Behind ‘The Choice’: How We Filmed 47 Interviews in a Pandemic
Director of photography Ben McCoy tests a camera setup for ‘The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden,' a FRONTLINE documentary that draws on 47 new video interviews filmed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the last week of April, the team behind The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden met over Zoom to discuss how to make a film about crises while being in the middle of one. We had 16 weeks to finish hundreds of hours of research, hunt for archival footage across seven decades, conduct dozens of interviews on location, and write and edit a two-hour documentary against an unmovable deadline.
The pandemic had changed everything. Those interviews, for example. Requests went out to more than 100 people who could tell us how Donald Trump and Joe Biden had dealt with crises during their lives, providing clues about their leadership of the country today. But there was a big problem. It was highly unlikely we’d be able to talk to any of these people in person.
As it turned out, we filmed all 47 original interviews conducted for The Choice 2020 remotely, using a system born of necessity. We built customized cases containing cameras, sound, and lighting equipment and shipped them across the country. The subjects assembled the kits in their homes, at times with the help of children or grandchildren. Our director of photography composed the shots from Colorado. The interviewers sat in New England.
The goal of this experiment was to reproduce the high quality of filming under normal conditions and, at the same time, to preserve the intimacy of an interviewing method that leads subjects on a journey deep into a story, one that can last several hours.
Both the technical and human challenges were intimidating.
“My insistence was that it had to match everything we’d shot in the past,” said Michael Kirk, the film’s director. “It had to be as simple as possible. And it had to create an environment where people who are being interviewed can feel comfortable, that’s efficient and professional.”
Kirk said the idea of creating a portable camera kit came on March 12, as he was finishing a shoot on a previous film in New York City, just as COVID descended on the city. “I had the basic idea that we were going to have to go remote, and it couldn’t be a Zoom or Skype call,” he said. “We needed to start now, figure it out and do tests.”
Kirk turned to his longtime director of photography, Ben McCoy, and to Elliott Choi, an up-and-coming editor. They explored various options, and performed tests on an iPhone 11 Pro, before McCoy chose a Canon EOS R digital camera and Canon EOS RF lens. Part of the camera’s appeal was its appearance. It looked like a camera people might own.
“It’s a great camera that’s not very expensive and is not that intimidating to a subject,” McCoy said. “It has an amazing auto-focus feature. Many things, like color, can be corrected later. The only thing we can’t fix on a remote shoot is focus.”
McCoy designed a portable kit at his home in Colorado. In addition to the camera and lens, he added lighting and sound equipment, tripods, a laptop, cables, a stand — 41 items in all, batteries included. He needed it to fit in a Pelican Air case the size of carry-on luggage.
“It had to be something that could be delivered to somebody’s front door and not be intimidating,” he said.
With effort, McCoy slimmed down the kit to 37 pounds. He made six of them. The cost: $8,000 each.
On a normal shoot with Kirk, McCoy travels with 15 to 17 large cases of equipment weighing several hundred pounds. Interviews are usually shot in a hotel suite, where the lighting and cameras are meticulously controlled. By the time interview subjects arrive, usually several in a single day, they are escorted into a space that has been designed to produce a signature look.
The composition of that look is something Kirk and McCoy have perfected over decades.
“I used to send him postcards from museum gift shops,” Kirk said. “John Singer Sargent. Vermeer. This is how I’ve wanted people to look on these television shows for 25 years. A relatively plain background. It has things in it, but they’re indefinable, with a depth of field that throws the background mildly out of focus.
“The primary focus of everything is the person sitting in the chair,” Kirk said. “What Ben does is paint your face with light.”
Before filming began on The Choice, the team ran multiple tests, shipping kits to producers’ and reporters’ homes, where family members tried creating a set. Some initial trials were rocky. The instructions grew simpler and streamlined. Assembly time shrunk to 60 to 90 minutes.
A key feature of the system allowed McCoy, thousands of miles away, to see the camera’s display through a Zoom window once the Canon was connected to a laptop. The interview was conducted over the same laptop, set next to the camera. Over Zoom, the interview subject would see only the interviewer, either Kirk or producers Jim Gilmore or Gabrielle Schonder.
Prior to interviews, McCoy asked for photographs of the room so he could devise a plan for lighting, for background, for the position of the camera.
“It takes a lot of patience on everybody’s part, starting with the subject,” he said. “Over time we got better at it. You try to anticipate everything that could go wrong, and every time you’re still surprised.”
Meanwhile, Gilmore and Schonder were preparing interview subjects for what to expect. Most would be filmed in their homes. They could choose to set up the kit themselves. Or we would send an assistant camera operator, dressed in personal protective equipment, to assemble the kit. Most did it on their own, sometimes with an assist from a family member.
Among the 100 or so requests, the people who agreed to be interviewed ranged from former government officials, family members and journalists with long experience answering questions before a camera, to childhood friends and others who had little.
Journalists can’t control who will agree to sit and answer questions. In this case, Joe Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and his wife, Jill Biden, spoke with us on camera. The White House and President Trump’s campaign did not make available family members or current senior officials, although they did help secure interviews with allies, such as Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Especially at first, the remote setup seemed to add a layer of awkwardness or reserve to interviews, especially when the topics included difficult personal subjects or painful crises.
“Our goal is to get people to share and connect. Let down their guard,” Schonder said. “This setup was so wacky and weird when you’re trying to create intimacy, the kind of connection you’d have talking at a dinner party. Recreating that in the Hollywood Square box was a challenge.”
And there were technical glitches, though perhaps surprisingly few. During Schonder’s interview with Mary Trump, the president’s niece, an unplugged cable caused a power loss that erased the first 5:48 of the video. (The audio was preserved, and the rest of the video was fine.) When Jim Gilmore interviewed Jill Biden, the Wi-Fi went down, meaning that McCoy could not see the camera display and Gilmore had to ask the questions over a speaker phone. The interview was filmed blind.
But overall it worked. The system created a way to put both McCoy and the interviewers — Kirk, Gilmore and Schonder — “in the room” with the subjects.
“What we’ve learned is that we can craft a nice-looking film remotely,” McCoy said. “These remote interviews will be what we do as long as there’s a pandemic.”
“The fact is that we still did long interviews and did them the same way we did them in person,” Gilmore said.
Schonder said people adjusted in part because everyone has learned to adapt during the pandemic, and because they craved real conversation.
“Towards the end it really felt like we were all together. We found a really nice flow, among everyone. It felt normal all of a sudden,” she said. “I really felt that I was doing some of the best interviews of my career by the end of it.”
For Kirk, who has made installments of The Choice for five presidential elections and has directed scores of FRONTLINE episodes, the remote system gave him what he needed. He said he did miss those moments in which both the interviewer and the subject, sitting close to one another, forget the camera and come under the spell of two people deep in conversation.
But sometimes that happened.
“When I look at some of the footage now, I think for a moment that I was in the same room,” he said. “And then I realize, My God, I wasn’t there. I was here.”
Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s election-year series The Choice has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. This year’s installment, The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, examines how both men have responded to crises throughout their lives. The documentary premieres Tues., Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on PBS (check your local listings) and online. In tandem with the premiere, FRONTLINE is publishing 47 original interviews conducted by Michael Kirk and his team, as well as 13 interviews from their archive, as part of the ongoing Transparency Project. You can also listen to extended audio interviews with six sources, plus Kirk, on The FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast.