Tale of Obama

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Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott, the Academy Award winning director/producer team behind Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, returned to politics this summer when Barack Obama's campaign managers called them to produce A Mother's Promise, the ten-minute biographical film of the senator that aired at the Democratic National Convention and now appears on Obama's campaign site, which relaunched with a new design this week. Guggenheim, who's also represented out of Bob Industries for commercials, and Chilcott, in their first interview with the press about the film, discuss how family history, open mindedness and a chartered plane to Butte, Montana helped them to tell the candidate's story.

How did this whole thing happen, how did you get involved?

Davis Guggenheim: I was in a series of conversations with David Axelrod [Obama campaign chief architect]. This was a while back, talking about some kind of bio film for the campaign. We went back and forth and I think the campaign was focused for a long time on the huge primary battle, and had bigger issues to deal with. It wasn't until Obama clearly won the primaries, sometime late June--David called me and said, "Let's do it."

Why did he approach you, because of your work on An Inconvenient Truth?

DG: I was introduced to him through a friend of my father, George Stevens. He and my father [Charles Guggenheim] had worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, and my father eventually made this film that played at the '68 Convention in Chicago, exactly 40 years ago. My father made documentaries and that film won an Academy Award and it was my favorite film he ever made. It was called Robert Kennedy Remembered. He was doing Kennedy's media for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential bid. In fact one of my earliest memories was getting on RFK's campaign plane when I was five and then I remember actually being in bed—and my father getting the call that Kennedy was assassinated.That was June of '68 and the Kennedy family asked my father to make a film about him and that played in the convention of August '68. So it was full circle, and had deep personal meaning for me.

So when you finally got the green light on the Obama film, what was the process of making it like?

Lesley Chilcott : The process was interesting because as you know, figuring out who the Democratic candidate was was delayed for a long time and in the back of our minds we were like Hmm, what's going to happen here, as time is ticking away and the Democratic Convention is coming up. Will we still get the opportunity to do this? So when we finally got the call that they were ready, we were initially very excited and then immediately freaked out because we had less than two months to put it together. It's a ten-minute film and that seems reasonable, but trying to pack in someone as dynamic as Obama and his whole history into ten minutes—as Davis said it best—on any given day he's doing 50 things that are more important than us, at the very least, so it was quite a challenge. A couple days went by trying to frantically schedule things and finally we got the call that Obama's first available time was on July 4.

DG: In Butte, Montana.

LC: We had a bunch of mishaps on the way. We got booted off a flight.

DG: And rented a charter plane at 2 o'clock in the morning and flew through a snow storm in a tiny prop plane. We kept saying to ourselves, "It's only the history of the world!"

LC: On a documentary budget. So you can imagine what that did to us, but we managed to get there. I feel really fortunate that we got the time we did with him, but originally we had all these ideas that we needed four half days with him. We ended up getting very little time with him, however he immediately recognized the importance of what we were doing and was very gracious to all of us. We got an hour and a half at a time, and every time we sat down with him he was really great and open and not overly protective. I was even more impressed once I was actually able to meet him.

Was everything strict and guided?

DG: No, it was wide open. It says a lot about David Axelrod and the campaign. Basically they said, we want you to do this, and "Go get em." The secret to something like this is asking who's your audience and where's this thing going to show. As it turns out, it played at Broncos Stadium in front of 80 thousand people to a televised audience--we didn't know it was gong to be 38 million people! But there's a certain ceremony in it. At that point the audience wants to know who this guy is and what his story is. It's a little bit backwards because after all this buildup, this big horse race that is the primaries, all the speculation, who's ahead, who's behind, and it's amazing to me how very few of us have real exposure to, or any kind of knowledge about his story: Where's he from? How did he get where he is? What drives this man who wants to be our President? So this film was a chance for the country to take a moment and hear his story, before he accepts the nomination.

Did you give him questions ahead of time? Did they give you questions to ask?

DG: No, I thought they might. I wondered whether we would be handled, in terms of what we could and couldn't do. But he was an open book and we had the campaign's complete trust. The restriction was his time. I think that says a lot about Obama and his style and his ability as a communicator. There were really no limits to what we could do, and the campaign only had minor notes.

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