Hillary Clinton and Nanette Burstein first met in 2018, two years after the presidential election that shook the world. Burstein (American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) was chosen to make a documentary based on behind-the-scenes footage captured in 2016 by Clinton’s staff. Hillary, a four-part series, premiered on Hulu in March, and in 35 hours of interviews with Burstein, Clinton addressed everything from growing up as a feminist, to her devastating electoral loss to Donald Trump. In between are key sections about Clinton’s time in the U.S. Senate, serving as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, and decades of experiences with husband Bill Clinton, one of many candid on-camera interviewees. In a Zoom conversation with Deadline, Clinton and Burstein discuss Hillary and the tumult of 2020. This presidential election year, now also defined by COVID-19 and sweeping protests against racism, has thrust their historical record into a vibrant dialogue with the present.
Hillary Clinton Says “Nothing Was Off Limits” With Hulu Documentary Series ‘Hillary’
NANETTE BURSTEIN: It’s so lovely to see your face. It’s been a couple months.
HILLARY CLINTON: I know.
BURSTEIN: How’s it been in Chappaqua [NY]?
CLINTON: It’s been very calm. People seem to be both anxious to get out and get back to their lives, but they’ve also been very respectful about mask wearing and social distancing. I hope that sustains itself because I think New Yorkers, we were all so shocked by the intensity of the virus and what it did to us, that people seem to be more willing to exercise some responsibility. But the city’s going to start opening up and I don’t know quite how that’s going to play out.
BURSTEIN: It’s going to be tough. I don’t know how New York ever returns to any kind of normal life until there’s a vaccine.
CLINTON: That’s the way a lot of people feel right now. Who knows? I mean, this is such a big unknown. We are all just making it up as we go. It’s just tragic that we have had such a lousy leadership and bad communication from the very beginning. Cross your fingers and your toes, guys.
DEADLINE: Do you have high confidence in the level of scrutiny the vaccine will get? Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that he would block anything that isn’t ready for mass deployment, but some fear the White House wants to rush something out to score political points. Do you worry about that?
CLINTON: Yeah, I do worry about it. Look, vaccines are really complicated. The flu vaccine changes every year, trying to figure out how to outsmart the influenza virus. My daughter is a PhD in public health and she teaches at the Mailman School at Columbia, so I rely on her to filter through all of the information. There are dozens of companies and research scientists trying to get a vaccine, but the four that she knows the most about, two are in China, one is a biotech company here in the United States that actually started testing with FDA approval about two months ago. And there’s the Oxford research, which most people are putting at the top of the list. They are beginning to test on thousands of people in Italy and a few other places. They’re very hopeful. I’m not going to say confident, but hopeful.
DEADLINE: There’s such intimacy and immediacy in the Hillary footage we see from 2016. We get to see a number of unguarded moments.
CLINTON: The people who followed me throughout the campaign were part of a small group of young videographers who were everywhere. They had total access. This project really started as a behind-the-scenes look at the 2016 campaign. That’s what I initially agreed to do because the campaign owned the footage. We had 2,000 hours sitting around. People said, “Well, there’ve been some really interesting retrospectives on campaigns. Since you have this footage, why don’t you look at doing that?” That’s what we originally decided to do. And that project itself then was run by Propagate. They decided to hire a director, and Nanette came out by far as their top choice.
BURSTEIN: The footage was this incredible asset. These women were there filming her so often that no one really could tell me how much they actually captured. It was just part of the embroidery, which is the best way to film people. What was really unique about the footage was no one expected this to ever be part of a documentary at the time. So, people were able to be themselves on camera. And there was no limit set on me. The floodgate was open. One of the criticisms of Secretary Clinton is, “Oh, we don’t know who she really is,” or, “She seemed guarded.” And this is the way of just getting rid of all of that. Here she is. This is her. She’s charming, she’s funny, she goes through ups and downs, as one would on a campaign trail. This is what she’s like with her staff. This is how she, and they, operated in this tumultuous, exciting and really conflicted campaign.
