"Hillary" director reflects on the "self-fulfilling prophecy" on women running for president

Director Nanette Burstein spoke to Salon about her Hulu docuseries and what it means now, and to history

Published March 8, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Hillary (Hulu)
Hillary (Hulu)

For more, read Salon's review of the "Hillary" docuseries on Hulu.

"Hillary" director Nanette Burstein must have had some inkling of how Super Tuesday was going to shape up back in January, when I sat down for a conversation with her in Pasadena.

At that point California Sen. Kamala Harris had dropped out of the presidential race, as has Marianne Williamson. Few were taking Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar seriously, and one-time front-runner, Minnesota Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was starting to lose momentum. 

"One thing that really upsets me on a personal level of watching this primary, at least in regards to gender, is that I hear so many men and women – probably more often, men – say, 'Look, we got to get Trump out of office. So I just don't think a woman could win. I mean, Hillary Clinton couldn't even beat Trump, you know! Fine, she won the popular vote, but it's just, you gotta get him out. It's so important. So we just need to put ourselves forward behind the more conventional candidate that we've seen, which is, you know, a white man.'"

"To me," she added, "that's a self-fulfilling prophecy." And that prophecy came to pass on Super Tuesday, just days before the "Hillary" docuseries made its Hulu debut, when Warren failed to win a single state and was forced to drop out of the race soon afterward. (Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard remains in the race as well, but . . . )

Many of the same criticisms Warren faced along the way held echoes of the ones Hillary Clinton could never overcome – minus the vitriol. Never mind that she had plans for enacting her policies. She was too much like a schoolmarm, or too professorial.

They said she couldn't beat Donald Trump, but she swiftly kneecapped fellow candidate Mike Bloomberg during his first and only campaign appearance. Somehow, no matter how well she performed in comparison to fellow front-runners, it wasn't enough.

Now the race is effectively down to two white men, former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the second of which appears in "Hillary" in a scene that became famous months before the docuseries' Hulu debut. And it's one that may come back to haunt him as opposed to further damaging the already polarizing Clinton.

"Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done," Clinton says. "He was a career politician. It's all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it."

The narrative Burstein constructs in "Hillary" abounds with coincidentally relevant commentary owing to the subject herself.

Burstein, who co-directed the 2002 Robert Evans documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture," and 2016's "Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee," is accustomed to getting enigmatic, complicated figures to be open and candid for her.

Discovering the real persona behind image of the former Secretary of State, first lady and feminist role model who is as intensely adored as she is despised, took a steady give-and-take of time and trust earned over four to five hours' worth of interviews over the span of nearly a week.

The result is a series that's as inspiring as it is aggravating and, Burstein hopes, answers the question that's been on many of our minds recently: "Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?" And in our wide ranging conversation about her four-hour documentary series, Burstein describes how she was able to get one of the most misunderstood people in modern politics to drop her guard for her camera.

Please note this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

One signature of your style is you get close to a subject without completely sacrificing objectivity. That's very difficult for a lot of filmmakers to do. Some of the most popular documentary work in this era almost verges on advocacy.

So let's talk about that. You were able to be quite intimate with Hillary but at the same time pull back and include a few perspectives other than the people who are driven by nothing but rancor. And that delivered a fairly full picture of who she is, and enable her to speak very emotionally about her life and career.

I mean, every filmmaker comes to something with their own baggage and viewpoint in life, but I felt especially with this subject matter, it was really important to be as objective as one can be. Obviously if I came to this story and couldn't stand Hillary Clinton, and I wanted to do a hatchet job, I would never have taken this assignment. It would be unfair to lie to her and say, "Hey, open up to me and then I'm gonna, you know, make you look horrible." I just wouldn't do that.

But I was very honest in saying, "Look, I want this to be fair and balanced. This is not going to be a puff piece in any way." And they were okay with that. That is always the tricky thing with telling this story: what is the truth?

. . . It was very important for me to understand every detail I possibly could about every one of these accusations and scandals so that I could feel comfortable saying, okay, you know, these are all the perspectives I'm showing in order to tell what I think is the truth.

I could see whatever flaws she had. It didn't mean that I still didn't really like her and feel that I could be intimate and really show her as a human.

The other thing that I try to do whenever I make films is really understand the person. You know what I mean? I know their stories. Obviously this is something bigger, and it's really important. But that's really important to me that people get what are the most honest things about their personality. Then you just have this human connection because you're asking them very specific things about who they are, all decisions they made and not looking for gotcha moments, which someone like Hillary or even someone like Tonya Harding is used to happening. They're appreciative that you just want to sit there and listen.

