic set piece, Jillian tries to fulfill her Ubering and snake murdering duties at the same time while Craig is her passenger.

We also come to meet Brock (Scott MacArthur), who’s snake hunting is a side hustle to his main dream of getting YouTube famous in a Jackass sort of way.

The basis of crazy Florida stories is people getting creative in how they try to eke out a living, but perhaps there’s a deeper factor at play: These characters are painted into a corner and maybe that inequality is also the Florida way. A cursory look at the landscape when I’m in South Florida (half my family lives there) and my knowledge of the state’s tax structure, indicates a pretty individualistic society where capitalism reigns supreme.

Perhaps, the greatest strength of the series is how well the stars’ screen personas fit the story. Craig Robinson has always had a deadpan weariness that has been best exemplified in Judd Apatow comedies and “The Office” but takes it to the next level here. Despite being a little of a slacker, Daryl was someone to root for because the series splattered moments of the character’s thoughtfulness. This Craig Robinson is someone who you desperately want to give a hug.

The cleverest thing about Jillian is that she’s initially presented as so incompetent at life that she’d be classified by TV Tropes as The Load: A character that doesn’t provide any useful assets to their partners in crime like Carl Showalter in Fargo, Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars, Willie in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Buttercup in the Princess Bride, or Zaphod in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She’s entirely unfocused on the task at hand and generally has terrible instincts. However, she comes to be a sympathetic character and even a useful person without ever appearing to fundamentally transform. A lot of it has to do with how O’Doherty simply shows us different sides of the same character.  

Monday, May 23, 2022

Lost Article: Tori Pence

This is a "lost article": Something I wrote under the impression that it would be published, but something went wrong. The goal in journalism is to cover your bases with everyone involved but sometimes you can't anticipate everything. Except, of course, if it's the editor causing your article to go unpublished without compensation, ditch that editor ASAP. In this case, the subject of the article, Tori Pence, no longer is a Virginia resident, which makes her ineligible for Virginia Magazine. 

Buena Vista native Tori Pence is defined as much by her restlessness as she is by her accomplishments. In addition to her role as a cast member and writer on the Utah-based sketch show Studio C , Pence sings, does cover art, knows how to remodel a home, and is a skilled enough puppeteer that she was cast on Studio C’s sister show Nine Years to Neptune.

“I like the idea of being a renaissance person, the ability to build skills is half the journey. So once you learn one thing, it’s easier to learn another. A couple of my [siblings] are opera singers. We are an artsy family,” said Pence.

Since its debut in 2012 Studio C  has been a hit both for its parent network, BYU TV, and Youtube where the show has amassed 2.58 million subscribers. In addition, the show has garnered appearances for its cast members on Late Night with Conan O’Brien; a spin-off group earned a semi-final berth on the NBC humor competition “Bring the Funny”; and been able to bring on Saturday Night Live cast members Kenan Thompson and Will Forte as special guest stars.

Tori, 30, was cast in the show’s eighth season upon her graduation in 2016. She was recruited from the BYU’s sketch comedy troupe Divine Comedy which is where the original Studio C cast members met.

“I never wanted it to be my career, I thought it was going to be a thing that I do for fun. We would do four shows a month for a bunch of college kids who were tired and we needed a pick me up,” she said.

Instead, she had aspirations to be a librarian. She worked three jobs to pay her college tuition and she fell in love with one of them: She was a storyteller at the Provo City Library and used puppets in her performances.

Many of the cast members of Studio C’s current cast bought special talents—one of them has a background in stand-up, one is a ukulele player and song writer—and Tori Pence has been able to work puppets into some of her sketches. After temporarily departing the show after the 13th season in 2021, Tori was asked to audition for the BYU TV show Nine Years to Neptune where she voiced the characters of Sascha and Pauline in a ten-episode run.

“We searched far and wide for talented puppeteers with improv capabilities. The first time we saw Tori’s audition we sensed we had a winner, and we were right. She was endlessly cheerful and had us all cracking up," said Nine Years co-creator Tyler McKellar.

Tori’s parents, Phil and Ellen, are life-long Virginians who jointly write novels under the pseudonym P.E. Pence. Tori is the sixth of eight children that her parents refer to as Pencelings. Tori's older sister, Rebecca, won the Miss Virginia pageant in 2015 as a way of sharing her religious beliefs. The family made part of their income restoring and flipping houses which meant that Tori moved around a lot as a child from Varina to Richmond to the small-town of Buena Vista.

