Inside the real West Wing

How do you get access-all-areas to film the most powerful man in the world at work and play? Get in early, the makers of a fascinating new documentary about Barack Obama tell Gerard Gilbert
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And so Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg have agreed to a US-style live TV election debate. But how long before they allow a documentary crew – one directed perhaps by Nick Broomfield or Paul Watson – to tag along and record their campaign team in action? American politics has produced several such political vérité documentaries over the years, ever since Primary, Robert Drew's grainy but seminal, black-and-white film of the senators John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey glad-handing the voters of 1960 Wisconsin.

Admittedly, the documentaries have all featured the eventual winners, including Primary, D A Pennebaker's The War Room, about Bill Clinton's successful 1992 tilt at the White House, and Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George, about George W Bush's first Presidential campaign – so perhaps only a British politician who really fancied his electoral chances could risk the hubris.

In the meantime, while we await such home-grown political glasnost, an excellent new HBO documentary following Barack Obama's rise to the top makes a textbook example of how to produce such a film. And the first piece of advice from Amy Rice, the co-director of By the People: the Election of Barack Obama, is to get in there early. "A lot of documentary makers I know here in New York said 'the key is you have to start really early because campaigns and politicians don't like to have cameras around. Start early and build a relationship.'"

Rice started filming Obama in May 2006, a full nine months before the Illinois Senator announced that he would be running for President. But the germ of the idea emerged a lot earlier – on 11 September 2001 to be precise – when Rice's older brother was killed in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

"I live in New York, but I grew up in Oklahoma and I don't come from a political family at all," she says. "So my other brother, Andrew, and I woke up to the world that day. We just became very politically involved. At the 2004 elections, on the day that Obama was giving the keynote address at the Democratic Convention, my brother called me in New York, and said 'Amy, Amy, you've got to watch this guy, Barack Obama,' and I said, 'who's that; he sounds like Osama?' And he said 'I know, I know, but he's the future of the Democratic Party... trust me, just watch.'

"The very next day I went out and bought his book Dreams from My Father. His story was so impressive and it was here that I first had the idea that 'Gee, this guy could be the first Afro-American President of the United States. Wow, that could make a great documentary.'"

Rice's emails to the Obama press office in Chicago went unanswered, however, which was when she realised she needed support. "I got in touch with Alicia Sams, who's my co-director, who immediately said 'That's a great idea, don't tell anybody.' And Edward Norton (the Hollywood actor, who acted as producer on the documentary) immediately got it and came on board."

Rice and Sams also approached D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who made The War Room, for the wisdom of their experience. "One great piece of advice was 'Don't let them lump you in with the press,'" says Rice. "Because they're immediately going to think you're the press... you have to present yourselves as the archivist... you're documenting history."

This eye to posterity was a notion that Obama himself quickly understood, according to Rice. "At the beginning he came up to us and said 'So what are you guys really doing?' We said 'Just documenting your journey,' and he smiled and kind of knew what we meant. We never really discussed him running for President because his team weren't even talking about it at the time."

And spending two and a half years shadowing the future President of the United States was also a great opportunity to observe the man at work, rest and play. "What was surprising was how he's so in his skin," says Rice. "What's interesting is that there's no mystery behind him... that's what I learned... what you see is what you get; he's exactly who he presents himself to be.

"I would be backstage with him on nights when either he'd won by a huge margin, or lost by a huge margin, and he would always be so even keeled. It's great for a President, but very challenging when he's leading your documentary. You want a little drama."

Not that the story of Obama's extraordinary victory – over the ruthless Hillary Clinton war machine, over grassroots apathy and not a little racism – lacked in drama. And the film-makers faced their own crises, of being cut off from their subject at any moment – something that nearly happened after Obama announced his candidacy.

"We were told we weren't allowed to film anymore, and it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach when I heard," says Rice. "New people had come on board and now his was a campaign and that was real hard, although it made sense from their point of view."

The main objector to their continued filming was Obama's newly appointed chief strategist, the campaigner (and now White House Senior Advisor) David Axelrod. "We just slowly wore them down and we finally convinced Axelrod to let us interview him", says Rice. "As I was putting the wires on him he looked up at us and he said 'Why am I doing this? I didn't mean to do this.' He ended up being a great subject in our film."

Indeed he does. If the secondary subject of By the People is the youthful and hugely enthusiastic support staff who worked tirelessly to get Obama elected, it is Axelrod who provides the wry and unflappable, seen-it-all-before long view. The documentary's coda has the filmmakers visiting Axelrod and the other campaign heads in the Oval Office during the same snow-covered January that Obama was sworn into office.

"It was such a great moment to go to the White House and meet all these people we'd been following for years on the campaign trail, in dirty campaign headquarters, killing themselves to get elected, and here they are, all dressed up in the West Wing."

By the time he had won the Democratic nomination and beaten off Republican rival John McCain, Rice and her co-director had 770 hours of footage under their belts – a formidable editing job that only partly explains why HBO waited until last November, and the first anniversary of Obama's victory, to air the film in the States. For Rice and Sams, their film was always intended as detached historical record.

"It made sense to let it wait a year and let the administration go through a bunch of ups and downs," says Rice. "We wanted the Obama mania to level out a little before the film came out."

'By the People: the Election of Barack Obama' is on BBC2 tomorrow at 7.30pm


Primary (1960)On the stump in the predominantly rural state of Wisconsin with Democratic nomination opponents Hubert Humphrey and John F Kennedy during the 1960 primaries, as cinéma vérité pioneer Robert Drew's groundbreaking fly-on-the-candidate record captures the moment in time when electioneering started being swung not by local issues, but by the mass media. A priceless time capsule.

Feed (1992)Billed as a "comedy about running for president", this was the 1992 New Hampshire primaries as seen through pirated satellite leads – those unguarded moments just before and after scheduled TV interviews. Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton are among the candidates caught unawares, as is Arnold Schwarzenegger, referring to the Democratic candidates as a bunch of "girlie men".

The War Room (1993)Bill Clinton himself barely features in D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's record of the 1992 Clinton for President campaign, which instead focuses on the antics of spin doctors James "the ragin' Cajun" Carville and George Stephanopoulos as they fire-fight various emergent scandals, from adultery with Gennifer Flowers to the draft-dodging allegations.

Journeys with George (2002)This "home movie" by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was shot during downtime from Pelosi Jr's day job covering the 2000 election as a member of the press pack for NBC News. It's technically ragged, but her flirty relationship with George W Bush reveals the then unelected Republican's convivial side.