One of the main principles that draws us to film is the way moviemaking can represent the ultimate cooperation between people and God, the way both parties are so codependent on each other for a movie to exist—it’s a dynamic rarely found in any other industry. This is especially true when putting together a documentary, where the characters are real and the moviemakers are just as much a part of the audience as they are a part of the process.
Alicia Sams and Amy Rice grabbed a couple of cameras and began documenting the life of then-Senator Barack Obama, an intriguing fresh face in a political landscape normally reserved for a different brand of leadership. As history would unfold, Obama became more than a fresh face—he became the face of the United States. The presence of both his followers and his adversaries grew exponentially, and his bandwagon became the center of our world, whether we chose to hop on board or not. The only thing that never wavered was the presence of Sams and Rice, two women who let the uncontrollable evolve, stood behind their work through endless adversity and put together the first Barack Obama documentary that chronicles the story from those very first moments where possibilities were born.
Shortly before the doc’s premiere on November 3 on HBO, Sams and Rice both took the time to tell MM about By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, the first directorial effort for each of them. Produced by Edward Norton, By the People reminds us that God will take care of the history; it’s the moviemakers that bring its relevance to life.
Michael Walsh (MM): Amy, other than obviously telling the story of Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency, what goals did you have in making By the People?
Amy Rice (AR): You know, I think that whenever you’re making a documentary, you start out with an idea of what the story’s going to be, but you always give it space to evolve and change. That definitely happened in this case. When we first spoke to his team, we didn’t even talk about Obama running for president… although we secretly hoped he would. Our first day of shooting was on May 11 of ’06, which was nine months before he announced his candidacy. Those were a critical nine months for us because we got to know his team, built a relationship with them; we went to Africa with them on his book tour. Then we filmed in Springfield and he announced [his candidacy] and they told us we couldn’t film anymore. It was like somebody punched us in the stomach.
MM: Alicia, did you have the same goals? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Alicia Sams (AS): That’s an interesting question. You know the goals are always shifting. With a documentary you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to get. We kind of got all the elements of the campaign that we wanted to get, you know? We really wanted to shoot the big prep. On that level, we did meet those goals. There are certain things that would’ve been nice. As a producer you always want to know what you’re doing, and then following a campaign and a campaign schedule—not only is it completely out of your hands, it’s even out of the campaign organizers’ hands. So maybe what I would’ve done differently was not worry so much about the things I couldn’t control.
MM: One of those things you guys couldn’t control was how the Barack Obama campaign responded to your cameras. Amy, you said it felt like a punch in the stomach when they asked you to leave. How did you get past that?
AR: Well, we never discussed him running for President initially. We just said he has an interesting story, goes to interesting places—we should start following him and documenting it. It was funny because when he announced [his candidacy], we showed up the first day in the Chicago headquarters, and about a week or so after the announcement, Alicia and I went up to [campaign communications director] Robert [Gibbs] and asked, “Can we just get a quick shot of the war room?” And he looked at us and was like, “You know, I don’t think we’re going to have you guys shoot anymore.” We were just blind-sided. We’re like, ‘Why do you think we’ve been following you for nine months?’
At that point David Plouffe and David Axelrod had come on board, and you know, rightfully so, as a strategician and a campaign manager, they didn’t want cameras behind the scenes. It was very risky. So we called Edward [Norton] and the other producers and we all got on the phone with everyone we knew in the campaign, including Axelrod, and I think Edward spoke with Barack. Alicia and I convinced Axelrod to have a meeting with us and eventually convinced him to sit down and let us interview him. I remember I went up to him and was putting the wire on him and he looked up at us and he’s like, “How did I end up here. I didn’t want to do this. You guys wore me down.” But after that interview, I think he got a better idea of what we were doing. So he let us continue to shoot and be involved. He saw it wasn’t just a movie about Barack Obama, it was about the campaign.
Now I look back and it’s also a movie about the underdog. Because when we started shooting, and especially when he first announced, history and the odds were against him. Everybody said there’s no way he could win. What I think is so great was what we were seeing behind the scenes were characters like [campaign staff members] Ronnie Cho, Mike Blake and Axelrod. They just kept their eyes on the prize and persevered in the end.
MM: So Alicia, considering so much of it was out of your control, what was the biggest uncontrollable factor that affected what you wanted to do with By the People?
AS: Well, there were a couple of [things]. One was the logistical nightmare of trying to make sure you were in the right place at the right time. We accomplished all our goals, but there were certain goals I would’ve loved to have accomplished sooner or at different times. The reality of not being able to be everywhere at once was kind of a drag.
MM: Amy mentioned that the Obama story turned into the story of the underdog. Alicia, when you began filming, Barack Obama was not only an underdog for the Presidency, he was the underdog to win the nomination for the Democratic Party. What plans did you have for By the People had things not gone so well for Obama?
