Capturing History: The People Behind ‘By The People’

| October 28, 2009

Ever since Barack Obama stepped foot into the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the excitement generated by his presence has been inescapably palpable. Roughly a year after he was elected Senator of Illinois, and nearly a year before he announced his candidacy for President of the United States, filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams decided to follow this promising political figure with a camera crew. They had no idea what they were getting into. The resulting footage has been edited into a two-hour HBO documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, premiering Tuesday November 3rd at 8pm CST. It is a production of acclaimed actor Edward Norton’s company Class 5 Films, and presents a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the enthusiastic campaigners who helped bring this young Senator to the White House. The film includes candid interviews with the Obama family, senior campaign staff, volunteers, and citizens on both sides of the political spectrum.
Norton, Rice and Sams spoke with Film Monthly about their approach to capturing this sprawling historic canvas on film, and why they chose to release the footage on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s election.
QUESTION: What did this campaign and this candidate do to motivate kids [like nine-year-old Lorenzo Rivera] in such a way that they would hit the phones for Obama support?
EDWARD NORTON: It’s interesting because in some ways that’s what made us want to start this [project] in the first place. When Amy [Rice] first proposed it to us, it wasn’t a campaign film. The idea was to chronicle this junior senator as he entered into the battle of government and politics. I think what drew us to him in the same way it drew everyone else was that he was so much younger. Our generation, and even kids younger than us, are increasingly disengaged from politics. When Amy first put it to us, it was sort of like, ‘Don’t you think that for younger people it would be interesting to see what happens when that guy takes all this on?’ So part of our initial instinct about the whole thing was that [Obama] did speak to a young generation, [which] might make him an interesting prism through which to look at politics. But I think when it became a campaign film, these [filmmakers] found a lot of people–not just young Lorenzo, but [volunteers] Ronnie Cho and Mike Blake–who were very emblematic of a new generation investing itself in the democratic process. It’s actually what I like most about the film. I think the access to Obama is really cool, as well as seeing some of the thinking of the senior staff as they go through it, but to me, Ronnie Cho and Mike Blake and those guys really represent the narrative of what actually made that campaign succeed, which is that they tapped that energy.
QUESTION: How did you earn the trust and intimacy of these campaign operatives, particularly David Axelrod?
AMY RICE: Originally we gained access just from starting really early. I’ve spoken with other documentary filmmakers who tried to make documentaries about politicians and campaigns. They said the key is that you really need to build trust with the campaign because in essence they don’t want cameras around behind the scenes. When [we] started filming, [our characters] were obviously aware of the camera, but after a while they forget about it, especially with everything that was going on around them. They would forget about it and they trusted us, and with Axelrod–
ALICIA SAMS: With Axelrod it was a combination of us wearing him down and Edward calling him. When we finally interviewed him, Amy was wiring him and he sort of looked up and said, “How did I get here? I didn’t want to do this.” But at the end of the interview, he said it was actually really good to stop and reflect. So I think then he saw the value of creating this historical record, and we didn’t put anything on YouTube so eventually he did begin to trust us.
EDWARD NORTON: I think a big part of it was separating [us] from the overnight media crowd. It was really [about] getting it clear in their minds that we wanted to create a record of the campaign that would not play in the election.
QUESTION: Why release it now?
AMY RICE: We talked with HBO about when to release it and we didn’t want to have it come out immediately. We wanted to now that it’s a year later. If you think about it there really isn’t a good time for this movie to come out when he’s in office, because everyday with the 24 hour news cycle, the news is changing and the perspective on them. We keep saying we’d like to fast forward twenty years from now and see how the film is perceived.
QUESTION: How were you able to capture the role racism played in the election?
EDWARD NORTON: Again, I think in some ways a big part of it was that Amy and Alicia got out there very early. Once he became a really viable candidate, when you could see people who were not for him start to tighten up a little bit, [it was] like they knew it was probably politically untenable to say certain things certain ways. The first time we ever talked about this movie [with producing partners Stuart Blumberg and William Migliore], we talked about this notion of having a Greek chorus in it, where you balance the idea of him off of people in the public, to see what the country is ready for, and what it isn’t. What does his candidacy reveal about who we actually are, where we actually are and how far we’ve actually come? I think one of the parts of the film that I like the most is those cutaways to people reacting to him, because I think the ones that were gotten early are very unvarnished. They’re not being racist per say, but they’re being honest about what they perceive America’s limitations to be, and I think it’s great [that] you can see the tensions and prejudices and projections that people are still operating out of.
QUESTION: It would be interesting to speak to them now after he’s been elected into office.
EDWARD NORTON: Yeah, I actually really like that idea. I think a funny follow-up would be to interview each of those people again. But to your other question, I’m happy that one of the heads of HBO, Richard Plepler, made a decision not to rush to get this out in the spring, even though in some ways it would’ve been easier when the shine was still on the whole thing. There’s something more honest about putting it out later because I think the directors were very objective. Of course it’s following the people in his campaign and they are very jubilant when he wins, but I think the film is pretty neutral. If we had put it out in the immediate wake of the election, it would’ve felt just like a celebration, whereas by putting it out now, when he’s facing the complications of the presidency, it does more what I think we intended it to do, which is open up questions and let people have a more complicated retrospective on that moment so that they can weigh it against where things are now. I think it’s more thought-provoking to have it out now.
QUESTION: Since this film wasn’t originally designed to be a campaign film, how would it have looked differently if he hadn’t won?
ALICIA SAMS: We didn’t feel like we had a film until he won Iowa. Even if he didn’t win the election, we had a story. If he hadn’t won Iowa, we would’ve probably put it on the shelf and waited and gone back and continued to follow him and see where it went. But once he won Iowa, that story of galvanizing those people and organizing those people was a pretty incredible story and wherever it went after that would’ve been really interesting to follow. Probably not as big or popular a film, but an interesting film.
QUESTION: Does your [Edward’s] production company plan to make more documentaries?
EDWARD NORTON: No, [our involvement] wasn’t an agenda to make documentaries. My two partners and I were friends with Amy and we like to work on things with people that we know. It evolved more out of all of us knowing each other and having a group interest in politics and things like that. But I don’t anticipate it leading to us becoming the next great engine of documentary films.
QUESTION: How much footage do you have of the period before the actual election, and would you consider making a companion piece about Obama’s rise as a senator?
AMY RICE: We had 62 hours of footage before his announcement day. In documentary filmmaking, those hours are basically research and development hours. I don’t know if we have enough to make–
ALICIA SAMS: It would be the beginning of a story with no ending.
AMY RICE: But we ended up with 770 hours in the end, so I have a feeling that there might be another film in there, but I’m not sure if we’re ready to talk about it yet.
QUESTION: How did you go about choosing what footage you wanted to include in the finished film?
ALICIA SAMS: Well once we figured out who our characters were–obviously Obama and Axelrod were our main characters–it was a matter of making sure that they all had a narrative arc. They all had a beginning, middle and end to their stories that dovetails with [Obama’s] story. So a lot of great things, [such as] one of Amy’s favorite moments [where] Barack and Michelle joke around backstage, didn’t make the film because it didn’t serve the story. That’s just the nature of making a documentary film. You have to let a lot of really great things go to make two hours work as a narrative
AMY RICE: We also had an incredible editing team: Sam Pollard, Geeta Gandbhir and Arielle Amsalem. The big challenge for us was that everybody knew the ending of our story, so we had to really pick and choose which moments to include in the story that played out in the national media that people wanted in the movie to situate them in time, and combine that with the Ronnie Cho stories that people didn’t know and striking a balance with that. That was very challenging. There were many sleepless nights during the edit.

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