The two of you started filming long before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president - how did he and his staff react to you when you first showed up to work?
I think they were a little bit bemused by us. They kind of liked the idea of what we were doing, but I also think they didn't quite know what to make of us. Barack came up to us one of the first times we were shooting in his U.S. Senate office and he said, "So what are you guys doing?" And we're like, "We're just documenting your journey." And he kind of smiled and was like, "Uh-huh." And he turned around and walked away. And we were kind of jokingly saying "journey." At that point, we were all wondering, "Is he going to run? Is he not?"
Were there other people trying to cover him in the same long-form way you were?
When we came on board, I don't think anybody else was chasing him at that time. The key was to start really early to prevent that from happening and to build a relationship with him. I don't think people started calling until after he announced his candidacy. We were always paranoid that somebody would come in and kind of bump us out, even though we'd been shooting for months. So I'd check in with [press secretary] Tommy Vietor, like, "So are you getting lots of calls from other documentarians?" And he's like, "Yeah. There's so many documentarians calling, and it's great because we just can say, 'Oh, we already have somebody making a documentary.' But this woman Barbara Koeppel [a Washington-based investigative reporter] keeps calling ..." And I, with a pit in my stomach, said, "Oh, don't worry about her ..."
Once the media machine reached full throttle, what did you learn from being so close to it without the task of keeping up with daily news reporting?
I think they were a little bit bemused by us. They kind of liked the idea of what we were doing, but I also think they didn't quite know what to make of us.
The relationship between the campaign and the media is fascinating. The back and forth and how they both really need each other. The first debate we went to, we went to the state room afterward and realized how the media kind of sets the tone of how the debate went.
One person talks and it kind of spreads. And then they're like, "Oh yeah, he did win. He did well." It was interesting, too, how the daily news-cycle message was often very different from the focus inside the campaign. As the campaign got more and more intense, winning the daily news cycle was important, but early on, it was like the campaign staff had their plan and they were sticking to it.
And there's a big difference - in the beginning in Iowa - between the local media and the national media. The campaign would really focus on the local media because what they needed immediately was to build name recognition for him in the state of Iowa. We would hear from people back home or just in the media, "Oh, his national poll numbers are so low, there's no way that he can win." But what we were seeing on the ground in Iowa was very different, and in the Iowa headquarters, they would say to us the national poll numbers don't matter. They just never took their eye off of the ball in Iowa.
Did you ever feel like you were losing your ability to keep up?
As the campaign progressed and got bigger and more complicated, our story narrowed because we had found our characters. So as the campaign grew, our story became more and more focused. In the very beginning, which is kind of the nature of documentaries, you cast a very wide net as you're trying to find your story and your characters. I can't imagine trying to find our characters during the general election rather than in Iowa.
We also realized that our story was going to be bigger than just following him and his top staff around the whole time. What was different about this campaign and this story was the grassroots effort and the people that gave up a couple years of their lives to work to get this guy elected. But I guess there was that feeling like, "Oh my God, this is getting really big."
Did the campaign ever try to clamp down on you and restrict your access once things became serious?
We had been shooting for nine months, and we filmed the announcement of his candidacy at Springfield. Our first day of shooting in the Chicago headquarters, we arrived and asked [communications director] Robert Gibbs if we could grab a quick wide shot of the war room, and he looked at us and said, "Yeah, I don't know if we're going to have you guys shoot anymore." You should have seen the looks on our faces. It was like someone punched us in the stomach. That was pretty terrifying.
How did you deal with it?
This film will be seen as very much a record of the campaign and that moment in history.
Kind of a full frontal assault. We sort of pretended - in front of the campaign staff anyhow - that we hadn't heard anything about stopping. We just kept showing up, and we got Edward [Norton, executive producer] to lobby, and we lobbied and everybody was just basically calling everybody and convincing these guys to just let us keep going. And eventually, we wore them down.
It all kind of culminated in this moment when we finally convinced David Axelrod to do a sit-down interview with us. As we were wiring him, he looked up, and he's like, "Why am I doing this? I don't want to be here. You guys wore me down." And then afterward, there was a shift. He understood what we were doing. He said it was nice to stop for a minute during this crazy campaign and kind of contemplate what was going on ... And then he quietly threatened us, right when he left. He was like, "I better not see this on YouTube."
Your film is coming out at an interesting time. The president's newness has worn off a little bit, but he hasn't been in office long enough to be defined by his presidency. What do you think Americans will take away from it?
I think it's great that we waited for the film to come out until this moment. Till the newness wore out. Till the Obama-mania wore off. We were talking about this today on the plane, and I think it's going to be defined and redefined as years go on.
We were saying how there will be a time when his presidency will be over, and this will be looked at as truly about the campaign. It won't be compared to what he's doing now or what he's not doing now. This was a very special moment in time: This campaign was unique in terms of the grassroots effort and the way he inspired people. The mood of the country. And hopefully, over time, this film will be seen as very much a record of the campaign and that moment in history. As opposed to viewing it right up against the facts of his presidency today.
It's already changed. We had screenings in the summer, and in the recent screenings we've had, I'm hearing the audience reacting differently to certain moments. It's kind of a meta-thing. Because this story is still continuing in front of us, it's influencing how people react to it
I can't wait to do "25 Years Later" with Ronnie Cho and see where he is and how he reflects back on that time in his life. Because for those guys, those really young guys, they have their whole lives in front of them. And this is an experience they had in their twenties? It's gonna be wild when they're politicians or doing whatever in the future ... I'd love to sit down with Ronnie in twenty years and watch this movie.