Conversation: All-Access Obama

Obama with Rice (left) and Sams.Photo: Pete Souza/Used with permission of the White House

By the People is not a warts-and-all political exposé, a War Room–style breakdown of behind-the-scenes counterattacking, or a rigorous analysis of Barack Obama’s political platform and fund-raising. No, HBO’s adoring documentary (premiering November 3 on HBO) about Obama’s campaign plays more like an all-access-pass concert tour documentary. Logan Hill talked to filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams about riding the tour bus all the way to the White House.

When did you first decide that Obama was the real deal?
RICE: I grew up in Oklahoma, not in a political family at all. That changed when I lost my brother on 9/11. That day, my other brother Andrew and I woke up to the world around us. I wanted to make a documentary on Howard Dean in 2004, but somebody else was making one. Andrew called me as Barack was giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. My first reaction was, “His name sounds like Osama!” But the next day I bought his book Dreams From My Father, and immediately started leaving messages with his press people.
SAMS: Edward Norton finally got us in the door, and we began shooting in May 2006, with an eye toward this being a very long project. I grew up in D.C. and am more cynical, and I thought, “There’s no way this guy is going to be president. We’ll be at this for twelve years.” After Obama published The Audacity of Hope, we went to Africa with him; that trip kind of cemented our relationships. We just kept showing up after that. Barack’s favorite line, whenever he’d see us over the years, was “You guys are still here?”

You don’t focus on the pragmatic, backroom politicking. Why?
SAMS: People have seen The West Wing, and that’s all you hear on the cable news shows. We wanted to show the experience of it happening from the point of view of the people who made it happen.
RICE: At one point we had cut the race speech out, but we did some test screenings and found that people wanted to relive those moments, so we couple them with behind-the-scenes footage you haven’t seen.

I was surprised that the Iraq war isn’t played up more.
RICE: It played more of a role in the beginning. But the primary became a battle of style and personality. It wasn’t so much about what [Clinton and Obama] were saying on the issues. It was more: Were voters going to go with the old, or the new?

A lot of people are going to say, “This is propaganda.”
RICE: If we’d tried to do the journalistic balancing-out, we would have lost the narrative. This was about what these people went through with their candidate.
SAMS: We reached out to the Clinton campaign; we reached out to the McCain campaign—it just wasn’t gonna work out. It’s about the [Obama campaign’s] experience. It wasn’t everyone’s experience.

What’s your favorite moment?
SAMS: I love the scenes with Michelle and the girls at home—just seeing how normal they are.
RICE: The Oval Office footage at the very end. I still get emotional. All these people persevered when everyone thought he didn’t have a chance, and that’s very inspiring.

By the People
November 3, 9 p.m.

Conversation: All-Access Obama