‘Cheer’ and ‘Hillary’ Filmmakers Talk Objectivity and Truth in Documentaries

Nanette Burstein and Gret Whiteley Documentary Filmmakers Conversation
Burstein: Hulu; Whiteley: Netflix

One might think that “Last Chance U” and “Cheer” executive producer and director Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary experience with Mitt Romney would bond him to Nanette Burstein, who executive produced and directed “Hillary,” a four-part docuseries about Hillary Clinton. It would not be an incorrect assumption, but it would be a limiting one.

When Variety brought the filmmakers together for a candid conversation about their recent Emmy-eligible series, we found they have something much deeper in common: Both of their approaches to storytelling can be summed up by the opening of Burstein’s 2002 documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about Robert Evans.

That project begins with the admission that there are multiple sides to a story and only one (very specific) side will be told within. The people Burstein and Whiteley choose to follow dictate the stories they will be telling, which means they are telling a person’s truth, as opposed to a universal truth.

Here, Burstein and Whiteley discuss that, as well as how to capture vulnerability and authenticity from their subjects, who are often very big personalities; what the role of a documentarian is when it comes to delivering a truth; and how they know when it’s time to turn the cameras off.

How do you approach when to lean into your own opinions about a subject to shape a narrative?

Nanette Burstein: My thesis when starting [‘Hillary’] was, “Here is one of the most recognizable women in modern American history — who is also one of the most polarizing, and why is that? How much of that is cultural, and how much of that is her own flaws?” I was always balancing that. With subject matter like this, it is difficult, and even though I’m trying as hard as humanly possible to vet this, I know I will be criticized by some people who feel differently. And that’s when you have to rely on your own instincts and editors and know that whatever happens, you have done your best effort.

Greg Whiteley: I think objectivity is a philosophical impossibility. I think what you’re trying to do, instead of achieving objectivity, is you’re trying to be fair. What I try and do is let the subject matter I’m covering influence my thinking. I want to be changed by my interactions with this person that I’m hanging out with. I want to start with one perspective, and then I want that perspective to change and shift in response to who they are. There are a couple of ways you can do this, and I think there are a couple of examples in Nanette’s work, like in “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

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Nanette Burstein (left) during one of her lengthy interview sessions with Hillary Clinton for Hulu’s “Hillary.” Courtesy of Hulu

Burstein: It was a very specific point of view. In the very beginning, it was sort of a warning to viewers that there are three sides to every story: yours mine and the truth, and no one is lying. It was to say that it was not a film that was going for objectivity; this is celebrating one man’s yarn that he’s weaving, which was also a comment on Hollywood and the way it works.

Whiteley: But what’s great about that is it gives you as a filmmaker the license to tell a really great story. And I don’t really care if it’s the truth: I know I’m getting Robert Evans’ version of events, but his version of events is fantastic, and I feel like I’m getting a much greater insight into who he is as a person. What I do feel I need to do as a storyteller is build empathy for my main subjects. So [in “Cheer”] you could take the five main cheerleaders that receive more of the focus than the others — Morgan and Jerry are classic underdogs; La’Darius and Gabi are not; Lexi is somewhere in the middle. And Monica is certainly not an underdog! But you can go deep into their particular day-to-day struggles, and the audience will start to buy into what they want. Other than facts, which need to be reported accurately, I think what we should do as documentarians and storytellers in this format is be very upfront and very honest about our own subjectivities, and then you can allow yourself to be shifted and changed by what it is you’re filming. I think if we’re doing our job right, we will capture footage that is vulnerable and sometimes even unflattering of the subject, and you then have a decision to make. If I capture something that is salacious or I know is going to embarrass them later, what I try to do, if I can, is go back with a follow-up interview or try to get more footage that will help contextualize that moment. I don’t ever want to ignore or hide or scrub my footage clean of anything that might be embarrassing: It’s your job to depict who they really are. But I feel like a good rule of thumb is I always want to shoot them in a way that I would want to be shot, if the situation were reversed, and that when I’m done, I can sit right next to them and show them the finished project and not want to crawl underneath the chair.

What was your approach to incorporating candid moments around formal talking head interviews in these projects?