“You don’t understand, I think Virginia is the greatest state. We moved a lot when I was a kid. I don’t have any connection to a house, I have a connection to the state,” said Pence.

Pence also credits her upbringing in the small town of Buena Vista for helping her develop her versatility. Not only did she act in all the school’s plays, she had to direct them by necessity since the school didn’t have a drama department. 

"Tori loves Virginia and if it weren't for her work, she would be living there still. She has said on more than one occasion how it's the most beautiful state in the country," said mother Elaine Pence.  "She has a group of friends still today that grew up together in B(uena) V(ista). They call themselves the Freakets and they get together as much as possible to celebrate milestones, birthdays and run marathons."

Pence’s state pride also includes being proud of being part of the Virginia LDS Church, which boats a population of 95,000 (the 2nd highest population east of the Mississippi).

“It really just is a culture culture thing. LDS folks from outside of Utah grow up with people outside of the faith, so they’re more comfortable with non-LDS experience,” said Tori Pence.  

As for Tori’s future, she is re-joining the Studio C cast after a two-season hiatus and has plans to open a soda shop in Provo.

“I tend to do whatever pops up [in my head] next. I’m trying to be a little better at directing myself. My original intention was to become a librarian and Studio C tried to derail that,” she said.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Behind the Scenes of Six More of My Stories


The World-Class Bor Brothers: Podium Magazine (2021)

One of my earliest beats as a writer was covering my cross-country team for my college so I developed a rare love of watching people run in circles and keeping up with the ins and outs of that sport. That extends to quite a bit of Olympics writing which is centered around track and field in the second week.

A friend of mine at ESPN suggested I pitch some articles and one got in about the controversial WCAP which offers foreign nationals (mostly Kenyans) expedited citizenship for military service and some say that the military service isn’t on par with the average soldier. At the 2016 Rio Trials, 4 of the 18 coveted distance running slots on the men’s Olympic team went to Kenyans.

When I published this article, one of those Olympians, Hillary Bor, found me on Facebook and expressed frustration that I had diminished his military service and didn’t tell the full story. Upon some reflection, I felt there was some xenophobia in my article: I wanted to see Americans do well including the ones that had been running under the American flag longer.

I offered to write a correction of some sort and Mr. Bor just said something along the lines of “whatever.” During the next Olympic cycle in 2021, I had published one Olympics-related piece for Podium Magazine and decided to pitch something about Hillary and his brother Emmanuel who had just given the 5K indoor American record a scare.

If someone messages you on Facebook, they’re still permanently there among your contacts, so I messaged Hillary about my desire to write my wrong, and he barely cared at that point and didn’t have much time to do an interview, but I was persistent with him about working with his schedule and his brother was pretty eagerly on board, so I eventually got it down.

The end result was something I’m quite proud of and I believe helped restore justice in telling the story of these two incredible siblings.

Filmmaker Anne Welles: Falls Church News Press (2018)

When I first imagined writing about film as a journalist out of college, I was not even aware of all the work that film makers were doing on an independent level. I’ve since learned the importance of shining a light on people working at all scales of film making rather than treating films as a hagiography of a select few blockbuster names. There’s also this image that movies can only be done in the abstract magical realm of California whereas people can get their starts anywhere.

One of these film makers, Anne Welles had a great trajectory to her dreams: She was a stay-at-home mom going through a separation at the age of 32 when she decided to try an acting class and soon booked an agent. Within a few years she was directing short films and by the time I interviewed her, she had a film “An Accidental Zombie Named Ted” on Amazon Prime.

I’m especially proud of the opening line:
“Filmmaker Anne Welles traces the moment she fell out of love with show business to a botched middle school audition. She thanks the film “Jerry Maguire” for restoring her faith in what is now her life’s work.”

Photo Essay on the Set of How Do You Know: (2009)

I generally cite October of 2010 as the start of my professional journalism career, so we’ll chalk this up to amateur stuff. One of my first gigs was as an Examiner for the Film Industry in DC. It was, more or less, a content farm so I could write whatever I wanted about film but getting enough people to read it so that I’d make any money was another story.

