Press interviews are advertisements, not serious journalism.
Full Disclosure: this piece is written by somebody who has never attended a press event in his life.
By now, you have probably seen or heard about Robert Downey, Jr. walking out of his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News after the latter took their Avengers: Age of Ultron interview off-script and instead started pushing the former to answer questions about a quote he made about not being a “liberal” from roughly 7 years ago, his past experiences with drug addiction, and his father. If you haven’t seen it, maybe don’t watch it, since it gives Channel 4 and Guru-Murthy exactly what they want, but I will admit that it’s rather entertaining seeing Downey, Jr. forcefully resist his clearly-mounting urge to punch Guru-Murthy in the face.
The thing’s been sat in my head all-day, now – I’m writing this on Thursday – and it annoys me for multiple reasons. The first is that Guru-Murphy was just awful during this thing. For a professional journalist, you’d think that he’d do a better job of reading the situation, realising that his interview is going to end very abruptly unless he changed tactics fast, and work to get Downey, Jr. to open up more. There’s also the fact that his questions were terrible – the addiction and father situations have been covered most everywhere else before and there’s nothing to gain from going back down those holes again, and the quote thing was almost as stupid as when he sincerely asked Richard Ayoade whether he felt he was a role model for British Norwegians (not joking, and you should watch that interview because Ayoade is amazing in it) – and that he asked them like a kid who’s been called into the principal’s office for punishment.
The second reason is because a promotional interview is not the time or place to conduct hard-hitting journalism. This is what Quentin Tarantino explicitly noted during that famous Guru-Murthy interview from two years back: a press interview is an advertisement for a film. It’s where the film’s stars and/or directors are shunted along a conveyer belt from interview to interview, getting anywhere between 5 or 10 minutes to answer the same or incredibly similar inane questions about their film over and over again, having to reveal new titbits each time lest they appear overly mechanical, in order to drum up buzz about the film they’re selling. It’s long, exhausting, and an advertisement.
So read: not the time to pry into an actor’s personal life if they’re not up for it, which they likely aren’t because they’re tired and would rather be literally anywhere else at this point. Best case scenario: they play along reluctantly or say something stupid that they have to spend the next week or so apologising for. Worst case scenario: the interviewee correctly gets angry at you and walks out. The time and place for such things are in actual interviews about said subject, expressly arranged with the intention of being about them and their personal life. Ambush interviewing does not work at an advertisement. In fact, Channel 4 aren’t even allowed to promote products and, since a promotional interview is about promoting a product, that leads to the question of why Guru-Murthy and crew were even there in the first place.
A question with the answer of 3,819,824 as of 9:27pm on Thursday the 23rd of April, in case you’re wondering.
But then this led to the third reason why this whole thing annoys me… why do we still have press interviews like this nowadays? I don’t mean like this specific example, but I mean in general. Why do we still have them on this kind of scale? In this era of cinema where marketing and promotion for major Hollywood blockbusters can begin years before the first official teaser trailer has dropped and not let up until well after the film has been released, where most big stars are on some kind of social media, and where certain films are in the news damn near every single day, do we really need to send the cast of a film on a whirlwind tour of 800 million press outlets anymore?
Look, sometimes you strike gold – you get things like Christian Bale singing The Powerpuff Girls theme song, or Joss Whedon expanding upon his Jurassic World tweet, or Chris Rock spending his entire press tour for Top Five dropping truth bombs the size of Ultron’s prospective box office – but most times you just get stars who are tired and uninterested and journalists/interviewers who can’t go too far off-script because that’s not what these are for and you run the risk of pissing off the interviewee or, even worse for your outlet, the studio. That’s likely why you get sequences in which places like Digital Spy won’t call out Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans for jokingly – although that does not make it OK, I must stress – calling Black Widow a “slut” and being insinuatingly ablest during their own interview; they have to leave it to the full force of the Internet Outrage Machine, instead.
So, why do we still have them? Why go to that expense? Much like the “why did Channel 4 news bother to go” question, the answer to this one is also very simple: because the film industry is still tightly controlled and things like this are still seen as important to Hollywood. In the same way that The Oscars will nearly always matter because Hollywood continues to insist that they do, promotional interviews will continue to matter because Hollywood believes that they are still a vital part of the marketing cycle. And in a way, they are – you need to drum up excitement for a film, and short soundbite-ready interview sessions are a good way of doing so. After all, if yours is the lucky film and outlet whose interview contains something that goes viral, then you don’t have to worry about a lack-of-attention over the next week. Plus, nothing makes a foreign market feel valued like having a movie star grace it with their presence, apparently.
If Hollywood says something’s important, then it’s important, even when it usually isn’t. Surprising nobody, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing was either severely minimised or scrapped completely since these almost never provide anything of particular interest or substance, like one could get in a real interview, and the sheer gruelling marathon that the process is for those being interviewed keeps them from really letting loose and having fun in ways that people like myself like seeing them be. It’s the worst of both worlds, but it’s sadly a game that we will all continue to play regardless because the overlords of the film industry deem it necessary. The best thing that all involved can do by now I guess is grin and bear it, and maybe not try and force it into something it’s not in ways that make you look like a pompous asshat. It’s an advertisement, after all, not Frost/Nixon.
Callum Petch be the type to always beat ya to the punch faster. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!