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Documentary filmmaker Alex Holder’s life changed dramatically — and practically overnight — when news broke June 21 that the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 had subpoenaed footage Holder shot of former President Donald Trump and those close to him.
In the time since those reports surfaced, the British filmmaker — who was a producer on the 2016 Tribeca film Keep Quiet, but who describes himself as a previously “pretty unknown quantity” — has revealed that for nearly two years he has been working on a docuseries about Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and its aftermath. Titled Unprecedented and set to air on Discovery+ this summer, the three-part series features interviews with the former president; his children Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr.; Jared Kushner and former Vice President Mike Pence; as well as footage shot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Now, Holder has a security detail, has testified in front of the House Select Committee, and appeared on CNN and MSNBC, while clips from his docuseries have generated their own news stories. (One clip in particular, of Ivanka Trump discussing her father’s unfounded claims of election fraud and saying Trump should “continue to fight until every legal remedy is exhausted” has been juxtaposed against her remarks to the House Select Committee.) “Let’s put it this way,” Holder said in an interview Tuesday. “On Monday of last week, I had 112 followers on Twitter, [and] the majority of them were probably my family. And now there’s just under 40,000, and I think I was trending on Twitter yesterday.”
According to Holder, the initial idea behind the series — which doesn’t yet have a release date — was to “find out who these people [the Trumps] were” by way of the re-election campaign. The series ended up not only documenting the family’s “Succession-type vibe,” but also their reactions to Trump’s loss at the ballot box and to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In an interview with THR, Holder discussed production on the series, why he wasn’t surprised by the events of Jan. 6 and why finding distribution “wasn’t as straightforward as one might imagine.”
How did this documentary get started, and how did you initially gain access to the Trump family?
So I was introduced to them, and then after that introduction I told them what my approach was and it coincided with the election campaign, so that was obviously going to be the main thrust of the entire project. And then I think they were very confident in terms of winning the election, so they were game to participate. Here was a guy, foreign, not part of the, I guess, “mainstream media,” they would call it, and so they thought this would be — and it is — a very fair depiction of the events that took place.
I know there’s been some reporting about how that introduction took place, but just to confirm, who introduced you initially to the Trump family?
It was somebody who was friendly with the family, who had worked for them for a while, and he made the introduction. It’s been reported who it is but I don’t like bringing up people’s names. [CNN reported that it was Trump official Jason Greenblatt who “orchestrated” the intro to the family.]
What were your initial intentions for the documentary, and did your plans change at all over the course of filmmaking?
The plan was to find out who these people were; we had access to Ivanka, Eric, Don Jr. and the president himself, and for me, it was trying to get insight into this family, trying to understand what made them who they are, understand their politics, understand the dynamics between them. The series really goes into this somewhat Succession-type vibe, it’s almost like the real-life Succession, which is pretty fascinating. But obviously, it’s within the rubric of the election campaign and then the events that took place after.
Did you have to change your approach at all over the course of production? I’m sure you weren’t anticipating Jan. 6 at first.
Exactly. So I think that the beauty of documentary is that you never know what’s going to happen next. I mean, you have an idea in terms of where you want to get to, and initially, the obvious endpoint was the election result. Which, I think at the beginning, we all expected there to be a binary result, one way or another, and therefore that was an appropriate ending. And I don’t think anyone [could have] predicted what took place thereafter.
[But] it was obviously something which I do believe, when Jan. 6 happened — and I’ve said this quite a few times — it was an inevitable day. It wasn’t something that happened in isolation; it was something that happened as a result of all the rhetoric and belligerence that took place throughout the campaign and the events that took place after the election in terms of what they called the “Stop the Steal” rally. The idea that the election was stolen was obviously a very significant part of what led to the events of Jan. 6, but also the demagoguery that took place in the campaign itself played a part. So it was all these individual moments that led to that tragedy.
Given how much press attention the Trump family has gotten over the years and how much access you had to the family, was there anything that particularly surprised you about the family?
There were certainly things they said which were expected, and I think they’ve been in the media limelight just so long that it took a while to see who they really are. And in some cases, who they really are is in fact what you see, because they’ve been in the spotlight for so long, even when they were children. But there were moments where you get to see quite a unique portrayal of them. So when they talk about their father, when they talk about their mother, and in fact there’s this very special moment when they talk about when their father had COVID, and actually it’s quite revealing as to what their experiences were. In fact, the president himself talked about COVID in a way that he had never spoken about it, about how he felt when he got it and what that experience was like for him. So that was pretty extraordinary.
But there were also moments of seeing how much they admired their father as well; [that] was also something that was — I won’t say it’s unusual, but it was quite an extreme way that they support their father and believe in him and want to do everything they can to support him, which I think was quite interesting as well. That’s not surprising, but the way they framed their answers about it was interesting. There were moments that were surprising where you get to see this side to them that I don’t believe people have really seen before.
While the Trump family was seemingly all-in on participating in this documentary, how did you experience the people around them, the advisors and the campaign staffers, the members of the camp who weren’t part of the family?
I think there was a mixture, and also it changed over the course of the time that we were with them. So there was a time when there was a lot of support and enthusiasm, but then there was also a time when there was definitely a separation of position: There were those that did not agree with the positions they were taking in terms of the result of the election. But in general, my interactions with the people around them [was that] they were very sort of subservient and willing to do whatever they needed to do to make their bosses happy, essentially.