Still, it put me in the practice of writing regularly and occasionally, I did something that felt like real journalism. Even though this gig wasn’t very much of a real thing, I was still on the media list for the D.C. Film Office and I got an e-mail alert to the shooting of the James L. Brooks film “How Do You Know.” The film starred Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Jack Nicholson in what would be his last role. Very little was needed in terms of clearance to get on the set since they were basically shooting on the street, so as long as I kept a healthy distance, no one really cared.

It was a highly eye-opening experience as to what life on set was for extras and I even remember sneaking a couple glances at Witherspoon and Rudd from across the street. I’m generally embarrassed of everything I wrote when I started writing but I think the photo captions still hold up. The quality of the photos were another story.

Occupy DC Offers Hands-On Learning: Teaching Tolerance (2012)

Remember the Occupy Movement of a decade ago? It sounds bizarre that a bunch of 20-something underemployed and unemployed bums started camping out on public property in an effort to supposedly change the world or something or other. But stranger things have happened since then.

This is a good example of a story that happens if you go out a lot and keep your eyes open. I went to the Occupy Movement out of random curiosity and was surprised to learn that a teacher at an extremely unconventional high school was taking students along to Occupy as part of an extra-curricular. Whereas a non-reporter would say “well, good luck with that liability, weirdo teacher”, the reporter part of my brain reacted with “jumping jehoshaphat, have I got a scoop here!” But where would I write it up?  This was 2011 and I had little journalistic experience. Another person walking around with a note pad said he was writing for the Truth Pursuit and I asked him for his editor’s contact.

The Truth Pursuit liked my idea and greenlit a piece. This doesn’t happen very often but they gave me a kill fee (a payment for a good faith effort) and someone else picked up my story: The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Magazine Teaching for Tolerance. This was pretty funny because I later wrote for The Federalist and American Conservative and the audiences of each of those publications considers the others illegitimate spewers of hate speech.

Miss Arlington USA, Grace Ashti, Works to Overcome Speech Disability: ArlNow (2019)

Like the previous story, this was a story I stumbled upon. In this case, this was through a shared Uber ride. My fellow passenger was talkative and I’m naturally talkative with strangers and she was saying she was a beauty pageant contestant, and I thought “hmmm, that could be a story idea.” Once again, I wasn’t “networking.” I don’t go out of my way to find stories but I’m naturally curious, talkative with strangers, and do have a need to mix up my daily schedule and activities. And I always make it a point to carry around business cards.

Grace Ashi was not an immediate hit with the editors I was in contact with at the time, but I banked the story for a later day. When ArlNow was hiring freelancers, I had already worked for them twice so I used this as one of my pitches and voila! Grace is a real estate agent and a fashion blogger so her incentive to be publicized is high and that always helps get an interview moving, but she was also a cooperative subject, and now she’s even a patreon. Check her out

Side note: Uber, can we please bring UberShare?

Death of Rabbi Laszlo Berkowitz, Founding Rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom: Falls Church News Press (2021)

I went to preschool at Temple Rodef Shalom and vaguely remember that the Rabbi was a Holocaust survivor but I haven’t been inside the synagogue since I was 5 or 6. That’s what made it interesting to hear about the Jewish life I might have led if my parents had opted to continue my Jewish education at Temple Rodef Shalom rather than another synagogue.

One interesting facet of this story was the strange reaction I got from one of my sources: She had a back-and-forth with me where she had nothing to contribute and directed me to people who would have known him better. Memo to sources: If I’m contacting you for a story, be assured that you are clearly important to the story. If you don’t want to contribute that’s fine, but there’s no need to question your importance. I collect the information than sort out what’s important at the end of the day.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Deep Water Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Meets an SNL Sketch


Saturday, April 02, 2022

Every 2021 Film I Saw: Quick Takes

1.            Blue Bayou-Filmed, directed, and starring South Korean Justin Chon, the story of a Korean immigrant born and raised in Louisiana facing deportation is difficult with glimmering vestiges of human triumph. I was floored by the sentiment.

2.            House of Gucci-Very Shakespearean in all its delicious tragedy and back-stabbing. These people were larger than life and the story takes on that grandeur.  

3.            West Side Story-The degree of difficulty to adapt a classic and make it your own is high, so many great decisions went to make a fuller and richer story and put character developments in historic context 

4.            Last Night in Soho-I admire that a director who has always had comedy in each of his pictures was able to do something entirely without it. It was a great mystery, time capsule and comic of age story and I was overwhelmed with the kinetic frenzy. My one minor complaint is I didn’t love the horror elements.

