In the fall of 2017, producer Howard T. Owens got a call from famed Washington power broker Robert Barnett. Barnett’s longtime client, Hillary Clinton, was sitting on nearly 2,000 hours of campaign footage and planned to turn it into a documentary. Hulu was already on board to distribute it domestically, but would Owens consider producing and selling it abroad?
The son of a onetime Democratic state senator from Connecticut and himself the former head of National Geographic Channel, Owens was immediately interested. He’d have to meet and woo Secretary Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin, he was told, and then, with the streamer, begin compiling a list of potential filmmakers. The only requirement: that she be female.
Nanette Burstein, a political junkie whose résumé included the celebrated 2002 Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, was Owens’ top choice. After a meeting in February 2018, she’d be Clinton’s, too. Burstein’s pitch was for “something much bigger than the election,” says the documentarian, who set out to explore how Clinton had become one of the country’s most admired and vilified people, and what that status says about gender and culture. That Clinton was, for the first time in years, not in office or running for office meant that such an intimate portrait was within reach.
Still, Burstein would need ample access to Clinton and her husband, Bill, as well as complete editorial control. To her relief, she was granted both. “The Clintons have a reputation for being controlling, but from the moment we met Hillary, we saw zero of it,” says Owens, who confirms that no subject was off-limits. Clinton would end up giving 35 hours of her time, recounting everything from her husband’s affair as president with then-intern Monica Lewinsky to election night 2016, when her own presidency eluded her grasp.
The end result, simply titled Hillary, is a largely flattering portrayal, even as it delves into the many scandals and controversies that have ensnared its 72-year-old subject. Burstein has made peace with the inevitable flak it will catch from Clinton detractors who’ll take issue with the doc’s lack of conservative voices (save former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist). It’s not, she and her producers insist, for lack of trying. Instead, they got one no after the next. “We were shocked,” says Owens, who blames a toxic, polarized political culture for the near shutout. At one point, Burstein says, she managed to track down Newt Gingrich by cellphone, and was told he’d “rather stick needles in [his] eyes than do the interview.”
While prominently featured, neither Lewinsky (who was contributing to an A&E docuseries on the subject at the time), Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump was asked to participate. “I didn’t want to re-litigate 2016,” the director explains, “as much as just be able to show Hillary in this unobtrusive way.” Forty-five others do, however, including her husband (who holds back tears as he, too, walks through the Lewinsky chapter) and daughter, childhood friends, aides and advisers, a litany of journalists and her onetime opponent turned boss, Barack Obama. “This is not an agenda piece,” says Hulu’s head of docs, Belisa Balaban. “It’s an authored piece of work that looks at a very long slice of personal and political history.”
The four-hour docuseries will premiere in its entirety March 6 on Hulu, against the backdrop of a contentious primary season where gender politics is once again a central theme. But before it does, Clinton and Burstein will trek to Park City, where the project will make its debut Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s there that Owens and his Propagate partner, Ben Silverman, will begin the overseas sales process, continuing a month later in Berlin. Per Owens, the global appetite is “incredible,” thanks in part to the nearly 1 million miles Clinton logged as secretary of state.
With a team of Secret Service agents present, Clinton sat down on a mid-January afternoon in Pasadena to discuss her decision to open up her life to further examination, her damning assessments of both Sanders and Trump and her own thoughts on the electability of a woman.
Once you agreed to open yourself up for this docuseries, what was your biggest concern?
I don’t know that I really understood what I was getting into. We ended up doing 35 hours of interviews, and it was both exhilarating and obviously painful at some points. It was probably made easier because of the rapport with [Burstein], and it gave me a chance to try to explain things and maybe to vent a bit.
In the doc, you’re brutally honest on Sanders: “He was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” That assessment still hold?
Yes, it does.
If he gets the nomination, will you endorse and campaign for him?
I’m not going to go there yet. We’re still in a very vigorous primary season. I will say, however, that it’s not only him, it’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it. And I don’t think we want to go down that road again where you campaign by insult and attack and maybe you try to get some distance from it, but you either don’t know what your campaign and supporters are doing or you’re just giving them a wink and you want them to go after Kamala [Harris] or after Elizabeth [Warren]. I think that that’s a pattern that people should take into account when they make their decisions.
