By The People: The Election of Barack Obama filmmakers give SheKnows an exclusive look inside their HBO documentary.
By The People: The Election of Barack Obama gives viewers unprecedented access to history. When Barack Obama became the first African
American president, the journey had begun years prior and filmmakers Alicia Sams and Amy Rice were there to document.
It has been one year since President Obama beat Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Sams and Rice have presented an extraordinary film to mark the anniversary.
The story is presented through exclusive scenes of President Obama with his staff and family. By The People is produced by Edward
Norton and airs tonight on HBO and its creators give SheKnows unprecedented access to their Obama campaign exclusive view of history.
SheKnows: Heading out on this journey as a documentary filmmaker, you could not have written a better script than the one you shot in real life?
Amy Rice: (Laughs) I know, right? (Laughing) that’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking is you never know where it’s going to take you.
SheKnows: What are your emotions as this work of yours is about to be shown to the world?
Alicia Sams: It’s overwhelming. I’m relieved, too. After working so hard, it’s so nice that people get to see it. It’s the people that we made it for, the
American people. I’m exhausted (laughs)! It’s like having a baby.
SheKnows: When you first began the Obama campaign, were there things happening at his rallies or in his campaign offices that
clued you in that this was something special?
Rice: Definitely, I think we were at these rallies and there was this excitement that was not present in national polls. That’s where we first felt that this could really happen.
There were just so many people with such passion working 24/7 and not even questioning it. They were so dedicated to this campaign. We thought they’d do well with that kind of team on the
ground in Iowa. For Iowa politics, Obama had such a good strategy there versus the other campaigns. I think it just took the rest of the national press a little time to catch up what we were seeing
Alicia Sams: At first, it was interesting seeing the people’s reaction to him. It felt like there was really good story in this Senator’s career. But, I never thought
it would be such a dramatic rise so quickly. Then, when we got back from Africa in the summer of 2006 and we did some of the book tour events with Obama, the response was overwhelming. It became clear that this could grow into something much bigger.
Documentary film tells a story: the most important aspect
SheKnows: As a documentary filmmaker, the subject matter is always important. But, at the end of the day, you are putting together a film. What to you was the stand out aspects of
this particular story?
Amy Rice: When you’re making a documentary film and you’re starting at the beginning you cast a very wide net as you’re trying to tell a story. It’s
wonderful and challenging. Once you’ve got your characters and your story, the challenge is keeping up with it. I think we realized there was a point when we were filming at his Iowa
headquarters that Barack Obama is a family story, an American story, but also we were also showcasing people behind the scenes that nobody
knew about. Their stories! It started out as telling the Barack Obama story and we met all these great characters along the way.
When he won Iowa, we both felt not just that we had a film, but that we had never seen anything quite like what the Iowa caucuses was all about — that grassroots, retail politics effort that all
the candidates had to undertake. How many chances am I going to have to get to know people like this? I loved it. It was so fascinating. Then, it was hard on the big days, like election day, or
Super Tuesday, to not get swept up in the emotion because you’re so busy focusing on capturing your character’s emotion.
SheKnows: When you’re tackling a new subject making a documentary, do you approach a project as something you’re interested in, or is it more organic than that?
Alicia: Sams: I do have a visceral reaction to the subject, actually. It can run the gamut. Usually I fall in the love with the characters and the story that we’re trying to
tell. On this one, when Amy came to me, I had been so interested in what made Obama him. I watched the 2004 keynote speech and I thought, “Wow, I haven’t heard a politician try to hold
us accountable and make us be citizens again.” I felt that was an interesting effort to follow if he was really going to be able to change and involve people in politics.
By the People’s fantastic footage
SheKnows: Another joy of documentary filmmaking is the putting together of the puzzle. With all you had shot, what was the editing process like to break it down to a two-hour film?
Amy Rice: This was my first documentary to direct — same with Alicia.
Alicia Sams: It’s my first feature-length. I’ve been making documentary films for 20 years.
Amy Rice: Yes, and still our learning curve was pretty intense. It was a very humbling experience. It was also quite incredible.
SheKnows: Did you know going forward that you would have an outlet like HBO to present By the People: The Election of Barack Obama?
Amy Rice: We had no idea where it would go, we were making a true independent. HBO came aboard in spring of 2008.
SheKnows: The Obamas, the entire family really, have inspired so many. Was there an aspect of his candidacy that inspired you?
Amy Rice: The aspect of his candidacy, his story, I found inspiring when we were filming Obama and his team were underdogs. History and the odds were against them. We were told
over and over again, “they are not going to win.” What was phenomenal was watching the staff keeping their eye on the prize and they persevered. There is a lesson there than
Politics not as usual
SheKnows: Amy have you always had an interest in politics?
Amy Rice: No, but I have two older brothers and unfortunately, my oldest brother died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. My other brother and I woke up that day and became much more
politically involved. On the day that Obama was giving the 2004 keynote address at the democratic convention, my brother called me and to check out this guy who was the future of the Democratic
Party. I saw that speech and I read his books and that’s how I got the idea for the film.
SheKnows: Now, lastly, on Election Day, not only did Obama win, but he won by so much. How did you feel after the long journey?
Amy Rice: I have to tell you, you would think I’d be ecstatic, but Election Day was our hardest day of production. It was the hardest day of work. I didn’t wake up that
day thinking is Obama going to win. I woke up wondering if I would get the end of the story. Will I get my security badge? Will I be in the motorcade? There were all these logistics. I was worried
about that the entire day. I never had a moment to stop and experience it. Even after, when we got back to New York and saw all of the footage we got, I actually then teared up.