A Conversation with Author/Entertainment Journalist, Francine Brokaw

Journalist and author of “Beyond the Red Carpet: The World of Entertainment Journalists”

Writer and author Francine Brokaw

Watching movies before they open. Interviewing actors, directors and producers. Sounds glamorous, right? Author and veteran writer Francine Brokaw pulls back the curtain of entertainment journalism in her new book, “Beyond the Red Carpet: The World of Entertainment Journalists.”

A political and entertainment writer for over twenty-five years, Brokaw has written for national and international magazines, both in print and online. She has interviewed countless celebrities including Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Julie Andrews, Kevin Spacey, Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins and Madonna.

With contributions from several of her colleagues, Brokaw’s book includes such topics such as how they got started as an entertainment journalists, misconceptions, strange interviews, memorable moments and hilarious comments. The book is a delightful and introspective look at a career that many people envy and that those who live it agree is worth the work.

Switching from interviewer to interviewee, Francine Brokaw answered a few questions about her book.

Paula K. Parker: What are some of the publications and websites you write for?

Francine Brokaw: I have written for a number of publications and websites. At the moment I write for LAFamily.com but also contribute to other outlets like Suite101.com. For a while I was syndicated in several Southern California newspapers, and I also wrote for several magazines and newspapers around the country.

PKP: Your experience of getting started – calling David Sheehan, who gave you some tips and a list of contacts – is rare. Does he do that for all wanna-be journalists who call him? What made your call different from the others?

Brokaw: I don’t think he had done that before. When I ran into him several years later I recounted that story to him and he smiled and asked if he was helpful. Indeed he was. I selected David Sheehan because I felt he had been around awhile and could point me in the right direction. At the time, I was writing for MSN so I was no competition for him, but knowing David the way I do now, he would have been just as helpful even if I had been.

PKP: How do you prepare for interviews?

Brokaw: It depends on the kind of story I’m writing. I definitely do my homework and research the person and his/her credits. I also check out their personal website if they have one. I then put a list of questions together to use as a guideline, but often the interviewee will bring up something that I had not anticipated. I have found that my favorite articles have been because of something unexpected that came up during an interview.

PKP: Movie junkets are challenging; you see the movie the evening before and have little time to read through the [often] thick press packet before attending the roundtables, press conferences or do a one-on-one. Have you come up with a method to help?

Brokaw: I know that we each tackle this job differently. Here are a few ways that work for me when doing a junket

Be in the moment: For example, I always take notes during movies. I find that during a film there is usually something that will happen that I want to discuss in an interview. During press conferences and roundtables, I have my own questions but always listen to the other reporters as well. Someone often asks a question that sparks another question for me. During one-on-ones, it’s just me alone. I find that if I stay in the moment, I never run out of questions.
Develop “go to” Questions: Although I don’t like to do this personally speaking, it is good to have a few “go-to” questions that you can always rely on if you get a “brain freeze.” For example: What drew you to this role? How are you like your character? Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories? What’s next for you?
When interviewing directors/writers/producers, some standard questions to keep on hand are: What will be included in the Blu-ray/DVD? How did you approach the casting process? What difficulties did you come across during shooting?
Stay Current: I always like to bring in something current, if possible. For instance, Ronald Reagan passed away not long before I interviewed Kevin Kline. “Hail to the Chief” was played over and over again on the newsreels when they showed the casket’s many stops and this reminded me of Kline’s earlier film “Dave.” I brought that up and asked him what made that film so endearing.

PKP: Like you and other journalists in your book, I find transcribing to be one of the biggest challenges to doing an interview. Do you have any tips? Do you use special voice-to-text programs? What do you do when – despite your best efforts – you just cannot understand what the person said?

Brokaw: A lot of times I will note in a transcript that a comment was unintelligible. And when sharing transcripts with others (we often split up a junket and each of us takes a session or part of a session so we don’t all have to transcribe everyone), transcripts will have that notation. When I transcribe, I am always rewinding my tape recorder over and over replaying each sentence or two, to make sure I get everything as it was said. In the beginning I would even transcribe the “ums” and “uhs.” I don’t do that any more because I just end up taking them out of the quotes anyway. But you are right. Sometimes you simply cannot understand what someone says on the tape.  In those instances, after listening several times to something, I note in parentheses that something could not be heard.

I have tried some voice-to-text programs but have not relied on them.  I don’t feel confident enough in them to have them as the final transcript. I am a stickler for getting statements correct.

PKP: In Chapter 9 – ‘How Rude!’ you included many examples of rude people. How do you handle rudeness during interviews? Does it affect what you write in the article?

Brokaw: I have never encountered a rude interviewee during a one-on-one – only during press conferences and roundtables. As far as affecting what I write, I think it does. For instance, for the roundtable with the rude French actress who insisted on smoking when I said it would bother me – she got absolutely nothing from me. Not even a mention. I have included comments about a person’s demeanor in some of my articles, but I am not in the business of trashing people, so for the most part if someone is extremely rude, I just don’t give them any press.

PKP: In your book, you mentioned Harrison Ford being asked this question, but it’s a good question; how has Hollywood changed since you’ve been an entertainment journalist?

Brokaw: It has changed a lot. When I first started out, print and TV were given priority over online when it came to studios and networks. Now online journalists get priority.

When I first started going to TCA [Television Critics Association] Press Tours, almost no one had a laptop during the sessions. Computers were supplied in the Press Room. Now almost everyone has a laptop or tablet and uses it to tweet or blog during the sessions. This makes everything old news before we even leave the room. So for those of us who actually write articles instead of blogging small blurbs or tweeting, we have to work harder to find a way to make our stories fresh and interesting.

Another change is the loss of print outlets. Even my main outlet for which I have worked for a decade, Los Angeles Family Magazine, has gone completely online. The Internet has changed the business in many ways.

PKP: After reading all the pros and cons for the industry, if someone still wants to become an entertainment journalist, what advice would you give them?

Brokaw: Wait until I retire! Okay, seriously, I would say be prepared to work hard and put in long hours. It’s not a 9-5 job. Don’t do it for the free movies or to meet celebrities. Do it because you love entertainment and you love writing.

PKP: Do you have any last thoughts?

Brokaw: How can I parlay my work into a Pulitzer Prize? Just kidding. I want to leave the interview with a comment to your readers. Entertainment journalism isn’t glitz and glamour and there are many, many times when a celebrity will disappoint you. As a matter of fact, an unwritten rule among us is – if you really admire someone, you might not want to interview them because they might disappoint you. On the flipside, someone you didn’t want to interview might happily surprise you. So, the bottom line is, it’s a tough job but for most of us it’s something we love doing.

For more information about Francine Brokaw, check out her website, www.francinebrokaw.com. You can also like her on Facebook at FrancineBrokaw1 and follow her on Twitter at FrancineBrokaw.