Charlie Rose recently interviewed George Lucas. At the 16 minute mark, we see these two great men cross swords.
It’s a good talking point for those of us who are interested in the art of the interview (and especially the ethnographic, anthropological version thereof).
There are a bundle of strategies that make an interview work. One of the most important of these is not just the tone of questions we ask, but the tone of the attention we give to answers we get.
The idea, call it the “total approval rule,” is to indicate by body posture, facial expression and follow up questions that we approve of what the interviewee has said.
The idea, generally speaking, is that this initial approval will encourage the interviewee to be more forthcoming. In a perfect world, our initial performance of approval encourages answers worthy of a more genuine (less performative) approval.
(This strategy works in the real world. Today at lunch lean in and pay very careful attention to something said by your lunch partner. Nod and smile with a Southern’s grace. Hey presto, your lunch partner will instantaneously become 15% more interesting, [margin of error: +/- 3%.])
But something happens in the Lucas interview. No matter how much Mr. Rose tries to draw the great man out, Lucas will not be moved. He has a set of stock answers. He has a stock attitude. The fact that these answers are not very interesting, sophisticated or intelligent does not trouble Mr. Lucas.
He is, after all, George Lucas. (I have a friend in Silicon Valley who says that the moment you make your first handful of millions is the moment you stop growing. If you are not very careful you will always be that person, trapped in a haze of self congratulation, persuaded of your own sufficiency, your veritable perfection.) George Lucas has been a big sneeze for many years. He is the inhabitant of a celebrity culture in which every answer he cares to give is normally celebrated as completely riveting. He is now a great man grown a little tired of the pomp and ceremony of popular culture who doesn’t quite grasp that this popular culture has claimed him. It has forgiven him so many banal answers, these are the only answers he has left to give. Irony of ironies, this consummate story teller is now telling his own story badly.
But of course Charlie Rose is Charlie Rose. He is now so powerful and important in our culture that an interview with him is a little like being called to account by St. Peter. It is probably better, on balance, to bring your “A” game. You are now longer talking to 7:00 TV, those Entertainment Tonights of the world that are just happy if your mouth is moving once the film rolls.
It was interesting to watch the tension grow.
At around the 16 minute mark, Mr. Rose asked Mr. Lucas how he feels about his impending Kennedy Center award.
“Well, I could be glib.”
Something in Mr. Rose snaps, apparently, and he breaks the “total approval rule.”
“No, just be real.”
Holy toledo. This is Mr. Rose making clear that he will not stand for a rhetorical brush off. And now he dares actually instruct Lucas. He talks about the importance, the honor, of the Kennedy Center event.
Lucas is having none of this and reverts to the contempt with which Silicon Valley, Hollywood and people fashioned in the 1960s have always regarded the shadow puppetry of Washington.
“I don’t much care about awards.”
“But there are awards and there are awards,” Mr. Rose fairly explodes. He is now obliged to lecture Mr. Lucas on what the Kennedy awards are and why they matter.
Methodologically speaking, this is normally not done. It is almost the first thing they teach you in anthropology school. Don’t lecture the respondent. You are there to capture what they think. It doesn’t matter what you think.
Lucas will not be moved, “We get awards all the time.” And this draws the match to a stand off, both parties having made themselves clear.
In a sense this is a geo-cultural contest between different parts of the country. George Lucas takes the West coast position that doesn’t think much of conventional politics. Charlie Rose, a man who knows exactly that, and how much, these politics matter, begs to differ.
But this is also a study in the internal dynamics of the interview from which something can be learned. There are moments in an interview when I think we must be allowed the, let’s call it, “Charlie Rose allowance.” We can only be expected to indulge the unthoughtful (and the sanctimoniously unthoughtful, at that) for so long. And then we are allowed (perhaps obliged) to let the respondent have it, to lecture them on all the light (read “world”) they cannot see. This lets them know that we are rescinding their indulged status as respondent, the one that says, I am interested in everything you say. We are putting them on notice: up your game.
It’s a calculated call. But when the quality of the interview is at risk, we must object and evoke the Charlie Rose allowance. Sure, the respondent may respond by, gasp, unclipping the microphone and quitting the interview. But the risk is worth taking. Nothing matters more than the data. Not even the respondent.