The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Final Year.
What was the process like to bring this film together?
Julie Goldman: This is our sixth film together, so we have an established and unusual machine that works for our flow of producing. In this case, it was a lot of filming in New York and an enormous amount of logistics in getting access. We also just worked creatively together, looking at cuts and having conversations about the film. There were some tricky moments such as handing off $20,000 in cash to the field producer on the street corner in the middle of the night. From the beginning, it was very involved and required taking care of every obstacle so Greg Barker could do what he does best which is go out and make a great film.
“I’m either in intense and transparent overdrive or I’m asleep, so there wasn’t an inbetween way of doing this.”
How do you see this film as both a record of the final year of President Obama’s presidency and the telling of a story?
Greg Barker: In terms of producing for documentary films, Julie and John are incredibly creative. They’re hands-on with the details of production, but also present with making the art of the film that comes together in the cutting room. It was nice to have a team to rely on and confide in when things were going wrong or when I was worried about something. That was incredibly valuable as a director. For the actual making of this film, it was a leap of faith for all of us to do it and get the required access to make it work as a documentary. There was a lot of skepticism amongst the bureaucracy to figure out what this film meant. Most things done with foreign policy staffers and those discussions are classified, so it wasn’t possible to be in every room. I was hoping creatively be able to be in the war room, but I found that the human emotion and drama is what’s most important to making the film work. For me, it evolved into a view of where we see America’s role in the world and what should that position be.
What was it like having a crew shadowing you for a year?
Samantha Power: I’m either in intense and transparent overdrive or I’m asleep, so there wasn’t an inbetween way of doing this. I’m surrounded in my job by many people who do intense and driven work, but are also suspicious and skeptical, so I was cautioned that more skepticism was warranted on my part. I’d get ten page memos detailing all the ways this could and would go wrong. My view was that we’re not perfect and the Syria chapter in it is one emblem of that, but more exposure to the sincerity of the enterprise is better for the overall good as that exposure is most lacking with the public’s understanding of government. Transparency isn’t always to the good especially looking at earlier edits where there were more scenes of me constantly swearing! However, I do believe that this film is important to give people insight into the people working in government and that they’re just trying to do good and they care about the world around them. In a world where the faith in our institutions is extremely low, this is a bit of an antidote to that problem.
Why edit the film the way you did? What were you trying to lead the audience through?
Barker: I’m generally an optimist, so I tend to look for glimmers of hope. Otherwise it just feels like we’re lost as a country. The actual art of crafting this film was a challenge on the technical level. We were just shooting lots of things and assembling as we went along. I had two assistant editors that watched everything and logged the footage based on character emotional substance and different markers so we could easily find the clips we needed to find. The next step was having a few editors work. Around the time of the election, I knew we had to get a cut of the film before they left office, regardless of what happened in the election.
How much did the election of President Trump had an impact on the end of the film?
Barker: Obviously we were shaped by the election. I think what’s amazing is that when we first started filming, we were trying to figure out when to stop. I remember saying early on that I was going to continue filming until the morning of January 20th and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. There was something extraordinary about witnessing transfer of power and being in the offices of the White House on that day. For me, those next shots are about what comes next and about the way the system works, which has a beauty and simplicity to it.
Power: Those powerful shots come from Trump creating an actual deadline of kicking everyone out the moment he stepped into office.
Goldman: We always knew that we wanted to film until that day. We just didn’t realize that it was this deadline moment where we really had to film then hurry out.