Everyone thinks they know Hillary Clinton. She’s a deeply polarizing figure. Depending on whom you’re talking to, she’s a hero or she’s a villain. She should have left her husband — or she didn’t care enough to. She should never have changed her last name — or she should have changed it long ago. She’s the woman who won the popular vote or the reason we have Donald Trump. She’s a rebel or she’s a crook. She’s a feminist or she’s a traitor. The discourse around the former First Lady, former Senator from New York, and former Secretary of State is never ending and full of contradictions.
But for filmmaker Nanette Burstein, Hillary Clinton is thousands of hours of footage and even days of long and candid interviews. Her four-episode docuseries about Clinton, called simply Hillary, hits Hulu March 6, and provides the most comprehensive look at this divisive figure’s life and career. Burstein was brought on board in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and handed an unfathomable amount of raw, unedited footage of then-candidate Clinton on the campaign trail. Some things, like Clinton shaking hands with fans, or making her case in town halls, we’ve seen before. But others, like a quiet moment between Hillary and Bill snuggling on a plane, provide an unvarnished look at a woman who, whatever you think of her, has been a central player in our political system for decades.
Still, this isn’t a documentary about the election. Rather, Burstein uses it as a narrative device to frame Clinton’s overall journey, told through personal photos, archival news coverage, and interviews with Clinton herself, along with some of her closest friends, her staff, her daughter Chelsea, and her husband Bill, who among other things, opens up about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
In other words, forget everything you think you know about Hillary Clinton.
Refinery29: Take us back to the beginning — how did you become involved with this project?
Nanette Burstein: “I got a call out of the blue from Howard Owens, saying, ‘I'm producing this project for Hulu and we have all of this behind-the-scenes footage of Hillary and her staff that most people haven't seen from the 2016 campaign. We want to do something with it. Would you be interested in being considered for it?
“I said yes, although I was nervous about doing a film re-litigating [the] 2016 [election] because it felt like too soon. However, I was always really fascinated by her. I ended up meeting with Hulu and Howard, and Hillary was present as well because I think they wanted to make sure she was comfortable with whoever took on this project. They hired me, and then I went and watched all of this footage.”
How many hours of footage were there?
“A couple thousand hours. A lot of it was rope lines, but there were a lot of great diamonds in the rough, a very unfiltered, unvarnished view of Hillary and her staff. “
I couldn’t believe some of the moments that had been filmed.
“They weren't even thinking about it anymore because there was this one woman with a camera, and every once in a while [vice chairwoman of the Clinton campaign] Huma Abedin turns around and realizes [it’s there]. Still — they shared all of it with me. While I was going through it, I thought, I think there's a much more interesting story to tell. In trying to even just understand what happened with her in 2016, you kind of need to know her history. But more importantly, when you look at the trajectory of her life, so much of it is about the history of the women's movement over the last 50 years, and history of our partisan politics. I came up with the idea of interweaving the 2016 election with the biography of her life and everyone came on board with that idea.”
So you got the raw footage, and then conducted interviews with Hillary and those around her?
“Basically I told everyone, including her, that she should sit down and talk endlessly about her life. I started with her and interviewed her friends, associates, her husband, journalists, as many people I could get from the right, which weren't that many as it turned out because they didn't want to do it. Then I started cutting it.”
In going back and looking at her history, what stood out to you?
“I was very surprised by the fortitude she had. We would joke in the editing room, after editing all of ‘90s, you feel like, Oh my God, why did you then run for Senator?! When you're editing and interviewing people, you’re reliving all the different challenges she faced, all the very personal attacks, and her marriage publicly imploding. I just thought, God, how could you keep going?
“That surprised me, to feel it on a visceral level. And also the Zelig-like history that she had. Just coming up in the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the antiwar movement and how she was, not only at so many of these events but involved in them. I knew about her life beforehand — kind of the Cliff Notes version, but I was never an acolyte so I didn't know all of the details.”
I noticed that in the section about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, you directed a lot of the questions towards Bill Clinton. Was it your intention to put the onus on him to explain it, rather than on Hillary?
