Nanette Burstein, the filmmaker of Hulu’s four-part Hillary docuseries, talks to Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) about interviewing the political powerhouse alongside her friends, family and husband Bill Clinton, and going back into the archives to understand the lasting legacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
HEIDI EWING: When they called you about this film, did you have a moment of hesitation? Did you think it was too soon? How did you react and when did you make the decision that this was something that you wanted to do?
NANETTE BURSTEIN: I got contacted in January 2018, and it wasn’t even serious at that point, it could have been a film, a series – it was like “we’re going to do something on the election because Hillary’s team had filmed a lot behind the scenes and they’re open to making some sort of film that unpacks that,” and I was at first excited but also very trepidatious because I felt like it was too soon and too raw – I didn’t even want to watch that film, let alone make it. But they were also very open to it being something else. At first, I didn’t know I was going to do this deep dive bio, I really thought “Ok, maybe I’ll use some of this footage to talk about gender or the Russians or all these different aspects of the election,” which is still really doing an election film ultimately, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized how there is actually this incredible story to tell if you just unpack her whole life, which is entirely different to what anyone’s discussing, and you can still use this footage because what was great about the footage was seeing her fly-on-the-wall. Everyone thinks she’s so guarded, that is her reputation and that is somewhat true, she’s had to be guarded, so to see her being filmed in a way that she never expected, that a lot of this footage would be used or seen at the moment that it was actually captured, it was a really nice asset to have given her character. How do I then use this footage but then tell this biography? So I thought I have to interweave it, which I actually – as a filmmaker – hate interweaving timelines because I find it can often not work and take you out of the story.
Heidi: It’s really hard, I’ve tried it myself to varying degrees of success, the interwoven timeline, I noticed when you first did it in the first episode and I realized this is really welcome because it really lent depths to what we already know. We all lived through the 2016 nightmare, and we’ve lived through a lot of her campaign but there were so many ‘Aha’ moments that I found because of the interweaving, so I was really glad you did that. How long did it take you to figure out that was going to work? How many iterations of an edit did you do?
Nanette: It didn’t take that long. I had two editors and we did an assembly of the first two episodes within 6 weeks, and while it was far from perfect, I could tell that this will work. It will need a lot of massaging and some really clever transitions and moving things around a lot, and that’ll be the bane of our existence for the next few months but I think it’ll work. And the thing is that so much of what happened in 2016 is informed by previous moments in her life, so you do want to go back and forth in time to be able to understand that juxtaposition. But it’s hard, because the email thing comes up right away in the campaign, and yet I haven’t explained everything that happened in the 1990s that shows you that the Clintons are dubious to a lot of the population, that she’s so sketchy because there was Whitewater and various scandals, so that was frustrating to not be able to tell the story chronologically, but it was still worth the effort in the end to be able to go back.
Heidi: I was relieved that you didn’t go into the emails in the first episode, I didn’t need to hear about that and when it came, it was welcome, I think it really worked structurally and I admire that as a filmmaker that you were able to pull that off. I want to know about the order of things. Did you have to audition each other out? How many times did you meet with Hillary without a camera there to suss out how you were going to film, did you try to have a relationship with her, some kind of friendship or access, how did that work?
Nanette: I met her for the first time when I was basically – it was sort of a job interview, not just for her being the ultimate arbiter, but Hulu and the producers, and they wanted to include her because they wanted her to be comfortable with whomever the filmmaker was, which was understandable. I was also curious what she was like, I didn’t know if I would end up working on this project but I had never met her, never been to one of her rallies, so I was just excited, thinking this would be really cool, a chance to meet this very historical woman. We really got along right away. We had a great rapport, and I did not spend an inordinate amount of time with her before I interviewed her, mainly because she was just busy and I didn’t have access to her. I did meet with her a couple of times beforehand – one of the times to say “hey, we’re doing this and we’re on the road,” and the other time, I had written this entire treatment of how the series was going to unfold, and I needed to discuss it with her and talk about how I needed to interview her extensively about her life and that we weren’t doing a film, we were doing a series and it was going to be a deep dive into her. None of this was totally shocking news to her because I would often meet with Huma Abedin, who is her closest aide and kept her abreast of everything I was thinking and everything that was happening, and so because I couldn’t meet with Hillary and talk all about it, I could meet with Huma, who was lovely, and she would keep Hillary up to date, so I wasn’t going in cold to explain this entire concept.