5.            Licorice Pizza-There was an extremely icky age difference but I enjoyed so much of the nostalgic drench and vignette-like nature of the story.

6.            Nightmare Alley-This visually beautiful tragic tale of a drifter is very rewarding on second viewing

7.            Concrete Cowboy-Idris Elba played the hard black dad like Denzel Washington in Fences but convincingly added the layer of empathy and caring for his child and that vulnerability in their relationship really got to me. I didn’t understand what this horse stable was doing in the middle of Philadelphia but I also got that it was important to them

8.            Last Duel-Slightly slower than ideal in terms of authenticity but the trade-off is authenticity.

9.            Power of the Dog-An incredibly strong attention to detail, great performances, and, in my opinion, a thematic thrust worthy of a Best Picture win.

10.          Free Guy-Yes, it's fun, but a lot of world building and the kind of detailed storyline that could transfer over to a robust sci-fi film

11.          Jungle Cruise-More just fun, but I found the central relationships moving enough, and I'm a sucker for Amazon stories

12.          Courier-It had a first half that was markedly different than the second (kind of like the Dev Patel film Lion) that was tonally a bit jarring, but it was a spy film that moved at the speed of life.

13.          Mayday-Very eerie and quiet film that sneaks up on you about a violated teenager who's taken away to a fantasy land where she can be in the protection of woman but she's also lulling men to their deaths

14.          Don’t Look Up-Yes, it was depressing, but it was sharp

15.          Queen Bees-Another entry into the "Old People Team Up to Make a Movie" genre with Jane Curtin, Ellen Burstyn, Loretta DeVine, Ann Margaret, Christopher Lloyd, and James Caan. Very sweet and tuned into the twilight years

16.          Moxie-A high school melodrama directed by Amy Poehler (maybe a companion piece to Mean Girls?) that's sharp and funny at times. Navigates the current climate well without casting feminism or men as villains.

17.          Woman in the Window-A Hitchcockonian mystery that oozed suspense and mystery

18.          Val-The only documentary I watched this year about Val Kilmer. A very self-conscious look at fame and coming to terms with his physical demise

19.          Ride the Eagle-An impressive small-scale production about a guy (Jake Johnson) coping with the death of a mother (Susan Sarandon) he barely knew

20.          Eyes of Tammy Faye-A nicely focused biopic which picked the right parts of Tammy's life to focus on and had a good villain in Vincent D'Onofrio's Jerry Fallwell. There was a tremendous amount to appreciate in Tammy Faye's arc as evidenced by Jessica's Oscar BUT I would've liked a litle more development to Andrew Garfield's character

21.          Coda-It was sweet and it did show us a world we hadn't seen before, but I felt the music part itself was full of plot holes and the piano teacher to the rescue at the audition is an old trope. Still I'm happy it won in an odd way: The Oscars are extremely predictable with the glut of precursors so a bizarre upset is welcome.

22.          Passing-Well-shot and acted and I’d even buy the score on CD. The conversations were really interesting as well but at times they felt a little theatrical as if they were playing for a small art-house audience.

23.        Ice Road-I love the guts of whoever pitched this film: “Speed but twice as slow and they’ll be going on ice.” Amber Midthunder could be a star down the road.

24.       Space Jam 2-I love the Looney Tunes though they feel a little off in the looniness department and, even in the first Space Jam, Bugs, Duffy and Lola had bigger roles which set them up to fuel more of the comedy (Michael Jordan/LeBron James is the straight man). Still, the film was fun, the plot felt updated in clever ways (taking a page from the e-sports world and lampooning entertainment’s overemphasis on IPs), and I enjoyed the greater focus on the son-father relationship that the original Space Jam should have also been about.

25.          Beckett-It's a contextless action film like the Bourne series where we're just shown a guy doing lots of amazing fighting but we don't know the why of anything. Tonally, the film held but barely.

26.          Worth-The film was executed well, but it was kind of dull. At the same time, it's not that easy to make a film about an accountant making risk assessment calculations.

27.          Cruella-Beautiful to look at and Emma Stone's iteration of the character was a fun underdog to root for. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Frye also make excellent sidekicks. Still it went on way too long and there’s a such thing as too many twists.

27.          Pig-It's nice to see Nicholas Cage celebrated for his acting, but the film is a bit self-serious. It’s just food seasoning, guys: No need to start a fight club over it or build an organized crime empire around it.