Burstein: There is a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of the 2016 campaign, which was filmed by people working for the campaign without the intention of making a documentary at the time. So it’s very different, especially with people who are more concerned about their public image. A lot of the more candid moments that I personally filmed were in interview settings. There was a lot of chatting that went on when [Hillary Clinton] was getting her makeup done. I did tell her when I was going to roll, but I think she just didn’t think about it a lot because these interviews went on for days. And we did it with everyone, but I really only used it for her for thematic reasons of peeking behind the curtain of someone who has been known to be very guarded and trying to show that they’re pretty much the same when they think the camera’s rolling and when they don’t.

Whiteley: We draw from three different buckets when we’re making a series like “Cheer”: We have a bucket that we call vérité or fly-on-the-wall, where you’re just shooting things while they’re happening; a bucket where you sit people down and interview them, and then the third bucket for archival footage — footage on their iPhones from when they were 13 years old or footage we found on the web that was old news footage. For us, we always try to lean into the vérité or fly-on-the-wall bucket; you can capture dramatic moments that are moving a story forward as they are happening, and it starts to have an edge of dangerousness to it, and the audience feels like they are participating in the filmmaking process. We’re really trying to get to the humanity of who they are, and if you can get them to relax and be a little bit more vulnerable, I think that’s good filmmaking, whether you’re interviewing them or shooting them in a naturalistic setting. A lot of times with these projects, I think there’s an assumption that when you sit somebody down and you interview them, that’s somehow less real than if you have a camera in a room and people are just interacting. Sometimes that’s true. I think it’s particularly true with a politician because it’s been drilled into them to stay on message and, “This is what you do when a reporter asks you a question; here are your talking points.” But I think what Nanette is doing with “Hillary” and what we’re doing with our vérité footage, the subjects are always very conscious that there’s a camera there. And if they’re not, the footage starts to feel voyeuristic and kind of creepy, and it’s not any more revealing. I think authenticity is achieved in a way that’s more pleasing and more cinematic when the subject is fully aware that they’re being filmed and they’re making the conscious choice to allow you to be there in these moments that are vulnerable.

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Covering Navarro College’s road to Daytona in “Cheer” culminated in victory. Courtesy of Netflix

Burstein: I completely agree. I think if subjects aren’t aware, because you’re stealing footage, it is creepy and it’s ethically wrong. And I think the audience also, more and more, is savvy and appreciates the nods to the filmmaking process. I left in moments where people were saying, “Put the camera down” because I want people to be aware of the filmmaking process at all times.
I think it enhances the authenticity of the process.

What did you find was key to making these subjects feel comfortable enough with the cameras to be real? Do you think it makes a difference if the subject is as used to having cameras around as Clinton has become?

Whiteley: Well, first, there’s no one under the age of 19 that hasn’t learned to become comfortable on camera. [But] there is a certain performative expectation when a camera is on that we have learned we have to wait out or coach our way through. There’s a lot of footage where we sensed somebody was trying to give us what they think we want, and we either shied away from them as main characters or we waited those moments out. If you put a clock to it, it lasts about nine minutes, and then it becomes exhausting and they go back to how they normally are.

Burstein: Hillary is someone who has been interviewed more times than we care to even mention, but she’s always been interviewed or filmed in a certain way, and she knows the person interviewing her has an agenda — that news story of the day, “Here’s what I need from her.” But she has never, ever been interviewed in this way, where it was seven days, and I never interrupted her — ever. Eventually when she was done telling an anecdote, I would follow up with a different question, but it was where the conversation led. And certainly, I had pages of questions I wanted to ask, but I was willing to let the conversation go wherever. And so it took a couple of days for her to get used to that kind of interview to get fully relaxed. And a lot of the interview that is in the series comes from after the first two days because she really did change.

Whiteley: Do you feel like you were getting a different Hillary because she’s not running for anything anymore?

Burstein: Oh absolutely. I think the reason she even agreed to do this deep dive into her life was because she wasn’t running for office. Ever since she was a fairly young woman, she has been in public life — from being the First Lady of Arkansas, she was in the spotlight for being married to the governor. She’s never had a moment where she wasn’t either in that position or running for office. This is the first time since she was in her early 30s that that was the case, and I think she realized, “OK, here’s my opportunity to say what I really think for the first time in my life. And maybe there will be repercussions, but not in that immediate way that I’ve had to normally deal with. And people have said all kinds of things about me, whether putting me on a pedestal or thinking that I’m a murderer, so I might as well have the opportunity to tell the story in my own worlds.” I think it was a welcomed opportunity once presented to her.