Heidi: What was off-limits? What were the ground rules of what she didn’t want to discuss, were there ground rules? I assume there were?
Nanette: There were no ground rules actually, and I made it very clear when I met with her to talk about how we were going to discuss everything in her life that it was important to talk about her marriage – that was going to be an important part of the story, not only because it personalizes her, but it’s been much debated because it affected her political career as well in enormous ways. And she said “Ok, I’ve written about it before.” And beforehand, she didn’t ask for questions, she didn’t ask for topics, so yeah, she was an open book.
Heidi: How many days was the interview? I assume it wasn’t just one day?
Nanette: It was 7 days, split up. We thought it would be 3 days, so we scheduled 3 days and then we were not even half way through the story, so we knew we had to come back and shoot, and at that point, she was all in. She was very busy, so we came back a couple of months later and did 3 more days, which were a lot more productive because she hasn’t ever done an interview like this, she’s never participated in a documentary about herself. She’s used to doing a ton of interviews but always about a particular agenda, the news of the day, talking points, and this was a free conversation about every aspect of her life, and so it took some time for her to really get used to that and really get comfortable, like it does for a lot of people. When I came back the second time, especially by the second day, she was great, she was so open and charming and funny and emotional and forthright and so then I went back and talked about so many other subjects that she had been closed up at the beginning; I went back to her childhood and different aspects of her life because she was in the zone, and the next day, the same thing.
Heidi: And I love that you were just rolling all the time and just got this, ‘okey dokey, artichokey’ moment, and it’s just so Midwest. I assume she wasn’t aware that you were filming during all the makeup, we do it as well and I love that you did it. Tell me about that choice to return to the make-up and her talking to you while she’s getting made up, those little interim stolen moments, was that thought about in advance? And then how you decided to feature it at the top and at the end of the episodes?
Nanette: Yeah, it’s not uncommon, I just do it regularly, sometimes it’s not anything nefarious or secretive, I really just sometimes want the shot of people sitting down in the chair or the slate. It’s really just about more transparency for the viewer, having this behind-the-scenes feel in some kind of way. I didn’t know that I would feature these conversations as much as I did, and I didn’t at first in the edit room. But I had a hard time opening the show – how do you open this huge concept of a person? – and so in the second edit, I started using this material to open it and I found that it worked really well, and it worked on a lot of levels. One, she has some off-the-cuff remarks, but two, especially her getting made up has become this important thing in the show about femininity and how she’s been forced to dress and look a certain way even though she’d rather wear her coke bottle glasses and no make up at all, which she basically does when no one else is around, so it worked on a lot different levels.
Heidi: It was really infuriating and it’s almost like there was a death of a person, like they killed a piece of her when she had to take the glasses off or change her hair, and I feel like it made me never want to wear makeup again. And we have not made any strides on that, if you look at Kamala, they have to be coiffed because otherwise people say they look like a slob, they have no choice, so those instances historically that you found – as the governor’s wife and then having to change her image so he could get elected; after he lost, intimating that she was somehow the reason that he lost – that struck me the most about the series, she was put up against that.
