just asking questions

‘There Was No Way to Have a Rational Conversation With Him’

Filmmaker Alex Holder on his interviews with Trump after January 6.

Photo: AJH Films
Photo: AJH Films

A large swath of America learned who Alex Holder was last week after it was reported that footage the British filmmaker shot for a documentary about the Trump family had been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating January 6. His film Unprecedented documents the months before and after the 2020 election, including the attack on the Capitol, with particular focus on the dynamic between Donald Trump and his adult children. Holder was granted unusual access to the family, and clips from the film — particularly one in which Ivanka Trump appears to contradict her recent testimony — have circulated widely online ahead of its release on Discovery+ this summer. Holder has also testified behind closed doors. I spoke with him about Trump’s responsibility for the insurrection, Cassidy Hutchinson’s bombshell testimony, and why it took so long for his footage to emerge.

How did you meet the Trump family, and why did they seem to trust you implicitly, given that an unfiltered documentary seems like something of a high-risk proposition?
I was introduced by somebody who had worked for them privately and then at a certain point in the White House. [Ed.’s note: The person has been identified by the New York Times as Jason D. Greenblatt, a former Trump Organization lawyer and Trump administration envoy to the Middle East.] They’d been complaining for a very long time that they weren’t given a fair shot by the media, the media were biased, etcetera. So my approach was to say, “I’m here to listen to you.” And this obviously coincided with the election campaign, so that was obviously going to be a major part of the project. They absolutely believed they were going to win — it was going to be a repeat of 2016, the polls were all wrong.

I wasn’t part of the media fabric in the U.S. I was an unknown quantity, in a sense. So I think an aspect of their thinking was definitely, “Here’s a guy who’s going to film us win.” And I joke that maybe my British charm helped. But there was no secrecy here. They’re big boys and girls. They came, they sat down and answered the questions they wanted to answer, and if they didn’t want to, that was their prerogative. Last week, people in the Trump camp were saying that they didn’t know about us. At one stage, Michael, the director of photography, was onstage filming Ivanka. And CNN called one of the staffers on the campaign and said, “Who is this dude interfering with the live shot? Can you get him off?”

And this idea that we were making some sort of promotional piece for them — it was just never in the cards. It’s ludicrous.

You told The Hollywood Reporter that the violence on January 6 was “inevitable” and that it didn’t happen in isolation. On January 5, you even predicted that people would march on the Capitol the next day. When Cassidy Hutchinson testified on Tuesday, she echoed that sense of foreboding, saying Mark Meadows told her that “things might get real, real bad on January 6” at the Capitol, and the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers came up in conversations. To what extent does your film make clear that people around Trump knew what was about to go down?
The perspective Cassie had is obviously incredibly unique and powerful and more authoritative with respect to intent and planning. My perspective was very much a result of having witnessed the campaign rallies and the rallies that took place after the election. With the rhetoric being espoused by the president and his family, this was an inevitable result.

I don’t disagree, but there was a lot of semi-coded language coming from Trump. What we learned more this week is about the lack of surprise from some of the people around him about what happened. In fact, they’d discussed this very possibility in the run-up — we didn’t know the extent to which they were doing that. I wondered if you captured any of that in the film. 
No, no, no. Our film is focused entirely on the three eldest children, Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric, and the president.

Did you encounter Hutchinson at all in the making of the movie?
I did know who she was. I don’t recall meeting her. I met a lot of people there — I certainly don’t imply that what I’m saying gives any credence to the president’s position that he didn’t know who she was.

You interviewed Trump three times, two of them after January 6. You’ve said that you believed in his heart of hearts that he thought he actually won the election. This aligns with everything we know about Trump, but did anyone else around him construct that same force field, or were they just trying to please him?
In my interactions off-camera with people around him, there were a few different positions. There were those that didn’t really think that he would be successful in his attempts but were hoping that he would be. Then there were those who thought it was a very bad idea and he should not be doing it. Then there were those who were somewhat indifferent. There was a sense of people feeling a bit scared of him.

But were any of them true believers like he was?
I don’t really recall in terms of specific interactions that anyone absolutely bought into what he was saying. They wanted to, perhaps.

But he really did believe.
Based on my interactions with him — I don’t claim to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, but in those moments, the position he gave to me is someone who was utterly irrational, someone living in an alternate reality, and that there was no way to have a coherent, rational conversation with him. It’s very scary when people start to believe in their own lies, and when you can’t have a rational conversation with them — that’s when things become very dangerous. And we’ve seen that play out in history, when very dangerous people start to believe in their own rhetoric and are able to get their supporters to believe.

You shot all this a long time ago. What was the impetus for sitting on it, given all the newsworthy stuff you captured?
We didn’t — it just took a really long time for us to make. We were filming and editing simultaneously. I would say the series is really good, and I put that down to someone I work with named Marcos Azevedo, who is a master in every way. What we wanted to do was make it a very clear chronicle of events, as well as include this portrait of a very complicated, fascinating, and controversial family — interweaving those narratives. I’ve mentioned there’s a Succession-style vibe in the story.

So which Logan Roy offspring corresponds to which Trump offspring?
You have to wait until the series comes out. That’s a big spoiler.

Obviously Trump didn’t feel any remorse for what happened on January 6. Your movie, as you said, focuses largely on his children — did you get the sense that any of them seemed rattled, or was the default response to tend to their father’s grievances?
My experience with the three children was that they were always there to support their father, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is when that doesn’t happen, which is quite rare. The closest version of that that I can recall of there being a clear divorce between one of his children and him was the testimony of Ivanka Trump at the committee hearing. My interactions with them — when there were questions pertaining to their father, they always wanted to help and support him however they could.

You were filming at the Capitol on January 6, and you’ve said the footage could be some of the most dramatic we’ve seen yet. It feels like we’ve been privy to every possible angle from that day. What can you share about what you shot that we may not have seen before?
There are specific moments in that footage which are horrific, and I believe have not been seen before. I don’t want to go into too much detail for varying reasons, but I think they will be the defining illustrations of that terrible day. People who have been injured as the police tried to regain control, blood all over their faces — it looked like a war zone. It’s masterfully captured by Michael, who shot it. But there are moments in there that are very difficult to watch.

You were subpoenaed and appeared before the January 6 committee, though not in public. What can you tell me about that experience? Did Liz Cheney personally interview you?
It was the attorneys, and various other people on-camera, and members of the committee were present throughout. I don’t want to go into too much detail about who spoke and the interactions. I’ll say they were very professional and very clear. I’ve made clear that we’ll comply with any lawfully served subpoena. I was subpoenaed yesterday by Fulton County. I’m collecting subpoenas these days.

Do you expect to be called to testify publicly in the near future?
After the last eight, nine days of my life, I have absolutely zero expectations for anything. Like I said, I’ll do whatever I need to do.

You’ve had to retain private security; is that right?
Yes, and it’s ongoing. It’s just a bizarre situation. Getting home and having somebody go in and sweep the house — it’s such a surreal experience. It’s unfortunate that this is the case, but here we are.

Have you ever dealt with anything like this before?
No, no, no. To be honest, I think even for people who have had experience with the media, this is just extraordinary. It’s been wall-to-wall coverage for a week. But it all just sort of coincided. We only recently finished the project, and then the investigation started, and then public hearings, and things became totally crazy thereafter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Holder: Trump Was ‘Utterly Irrational’ After January 6