28.       Legend  of Shang-Tsi and the Ten Rings-I could predict almost every plot development five minutes in advance, and what I couldn’t predict, I didn’t care about.  I was also bothered that the film expected me to know who Trevor whatever-his-name-is, F--- Off Marvel, I don’t care about crossovers. And shouldn’t side kicks have some use? (I’m looking at you Seth Rogen as Green Hornet, who punched out maybe 2 people in comparison to Kato single-handedly fighting dozens of goons at once).  But, that sky scraper fight scene was next level.

29.         Flag Day-This was a film…..that I watched…..sorry, I barely remember watching this..

31.          Being the Ricardos-Aaron Sorkin had been on a really good streak—Molly’s Game, Trial of the Chicago 7—but this is like “Studio 60” backwards in terms of egotistical awfulness. Yes, the actors handle the smug material well, but the material is all about praising the ego of the creator at the expense of others (the producers, writers and co-stars are secondary to Lucy’s brilliance) and had little to do with Lucy who was funny.

32.          French Dispatch-The only Wes Anderson film I wouldn’t recommend. There is such a thing as too bloated of an ensemble and too much attention to detail.

33.          Electric Life of Louis P Wain-Too cutesy-wutesy and by the numbers.

34.          Lost Daughter-Slow and dreary. It might have all the right moves to offer but it didn’t hook me.

35.        Mitchells vs Machines-Don’t know if I remember this too much either. That’s not a good sign.

36.          Tomorrow War-Sooo much uncanny valley and ugly creatures on the screen and this is probably one of the few times when there’s no debate that a time travel film makes no sense. Normally that genre can hand-wave a lot of plot holes.

37.          Barb and Star Go to Mar El Vista-I know it had its fans, but I found this overly low-brow and couldn’t find a single scene that screams “Brilliant!.” Maybe Barb and Star being fired from their jobs comes close but that’s in the beginning of the movie and front loads with lots of expectations.  You realize that these two made Bridesmaids? It’s mostly standard mix-em-ups and a comedy of doors.

 This felt like when Mike Meyers or M. Night Shyamalan refuse to listen to studio notes about a bad idea.

38.          Thunder Force-Because it stars Melissa McCarthy, one might assume it’s a send-up to superhero tropes but the film plays the superhero story pretty straight despite the film still having the outlines of a comedy. It’s a pretty awkward clash. At least Jason Bateman seemed to know he was in a comic film.

39.          Breaking News in Yuma County-A dark comedy that feels as if someone read cliff notes on the Coen Brothers films (people fabricate dumb schemes, people get blackmailed, people are violently hurt, etc) and tried to make a film solely off that. It probably doesn’t help that the scheme is not just dumb but uninteresting. Allyson Janney pretends to know details about your husband’s death because she likes being on the news and the fame it brings her, but do people really like being a talking head on the news?

40.          Kate-Like Beckett, it’s a contextless action film (we’re not meant to know much about the hero) but, it’s also a contextless shoot-em-up and it’s too high in the ratio of violence to context for me to not see it as gratuitous.  

41.          Stowaway-Boring attempt at sci-fi and it’s lifeboat ethics weren’t anything I agreed with. 

Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Art of the Interview in Journalism


When you interview a source, you have to be chummy and professional, but remember that they are not your customer or the person you are serving.

It generally is in your source’s best interest that they’re talking to you. The source could have something at stake in a number of ways: They could have something to promote (often more the case in soft journalism), they could have a message they want to get out, or they could use the publicity. On the other hand, they might just have time to kill and might find it polite to answer questions. 

If it’s someone with skin in the game, I find it best not to be overt about the transactional nature of this relationship. I can often smell from a mile away that they have an angle, but by not acknowledging it, I’m setting an expectation that I have my own job and it’s the same job I always do.

What if a source backs out?

The only exception is if someone’s the subject of my story where I might be completely screwed if they back out of my story.

To provide some more background, there are (for the purposes of this explanation) two types of sources: The subject of your story and secondary sources. The type of writing I do is largely human interest meaning that I l don’t have a story without the subjects’ cooperation. If, for example, the story is Joe Blow and Joe Blow doesn’t want to be interviewed for a story, then I’m SOL. The best thing to do is ascertain as early as possible if Joe Blow is down so I don’t waste my time. Now if Joe Blow is an exceptional cupboard maker and the story is about cupboard makers, I could potentially just go to someone who’s also a cupboard maker and make the story about them.

