With the presidential election just around the corner, The Criterion Collection has restored “The War Room,” Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal behind-the scenes documentary on Bill Clinton’s revolutionary (and winning) campaign for an extras-packed Blu-ray/DVD release.
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As the title suggest, “The War Room” doesn’t center on Clinton, but on his crack team of consultants, including James Carville and George Stephanopoulos who went on to become media stars in their own rights shortly following Clinton’s inauguration.
Hegedus and Pennebaker, whose last film together was the 2009 cooking documentary “Kings of Pastry,” caught up with Indiewire to discuss the continued relevance of “The War Room,” revisiting their subjects 15 years later with their follow-up documentary “Return of the Wall Room” (included on the disc); and why Stephanopoulos and Carville have remained close to this day.
You two supervised the stellar high-definition transfer The Criterion Collection did on “The War Room.” Did that process mark the first time you had seen the film in a while?
Hegedus: We tried to put out a DVD of it in the late ’90s, but we didn’t have a lot of control over the distribution of it. That was very frustrating. There were so many interesting opportunities with Clinton being re-elected, Monica Lewinsky and everything else that ties into it. We watch it every now and then, but I hadn’t watched it for a while until now.
Pennebaker: When we did the follow-up, we of course watched it a lot. And then we thought about it a lot because all the people that were in it, we were now filming, but they were totally in a different kind of mode. For instance, in the old days you could follow people around with a camera and they would laugh and talk to you. And now they had cellphones. People didn’t like to be filmed when they were on their cell phones because they didn’t know who was going to call them. So it changed the whole method of being able to have a kind of close attachment to people.
Hegedus: I thought we would follow people around the way we did in “The War Room,” but it just became impossible because the film was going to be put out right before the elections on the Sundance Channel. Nobody wanted to say anything before the elections happened.
It’s a given why The Criterion Collection approached you to release the film at this time.
Pennebaker: Well, they were already distributing “Monterey Pop” and had done a terrific job on it.
Hegedus: They’re always my first choice. They are, for me, one of the most prestigious DVD companies. They do everything with such care. It’s hard to find people that really care about you and your film and just the history of it. That’s what Criterion is about.
What do you, yourselves, make of the timing?
Hegedus: Originally we thought we were going to put it out before the last election. It just didn’t happen that quickly.
I think it’s great. I think it gives a good counterpoint to how much elections have changed and how much they’re the same in many ways. People are still going to vote for “the economy, stupid,” and health care is still a huge issue. So a lot of the mantras from the Clinton campaign are still the same now. People are going to vote from their heart and their gut, as much as with their minds.
And people are reaching out in the same way. The idea that Obama is doing a small film with Davis Guggenheim, shows you how similar it is — people want to know about who the candidates are.
Going back to the making of “The War Room,” your initial aim wasn’t to follow the people behind the campaign, but Clinton himself, correct?
Pennebaker: I had started a film with Bobby Kennedy years before. But I just wasn’t able to continue with it and then unfortunately he got shot, so that was the end of it. But I always kept the idea of wanting to do a film about a man becoming president. It seemed like an interesting idea.
When we decided we were going to do something with Clinton, we weren’t the ones to decide. Two people came to see us and said, “Why aren’t you doing a film on this election?” Clinton, I think, was in third or fourth place in New York, so I thought we didn’t have much there. We weren’t sure how we would do it. They kind of said, “We’ll find something and get you a little money to start.” So they did, and we went down to the hotel in New York where the campaign was underway, and we saw a number of people, all of whom really put us to sleep.
By accident we ran into James. We didn’t know who he was. We just thought he was someone’s drunken relation. He was so interesting and we liked him so that we filmed him. Later it turned out that he was really running the campaign, that Hilary had put him in charge.
So it was kind of a happenstance. When we went to George and told him we were thinking of filming the Governor, he said it would be hard to do because they had this guy from Newsweek there. We said, “Well, maybe we can do something with you and James.” He wasn’t exactly excited about it.
So we went down to Little Rock and confronted James. We said we just wanted to hang around. We had no particular idea, we just wanted to see what happened. James said, “Why should I let you do that?” We said, “Because you want to.” About an hour later he called us back and said OK.
When did occur to you two that you had struck gold by centering on James and George?
Hegedus: I think we knew that the campaign was something special. All of the people were so enthusiastic and in awe of Clinton. I think history has seen that so many of those people have gone on to become really interesting people in politics or the media.
I think we were always scared, because what would you have if Clinton lost? A film about a losing campaign staff? That’s not a very sellable item. It was always scary. What was unique all the time was James and George. It was such a buddy movie in a sense. They had a respect for each other. James always used to say things like, “If George’s IQ could be measure in Fahrenheit, it would boil water.” They were an incredible team.
Did you two have plans for the film had Clinton lost?
Pennebaker: For anything we do, we just sort of do it and see what happens.
Hegedus: We were kind of depressed even after he won! At the very end of the day, when Clinton was going to be president and everyone was going to the rally, everyone got Secret Service pins to get in to the special event. When we went there, D.A. and I weren’t allowed in. We were relegated to the press bleachers. We missed this incredible moment where Clinton came down from the stage and hugged everybody from the campaign.
I just though, “Oh god, this is a disaster. We’ve filmed all these months and we don’t even see the candidate with the subjects.” It just seemed like we didn’t have a film.
But then when I was thinking up stuff, I saw material that we had shot with George on the phone with Clinton. They were just such private moments. They seemed as special as publicly coming down from the stage. You heard Clinton just giddy about it, going, “I won Nevada.” In the end we struggled and made a film out of it, but it’s never easy.
Have you remained close with George and James since wrapping?
Pennebaker: When we did the follow-up, we discovered that those guys talk to each other every morning — every morning! It was sort of a surprise to us. They’re still very close. It’s real.
Hegedus: Actually on our last film [“Kings of Pastry”], George was doing “Good Morning America,” and had our chef on. It was funny to have two of our subjects from different eras meeting on television.
That’s a funny circle.
Hegedus: Yeah, a strange one.