How Laura Dern’s Jaywalker Pictures Got Pete Souza in Front of the Camera

The Way I See It
Courtesy of Focus Features

The actress and her producing partner, Jayme Lemons, backed 'The Way I See It,' a documentary on the former White House photographer, to showcase "what we want to keep in mind when we vote."

It was when Laura Dern saw photographs of President Obama in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, consoling families involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, that she first became aware of the work of Pete Souza. "The sensitivity, the compassion, the invisibility that it takes to capture those stories—that was where I really understood the gift of the White House photographer," Dern says.

Souza, who photographed both the Obama and the Reagan presidencies, is the subject of a new documentary directed by Dawn Porter, The Way I See It, which Dern and her business partner, Jayme Lemons, produced under their Jaywalker Pictures banner. 

The Way I See It, which Focus Features released in theaters September 18, is the first film made under the relaunched MSNBC Films label and will air on the cable news network October 16.

While a political documentary is perhaps not an obvious choice for an Oscar-winning actress and her producing partner to champion, Dern and Lemons say The Way I See It typifies the kinds of projects they have targeted from their first time working as a producing team, on the 2011-2013 HBO comedy-drama series Enlightened. "We love the misunderstood, and the misguided, the underrepresented, and also the people in for the real fight," Dern says. 

The duo, who formed Jaywalker in 2017, are also making The Dolls, an HBO limited series in which Dern is set to star alongside Issa Rae; The Most Fun We Ever Had, a drama series based on a bestselling novel, with Amy Adams; an hour-long series based on the book Mr. and Mrs. American Pie, developed with Tate Taylor, who will direct; and a drama for HBO they’re producing with Alex Gibney. 

Dern and Lemons say they have begun to expand the types of projects they consider as the industry has become less siloed, with potential ideas emerging everywhere from streaming to podcasts to documentaries. "It's such a new day in media," Lemons says. "You’re thinking, 'Is this an audio story? Is this television? Is it a feature? What is it?' The borders have been removed so much in the last few years. The challenge sometimes is figuring out what is the right place, and where we focus our energies. Because the opportunities are everywhere."

Dern and Lemons first met on the Arkansas set of the 2000 Robert Altman movie Dr. T and the Women, in which Dern starred and Lemons, who had recently finished grad school, worked as a cast assistant. Lemons would go on to become Dern’s personal assistant before later collaborating as a producer.  "We are ambitious in certain aspects of producing, but I don't think either of us have ever thought, this is going to be how we build our empire," Dern says. Rather, projects have emerged from a certain passion.

In the case of The Way I See It, it was Souza’s 2017 photography book, Obama, An Intimate Portrait, that sparked Lemons, who describes herself and Dern as "Pete Souza super fans."

"I was a bit obsessed with the book, and I just kept thinking, there's something here," Lemons says. "I wanted to know more about those photos and the people in them. And I was always fascinated with that idea of being a fly on the wall in those rooms, the most important rooms in the world." The pair teamed up with a friend of theirs, Evan Hayes, who had just produced the Oscar winning climbing documentary Free Solo and set about chasing the notoriously private Souza. 

The possibility of using Souza’s work in a film that would showcase the meaning of the presidency ahead of the Nov. election was ultimately persuasive. "He's very humble, and doesn't like to be the subject," Dern says. "We needed to frame for him—no pun intended— what our mission was versus just the Pete Souza movie. We were aligned in respecting the honor of what a single image can do. He archived our communal and shared history with two different parties. We saw a respect for the office. A real representation of leadership. And we felt cracked open by how he captured empathy in a frame. We wanted that legacy referenced, hopefully, as a reminder at this time for what we want to keep in mind when we vote as Americans. I think he really appreciated knowing that that was our intent."

Porter finished the film during the heart of the pandemic and some key interviews were done through Zoom, with Dern and Lemons checking on post-production on iPads. Dern, who sits on the Academy’s board of governors and has been watching as the pandemic impacts the plans for the next Oscars and the opening of the Academy Museum, was speaking from a hotel room in London where she’s been shooting Jurassic World: Dominion.

Producing during the Covid-19 era has meant learning to adapt, she says. "You're living with the game plan that might be gone tomorrow," Dern says. "And all you can do is plan for the hope that you're going to get to shoot, or you're going to get to go into production. Everything offers question marks."