DEADLINE: Did you at first expect the footage being most of the running time, before all of the interviews and archival material was assembled?
BURSTEIN: It is such an amazing opportunity to show it. But I also felt that I didn’t want to just tell the story of the campaign, that that was limiting in scope and too soon, too raw. I just felt like, more than anything, there’s such a bigger story to tell if everyone agrees to it. Secretary Clinton, you were open to the idea of looking at your whole life, still using this footage is a way of seeing you in this unguarded way, but really getting to know you as a person. So much of her life was both influenced by the arc of the women’s movement, and she influenced it. And never had I seen that more clearly in one personal story than in this. As a feminist and someone of the Generation X that was affected by the national spotlight of her career, this couldn’t have been a more important topic for me to take on. So it was exciting that she, when I explained the arc and the framework, was on board to be unfiltered and share her personal feelings about her entire life story.
DEADLINE: In watching the series, did you find there was a particular sequence or moment where you gained any new insight, even though you had yourself lived it?
CLINTON: I really think the biggest insight was the one that Nanette just expressed. After looking at those thousands of hours of footage, she came back, and she met with me and said, “Look, this is much more than a story about a campaign. It’s really much more than a story about you. It is a story where you would be the subject, but you would be placed into the arc of women’s history over the last 50-plus years, and American political history. How those two intersect, how they conflict, how they have reinforced one another from time to time.” She asked if I would be up for really not only sharing my very personal feelings and reactions about the events of my own life, but also helping to reflect on this much larger story. That was the central insight, because a lot of people who have written or analyzed or talked about me never really understood that larger context. It was always too much about me and too little about the contextual history of these two historic tides, the women’s movement and the changes in American political history. And she didn’t tell my life story chronologically. She went back and forth in my life, but used what was happening in the larger world around me to make these important points.
DEADLINE: Right after the election, you retreated from public life. But then, you re-emerged on social media and in 2017, you wrote a book about your experience. By the time this documentary started shooting, were you feeling more game to confront everything? It cannot have been an easy thing to do.
CLINTON: I did think there was an important story that needed to be told and I’m very glad that I did. Not all of it was pleasant. A lot of it was challenging, and painful, even, but it really came out in a way that I give her all the credit for, because I don’t even know where she found some of the footage she found. Some of the people she interviewed, I didn’t know had been interviewed, and I was fascinated by that. So, I came away from it saying, “OK, yeah, this is about me, it’s about my life, I get that, but wow, there’s so much more here.” I think it’s part of the reason why it’s been so positively received, because I think people feel that.
BURSTEIN: One thing that I still find remarkable today is that Secretary Clinton agreed to do this. I mean, she got the larger concepts and the importance. But for a public figure who has been examined to the extent she has, and has been wary of the media, and who didn’t know me very well, to take that leap of faith without having creative control and give her time and energy, and just trust that I would do her story justice, is pretty remarkable.
DEADLINE: One thing left out is the divisions within the Democratic Party. In the film Secretary Clinton dismisses Bernie Sanders as an unpopular senator and a career politician. But the film omits the nomination process and the convention. Sanders and his supporters feel he was frozen out of a pre-determined process. Bitterness over that still lingers. Why skip it?
BURSTEIN: I did get the interviews in, thinking that, “OK, I might cover this.” But my thought in general approaching the ’16 campaign was always trying to not to get too inside baseball, because I’m trying to do something complicated. I’m trying to tell the arc of a life story, the arc of partisan politics, and the women’s movement. I’m using this footage, but I’m not trying to completely re-litigate ’16. It’s a fine line to walk. So, yes, there is this story, but it doesn’t pertain to the bigger themes. It doesn’t really pertain to Secretary Clinton’s character. There were a lot of things in the general election with Trump that I could have also shown, and thought I might. But I just decided to leave them out to strike that balance. It was constantly a debate that we had in the edit room.
