Once again, it's time for Ask The A.V. Club, which is exactly what the title implies: you presenting us with questions about us and about the pop culture we all love.
You're Making Us Blush
Yeah, this is fan mail, but it's also a real question. How on earth did your interviews become so intriguing? They're the best—whether it's people I don't know or someone I'm really familiar with, they always manage to be interesting, and almost always capture the interviewee's thoughts about art. Whereas most interviews don't tend to go that deep.
I'm curious if you have a process that ensures that the interviewer be utterly prepared, or if it's a matter of only interviewing people your staff really understands. Any illumination would be great. Peace.
You guys do some really great interviews, usually of pretty obscure people. How do you go about preparing for an interview? Cheers,
Noel Murray responds:
The way I prepare is twofold. First, I think about what I might ask subjects if I were at a party with them, just making conversation. Then I read as many interviews as I can find with the subject, so I can avoid asking questions that have been asked a thousand times, and steer around the pat answers. Reading a lot of interviews in advance also helps me to know what the tone of the interview is likely to be, so I can prepare accordingly. With some subjects, the best thing to do is to jump right in asking questions, to show that you respect how busy they are. With others, it's best to shoot the shit a little up front, to relax them. And no matter which approach I take, I always try to listen to the answers, and think of ways to transition to my other questions without lurching from one to another—which is sometimes inevitable.
Lastly, I don't always do this very well, but I try to have a strong, concise first question ready. Later on, I break out the paragraph-long questions with all the extraneous personal observations—the ones I'll cut out before publication—but I still tend to get nervous before an interview, and I find it's best to get the subject talking right away, at length if possible, so that I calm down and get into the flow.
Tasha Robinson adds:
I've never thought of myself as being at a party with an interview subject, but other than that, I've got a lot in common with Noel when it comes to interviewing: active listening, a strong entry, and a personally tailored tone are all good things. And reading earlier interviews is key—you find out what questions always get asked, so you know what your subject likes discussing, what s/he's totally sick of hearing, and what s/he just plain refuses to talk about. It also really helps to research the interviewee's background in depth and to know their work; I generally don't interview people unless I'm familiar with their latest project (which they're almost always touring or interviewing in support of), and preferably the highlights of their career as well. The best part of an interview for me is when the subject's face lights up and s/he says something like "You've really done your homework!" or "You've actually read my books!" One reason a lot of interviews don't go very deep is because someone who does a dozen interviews a week—a talk-show host, for instance—probably hasn't had time to do the kind of research we try to do, since most of us are only conducting interviews every week or two at most.
But more than anything, I try to put myself in the interviewee's shoes and come up with the questions I would want to be asked in an interview. Generally, for me, this means avoiding a subject's private life and any recent gossip about them, skipping questions like "What was it like to work with so-and-so?", which permits only one possible polite answer ("It was great!"), and trying to get them to talk about why they do what they do, and what they get out of it. I figure if they actually enjoy the questions, they're more likely to open up and talk, and that translates into a better experience for me and for generous flatterers like you two, as well.
F for Ffort
I've never noticed anything get a grade lower than a D, no matter how much you guys bash it in the review. Are there any albums/movies/etc The A.V. Club has reviewed that got a full-on F rating?
Tasha Robinson again:
Very few, Kevin, mostly because no matter how bad a film, album, game, book, etc. is, it usually has some redeeming facet. For example, Neil LaBute's Wicker Man remake was a clumsy, offensive, poorly acted, poorly scripted joke of a film, but it got a D+ in large part because the cinematography is terrific: It's a mess, but it's a beautiful-looking mess, and it'd be hypocritical not to acknowledge that. Very few attempted works of art are completely and utterly without merit.
But there have been a few Fs doled out since we started using our current ratings system. Check out our reviews of Date Movie, Prison Tycoon 2, and Torino 2006 if you really need to know what an F-rating review looks like. D-minus ratings are more common than you think, though.
I remember seeing a late-night movie on TV when I was a kid in the mid- to late 1960s. The movie was about a group of Air Force members, around the time of WWII, who have crash-landed in a remote, desertlike area. One by one, the cast members disappear, until one of the brighter ones figures out that they all actually died in the crash and are all ghosts. Can you find the details of this movie: title, year of release, current availability, et cetera?
Back to Noel:
This sounds like a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes, perhaps muddled in the memory. The basic premise mirrors "And When The Sky Was Opened," about astronauts who disappear after their return from space, until the last one of their number realizes that they're all dead, and he's about to be the next to fade. But the desert setting you mention is more like "I Shot An Arrow Into The Air," which is about astronauts who crash-land in a remote spot and begin killing each other, until the last one standing discovers that they've been on Earth the whole time. Either way, both episodes are from The Twilight Zone's first season, and are available on that season's DVD set.
Go To The Head Of The Class, Revisited
I remember in the early to mid-'90s, MTV used to have a block of animated shows called MTV Oddities or something like that. I remember seeing The Maxx and Aeon Flux on there, and there was this other show that I can't remember the name of. It was about a kid with a humongous cranium, like the Coneheads times 100, and he went around with his oddball buddies saving the universe or solving crimes or something like that. I'm sorry I can't be more specific, but that's all I can remember. What was this show?
Fortunately, you don't have to be any more specific; it was a pretty memorable series. You're thinking of The Head, an animated series from 1997. The first season was a complete story arc; that was released on VHS in a somewhat abbreviated form as The Head Saves The Earth. There has never been a DVD release, and the VHS tape seems to be out of print, but still widely available used from online sources.
Next week on Ask The A.V. Club: Interplanetary koalas, DVD disclaimers, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.