Speaking of, he allegedly told Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could win, a statement he vigorously denies. How did you digest that?
Well, number one, I think [that sentiment] is untrue, which we should all say loudly. I mean, I did get more votes both in the primary, by about 4 million, and in the general election, by about 3 million. I think that both the press and the public have to really hold everybody running accountable for what they say and what their campaign says and does. That’s particularly true with what’s going on right now with the Bernie campaign having gone after Elizabeth with a very personal attack on her. Then this argument about whether or not or when he did or didn’t say that a woman couldn’t be elected, it’s part of a pattern. If it were a one-off, you might say, “OK, fine.” But he said I was unqualified. I had a lot more experience than he did, and got a lot more done than he had, but that was his attack on me. I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a president who’s going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we’ve seen from this current administration.
Do you think the media’s coverage of the 2020 campaign has improved from its coverage four years ago?
I don’t. In the beginning I was hopeful that it had. I thought that with more than one woman running — at one point there were six, so a basketball team plus a spare — it’ll get more normal [because] you have women on the stage. It’s not just me standing alone up there. And in the very beginning there was reason for hope, but as the campaign has gone on, it does seem to me that people are reverting back to stereotypes, and many of those are highly genderized. And it’s a shame.
Any advice to Warren or Sen. Amy Klobuchar if either wins the nomination?
I’ve talked to them.
What have you said?
I answer their questions, number one. I’ve talked to practically everybody who had run and is still running.
Assume Bernie’s not part of that?
(Nods.) So, I can’t say all of them. But I answer their questions. I always say [to the female candidates], “Look, you can run the best campaign, but you’re going to have to be even better than your best campaign to overcome some of the unfairness that will be directed at you as a woman.” Whoever gets the nomination, you’ve got to deal with the structural challenges that the Republicans and their allies have put in your way. So, that means you’ve got to deal with voter suppression, because they’ll steal votes or they’ll prevent votes from happening. They’re now trying to purge voters so that they can try to limit the electorate. You’ve got to deal with the theft of your personal information, particularly your emails. I say to them, “If your emails haven’t been stolen yet, they will be.” Look what the Russians just did, hacking into that Ukrainian oil company to try to dig up something or make something up [about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter]. Then you’ve got to worry about the propaganda, the fake news, the made-up stories. Now you have the additional worry of the deepfakes, and people putting words in your mouth. I’ve tried to tell all the candidates the same thing, but with the women, I say, “You’re probably not going to be treated fairly, don’t let it knock you off stride.”
You’ve grappled with whether you should have fired back more aggressively at Trump when you had the chance. Can a woman win that way in 2020?
It’s hard still. Very hard. I thought Elizabeth did a good job [at the Jan. 14 Democratic debate] with, “The only people on this stage who have won every one of their races are Amy and me.” I thought that was clever. Some people loved it, some hated it.
That’s the world we live in.
It’s really hard ever to score 100 when you’re trying to navigate gender expectations and barriers. Sometimes you really do want to let loose, and then you think, “Oh, great, they’ll say I can’t take it, so I’m getting angry.” Or they’ll say that I’m mad, and that that’s not a very attractive look. So, it’s a constant evaluation about, how can I best convey who I am, what I believe, what I stand for and what I’m willing to fight for?
The end of the doc strikes a more hopeful tone, beginning with the women’s marches. You talk about not attending …
Yeah, I didn’t want it to be about me. And I had to go to the inauguration. I felt my civic responsibility was to show up, and it was painful. But that next day [with the marches] was so empowering. I was texting with everybody and they were sending me pictures with people wearing my T-shirts and carrying posters of my quotes. I couldn’t have been happier. That energy, the so-called resistance, which I consider myself a part of, was really important to keeping people focused and understanding that we couldn’t just get disgusted and walk away. We had to fight back. A lot of the women who ran in ’18, I supported them. They contacted me, they told me that volunteering for me or my election motivated them to run. Then Virginia just passed the [Equal Rights Amendment] with a resounding vote, because they took back both houses of the legislature. For the first time in Virginia history, a woman is now the speaker. So, you see the positive effects of this terrible loss. That’s what I want people to grasp. I want people to understand it’s not enough to criticize, no matter how legitimate your critique may be. If we don’t turn out and vote, we can’t take our country back.