DEADLINE: Does the Democratic Party seem healthier now than in 2016?
CLINTON: I do think we are in a stronger position because we have a nominee. Everybody can be focused on the general election. The Democratic National Committee doesn’t run anything except the convention. It doesn’t run primaries. It doesn’t run caucuses. Those are run by states. So, I think that there could have been, and maybe should be, a retrospective at some time that kind of puts to rest some of the anxieties and worries that people had about the process, because they were ginned up. They were ginned up by the Russians. They were ginned up by my primary opponent’s supporters.
DEADLINE: OK, so forget the Russians and the DNC. Much more important question: What about the baby pictures we see in the opening credits and in the first episode?
CLINTON: I saw some for the first time. I couldn’t believe where she got them all.
DEADLINE: That’s amazing.
BURSTEIN: This is what I meant before. It wasn’t just the time she gave me, and the willingness to share her innermost thoughts and feelings, but it was also providing a lot of things people hadn’t seen before. She had these family albums dating back to her grandparents, which we were able to scan. And there was a storage locker at the Clinton Library of all of these snapshot photos from the ’70s, and ’80s, mainly from their time in Arkansas. From them as an early couple, to getting married, to having baby Chelsea. They were so wonderful, and real, and even the ’70s, orange-y kind of film footage itself was so indicative of the time. That was amazing. On just a filmic level, it gave you this intimate look at her life in a way that we hadn’t seen.
CLINTON: Then in addition to some of the baby pictures, and some of the people interviewed, the fact that Nanette found footage of me being burned in effigy [in 1993].
DEADLINE: That sequence is really compelling.
CLINTON: I’d never really seen it. So, that’s the kind of ‘wow’ moment for me watching the documentary. I’m going, like, “Wow, I was trying to get everybody healthcare, and look, they’re burning me in effigy for trying to change our healthcare system.” Having gone through so many of these experiences, and run up against all of these real negative anti-progress forces for decades, I know how hard this is. I know how hard it is to get things done, and to get things changed, and to stay on a progressive track when the other side is so well-organized, and so well-funded, and plays to fears as opposed to hopes. So, it was quite a moment when I saw that in the footage.
BURSTEIN: It was for us too, frankly, when we found it. I felt like, “Oh my God, this is so emblematic of what happens when you try to create change.” There was all this other footage, like when they went on this bus tour. You saw the anger on faces, but that particular [effigy] image was so extreme, we just felt like that whole section, we built to that moment. It’s trying to show what happens when you try to become a different kind of First Lady and take on this huge initiative that the country should feel ready for, trying to help everyone, but they’re just not. So that creates a lot of backlash.
CLINTON: I just don’t understand how they can so manipulate people to be protesting something that would help them. How is that? I mean, we’ve seen so much of that in the Trump years. How is it that our politics can be so maneuvered so that people who would benefit from having their pre-existing condition taken care of, for example, or having their children still covered by insurance, what is it that works to agitate them to the point of making them angry and upset? We’re living through that again. We’re living through protests over governors trying to keep us safe by closing businesses and facilities, and people showing up with their automatic weapons. This is something that, really, has yet to be fully understood, and understood to the point that it can be contended with.
DEADLINE: What lessons for the America of 2020 are there from what you went through?
CLINTON: Hopefully, enough people have seen the contrast now that they’re not going to be fooled again, but there’s no guarantee about the upcoming election. We have to keep doing everything we can to register people to vote, and make sure they can vote, and try to prevent all of the efforts that governors and mayors and local election officials are undertaking to prevent people from voting or having their vote count. The material in the documentary is so relevant to where we are right now and the challenges we face, and how we’re going to have to defeat these forces of racism, and anti-science, and anti-public health and everything that is at the forefront right now.
