Two years after the most impactful elections of our lifetime, the team behind Hillary was given unprecedented access to Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking campaign. That access included over 1,500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage. But how do you make sense of all that footage while wounds are still fresh and the entire country is still trying to make sense of what happened?
Speaking with Awards Daily, lead editor and executive producer Tal Ben-David made it clear that from the beginning they wanted to turn the footage into more than just a campaign film. Instead, she and director Nanette Burstein used that footage to explore how Hillary Clinton became the historic figure she is today, cutting seamlessly between the 2016 footage, hours of archival footage covering her entire life, and intimate interviews with Hillary herself.
Awards Daily: Hillary Clinton is a public figure that has gone through plenty of reinventions throughout her long career with generations being introduced to very different versions of her. I’m curious, what are your first memories of her?
Tal Ben-David: Honestly, I don’t think I can pinpoint my first memory. I happened to have been raised by strong working women, so a lot of the controversy around HRC didn’t resonate with me. I was used to women out there doing their own thing. I saw her as a confident, accomplished woman who always spoke her mind.
AD: On top of working as the lead editor on Hillary you were also an executive producer. How did you first become attached to the project and what was that journey like?
TB-D: I first became a part of the project through my relationship with Nanette [Burstein – director and executive producer]. We’ve been working on and off together for the past twenty years. It’s funny, we both came out of NYU Film School but didn’t know each other while we were there. We got to know each other a few years later through a different project. We’ve been working on and off since then and are probably most known for working together on The Price of Gold, the film on Tonya Harding. I guess you could say we have a thing for complicated women. Over the years, we’ve developed a really good working relationship. We trust each other, and we have similar sensibilities when it comes to storytelling. So when she was approached to do this project, she really wanted me to get on board. I didn’t initially sign on as a producer. Instead, that was something that organically came out at the end based off of our relationship and my contributions.
AD: Within four hours, the docuseries covers nearly fifty years of history. How did you and Nanette make the seemingly impossible decision of figuring out how to structure the narrative? As the team went through the filmmaking process, did that structure evolve at all?
TB-D: Initially Nanette was approached with this idea from Hillary’s team. I’m not even sure if they knew what they wanted, but they had 1,500 hours of campaign footage. At the time, they were probably thinking it would be a great way to see behind the scenes of the election of the first woman president, but obviously that didn’t happen. They still felt like they had all this footage that could be interesting which led to it initially being a campaign film.
From the very beginning we weren’t interested in just doing a campaign film. There were a lot of complicated reasons including it feeling just too soon, like did we really want to relive all of that? It also felt too small. Here is a woman who has this incredible life story, and you can’t explore what happened in 2016 without exploring the story that led up to that. What happened in 2016 has so much to do with her backstory.
It also wasn’t just her personal story. Hillary Clinton’s story is so emblematic of that generation of women. All of these women trying to make their mark in a world that wasn’t set up for them. That’s the idea that we brought to the table and presented to Hillary Clinton herself, and she thought it was a great idea.
AD: You mentioned the 1,500 hours of archival campaign footage that you studied. Was there anything in particular that you responded to strongly but in the end couldn’t fit into the narrative of the series?
TB-D: We had this incredible luxury from Hulu to make the film as long as we wanted it to be so we were lucky to be able to include almost everything that stood out. ‘You have to kill some darlings’ as they say while making a film, so things do end up on the cutting room floor. HRC gave us so much access to everything including her personal photo albums, the library in Arkansas, and hours of local TV footage. We were able to find things that most people had not yet seen that flavored the life of this person at various stages of her life. To remind people of what it was like to live in Arkansas in the 1970s as a professional lawyer where half the people didn’t even think you should have that right. What was it like to be the First Lady and experience this media barrage and scrutiny that was unprecedented at the time and became really nasty? And what does that do to a person going through all of that? I found it really interesting to come up with an outline to make sense of how all of this happened.
AD: For the most part these are all stories that most Americans think they know. As an editor how do you tell these stories without it feeling like its going into autopilot?
TB-D: Fundamentally, there were things we knew we had to talk about. You can’t tell such a well-known life without touching on the obvious flagpoles that she is known for. We also didn’t want to sit that and have to relitigate every controversy she went through. So what do you do? You pick the few that informed her of the kind of politician she became. How does seeing what she went through affect your perception of her?
AD: While in the editing room, which sequences or episodes did you find to be the most challenging?
TB-D: I think I knew the section about Monica Lewinsky would receive a lot of attention, so I knew we had to handle it especially carefully and thoughtfully. I think Nanette did a brilliant job in both of those interviews with Hillary and Bill Clinton. At that point she had achieved a kind of rapport with them where they were comfortable enough to open up in a way where they had never done before publicly. That was very intense to watch.
AD: The end of the docuseries broadens out and discusses the many women that ran for public office post-2016. After going through this filmmaking process did it change the way in which you watched our most recent primary season?
TB-D: For me personally, I do think it changed the way I looked at the field of women running. I’ve been sitting with these issues for the past two years in such an up-close and personal way. I thought it was super interesting to watch someone like Elizabeth Warren be “hillaried.” When Hillary was running there was that idea of ‘I would vote for a woman but not that woman. I wish Elizabeth Warren was running, she’s perfect!’ Until Elizabeth Warren is running and then she’s no longer perfect. What that speaks to is that some of it is about the actual person running but a lot of it is not. It’s about this societal idea of still being uncomfortable with a woman unapologetically seeking power. We’re still reconciling with a lot of these ideas and to see them play out this year was interesting.
Hillary is now streaming on Hulu.