In 1993, The Independent ran a story about The War Room, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. The film followed Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign from inside campaign headquarters. This year, Hegedus, along with Nick Doob, the cinematographer on The War Room, released Al Franken: God Spoke, an intimate portrait of Al Franken’s growing political persona, punctuated by the “Saturday Night Live” brand of humor he is most famous for. The film played to rave reviews at both the 2006 Full Frame Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, among others. Now, as The Independent looks back — as well as ahead—seems like the perfect time to get these three veteran filmmakers back on record. Here they discuss the evolution of political campaigning— from 1993 to now—as well as how the industry of independent documentary making, that they had such a huge hand in shaping, has changed.
Erica Berenstein: In the 1993 interview, The Independent’s then editor, Patricia Thomson, asked you what George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s motives were in letting you into the Clinton war room with a camera. You said they ‘had an interest in the historical aspects of it…they understand what we mean by history…To be able to see what they are doing from some kind of distance, some kind of outside position.’
Chris Hegedus: I think that’s probably the same for Al Franken and why he let us into his life.
D.A. Pennebaker: What’s really interesting, and none of us have really dared to give a lot of thought to this, is how much did our pursuing him… how much did that count for what he finally did? I think that our being in the room focused James in a way that he wouldn’t have been focused if we hadn’t been making a film. But you don’t know. You like to think that you’re not even there, but the fact is you are there. And it isn’t you that’s there. It’s this process. They never saw the process as being a big film. They just saw us as making a home movie. Al, I think, maybe saw it a little differently.
EB: How did you decide to do a film about Al Franken?
CH: He was going around doing these book tours, and he was getting hundreds of people, and something was really happening for him in a way that was never happening before with his other books. And people were incredibly hungry to hear his message. Al just seemed like he was at a point of change in his life, and those are the points that you decide to make a film about somebody.
EB: The place of documentary films in popular culture has really changed in the 13 years since The War Room came out. They’re part of popular culture much more than they used to be. Has what you expect from your films changed because of how the public reception of documentaries has changed?
DAP: You know it has changed, because tomorrow in Newark is the big election. And the guy in Street Fight is definitely going to win. And I think the film had an effect on that. It certainly got [Sharpe] James out of the race.
CH: [Street Fight] has a quote on the box that says, ‘the best film since The War Room.’
Nick Doob: The whole political atmosphere has changed since then. I mean, there was Whitewater and then there was the impeachment. The thing about all this stuff, “Crossfire” and Rush Limbaugh and all that, is that there is this sort of recklessness with facts. Al is not that way. To a fault, he’s very careful of the accuracy of what he talks about. He loses arguments because of that. He was a good sort of hero for our film. It seemed like the country was going to turn a corner. But it didn’t. But Al turned a corner.
DAP: And it may yet turn a corner.
NB: And it may yet turn a corner, that’s right. It feels like we’re in round two of the same thing.
DAP: The steam pressure is really rising.
EB: A friend recently said to me after watching Atom Egoyan’s new film Citadel at Hot Docs, ‘You can’t have a defined category called documentary. There is no such thing.’
DAP: As an author, as an originator, is it your responsibility to compartmentalize? Are you supposed to be the one to say this falls into this thing? Whatever your friend said you can’t do, I sort of agree; you can’t do either.
EB: So would you say that your films are documentaries?
DAP: No. We don’t say that. Somebody else does. What can you do about it?
CH: I think that the reason nobody wants to be boxed in to documentary is because it’s not only history. I think you can explore in more interesting ways the convergence of real-life filming, narrative filming, animation, all sorts of experimental film within a film. I definitely don’t want to be confined to doing something that is strictly documentary. But I think we still are interested in something that is… in the power of stories about real life.
EB: So, this is kind of flip in a way, but if you don’t necessarily categorize your films as documentary films…
DAP: Well we do…
CH: We’re kind of flip in our answer…
DAP: We don’t really have a lot of choice.
ND: Monterey Pop wasn’t a documentary.
DAP: It was called that later. Not when we put it out. We never advertised it as such.
CH: Well, they put it in the documentary category at the…
DAP: Well, I took it out! They were going to enter it into the Academy Awards, and I was very excited. I said this is great, against all these big films. And they said, ‘No, no. We’re going to put it in a special category, documentary.’ And I said no. I took it out. The last thing in the world I want is to have a label on it ‘documentary.’ It would disappear.
ND: But documentaries have changed. In many ways you’ve prevailed, Penny. Documentaries used to be things that were narrated all the way over, and they had a certain look. It’s a much freer way of making films.
CH: There is a power in seeing the real people, and I think that is what is exciting about seeing the type of films we do and others. Whether you call it documentary or cinema verité.
DAP: (chuckling) Reality films. In other words, what you’re saying is: Is the difference between artifice and reality determinable? Not by everybody.
ND: Nobody in that room knows what is going to happen next in a documentary. That’s part of it. There’s something very exciting about that. You can get, like with Al, a great performance.
CH: We used to try to avoid it because documentary was the d-word; it would damn your film. It would never get any type of release if you called it a documentary.
DAP: The theaters wouldn’t even play it.
CH: They never played documentaries in theaters for most of our career but then documentaries became very fashionable. I think also 20 years ago they attached a lot of significance journalistically to the word documentary and there were lots of debates over it about truth and this and that, and you’d get all caught up in whether it’s true. All I know is that when I first saw certain documentary films that were different than any films I saw when I grew up, which were mostly nature films or war films about World War II, I saw certain films that Pennebaker and [Richard] Leacock and [Albert] Maysles had done with Bob Drew, and they were so real to me because they kind of brought back a certain time and situation, and they were very dramatic for me. This seemed a way to make a film that
was as dramatic as a fiction film, but it was about real people and because of that it was almost more dramatic because you felt like you were really seeing history in a sense. And I think that these films do touch on history; in that way, it’s the point where they segue to documentary somehow. The War Room is a record. As a record, it’s only one tiny view of those moments in the [Clinton] war room. But it’s what remains.