Song for My Father: Director David Holbrooke’s Portrait of His Diplomat Father

We were more than eight months into a nine-month edit and I still couldn’t get the damn sentence right.

I must have tried dozens of versions of this narration for the opening of the film and they all felt off. It wasn’t just the words; the sentiment and tone of it were funky as well.

This ongoing struggle was for a documentary I was directing about my father, ambassador Richard Holbrooke, called The Diplomat. Far from an objective film, The Diplomat is my story of his life, and by far the greatest challenge to telling this tale was how to deal with myself.

My father’s story unfolded over five decades of American foreign policy, so that offered a relatively clean linear arc. His first posting was in Vietnam, which provides the thrust of the first act. His career highlight was ending the war in the Balkans, and that conflict offered a vivid and compelling second act, as we learn what it took to actually bring about peace. The film’s final—and tragic—act takes place after he is appointed to be President Obama’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It ends when he collapses in Hillary Clinton’s office at the State Department on December 10, 2010.

I was stationed safely behind the camera for all the previous films I had directed. I worked in television for more than a decade at CNN and The Today Show and was entirely comfortable knowing that I was not “talent,” the term used for on-air folk. But for this film, I was going to have to be on camera, leading the audience through my father’s remarkable life. It was a tricky jump to make, particularly since the story was so personal.

Out in the field, our philosophy was to cover our bases first, so that we knew we filmed every interviewee clean without me muddling the shot. Then, we made sure to get my questions—a standard two-shot. We also tried a lot of different bits such as interviewing me after the shoot about what I was thinking and feeling. We also tried having me doing various to-camera stand-ups like news reporters do. One of these was in Afghanistan where I spoke about an Olympic-size swimming pool the Russians had built during their occupation. None of these efforts made it into the final film.

Richard Holbrooke speaking at a UN conference

Richard Holbrooke speaking at a UN conference

We looked for moments that were real and moved the story along. One such moment that worked was when I was interviewing the legendary ABC newswoman Diane Sawyer, who dated my father for seven years; she couldn’t help herself and started to interview me. Another memorable moment was when I interviewed a “former” Taliban spokesman in Kabul as we sat on the floor, not an easy place for my lanky six-foot-six-inch frame. At the end of the interview he thanked me for coming to see him, “a man of peace like your father,” and then he apologized for how uncomfortable I must have been. I started laughing and he started laughing, with a smile and crinkly eyes that made him look like a Taliban Santa Claus. I then tried to get up and my knees, in open revolt, made me sit down again, which brought about more mirth from everyone in the room, including the crew. As strong as this scene was, though, we cut it from the film because it was more about me than my father.

That was the challenge always facing us. How do we get my voice, my presence and my narration right in this story that always had to be about him? Luckily I had a tremendous team with an editor (Seth Bomse) and producer (Stacey Reiss) who sometimes understood the story of my father (and me) better than I did.

When we finally had our first rough cut together, it ran an overly long two hours and eight minutes (we eventually cut out nearly half an hour). Against our editor’s judgment, I had assembled a few friends and wanted to share it with them to get their notes. Making Seth even more nervous, one of our audience members was Louie Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for directing The Cove.

After the film screened, Louie said, “I think it is really compelling and interesting, but I really want to know why you’re making this film. That isn’t explained in the film.” I told him, “I sat onstage to eulogize my father at the Kennedy Center in DC with Presidents Obama and Clinton, not to mention Hillary Clinton and a lot of other luminaries. Being there, I realized my father was a historical figure and felt I should understand that better.” Louie threw up his hands and said, “That’s exactly what I want to see in the film.” The next week we were scheduled to interview Hillary Clinton, and my wife Sarah suggested we tell her that. This interaction became the prologue of the film, along with an explanation of what my father had achieved.

Director David Holbrooke and his father, Richard

Director David Holbrooke and his father, Richard

After the title card there needed to be a narration; that provided the challenge of that impossible sentence. It wasn’t just the words, but also what I wanted to say about me, my father and our relationship. When he was dying, I was in Colorado, where I program a documentary film festival called Telluride Mountainfilm. I hopped on a plane to DC where he was in the ICU and wrote him a painstakingly honest letter telling him that when he recovered from this, he had to reprioritize his life. He had been under tremendous pressure in the Obama Administration, and I knew the work was not going well from private conversations with friends of his and, more painfully, from published reports in the New York Times. On top of that, he had been incredibly absent from his family’s life, not seeing my children the entire summer of 2010. I told him in this letter that “this was a real low point in our relationship.”

For a while, we had that letter right up front in that spot after the title card. It was powerful, raw and honest. It was also too much. It was too much conflict and too much information for the audience to take in then. As our executive producer, Sheila Nevins of HBO, said, “The audience barely knows you at this point in the movie.”

So I had to dial it back and lose the letter while finding another way to set up the beginning of the film. I tried multiple approaches, all of which were rightly shot down by Seth and Stacey, and then found an old email from Christiane Amanpour, which became the very first track:

“My father’s life was a public one, so when he died, I received an overwhelming number of condolence letters and emails. One of those notes came from journalist Christiane Amanpour, who sent me this photo and wrote, ‘This is Sarajevo New Years, not long ago. Bright, shining, at peace and with a future for her children. Thank you, Richard.'”

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I then had to figure out how to frame my relationship with my father. I had a couple of rules that I wanted to have run through the film. One was no self-pity, as I didn’t ever want the audience to feel sorry for me, as I have had a fortunate life in so many ways. The other rule was that the film had to be loving but honest, so after countless attempts, I ended up with this:

“I realized that while I had read about his many accomplishments, there was much about his storied career I didn’t understand. My father’s life as a diplomat constantly pulled him away from our family, and when we did manage to get together, he rarely wanted to talk about his work.

“Life with Pops, as I called him, provided a remarkable vantage point. But he could be an intense and complicated man, often making our relationship challenging.”

This bit of narration worked because it explained the stressors on my family and relationship with him without being too maudlin or detailed. The next line was the one that seems to stand out to reviewers and writers covering the film:

“As I dealt with his sudden loss, I decided the only way for me to grieve was to get to know him better in death than I did in life. So I set out into his world.”

And I certainly did get to know him better after he died as I went to nine countries and interviewed more than 75 people for the film. One of the reasons I made The Diplomat was that I felt my father had something more to say about the world we live in. My only wish is that I’d been able to interview him. Since I can’t, I try whenever I can to encourage everyone to sit down with a camera and interview their own parents. You don’t need to make a film about them, but you’ll never regret that you got them on camera. MM

The Diplomat aired nationally on HBO on November 2, 2015. Images courtesy of HBO.

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