Nanette: It happened time and again – it also happened when he was running for president and she said something that was misconstrued about tea and cookies, and she had to hold an umbrella over him and take a step back and not look like the yuppy bitch from hell. And this happened again in the White House when she was in charge of trying to get universal healthcare, again she was seen as taking over the White House and really being the president and Bill is just her lapdog, and then she had to step back and make tea and cookies again, and actually go abroad where they can’t even see her, and do good over there. So this was a constant refrain in her life. It’s funny, I was really trying to get her to voice her frustrations with it in an emotional way and she just couldn’t go there because she just felt like, and I’m sure she felt it at the time, but at this point she’s just resigned herself. Not that it doesn’t outrage her on an intellectual level, but there’s just this stupid noise and [she’s thinking] “I just do what I have to do to get rid of the noise so that I can actually get things accomplished.” And it goes back to this statement that she made, which I put early in the film when she’s trying to take the LSAT, and she’s being yelled at by her male colleagues who are really pissed that she’s even trying to become a lawyer because what if she gets in and they have to go to Vietnam and they might get killed, and she talks about how you don’t talk back, you don’t pick a fight, you don’t even defend yourself; you just put your head down and you do the work and if you do that, then you can quietly get things done. Now you flash forward to this time where we’re told to be our ‘authentic selves’; now you’re not a fighter, you’re not the bra-burning liberal that you really were considered that many years ago. So it was interesting that she just couldn’t find that inner anger anymore because she’s been living it for so long.
Heidi: So that was something that you were seeking to get and she never gave it to you. I was getting so mad.
Nanette: I know, I was getting mad too, I was like, “doesn’t this drive you crazy?” She would answer it and she would talk about it but never in an emotional way that maybe other people experience just by watching it.
Heidi: Were there other things where you expected her to react differently, certain areas that you weren’t able to break with her? I’m curious as a filmmaker, because I’ve only done one film about a celebrity, that was Norman Lear and he was very practiced in his speeches and anecdotes, and we had to trick him and try to figure out a way for him to not tell the story the same way. It’s a problem with people that are so polished to get something, were there other areas that you felt like you would have liked another chance, or was she a wall?
Nanette: I didn’t feel that way. I would have felt that way if I had just filmed the first 3 days, but because we went back and ended up filming for 4 more days ultimately, you’re right, it is hard for someone who has been telling the same stories for so many years, but I was really able to get her out of that. A lot of it was because it was new territory that she hadn’t spoken about ad nauseam, and I’m very extensive, I’m very thorough, I keep coming back to the same thing and I think it gets people to be unrehearsed, at least it was in her case. She really felt passionate and original and insightful, and to interview someone for that amount of time breaks down a barrier.
Heidi: It really does, it did not feel rehearsed at all, it felt like a real conversation.
Nanette: I think there are things that are private about her marriage that she wasn’t ever going to go there, some of them were more personal issues. She was very intimate and talking about falling in love with Bill, and the Monica Lewinsky impact that had on her personally, professionally, politically. And she really did speak quite candidly about that, but as far as some of the issues they were having earlier in their marriage in Arkansas, and I included it on camera, she says “we were not the perfect marriage, we had problems, we had conflicts, it wasn’t Better Homes and Gardens, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Heidi: I noticed that Bill Clinton doesn’t appear in the film until minute 30 in the first episode. Were you very conscious of the Bill factor and how you were going to handle him so as to not overshadow the film? How were you going to handle him as a secondary subject?
Nanette: I didn’t want to introduce him until she met him, as far as the chronology of the film and when he came into her life. I felt like I wanted her to be a candidate and a political figure and historical figure on her own, and he was lovely and sharing a lot of his time and insights and he is quite charming and articulate, and he had really thoughtful things to say, not just about their marriage but also their time together in Arkansas, and how important she was, the conflicts they faced together as a team, especially in the White House, he was essential to telling that story with her. And yet, it was still very much her story and her telling, he was helping fill out the important details, but only when it really involved him, and I was very cautious of that.
Heidi: The film reminded me that in 1992, that big push for women in the senate, there had only been two women in the senate, there wasn’t even a women’s bathroom in the senate, I don’t think I even knew that or if I had forgotten that moment with Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, really tying that to Hillary being this impressive First Lady, was that a connection you were aware of?
Nanette: I didn’t know that 1992 was the year of women before I started on this project, even though I was around in 1992 and voting, I didn’t know, so when I started researching, I found out and I was shocked that year of the women were only six women being elected to the senate, how pathetic was that?
What was really bizarre was that while we were editing this, history was playing itself out with [Brett] Kavanaugh – the same thing happened with Clarence Thomas, the senate hearings of the appointment of a Supreme Court justice who had sexually harassed a woman, the same thing is happening again and then there’s a backlash because he still gets appointed. And then 2018 is arguably a much more impressive year of the women as far as the number of women who are elected into the senate and congress, but I was amazed at history repeating itself and at the very least, taken to a much more impressive and progressive level than it had in 1992, but it was playing out in the exact same way, which is remarkable.