BURSTEIN: I feel exactly the same way you do about what’s happening now, but you try to share that with people on the other side, and they’re just going to get their back up. But if you look at something that happened 20, 30 years ago and show it, then people can see it for what it is, and you can understand how these things that are in people’s self-interest just become politicized so that they fight against their own self-interest. It’s crazy.
DEADLINE: What has your experience been over these past few weeks, watching the country go through what it’s gone through with the protests on top of COVID-19? Does it give you any sense of optimism, or does it create more anguish about where we are?
CLINTON: It is both. It is anguish and outrage, deep, abiding frustration about the health crisis, the economic crisis, the systemic racism crisis that we are facing all together at this moment in time. But it’s really impacted by the optimism that I feel about how people are responding. During the 2016 campaign, I made the fight against systemic racism a central part of my campaign. Literally the first speech I gave in the whole campaign was about that, in spring of 2015, and I was particularly affected by the mothers of the movement, women who had lost children to police violence, or to civilian gun violence. I kept hoping there would be a moment. It didn’t happen with Trayvon Martin. It didn’t happen with Michael Brown. It didn’t happen with so many of these young Black people who were killed, because there was always a murkiness about it. People would say, “Well, I don’t know what really happened,” or, “Well, I’m not sure,” or, “I can understand why somebody would be worried or reacting.” There is no question about what happened to George Floyd, and the entire world saw it for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. So, unlike our legacy of lynching, Jim Crow, the horrible instances that we’ve seen even in the last few years about the deaths of young Black men in particular, but also some young Black women, there was no turning away. As horrific as that was, it changed how many Americans, particularly white Americans, now think about what Black America has been facing forever. So that gives me optimism. You see police chiefs resigning because they can’t control their departments. You see police officers being charged with crimes for how they have treated people in their custody without any explanation—a knee on a neck, a shot in the back. So I am optimistic, I guess I would say, that maybe the changes we need now will have a better chance of actually happening and being institutionalized. But I also don’t think protest alone is enough. Voting really matters, and so I’m optimistic if people follow through now and don’t just protest and then get discouraged because the existing officeholders are not being as responsive. This is really a long-term commitment.
DEADLINE: Do the events of the past few weeks make you more hopeful about Joe Biden’s chances?
CLINTON: If people vote. I mean, it all comes down to whether people turn out, because if people turn out, then Joe Biden will win. We will take back the Senate. We will hold the House. We will have governors and state legislators who will take all of this seriously and act. But if people don’t turn out, and if the Republican Party is able to prevent people from being registered or having their registrations count, or having enough polling places for them to vote, then maybe not. Vote by mail, which should be used widely because of the coronavirus, they’re trying to prevent that. I mean, Trump and his people know that if we get vote by mail—and I am right now raising money and fighting to support litigation against all these states to require vote by mail—if we get that, they can’t beat us. When I say “us,” I don’t mean Democrats and Democratic nominees. I mean the will of the American people. Remember, I am the person who got the second highest votes running for president of any person in the history of America besides Barack Obama in 2008. We have got to convince people that if they care about any of these issues, about how badly the virus was handled, about how terrible the economic cost has been, about the continuing, unabated brutality and racism that we see in policing, then they’ve got to vote.
DEADLINE: Any last thoughts?
CLINTON: I got all worked up. I’m sorry.
BURSTEIN: No, I think it’s great. I mean, look, we all feel worked up right now. We have to be, and we want to hear from people that we respect and our leaders about it, because you articulate it so well. I’m just nodding my head the whole time.
DEADLINE: You guys have such an easy rapport. Did that come from doing so much promotion in the past few months?
CLINTON: I had so much fun with this project. We got to go to Sundance. We went to the Berlin Film Festival. It gave Nanette a chance to talk about the art of filmmaking, and gave me a chance to talk about all these other bigger issues that I think are at stake and that are so well-raised in the documentary.
BURSTEIN: Our premiere was early March. I think that was the last big event that myself and many people I know actually attended in person. And then the world shut down.