Filed in: Editing, Featured, For Your Consideration

Nanette Burstein Unveils the Hillary You Didn’t Know

July 2, 2020 | By

When she undertook a film about 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein realized there was vastly more material at her disposal than she could compress into a standard-length feature film. “Very quickly, I knew it was going to be a docuseries,” Burstein said of the eventual manifestation of the project. “When I first was brought on, Hulu and the producers left that to me—it was the same budget either way. There was so much story and a complicated history.”

At first, Burstein was unaware that the Hillary project would become four one-hour installations. “I wrote a treatment of how I saw the whole structure unfolding,” revealed Burstein, who presented Hillary Clinton both in her recent years and in the politician’s early years, in two separate storylines. “How that would actually work, and make sure in my head that it was possible. I knew that I wanted to do two simultaneous chronological stories and find a way to bridge those two timelines. Once you start editing, you can find better places to go back and forth.”

President Barack Obama chats with Hillary backstage following a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.

President Barack Obama chats with Hillary backstage following a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Embarking on the project, Burstein was handed 2000 hours of footage of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “No one could tell me what was in it,” Burstein noted. “I had to spend four months with a team in post-production, syncing footage. There was enough good stuff that it was certainly exciting—going for the needle in a haystack.”

While Burstein’s team was combing through campaign material, she read every book she could find about Clinton — the good, bad, and ugly. “It was a blessing to be thinking about the footage and use the opportunity to do research,” Burstein stated, noting the wealth of shots she was marking for use in her Hillary project. “They hired a couple of videographers to film [the campaign], and they controlled the footage. It’s not uncommon for candidates to film themselves behind-the-scenes; they use a lot of it for marketing.”

Ironically, Burstein had attempted to gain access to shoot a documentary for Clinton when she was running for president. “I was one of many, and it was never going to happen,” Burstein reflected. “I could have never predicted that I would be sitting with all of this footage of people filming her, as a job for hire. I reinvented what the whole thing was.”

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As one of a handful of people with whom the producers and Hulu interacted, Burstein was contacted in January of 2018, met with the principal project supervisors in March of that year, and started to work on the series in May. “I spent a year-and-a-half on it,” Burstein recalled, though she had a condition in her participation. “I said, ‘I don’t want to make a campaign film.’ I presented the idea of doing her life story, emblematic of the arc of the women’s movement. These were themes that were really important to her.”

Even though Clinton dislikes talking about herself, she was willing to sit for Burstein’s interviews and discuss both her private and public lives. “She can speak about policy and world events endlessly,” related Burstein, noting that Clinton was less comfortable discussing her personal plight. “She knew that she was going to be interviewed, but not to tell her whole life story. She [didn’t] enjoyed giving details, but we had a good rapport. It was exhausting to her, but she understood the value of [the interviews] — she was going to do everything that’s expected.”

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L-R: Nanette Burstein and Hillary Clinton

One clear strength of the docuseries was the implementation of valuable photos from Clinton’s past. “We were able to get access to a storage locker with amazing personal photos of her and her family from the 1970s onward,” Burstein detailed. “She had four photo albums from her childhood; we scanned everything. It was a treat to have that kind of imagery. The gates were open—the [Clintons] understood that they needed to be open, and this was an opportunity for her legacy.”

In a title sequence which initiates each of the four episodes, Hillary rapidly shuffles through photos of Clinton, chronologically, through all of her years. “We conveyed the intimacy—and that this was going to be her whole life story,” said Burstein. “I was able to telegraph that in 30 seconds. The bonus was she had these many looks from around the years.”

To complement the interviews with Hillary Clinton, Burstein asked the Clintons for a list of people with whom Hillary went to school. “They needed to confirm that I was legit,” Burstein quipped of her eventual interview subjects, noting that she ended up interviewing people not originally mentioned to her. “People would suggest other people who worked with her mainly during the [Bill Clinton] presidency. I pre-interviewed people on the phone.”

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L-R: Hillary Clinton and Nanette Burstein

In total, from November, 2018 until February, 2019, Burstein interviewed all subjects who agreed to participate, after which she assembled the project with two other editors, breaking the series into four distinct segments. “One editor each took episode,” Burstein conveyed. “We had index cards on a wall with each scene — more of a structure than a script. Hulu was more on board with four hours, [but] we realized it could be four-and-change. That’s the beauty of streaming—there is a lot of freedom. My favorite part of making films is the editing room; it’s what I enjoy the most, like a jigsaw puzzle — it works with my brain, especially in a documentary.”

With Hulu now streaming the Hillary docuseries, thinking retrospectively, Burstein commented that she has been “very lucky in my career,” speaking favorably of the Hulu experience. “There was a lot more leeway—it was a blank slate, more than normal,” she said of working with the internet giant. “When you have a complicated subject, it’s great to be able to give that time to explore it that doesn’t cheapen the story. She has a very complicated life, is a complicated figure, and is very polarizing.”

Nanette Burstein

Nanette Burstein

Following Hillary, Burstein is now developing several potential new projects. “I don’t take on more than one thing at a time,” she said. “When I’m making a film or series, I don’t have the next one usually lined up. I start to think about it, but I don’t overlap much. I’m not someone who multitasks.”

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