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July 6, 2011

Finding Good Characters

Last week I was listening to the raw interviews that photographer Matt Slaby recorded for a multimedia story about a Massachusetts Vets group called We Soldier On, a story he shot and I edited  for AARP magazine’s website.

Matt really nailed it so I asked him how he found the characters for his story:

Matt Slaby spent the entire first day looking for the right characters……..photo by Matt Slaby/LUCEO.

Matt Slaby: “There wasn’t any action happening in the time that I was there so I knew I needed to find someone with a story that was interesting enough for a Seinfeld episode, that is, an interesting narrative that could work without too much corresponding action.”

“I started on the first day by interviewing anyone who would let me talk with them, beginning with an addiction counselor. He helped find subjects who would speak to me. I went from one person to the next. With some I spent 10 minutes chatting, with others I talked with them for 2-3 hours. I chatted seriously with about 15 people.”

“I met Lenny (one of the two subjects of the final piece) near the end of this process. I found that he was a character who was straight-forward, not evasive and had the ability to be self-reflective. Lenny is a recovering heroin addict who was at a place in his recovery that made his story compelling.” (BTW, Matt is working on a long term project about heroin addicts.)

Lenny Costa had a story with a narrative arc. .......photo by Matt Slaby/LUCEO.

Matt continued, “I spent a long time chatting with Lenny before I recorded anything. I wanted Lenny to know that I wasn’t going to push him around and key-hole him as an addict.  I was just going to listen to him as a human being. By doing this before the tape was rolling I could also share parts of myself that showed that I was willing to be vulnerable too.”

Jack Downing spoke about the issues in a personal and compelling way that had universal appeal........photo by Matt Slaby/LUCEO.

When I asked Matt where he learned to interview so well, he told me he had spent 6 years working on an ambulance, a job  that helped him learn how to quickly read people.  ” In that setting, you learn how to communicate with people in a way that allows them to feel comfortable sharing critical information with you under less-than-ideal circumstances.  Good, active listening skills help you be effective at painting a picture for caregivers further down the line.  It’s a skill that certainly translates to journalism.”

That certainly puts it in perspective.

You can see the final story on the AARP Bulletin website. 

It was produced for AARP by Michael Wichita and Miranda Harple
Camera and Sound by Matt Slaby | LUCEO
Edited by Bob Sacha
Music by Tyler Strickland

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