“It's so interesting that you say that because actually, he doesn't even come on until halfway through the section. It feels that way in your mind because it’s the most excruciating [part] to watch. He really kind of splays himself emotionally, and I stay on him. And he not only just admits to the guilt and remorse, but it's so palpable, the complicated feelings he has about his regrets about it. He's talked about it in public speeches, but I don't think he's ever done an interview.”
What was it like being in that room and asking those difficult questions?
“It's very intimidating to ask a former president about one of the most, or if not, definitely the most public, regrettable thing he's ever done. Knowing that you have to go in that day and be like, okay. But it's not like it was the first question I led with. I had a few days with him so we could build up a rapport and he could feel comfortable. He didn't seem at all deflective. I mean, he knew it was coming; it's not like it hadn't been discussed beforehand. But nonetheless I was surprised by how candid and emotional he was.”
One of the most striking things about this series is how many parallels there are between how Hillary was treated back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and how we still treat women in the public eye today.
“There still is this unconscious bias that we're still grappling with, and we keep making headway, but I think it's the hardest thing to overcome. I have to deal with it in my job. I'm a female director and I also direct commercials and scripted formats, and I've been doing it since the 90s. Just the bias that you just have to brush off and deal with all the time— trying to do your job is very relatable to a lot of women. And yet, the baffling part is that women have it against other women too. [Over 40] percent of white women voted for Trump, so obviously it's complicated.”
You purposefully show Hillary getting her hair and makeup touch-ups in the middle of your interviews with her. Why?
“I find it particularly ironic given that she was someone who had zero interest about her appearance when she was younger. She wore Coke bottle glasses; she didn't style her hair; she wore clothes that were not the fashion of the day; and she didn't wear makeup. And she could care less. She's learned that she has to play the game. And she's learned in a painful way.”
Were there things in the footage that you wish you could have included but had to cut for time or clarity?
“Oh, I still think about it now... How much do I put the 2016 election in? I didn't want it to feel as though I was completely re-litigating the election.I wanted it to stay focused on her. So I took out the whole thing about the basket of deplorables because in order to do that, then you had to go into who Trump was, and how he has empowered certain elements of the population that are very overtly racist. Or there was another section where I talked about certain Bernie supporters. They are very vicious, not only to her supporters, but to some of the female reporters that were covering the election. That was weird and interesting cause it was coming from the left. But then again, I put that on the editing room floor. It'd be eight hours and I'm not sure anyone would watch. There’s a lot of story!”
Everyone thinks they know Hillary Clinton. What do you think viewers will be most surprised by?
“One of the criticisms of her is how guarded she is, and how manufactured she is, and how she's not human, and she doesn't share her real self. And I think that the first and foremost thing about the series is that it's the opposite. She's funny, and she's revealing. She can be self deprecating and she has good anecdotes. And she's pretty unvarnished — we're not used to seeing her that way. We're not used to seeing people that are close to her also feeling like they can be that honest, including her husband.”
What’s the biggest misconception about her?
“There's so many ideas about her, some of which I shared. For example, that she's this centrist — most people don't realize how progressive she was and she is, but she's also learned how to work in Congress. So that's probably mitigated some of her earlier approaches. I truly had final cut on this and I could have done a hatchet job if I felt that that was the honest truth. But I really went through tons of research and reading and studying. A lot of mythology is debunked because there wasn't anything to find. Sometimes the optics are bad, and I try to point that out in the film. She has a self righteous streak. But I think a lot of people think she's a lot more corrupt than she really is. I don't think she's corrupt.”
As viewers, we know the outcome of the campaign. How do you keep the tone hopeful despite the elephant in the room?
“Frankly, I wasn't sure if it was going to end up feeling like a tragedy. It didn't because, first of all we did have this backlash to the election and we did have the women's marches. We had an enormous number of women getting elected to Congress. Some of that was the MeToo movement, and the Kavanaugh hearings, but a lot of it was also the election and many women like myself feeling like, Okay, this guy who’s an outspoken misogynist gets elected. Whereas this very qualified female candidate doesn't. That was heartbreaking a lot of women.
“But the other reason why I thought it can't end up being tragic in the end is because she doesn't feel it's tragic. She's not morose. She is happy where things are at with her life. She definitely recognizes that this election inspired a women's movement. And so if she doesn't see her life as a tragedy, so why should I?”