AS: Well actually, when we began filming he wasn’t even running. So the idea was that we’d follow him for several years. There was a point at which when we thought, ‘OK, if he peters out in Iowa, well we’ll just save it and wait. We’ll see what happens in four years.’ Then there were all these milestones. When we won Iowa we felt like, ‘Oh my God, we have a really great movie about a campaign in Iowa, even if he doesn’t win the nomination.’ It obviously got better with each hurdle, but when he won Iowa we did feel like we had a pretty interesting movie no matter what.
MM: Amy, did you have any particular political party, race or any other type of audience that you specifically wanted to reach when putting together By The People?
AR: Ideally, I always envisioned having a camera in all the campaigns, because I’m sure there were Ronnie Chos and Mike Blakes in the other campaigns. We reached out to the Hillary [Clinton] camp and then eventually to the [John] McCain camp, but we couldn’t get behind the scenes there. Also, I don’t think we would have had the budget to do it; it was already pretty expensive what we were doing. But that would have been an ideal world. It was such a historic election; to have cameras in all of the campaigns would have been great. We’ll let somebody else do that next time.
MM: Yeah, following one campaign was probably stressful enough. Did the Obama camp ever warm up to the project at all?
AS: Um… no. (laughs) Some people were great, but there were definitely times when we had to win them over. We had to win new people over every time new people came on board with the campaign. When we started in the senate there were just a couple people around. And we just were like, ‘Let’s see where this thing goes.’ And you know, there was a moment where we thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re not going to let us keep going.’ But Amy and I just kept showing up and we worked on the phones with Axelrod and Obama, and we just sort of didn’t take no for an answer. But it was a little scary.
MM: At the end of the documentary, Barack Obama obviously wins the election. Everybody is thrilled; from the people in the streets, to the hotel employees, to everyone in the campaign with him. Yet at the very end of the By the People, the celebration ends before we get to see Obama and how he felt and how he took part in the celebration. What was the reason for this?
AR: I think symbolically we felt like it was a good ending point where the door slammed. We did have a cut where we go to Grant Park and were back stage with him and his family celebrating, but it didn’t seem to fit in the story arc of the movie because we had so many different endings at that point… but that will be in the DVD extras. Sony is releasing the DVD January 12. You’ll see the whole Grant Park scene. It was a tough choice, but I was happy we ended it where we did.
MM: Did you guys ever personally receive any type of negative attention from people who didn’t support Barack Obama and wouldn’t want a film publicizing him at that point?
AS: We never really got into it much with negative people that didn’t want us to film and publicize [his story], because we were already pretty clear that this film wasn’t going to come out during the election. But people had no problem expressing whether they liked him or not as you see early on [in the documentary]. I do think that our biggest hurdle with the campaign was that after we had been shooting for nine months, the campaign started and there were these new campaign managers who were like, “We don’t want you guys doing this, why would we want a film crew here?” And we were like, ‘We’ve been here forever!’ Understandably, everybody’s so sensitive about cameras, and whether or not they end up on YouTube and all that.
MM: HBO has had such a strong history putting together revolutionary documentary after documentary, whether it be about politics, sports or anything else. How do you feel about joining such an exclusive class?
AR: Oh, it’s an honor. I think when you cut your teeth on documentary filmmaking in New York like I did, you always know that the goal was to have your film with HBO. So yeah, it’s an honor and it has been so enjoyable working with them and they have so much respect for the filmmaker and for the process. I feel incredibly lucky.
MM: I’m sure as a moviemaker you strive to be as truthful as you can, but politics can be as sensitive an issue as any. How did you prevent yourself from allowing whatever feelings you had about Barack Obama or any of his competition affect the honesty of your production?
AS: Well, I think there’s an important difference between being a filmmaker and a journalist. We weren’t there to present his policies, so we were there more as flies on the wall, just to show what went on. We actually tried to get more access to the other campaigns so we could include them more, but we just couldn’t get that kind of access. So in essence, you just have to make the decision—”Are you going to tell this story from the inside out or not?” We felt like we had the access [to the Obama campaign], we had these characters, we would tell it from the inside out. Everybody knows the story of what happened so well now, so we wanted to show more of what happened from the inside of the campaign.
MM: This was your directorial debut. How do you see this affecting the way you make movies in the future? What did you learn from the experience?
AS: Well, I had wanted to direct for a while because I’ve produced a ton and have only directed some little episodes. So I learned a lot. I mean, I was so ready. I was really excited to direct. So what I hope this film does is enables to me to be a director from now on.
MM: Amy, this is your debut as a director too, correct?
MM: Any butterflies? The HBO premiere is so close.
AR: Oh my God, every day. I have butterflies right now doing this interview with you. I’m not used to this. It’s such a remarkable experience. I think back to when we first screened this film in L.A. in July. I was so nervous; all I could eat or drink for breakfast was a glass of milk to calm my nerves. I’m not used to this. I love shooting and being behind the camera, but I’m happy to go out and stand up for my film and promote it. Again, HBO’s been so great. They’ve organized all these great regional screenings to build momentum and it’s all been so amazing.
For more information on By the People and its future airings on HBO, visit www.hbo.com/docs/programs/bythepeople.