Interrogation scenes are some of the most utilized scenes in all of screenwriting – but how does one write an interrogation scene? Fret not, we’re going to show you how to write an interrogation scene by looking at examples from Prisoners, Shrek, and more. We’re also going to show you how to format your interrogation scene! By the end, you’ll know a variety of creative and technical strategies for how to write an interrogation scene.
Watch: Interrogation Scenes Pt. 2 — Mind Games
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How to Write an Interrogation Scene
Study the cliches
When most of us think of interrogation scenes, we think of dark, dank rooms filled with lamps, cops smoking cigarettes, and remarkably simple interview tactics. These tropes have become cliches in the world of writing; which means that they should be avoided at all costs (save for use of satire).
Before we dive into some strategies for writing effective interrogation scenes, perhaps we should review the tenets of a cliched scene.
Saturday Night Live expertly deconstructed the interrogation scene through the guise of a Norwegian Playhouse skit.
Check out the clip below, and think about how our perception of interrogation scenes influences our ability to create them.
It’s important to remember that interrogation scenes should always have one goal: one party extracting information from another. Sometimes, screenwriters get caught up in the tropes and miss out on the core focus.
So, as we break down some tips and tricks for how to write an interrogation scene, keep in mind that everything should revolve around the extraction of information from one party to another.
Guide to Interrogation Movie Scenes
Start with the setting
Interrogation scenes often take place in police holding rooms – but the truth is they can take place anywhere. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with staging an interrogation scene in a police holding room. It’s entirely possible to write a striking interrogation scene in a contrived setting.
For example, Prisoners dials the drama up to 11 in order to entice readers.
We imported the Prisoners screenplay into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a look at how writer Aaron Guzikowski took a rather simple scene and elevated it into something memorable.
As you’re reading, think about how quickly Guzikowski gets to the action.
Here, Guzikowski wastes no time getting to the heart of the drama. When Loki “grabs” Bob’s head, he essentially kickstarts the interrogation into overdrive. Sometimes, readers get frustrated by how slow it takes for interrogation scenes to develop. One way to alleviate the frustration is to simply bypass the fluff. Of course, the scene is not very realistic – I’d like to think that police procedure dictates officers not enter interrogation rooms with loaded firearms. But still, it’s a good movie example.
If you’re looking for more interrogation scene examples, Prisoners is a great movie to study. Check out pages 44-45 and 63-65 for more examples; one in a dilapidated bathroom and another in a car.
Best Interrogation Scenes
Have your culprit expose themself
One of the best strategies for writing an interrogation scene is to have your culprit expose themself. No crazy setting. No special set-up. Just simply have one party ask basic questions and the other crumble under the pressure of trying to uphold the veil.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment is widely credited with proliferating this strategy. Spoilers: In the novel, Rodion Raskolnikov succumbs to the guilt of murdering an elderly pawn broker. Interrogation scenes are used throughout the novel to highlight Raskolnikov’s various psychotic states.
The film American Psycho, based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, employs a similar strategy to the one used in Crime and Punishment. Watch the following clip and consider how Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) erratic state makes him seem guilty to Detective Kimball (Willem Dafoe).
It’s almost comical how guilty Bateman seems. For example, Bateman flips the line of questioning onto Kimball to make it seem like he’s trying to help the investigation.
But we know – and presume that Kimball knows – that he’s fishing.
Sometimes, the easiest interrogation scene is an interrogation scene with an idiot culprit. Don’t make your culprit confess; that’s too easy. Just make them so clueless (or delirious) that they can’t help but seem guilty to other characters and the audience.
Did You Know?
American Psycho director Mary Harron reportedly shot the aforementioned scene three different ways: one with Kimball knowing Bateman murdered Allen, one with Kimball unsure if Bateman murdered Allen, and one with Kimball thinking Bateman hadn’t murdered Allen. Then, by editing all three performances into the scene, the audience (like Bateman) was never quite sure how to read him.
Famous Movie Interrogation Scenes
Use comedy to change the tone
Interrogation scenes are usually associated with heavy drama – but they don’t have to be! Interrogation scenes sometimes use comedy to subvert cliches and change the tone. Let’s take a look at a couple examples.
In Shrek, Lord Farquaad interrogates the Gingerbread Man, torturing him until he gets the location of the people he seeks. Now, there isn’t anything typically funny about torture – but there is something funny about taking a typically dramatic set-up and turning it into something ludicrous.
Check out the clip below to see the Shrek interrogation scene in full detail. Do you know the Muffin Man?
The Shrek interrogation scene is widely cited as one of the best interrogation scenes in movies. It’s not anything crazy; just a fun take on a contrived set-up.
Here’s another movie interrogation scene example from Meet the Parents: here, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) uses his CIA training to interrogate his daughter’s unsuspecting boyfriend.
Sometimes, the comedy of a scene is delivered via an inane premise; a man interrogated under lie detection by his girlfriend’s dad qualifies as one such example. The tone of the scene is serious – but we still find it funny because it’s so ridiculous.
A classic scene from Seinfeld utilizes a similar strategy – check it out below:
The key to writing a funny interrogation scene between two people is to have Person A take the point of contention deadly seriously while Person B takes it in stride. However, it’s essential that Person B not mock the point of contention; it’s not needed and it’ll only make them seem like they’re trying to belittle Person A.
Think about our two past two examples – do Greg or Jerry fight their adversary? No, they simply let them do their thing. And that thing is so ridiculous that it makes us laugh.
Interrogation Scene Formatting
How to write an interrogation scene
Now that we’ve broken down some creative ideas for how to write an interrogation scene, let’s break down some technical details.
For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to set up our scene with a very simple setting. First things first, you’re going to need a slugline. A slugline is a line in a script that tells us the time and place of a scene.
Here, we see that the scene takes place inside an interrogation room at night.
Next, you’re going to want to introduce your characters. If it’s the first time they’re being introduced, they should be capitalized.
And that’s essentially it! After you drop that slugline and introduce your characters, you’re free to rip through actions and dialogue. Just remember to highlight important characters, props, etc. as they’re introduced.
How to Direct an Interrogation Scene
Directing interrogation movie scenes
Now that we've covered the various ways of how to write an interrogation scene, let's see how directing those scenes can be done. As we've discussed, these scenes are all about power dynamics — who has power and who doesn't.
In this video, we break down three fantastic interrogation scenes, each with a different dynamic. In scenes from Inglourious Basterds, Zodiac, and The Dark Knight, we can see how blocking & staging, camera angles, and shot framing all play a roll in presenting these relationships.
The Dark Knight Interrogation Scene
Still looking for more interrogation scene examples? Look no further than our article on The Dark Knight’s interrogation scene between Christian Bale’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker. You’ll also find a video essay with examples from Inglorious Basterds and Zodiac! By the end, you’ll know how Tarantino, Fincher, and Nolan directed interrogation scenes.