You were on the ground at the Capitol filming on Jan. 6. What was your reaction when that day turned into an attack on the Capitol?
I expected it to happen. The night before, me and the DP made plans to deal with the situation if it did go the way we thought it would go. And the night before, I was in the elevator and I told Michael, the DP, that “I think the president’s going to tell everyone to march on the Capitol,” and we made plans accordingly. So it wasn’t a surprise. I mean, at the end of the day, look, if you’re telling 75 million people their vote didn’t count, like what does anyone expect is going to happen?
Where did you end up filming that day? Did you go into the Capitol?
So I was down below and Michael was right outside the Capitol while the mob was trying to force their way in through the tunnel, and the footage that he captured is extraordinary, it probably will become iconic in terms of the material captured on that day.
What was the mood of the family like after Jan. 6, based on your interactions with them?
So there was a difference between the three kids’ reactions and the father. The kids really didn’t want to talk about it at all and wanted to keep away from that subject, whereas the former president was happy to give his [assessment] of the situation, and he believed — I think that clip’s actually been on TV — he doubles down on the position entirely. So the president’s position on Jan. 6 is that he felt the reason why people wanted to go into the Capitol was because they believed the election was stolen. And the only reason they believe that is because he told them.
What was your experience with shopping this documentary around — were distributors eager to tackle this subject matter, or was it a more select group that was willing to take this on?
I think because of the nature of politics in America and the events that took place on Jan. 6, there was quite a lot of concern and, I guess, thought behind this. And also just the mere idea of somebody — let alone someone that is a pretty unknown quantity — the fact that anyone could get access to a sitting president and the first family and build a relationship with them that would result in what we’ve made, I think was quite difficult to even comprehend. So it wasn’t as straightforward as one might imagine. But at the end of the day, Discovery were incredible partners to work with. And I personally think they’re brave and they understood the historic importance of what we were creating and what we created. Because that’s what it is, right? At the end of the day, this is a documentary of history that is just utterly unique. Any access to a president of the United States, even for one minute at a particular moment in time, is fascinating. But at this particular moment, in the most consequential election in American history, probably, is something that is utterly unique and imperative for people to see and to understand and to watch and to learn from.
What can you tell us about your deposition in front of the House Select Committee on Jan. 6?
So I’m not really going into too much detail about that with anybody. What I’ll say is that they requested the materials that they asked for, which I believe is public, in terms of what they asked for, we provided what they asked for, we are happy to cooperate with them and the interactions I’ve had with them are very professional. I don’t really have anything more to say other than the fact that they are doing their job, and we’ll see what they find interesting or not.
What do you hope audiences will be thinking about or feeling after they view the entirety of Unprecedented?
I think that they’ll see a portrait of a complicated, fascinating, controversial family in a way that I don’t really think has been seen before. I think they’ll see insights into their personalities, into their interactions with each other, their interactions with their father. I hope people will see how the events of Jan. 6 took place and I believe, I hope, people will see that trajectory that we show, which is a chronicle of events in a linear manner. You have to also look at the background of what was going on in America at the start of 2020 and see how everything played a part in the events that took place thereafter — they’ll be able to get an insight into these people. I also think people will draw their own conclusions. And I think that they’ll be able to get insight into these people — at least, that’s what I hope people will get from it.
But also I think people will draw their own conclusions. I think when it comes to Trump and the Trump family, people’s positions are, like I said, very one side or the other. So I hope people will watch it, as much as one can when it comes to this subject, with openness, but I mean, people’s positions will most probably be reinforced. You can look at the reactions people have to that water glass moment, and I think it sums up in some ways the nature of what President Trump is. People will see that clip and be like, “Oh, he’s the kind of guy that has attention to detail and he pays attention to everything, even things like how a set looks” and they’ll think that’s admirable. But then there will be people that watch that and think, “Why is the sitting president of the United States of America sitting in the White House, moving a glass of water around for two minutes?” And will say, “This is a guy who’s a maniac, a narcissist,” etc. You can see that from what people have been writing about that particular clip. But what’s, I think, special about the clip — and there’s others like that — is that it shows you who he really is. People can then take from that what they wish. Who he is, really, I believe is shown in that clip, and then people can exemplify and expand on that.
Have you heard from Trump or the Trump camp since you were subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 select committee?
I don’t want to answer that question if that’s OK, sorry.
You mentioned you now have security guards. How has your life changed since you began filming this documentary?
Let’s put it this way: On Monday of last week, I had 112 followers on Twitter, [and] the majority of them were probably my family. And now there’s just under 40,000, and I think I was trending on Twitter yesterday. And the clip that we put on, that water glass clip I mentioned before, I think has 2.5 million views, and I think I’ve been on every single news channel — it’s completely changed. People are talking about me on TV shows. Yeah, I mean, it’s obviously crazy and there’s obviously people who, without having seen the series, have come to a conclusion about my position. I mean, I think at the end of the day, Jan. 6 is a key part of this project, and I’ve made my position clear on Trump’s responsibility for that. And so there are people that don’t agree with that, but the things that they’re saying are obviously not pleasant and frankly not acceptable. But it is what it is, right?
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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