It concludes with a former adviser saying, “I don’t know if we’re ever ready for the person who has to blaze the trail. We’re ready for the people who come after them … For [Hillary], she was at the tip of the spear.” Does that get exhausting?
Of course. But it doesn’t last for long. Look, I could have a perfectly wonderful life without ever poking my head into the public arena again. But that’s not how I was raised, both with my faith and my family. I believe that part of the reason we’re on this earth is to do what we can to make life better, fairer, juster. That motivates me. Does it get discouraging? Do you feel like you want to pull the covers over your head? Yes. But it’s just not how I’m made, and it’s not what I think this country that I love and I’ve tried to serve should stand for. So, I get back in the fray.
Is there any piece of you that has considered jumping into the race?
I have had so many people [urge me to]. Every day. And I’m grateful for people’s confidence, but I did think it was right for me to step back. I’ll do anything I can to defeat the current incumbent, and to reverse a lot of his damaging policies. Thankfully, I still have a voice and a following.
Trump has helped keep you in the news …
There are some people who just can’t give me up. I live rent-free in his head.
As president, is he better, worse or the same as you had anticipated?
When I lost, I was obviously stunned, disappointed, terribly upset. If I had lost to what I would call a “normal” Republican with whom I disagreed on many things, but who I thought cared about the country and put service over self, I would probably still speak out and say, “We don’t agree about that.” But this is abnormal, what we currently have. We should never allow it to be normalized. I thought for a brief moment between the election and the inauguration that he might be awed by the responsibility of the job, and really try to grow into it. As he had admitted, there were a lot of things he didn’t know about the job. But then when he gave his inauguration [speech] and insisted on lying about the crowd size? I’ve been to every inauguration for 25 or so years; he did not have a very big crowd. And I said, “What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with the people that he has around him who he’s making go out on TV and say it was the biggest crowd?” It really bothered me because I thought, “That’s delusional.” It’s one thing to have a set of policies that you disagree with, but to have someone following the kind of authoritarian playbook to disrupt reality, to try to force you to believe what he wants you to believe by distracting, diverting and continually lying? That’s different. We haven’t ever had to deal with that.
How can the left combat Fox News?
It’s really a shame that all the people who support progressive politics and policies haven’t understood that that’s exactly the right question to ask. We do have some well-off people who support Democratic candidates, there’s no doubt about that, but they’ve never bought a TV station. They’ve never gobbled up radio stations. They’ve never created newspapers in local communities to put out propaganda. That’s all been done not just by Murdoch and Fox, but by Sinclair and by the Koch brothers and by so many others who have played a long game about how we really influence the thinking of Americans.
Any plans to use Hollywood as a means of influence as the Obamas have with their Netflix and Spotify deals?
We’ve explored it. We have not made any decisions.
So, you and Chelsea haven’t launched a production company, as has been reported?
No. But we were talking to people who approached us. The Obamas are absolutely right that you’ve got to impact the culture and what people see and therefore what they believe if you’re going to impact the politics and to preserve our democracy, not to be too dramatic about it. So, I think they made a very smart decision, and maybe someday we will, too.
You did team with Steven Spielberg to adapt The Woman’s Hour, a project that ultimately landed at The CW. What did you learn about the entertainment business from that process?
That everything takes a lot longer than you think it will. That’s one thing I’ve definitely learned.
Speaking of Hollywood, with his trial in the news right now, do you have regrets about your lengthy association with Harvey Weinstein?
How could we have known? He raised money for me, for the Obamas, for Democrats in general. And that at the time was something that everybody thought made sense. And of course, if all of us had known what we know now, it would have affected our behavior.