There can be complications to this. Once, I did a short pre-interview (letting someone know you’re interested in working with them and getting some initial questions in to ensure they fit the story I’m trying to write; they often come back with a request to clear it by some PR person before they talk back to me) with a mini-golf champion. I got her agreement and the story was approved. I never heard from her again. I once did about 75% of an interview with a rug owner and then when I got back from lunch, he said he was uninterested. I pulled out my hair trying to figure out a way to get back in his good graces.
For the most part, I don’t try to say “if you do this, I will promise you that” or latch onto their angles, but I make general overtures of how I would love to tell their story and talk about doing it in a way that will be as unintrusive on their time as possible.

In one case, I interviewed the son of a Salvadorian pupeseria owner in 2018 and there was sensitive material his father didn’t want to share (he was involved with the Civil War). At a certain point, the son capitulated to his dad. I wasn’t going to put the dad’s story in so I knew that the story addressed the dad’s needs and I just worked around the family to get the final pieces of information because various forces (economics, not letting down the editor) made it advantageous to get the article in. After the article was published, the son read it and he was very pleased.

Human Interest verse Hard-Hitting News

Note that I also say human interest, because that is different from hard hitting news. If say Joe Blow was a cupboard maker who was very controversial or affected the public in some other way, I can write a story about Joe Blow without his consent. It’s a free press and I could always write stories about people without their consent but alienating random cupboard makers who are just doing their own thing, isn’t really a good business model for local journalism. Now it’s worth noting that on a couple occasions, I finished articles about people without their consent.

How to Conduct the Interview

The largest thing to keep in mind is time. Your subject is not on the clock to answer questions so it’s sometimes good to let your subject know you’re at the halfway mark or have five or ten minutes left. If you’re on a time crunch and your subject is long-winded, you might even have to do something that might be a little rude in regular conversation which is explain as politely as possible that you don’t mean to be rude but in the interest of the interview, you would like to move the conversation in a different direction. I just let them know up front (and am socially awkward anyway) that this conversation might be different than a regular interview.

You should have a few questions that are important, but it’s best when it’s an unscripted process. I’ve entered interviews with instructions to write about someone with only a vague idea of who they were and why they were important and the subject informs me along the way of what the story is.

I follow my curiosity because I see curiosity as my gift. The interview is data collecting. You’re not sure what you’re looking for, but just ask as much as you can and don’t think too much what the final article is going to look like.

The Kicker: They’ll want to see the piece.

At the very end, there will often be the uncomfortable moment when someone asks if they can see the piece before it goes to publication. The answer is always no. But here’s the thing: You have the upper hand. You already have the answers and you are free to publish it. At that point, you can stop interviewing them and write your story. Remember, you are being chummy, but it is a transaction and they’re asking you to do something that will compromise your job.

At the same time, in most situations with regard to local journalism, you absolutely need to be diplomatic at the very least. Outright hostility is not going to go over well and if you get a complaint, it could even cost you standing or your job. But, again you are in the right here.    

The best thing to do is show them this:

What you can do is read quotes back to the source AT YOUR DISCRETION.

You also should mention that it’s not your final copy that goes into print because it goes through an editor anyway. I once interviewed a local stamp and coin store and the editor made the unusual decision not to have me to correspond with the stamp owner about areas of concern. I called the stamp store owner about it and he got very upset and I explained that my promises that I made to him were contingent upon an editor who had say over me. He got upset and I felt dragged in the middle. A few years later, I passed by his shop and I apologized about the whole thing and told him I didn’t like the situation any better than he did. It was a pleasant reunion. Often times, I play good-cop-bad-cop with my invisible editor as the bad cop if I have to explain rules.

Wrapping Up

You will have tons of information at your hands and then you’ll lay it out at some point in the future. Thank them profusely for their time. Tell them you might need follow-up questions. At this point, you wait until you write your entire story and see where the holes are.  Put blanks in the spaces where you don’t know the answer and put those follow-up questions on top of the text.

That way you only have to bother them once more and not persistently.

Any follow-up questions?

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

What I'm Watching March Edition: We Need to Tall About Cosby, Home Economics, Mr Mayor, The After Party, Welcome to Flatch