The Filmmaker Behind the ‘Hillary’ Documentary

Nanette Burstein

A candid conversation with Nanette Burstein

Hillary Clinton is one of the most polarizing political figures in recent history, yet few know much about her beyond her (very) public persona. The new Hulu docuseries Hillary is an intimate look at the life of the famously private politician — drawing on hours of personal interviews and campaign footage (including a number of throwback interviews with Hillary and Katie!). It shows a candid, introspective, and even funny side of her — thanks to filmmaker Nanette Burstein, who spoke with our producer Emily Pinto about the Clintons’ complicated marriage and Hillary’s surprising comments on Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Emily Pinto: You spent over 40 hours interviewing Hillary Clinton. People have often criticized her for having an authenticity problem — did you find her to be authentic?

Nanette Burstein: Very much so! It didn’t really surprise me, because I’d heard that she is very different in person than she is in public, but you never know. I found her incredibly accessible, and warm, and at ease — very much the opposite of how people perceive her.

She has really close relationships with the people who work for her, and she also has a host of long-lasting friendships. That’s one of the striking things about her — many of her friendships go back to childhood. Not everybody has stayed close with people for that amount of time. I think that’s quite telling.

Of all of the time you spent with Secretary Clinton, what were your favorite moments?

I have an 11-year-old daughter, who is a big fan of Hillary’s. They’ve met now a handful of times, and every time Hillary has gone out of her way to be so warm and friendly and lovely to my daughter. Obviously someone can be polite, but she really went the extra mile, which I found so striking. It meant so much to my daughter. So that was really sweet.

It was interesting during Hillary’s election that some of her most rabid fans were little girls. To them it was so black and white. They would have these placemats with pictures of all of the presidents of the United States on them, and they would bring them to her events and point to them and say, “Where is the girl president! Why isn’t there one!” They thought it was ridiculous. They were all so confident, and they didn’t understand the nuances of gender inequality. And that’s a good thing. You don’t want to burst that bubble.

What did you learn when making this documentary that surprised you the most?

How candid she was willing to be. She didn’t know me from Adam at the beginning, and she knew I had final say over what was going into the finished product. So the fact that she was willing to sit down and share her unfiltered feelings and thoughts was amazing.

After all of the public scandals and accusations against her, is there one that seemed to bother her the most?

There’s so much that’s been said about her that’s not true. So at least she had the opportunity to get out what she felt were the facts of her life, and her honest thoughts and opinions.

One of my favorite soundbites in the series is towards the end, after she’s been accused of everything under the sun. She’s talking about Benghazi, and after nine hearings they didn’t find any wrongdoing. But, she realizes that it doesn’t matter that she was cleared, because the accusation itself would be what people remembered. That is how our politics work now, unfortunately. You can launch an accusation, and even if it’s found to be untrue, it tarnishes your image. It’s a very powerful tool that is largely used by the right, and we are going to continue to see it, especially in the age of social media.

As far as regrets that she might have: In hindsight she’s said something like, “I didn’t always handle things properly with the press. I knew there was a game to be played, and I didn’t play the game, and I was striking out all the time.” With the press, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but I think she regrets that she was as guarded as she was.

When speaking about her husband’s very public affair, Hillary kept the focus only on her marriage, family and the impeachment inquiry. It seemed like it’s still a difficult topic for her — would you agree with that assessment?

Yeah. I think it was incredibly hard for her to talk about, and I think it’s definitely still a raw chapter of her life. She is a very private person, and she’s never been interviewed on camera about this. She’s written about it in one of her books, but it’s a very different experience to speak extensively about it. It was difficult for her, even though it happened twenty years ago. And it was tough for him too. Even though they’ve gotten past it as a couple, to reopen that wound and share it publicly was an emotional experience for both of them.

Despite their marital issues, Hillary and Bill’s relationship seems to be quite strong… were you expecting that?

I was one of those people who had no idea what the nature of their relationship really was behind the scenes. Is it a real love story? Is it an arrangement? And the more time I spent with them, and heard them speak about each other, I realized there are a lot of genuine, complicated emotions there, as there are in any real marriage. There was a lot of love and respect and pain and heartbreak between them.

You see in the behind the scenes footage that he’s with her all the time. There’s a moment in the documentary after she loses the New Hampshire primary. She’s on the plane, and falls asleep on Bill’s shoulder. It’s such a tender moment. I thought, “What an amazing piece of footage. It’s so telling.” He was just reading his book, and she didn’t know she was being filmed because she was asleep. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words.

Of the many subjects you interview in the documentary, there are very few conservative voices. Why is that?

I asked more than 30 people from the right to participate. Bill Frist graciously agreed to sit down with us, but he was the only one! We reached out to both her most vociferous critics — Newt Gingrich, Lindsey Graham, and even to moderates like Kay Bailey Hutchison, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and they all said no. Nobody wanted to do it.

I really wanted Newt Gingrich because he was such a big critic of hers, and after I was rejected through the formal channels somebody gave me his cellphone number. And I called him, thinking he would never pick up, and he did! He was familiar with the request and I explained that this wasn’t going to be a puff piece and I thought it was important to include his criticisms, and he told me “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than sit down and do an interview about Hillary Clinton.”

Hillary says in the documentary “Bernie drove me crazy… nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done… it was all baloney and I feel bad that people got sucked into it.” What was running through your head when she said that?

I was surprised at how candid she was. But we did that interview about a year and a half ago. The context of the quote is that we were talking about the early primaries. Maybe this was naive of me, but I didn’t think it would have the impact that it’s had — because at the time she said it, he wasn’t a leading primary figure. I knew he would probably run, but I wasn’t thinking about when this documentary was coming out and how her comments would be related to the news of the day.

It does bother me a bit; I feel like the quote is taken out of context. It seems like one day Hillary Clinton woke up and decided to comment on the 2020 election in a really controversial way. I worry that it hasn’t always been made clear that she said that in the context of a documentary and that she was talking about her own election with him, not that she suddenly wanted to insert herself in this election.

Elizabeth Warren recently said to Rachel Maddow: “We are responsible for the people who claim to be our supporters,” when referring to Bernie Sanders’ fanbase. As someone familiar with both of Hillary’s campaigns, did you see that fervor among her fans?

We had a section in the film that I ended up cutting out that talked about some of the harassment campaigns by the Bernie Bros — not just towards Hillary’s supporters, but towards female journalists like Amy Chozick, who were writing about her objectively. I think they saw Amy and thought, “Oh, you’re the female reporter for the New York Times who’s writing about the female candidate. So we’re against you.” She shared with me horrible emails and tweets that were sent to her — ugly, violent, misogynist emails that used the C word — and she wasn’t the only reporter who dealt with that. I didn’t see that happen on the other side… I didn’t see Hillary’s supporters ever talk to journalists like that.

I think that Bernie is a candidate that represents anger from the left, and his rhetoric is fierce and can inspire anger in people. There is a level of the electorate that is really gravitating to that on both sides. You saw it happen in 2016, and you’re seeing it continue in this election. A lot of it is rooted in misogyny, in my opinion, and that is really surprising to me, especially coming from the left.

It’s interesting that Elizabeth Warren was asked if she felt that sexism played a role in her ability to gain as much traction as she has been hoping to. It’s something that Hillary had to deal with as well. When you ask a female candidate that question, there’s no way to answer that’s going to make them look good. Because if she says yes, it seems like she’s whining, and if she says no, she’s lying. I don’t think it’s the candidate’s role to have to answer that, because she will be slayed no matter how she responds. Even in 2020, there is an unconscious gender bias that continues for women, particularly when they’re going after the highest office in the land, a role that has always been held by a man.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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