Heidi: Tying her to the 1992 surge was something that was informative for me, and also tying her to the second wave with [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez and the six presidential candidates who were women, I really think you were able to really successfully lay out her legacy in a non-emotional, non fan-girl kind of way. The roads lead back to her and she gets no credit, she’ll get credit in this film, but that it really takes someone to go out front first. You named the episode ‘Be Our Champion, Go Away’ – why did you want to focus so much on that line?
Nanette: One of the most attractive parts of telling Hillary’s story was to be able to tie to the arc of the women’s movement, and people are aware of it but not the details. Excuse my Biblical reference, but she was this Moses figure in the sense that she wasn’t allowed to go into Israel, into Canaan, she had to stay at the top of Sinai and let the next generation go, and that’s really how change happens. There’s a new generation and you have to be the sacrifice in many ways, and I feel like that’s the inspiring part of her story and the tragic part of her story, and she doesn’t find it to be a tragedy so I didn’t either. When I first cut the ending, it felt more tragic so then I went back to the final day of the interviews with her and part of it was really to understand where her head was at now, and she has no regrets whatsoever. She doesn’t mind that she was the tip of the spear, I think she’s proud of it, so that was important to me.
Heidi: I’d love to get your opinion of her sense of where she stands on the cataclysmic events that happened when she lost, and I know this was [filmed] before Covid-19, but the effect on all of us because of those 80,000 votes. Does she feel that weight? It seems like she was shaking it off, she shouldn’t take on the blame.
Nanette: There are some lines. She goes to the inauguration [of Donald Trump], and she talks about how hard it was personally, not because she was the loser but because she was very, very freaked out about how this guy would govern and would he step up to the occasion and be awed by the responsibility of the office and leave behind his crazy rhetoric from the election or would he empower all of these dark elements in America, and so she talks about that. She’s talked about it more in the interview, you give her the platform and she’ll speak ad nauseam about how horrified she is by our current president and just appalled at what he’s doing to our democracy and feels a personal responsibility, time again. And that’s why she’ll speak about it ad nauseam because to this day, it keeps her up at night and not because she lost on a personal level, but because he won, and she can’t help but feel responsible for it.
Heidi: I think the line that got to me the most in the last episode was her saying, “I felt like I let everyone down.”
Nanette: I could have put more of that in, but I didn’t want to end the film talking about Donald Trump for a long time. And that was the other thing that was a huge consideration for me throughout making this, was how much do I get into Donald Trump when I’m dealing with her and the 2016 election, and I tried to minimize it because I didn’t want this to be a film about Donald Trump and it’s so easy to go there. A lot of it we know already, we’re living it daily, how much do you really need to say, but there were constant decisions, like do I put in ‘basket of deplorables,’ which was more to do with her than it was with him, and there was this constant weighing of not going too far in describing Donald Trump, and there was a lot more about him empowering certain racist and dark elements. I wanted it to be in relationship to her because we were living it, and are living it on a daily basis, so we don’t need to remind the audience of that.
Heidi: How much of the archive footage did you watch before you embarked on the interviews, and how many months did you do that?
Nanette: The first thing I had to do when I came onto this project was to go through 2,000 hours of behind-the-scenes footage of 2016, it’s not 2,000 hours of verite, but we use every amazing moment so there was still a lot. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and it took four months with a team of assistant editors and two editors and myself to go through and assess what was there and make selects, and while that was happening, I was also looking at a lot of archival footage of her life and reading every book I could. So it was actually a blessing to have that time to actually be able to see what asset I had because I could then use it with all this other research.
Heidi: How long was the process, start to finish?
Nanette: A year and a half. I met with her, Hulu and the producers in March 2018, and the contract happened really quickly and I started working on it in May, and we were done a year and a half later.
Heidi: That’s amazing, that’s so fast. That’s all the questions I have for you, thank you.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity]