Documentary director Dawn Porter is having a terrific 2020, having directed John Lewis: Good Trouble (released earlier this year), and recently released The Way I See It, a documentary making its debut on TV (ad-free) on MSNBC Friday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. CST The Way I See It features Pete Souza, the photojournalist who had top-secret clearance and full access to two of the most popular and influential presidents of recent history: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama As chief photographer on White House staff, the list of memorable moments captured by Souza seems endless, but in the documentary he can add a few of his own captions to the photos he took It’s an exceptional look behind its process and often the way presidents make decisions
Porter followed Souza on the book and lecture tour that accompanied his two books, Exiting the Coffee Table Obama: An Intimate Portrait and the Shadow: The Tale of Two Presidents The latter gloriously reproduces the account Souza’s Instagram where he references a particularly non-presidential Tweet from our current Commander-in-Chief alongside a photo of Obama treating the same issue like a real leader Souza finds it disturbing that Donald Trump is giving the current White House photographer almost no access outside of designated photo ops, as he is afraid to let the public see what is behind the smiles and handshakes of the images posed
I had the opportunity to speak with Porter (who also directed the documentaries Gideon’s Army, Spies of Mississippi and Trapped) earlier this week, and we talked about his two releases in 2020 and the prospect of ‘have two films in competition at next year’s Oscars (presumptive) Please appreciate…
Who first brought you together with the work of Pete Souza, and what intrigued you so much?
The film’s producer Jayme Lemons, who has a production company with Laura Dern, was familiar with his books, and the two went to see one of his one-man shows, and the two came up with the idea that the show would make a great movie. So they were working with Evan Hayes, who produced Free Solo, and all three of them came over to me, and I was like « Who doesn’t want to meet Laura Dern? » [laughs] When I found Pete, it was like scratching an itch; he said the things i wanted to say, but he was really smart about them We always said « Pete has receipts » He can speak from a place where few people can speak with authority
Also, it was because I was coming out of the John Lewis movie You work on a movie like that, and it touches you He always says « If you see something wrong, not just say something , do something, « and that’s what Pete was doing, so I felt like it was a really good follow-up – totally different styles of movies, which is also really fun to do We had the same editor, Jessica [Congdon], and we went from movie to movie It was a really enriching and really unique experience to go from one to the other that went so well together
Funny you say that to be inspired by the work on the John Lewis documentary, because I went to journalism school, and I always saw documentary makers as an extension of journalists, who were meant to be emotionally removed from their subject matter and who are more of an unbiased observer But those days are long gone, and I can’t imagine anyone working on either of these movies without being changed from it How did these two people change you?
I also have a background in journalism; I worked for ABC News for almost eight years I represented newspapers when I was a lawyer I taught journalism at Berkley For Pete I think for him to be public opinion was a huge thing We are trained to, as you know, to be a little bit apart and always try to be objective, whatever it is. So for him to actually let go of that, it’s rooted in you; that’s what you do It’s no small thing, like when we’re pivoting in our thirties; this is after a very long career, he decides to speak in an opinionated voice It impressed me in a way that it might not have impressed someone who had not spent so long in the copywriting I think for both films, and a lot of my other work as well, I’m always interested in what it takes to get someone out of their house, to take a risk, to do something that might not being popular Pete didn’t know what the answer was going to be when he first started, and he got a lot of hate mail It’s not an easy thing he does
With John Lewis we were very focused on the big moments – crossing the bridge – but he always argued with me that he was just doing the next necessary thing He didn’t want to be the great leader of a movement ; he began to help where help was needed I told him a lot about my worry about what was going on in the country – children in cages, for example – this is not something I could imagine that a US government would do And instead of focusing on my feeling of helplessness, it focused on « What can you do? » He would guide the conversation that way It’s funny my husband was like « He’s your life coach » He’s just a very positive person, and if John Lewis can still believe in America and democracy and our systems of government, I can, and I can get up off the couch and not complain and see what I can do to help They’ve both really influenced me that way
Both documentaries show us clear examples of the best politicians can be, and in doing so, you are also showing us the worst
And you don’t have to say too much about the worst Just fill in the blanks [laughs]
Even with Reagan, he certainly had opinions and policies that people didn’t like, but you got the feeling he had respect for the office
And you also pointed out that for Pete these weren’t about Democrats or Republicans Why did you want Pete’s story to be released to the world now, right before the election?
For myself, my family and many of my friends, we have become really worried about a certain resignation that all politicians lie or are self-obsessed with, and I just don’t believe it from the very first once I saw Pete do his very simple solo presentation, I realized the photos here didn’t lie. He took 19 million photos; there is so much volume in his images, that they almost became the moving image – click, click, click People have to remember that when they vote It was very important to Pete that it came out before the election , and we worked very hard It was not easy; we still had interviews to do, we had to send pete a camera set up by a DP, we had to do remote sound mixing and color mixing and other interviews, but it was worth it We bowed our heads and say, « We’re going to change and pivot a bit, but we’re going to stay on track », and we did, and people are reacting. I’m really happy about that
I think this is mentioned briefly in the movie, but I can’t help but talk about the person (s) who currently hold the position of photographer in the White House, as they have no access. it’s not their fault, but they have about as much to say as a directory photographer
I want to hear from these people when Trump is done There will be a story there
Pete is very careful not to criticize the photographer It’s not his fault for being given him But he also makes the point, if you ask him he knows Joe Biden, and he’s going to call Biden after the election hopefully and talk to his advisers and stress how important it is to have someone maybe they won’t get the access that Pete got – Pete and the president knew each other, they had worked together before and they had a trust This is something President Obama told me, that ‘he trusted Pete tremendously, and Pete never violated that trust He was there, he agreed to do things the way he saw him, and that’s what he did I think it really is necessary for democracy The president is our president; it is the house of the people; we are not a dictatorship; we don’t do bogus setup situations like what we’re seeing now It’s dangerous for people to do these montages, and I think it’s especially dangerous when you have someone with criminal inclinations
We’re going to have a lot of work to do to restore confidence in government We even need to rebuild confidence in the CDC Do you believe the CDC today? Unfortunately no I don’t know who is in charge It’s crazy It never occurred to me in my life that this would be the situation, that I would doubt the CDC, and it’s a real loss for us J ‘hope Biden and Harris recognize a little more transparency, because it will help us heal And I think this example will help make that case
You mentioned earlier that Pete took almost 2 million photos under the Obama administration Let’s talk about the actual amount of work you had to do to go through those images How many photos did you go through? What were you looking for? Did Pete advise you in any way? And did stitching together the photos help you create a timeline?
It was that daunting task What documentary makers hate most is the idea that they’ve missed something, that there’s this golden and perfect thing that they haven’t So we had two editors on this, Jessica being the senior editor in charge and a junior editor who was super strong and awesome, and her job was to put together a process for reviewing the photos. So what Jess and I did was come up with themes that we wanted to explore: leadership, family, compassion And then the junior editor had all the books that Pete had written – the Obama biography, a book from Reagan, a few historical books – and we narrowed it down to several thousand photos, then we reduced it to a manageable amount, then we brought Pete into the process. He hadn’t seen the movie but he knew that These were the stories we were telling.Originally, we planned to do more interviews with some of the subjects in the photos, just like we did with the father of the child killed in Sandy Hook. But then COVID happened, and we weren’t able to do these shoots, but it went well So Pete, after we made our choices, gave us some advice like « If you like that one, you should look at this one which i think is better « He’s been in about three-quarters of our selection process. He’s got this insane memory, so there were a few times we were like, » Pete, we’ve got that great quote from someone, ”and he was like“ I have this, ”and he shot us something inside minutes, so that was really fun does Pete have a pic? He definitely has a photo
And his Instagram account proves it The film discusses the role of the staff photographer as part of the imaging team – a little with Obama, but more with Reagan You have this priceless video of the Reagans in full gear Western question asked by Pete What does Pete think about this aspect of his work?
He doesn’t see himself very strongly as part of marketing, and that’s partly the reason for the sheer volume of images He documents important moments in history But there are a number of, like the Q&A in India comes to the core, he was doing Brand Obama So he always had a bit of dancing with the press office, because he wanted to make sure that the image that was being broadcast really caught the moment, that nothing was wrong. ‘was tampered with or overestimated Ironically, he ended up being the person who chose the photos, and he said, “This is the photo that captures what happened at that summit meeting.” He isn’t criticizing the president; it’s not like a straight reporter is going in there, but knowing Pete he’s so hyper focused on accuracy that he would never post a misleading image, and for that there has to be a certain amount of trust. from the photographer to the audience that you’re not part of a PR machine, that you can’t fake this Overall it’s a huge job and all the photos will be public; they belong to you and me They will be in the National Archives; you can browse them and create your own movie [laughs]
These two movies are terribly relevant, maybe even more so than when you started making them I’m almost afraid to wonder what you’re gonna do next because I don’t want to hear you predict the future But you clearly felt that these two stories had to be told now. Why is that?
One of the things that I love about being a documentary maker is that I work through my own questions and emotions in my work, and that’s not a usual thing for most people. I felt in the second year of the Trump presidency was, I wouldn’t say desperation, but such disappointment and fear, and I wanted to level that out And instead of reacting to all the negativity, I wanted to rethink the people I admire and explore how they did their jobs, how did they come to receive our admiration Working on these two films was really joyful Every film is tough and comes with challenges, but seeing the John Lewis Archives not only crossing the bridge but also working with young people, seeing them plan, strategize and show up every day – it makes you proud to have formed a country who could do that The same with Pete I don’t agree with everything President Obama has done; I certainly think there is a lot you can criticize, but it’s not a political movie in that sense This is a movie about the president’s desk and what it should mean to us
Symbols matter; I think we’ve lost a lot of international respect, and hopefully we can get it back.But seeing a president not always making the right decisions but doing his best ethically and compassionately – and that goes for Reagan J ‘too protested Reagan’s policies when I was 20 I lived in DC; I was protesting. But that’s not about that; but Reagan was a decent person and Obama is a decent person, and Trump is not
Both of these films are eligible for an award, so you might be competing against yourself at some point
Come to think of it I’m finishing a series with Oprah on mental health [for Apple TV], but I’m looking for… I like these exploratory political history films But I also like different things, so I’m looking for the perfect thing
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The Way I See It, Pete Souza
World News – US – « The Way I See It » director Dawn Porter talks about the influence of John Lewis and decency in the presidency
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