I want to turn back to the doc. It starts right in with this idea of people thinking they don’t know you, which is something that’s dogged you for a long time. How much did you view doing this as an opportunity to try to put that to bed once and for all?
I would hope that would be part of what people take away from this.
Of course, by agreeing to it, you also opened up some old wounds, including those in your marriage …
Once I decided that the film would be about more than a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign, I had to accept the fact it was going to be about my life. That was a major part of my life, which obviously played out in public. Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s painful, but it’s also revelatory because we’ve always loved each other and had each other’s backs. Have we had ups and downs like every married couple I know? Absolutely. And maybe this film helps people think about that, that love and relationships and marriage are often colored in grays and beiges. We all suffer ups and downs in our lives.
One of the questions that Burstein wanted to explore was whether yours is a real marriage or more of an arrangement, as many have theorized over the years. Ultimately, she concluded it was a love story.
I hope it does [show that] because it’s real and it’s been around for a long time now — nearly 50 years, for heaven’s sake. I would love for that to be conveyed because I’d love to have the reality of my life story better aligned with the press and the public understanding of it. That would be a big step forward.
At one point Bill says to camera, “I was so grateful that she thought we still had enough to stick it out. God knows the burden she’s paid for that.” What goes through your head hearing that?
First, I’m grateful that he understood that this was a really terrible time. I said [recently] in connection with a book that Chelsea and I wrote, The Book of Gutsy Women, when asked what was my gutsiest decision, I said, “Well, personally, staying in my marriage.” And that kind of sums it up. But I also think in every marriage there’s not just one side. So, I could say the same for him, that I’m not always the easiest person to live with. (Laughs.) I’m glad he stuck it out, too.
I was struck by a comment from your campaign media consultant Mandy Grunwald in the doc: “Women who judged Hillary for staying with Bill Clinton would have voted for Bill Clinton all over again if they had the chance. And kept saying so … And yet they took it out on Hillary.”
That’s exactly right.
Why do you think that is?
I wish I understood it, I really do. And look, I lived through that, where women were judging me and then a little conversation would lead to the fact that they had a similar issue or their sister did or their friend did, and there was so much anxiety and even fear wrapped up in it. But it was also true that, as we saw in survey after survey, he could, if he ran today, get re-elected. What is it about this double standard, both double standard in public and double standard in private? I think the movie does a good job of raising that issue. Trying to answer it conclusively is impossible, but at least we should be asking ourselves that question.
I have to admit it was wild to see Matt Lauer questioning you about the sanctity of your marriage in the Today show clip from 1998. When news of Lauer’s alleged sexual misconduct came out, how did you react?
I love this word “gobsmacked” because, yes, look, hypocrisy is everywhere. Look at the current occupant of the White House for Lesson A.
You’ve addressed your husband’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky before as it relates to the learnings of the #MeToo movement. But I remain curious: Has the way you look upon that time changed as the climate has changed?
No. I do think the culture has changed, and mostly for the good, but I also think you still have to look at every situation on its own facts and merits to make a decision.
Who do you hope sees this film and how does it impact them?
I really hope young people watch it. Especially young women because I want young women to have some idea of the arc of what we’ve all gone through over the past 50, 60 years because they have to save [women’s rights]. They have to defend them against constant attacks. Some of those attacks are subtle, but some of them are pretty blatant. I’d also love for young men to watch it and go, “Oh, I didn’t know that. My God, they burned her in effigy because she wanted universal health care? Whoa.” I’d love for some of that to penetrate so that people understand that making change is hard and it doesn’t happen overnight with a snap of the finger. I’d love for that to spark a conversation that could really inform how people think about politics and tough policies and maybe even this election.
What did you learn about yourself as you watched the series?
The only thing that I have thought about is, could I have done a better job for all the people who say “I never really knew her” or “I never really got her”? Could I have done a better job conveying that than I did when I was front and center in the public eye?
What would that have looked like?
See, I don’t know the answer. The woman factor is obviously there, but I have thought about what I could have done differently or better. But that’s water under the dam, as they say.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.