Whiteley: Did you think if this version of Hillary would have come out in the campaign, there would be no Donald Trump as president?

Burstein: Yes, I did. I knew that this film would be a game-changer for people’s perceptions. But I also knew going into it that that would be the case, and it was one of the topics I was unpacking: How much of that is the person, and how much of that is, in her case, gender, and how much of that is political dynasties in partisan politics? She built up an armor because when she came into the national spotlight in the ’92 election and when she became a different kind of first lady, she said some things that were twisted in the news, and she really regretted it and had to worry about every word she said and how soundbytes can be taken out of context. I think she’s enjoying being able to speak more freely now.

Whiteley: When I was making “Mitt,” I wasn’t thinking at all about this, but now that it has been years and people have come and talked to me about it and said, “I didn’t know that guy existed, he’s so much more likeable.” Do you think there’s something that we could do, in terms of how people run for president that would allow who they really are to be something that emerges? I think as a country we’re worse for it if we’re not electing people for who they truly are.

Burstein: I don’t know. I saw someone tweet recently, saying, “We should have documentaries be coming out of the candidates while they’re running to get this behind-the-scenes, real portrait of them while they’re running.” And while that is an excellent idea in theory, everything they say will still be taken out of context and used as a 24-hour news byte. I witnessed this even with “Hillary”: There is a soundbyte where she is talking about why she felt people didn’t like Bernie Sanders in the Senate, and she is airing her true feelings — which she would have never done during a campaign — but she is speaking in the context of when she was running against him in ’16. And that soundbyte was quoted in a story, and every newspaper in the country, within an hour, was running the soundbyte as if Hillary Clinton woke up this morning and just decided to bash Bernie out of the blue, right in the midst of the primary season. The context in which it was said was not carried in the story. Now, you might still take offense to that comment no matter what, but the lack of real context to it was very unfair. And just to watch that one little thing happen in your own life and see why candidates need to be so careful, I don’t know if it’s possible, just given the way our news cycle is: It’s worse than ever.

Whiteley: In the old days of Walter Cronkite, you got the sense of, “Here is this person who’s going to set aside his own biases and, as best he can, depict the news: ‘Here’s what’s really happening.'” And we just sensed that he was being upfront with us. I think what’s dangerous is people mimic that style, when it essence what they’re really doing is selectively picking facts that only back up their own biases, their own points of view, and that’s where you get cable news outlets that just peddle their own ideologies over and over again.

Burstein: Yeah, and I think also as a filmmaker, you go on a journey. You refine and hone as you learn new information, which you’re constantly doing through research and filming. And I really think there is such a documentary revolution happening right now because the news has changed — we don’t have the Walter Cronkites of the world and we have a very limited capacity to get the full story. So a lot of documentary filmmakers are coming in and giving larger-world pictures to things that we’re craving, partly because they can go more in-depth and partly because they’re willing to shift however best possible to be more objective. They’re not speaking to a certain message that they have to in order to identify their brand.

With all of this to consider, and the months of footage with which you found yourselves, what made you feel comfortable saying you were done with these stories?

Burstein: I inherited thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes footage of the campaign, so I hired two editors and it took us four months to go through everything. I didn’t want it to feel like it was a film about 2016, per se, so if I got too down the rabbit hole of the election, it gives a false emphasis and false narrative to the story. We cut for a year and a half. I shot during that period as well. I think you know you’re done when A) you don’t have enough money to keep going — there are always financial realities to the business — but B) you can over-edit, and you have to be careful that you don’t get lost in too much feedback. I think you just inherently know when you get to that point of what your original intention was.

Whiteley: For “Last Chance U” and for “Cheer,” we just had a very rigid schedule we had to stick to. If you’re making a show about a football team, it makes pretty good sense to have your climax be the end of the season, and if you’re making a show about a cheerleading squad, Daytona is a good place to end it. So for us, narratively, we knew where we wanted to end, and we just had to figure out where we wanted to begin. So we did a preliminary shoot in July and some in October, but our main run of principal photography began in earnest in January, and we just knew that we were building to that day in April when we learned whether or not they were successful at achieving their goals.