It takes time to get an interview subject to relax and be more candid. Some never relax. How was it with you and Hillary? Was she open from the start?

No . . . I mean, well, I don't think she was used to talking about herself at that length – you know, three, four hours a day, several days in a row. I think that was entirely new for her. So originally we thought the interview, to tell this whole story, would take a few days. That still seems like a lot, you know, three days of interviews with someone. People can only talk for four or five hours a day and then you just get exhausted anyway.

But the first round, she wasn't as comfortable. And we didn't get through the whole story. We only got through like a third of it. And then we realized, okay, we have to do another round of interviews. Then the second time around she was much more comfortable, especially by the second day of that. So I guess that would've been like fourth day or fifth day of interviewing her.

Then I went back and asked her all of these other things that we had already talked about because she just felt much more comfortable and less cautious. We ended up doing four or five days of intensive interviews.

Was there anything in particular about her – not a fact, just a quality about her – that you hadn't seen before or doesn't come across in news interviews? I don't know how much time you spent with her before the cameras started to roll, but were there elements that emerged during the interview process that you hadn't seen?

Yeah, I think there was a level of intimacy, both reflection about herself and periods of her life, and also about her marriage that I've never seen her talk about before. I was surprised by that she's a really good storyteller. I just wasn't sure how these interviews would go. Like, how relaxed would she be? How warm would she be? How comfortable would she be? Would she be good at telling anecdotes? Is she going to be self-reflective? Is she going to own up to certain things, or is she going to get really defensive? There were different levels of all of it, but in the end I was surprised at how forthcoming she was and how articulate she could be.

Regarding your previous non-fiction work, you directed [the 2008 documentary] "American Teen." You also did the "30 for 30" episode that tells the story of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Those are two complex personalities that the public cast in these roles without knowing who they truly were. How did working on those films and those experiences prepare you for this? People project so many feelings upon Hillary, whether positive or just violently negative. As she said in the film that leaves scars, but also creates a certain level of guardedness you must have encountered before.

Sure . . .  Whenever you're profiling complicated people – and when I say complicated, not only the way they really are, but also the way that they're perceived – it just prepares you for a process, you know, of unpeeling the onion. Each one makes you a little better the next time.

And for her, it was always important to me that the top line of this was exactly that: that she is such a polarizing figure that she's both one of the most vilified and one of the most admired, and she's, neither of those things. I mean, she has both incredible attributes and flaws. She's a complicated real person. And so it was important to me to start there and unpack everything that way, and know that that was the main theme that I was really trying to understand about the core of who she is.

A lot of the subjects I pick, it's not just to tell a biography. It's because their life is very emblematic of these other themes that are very important. And Hillary was certainly that in so many ways, not only of the polarization that we have about our politics, but also the history of feminism over the last 30 years. How divided we've come in the nation and where did that start and how that evolved with partisan politics. You see a lot of that play out starting in the '90s – not that it didn't exist before that, but you really see the polarization start to take hold during the Clinton administration.

And so I just thought the more specific and intimate I can make the story, I could unpack these themes without, you know, being in your face about it.

Speaking of that: in the spring of 2020, TV audiences are going to have the opportunity to watch Christine Lahti play Gloria Steinem, and Holland Taylor play Texas Governor Ann Richards in two episodes of [PBS'] "Great Performances." FX has "Mrs. America," about the late '60s feminist movement. So on top of the coverage of women who are running for office, we have all of these different portrayals of feminists and feminism emerging in popular culture. "Hillary" debuts before all of them. So, at the risk of asking a question that seems obvious, aside from the election, what do you think it is about this point in time that is giving rise to these stories in such quick succession?

It's a combination of the election followed by the #MeToo movement and the [Brett] Kavanaugh [Supreme Court confirmation] hearings. All of these happened at once that really galvanized this movement among women, that made them interested in talking about these issues that no one was talking about before. If they talked about it, they would do it in a really defensive way. Like "I'm not a feminist" or "It's not really a big thing" or "That doesn't really happen." Women got very angry and, and then they were okay with being angry.

That was the other thing that happened, because you were not allowed to be angry before. Now they've embraced that anger and they've said, "Well, too bad." And they saw that if they were united about it, that things would start to change. All of these things created a cultural shift, I would say, that we're just experiencing now, which is I think great.

"Hillary" is currently streaming on Hulu.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland