The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Way I See It.
This film really seemed to hit at the perfect time. Can you talk about the genesis of the project?
Jayme Lemons: My partner Laura Dern and I were big fans of Pete’s in general, having seen his beautiful work throughout the Obama administration and not knowing that he also had been a photographer for President Reagan. We had become a little bit obsessed with his Instagram. Evan [Hayes] is one of our oldest friends and a producer we admired so much, and we ‘d been actively trying to find something to work on with Evan for years, so we got to talking about Pete’s work and what it reflects. Evan and I went to see some of Pete’s shows when he was on his book tour, and we convinced him to sit down for a meal with us, and started talking about the process. At the time, we weren’t sure exactly what it would be become, but then as it unfolded, we were able to see that a documentary would really be the way to do it. Evan and Laura and I never discussed anyone other than Dawn [Porter] to direct, and we were so happy when she came on board.
Pete, you’re accustomed to being behind the camera. How did they convince you to sit in front of it?
Pete Souza: They had a great track record. Evan had just done Free Solo, great documentary, and you can’t help but think of quality when you think of Laura Dern. So really, if I was going to choose to participate in a documentary, then this group here was the right group.
You could make this film forty times using different images
How did you even begin to narrow the focus out of all of Pete’s photos to the ones that appear in the film?
Evan Hayes: It was an incredible privilege. We had a few experiences where Pete comprehensively walked us through the archive. I remember sitting on my couch with Jayme and Dawn, and Pete saying “Where do you want to start?” and I said “Let’s start at the beginning.” Hours later, we needed to call it a night, but man, we were enthralled by every single image. For me, the images that stand out the most are not the ones that are most the iconic such as the Bin Laden raid or the “hair like mine” photo, but it’s the little moments of empathy and kindness. You know, Obama holding two newborn twins that one of his staffers had just had… photos that show this incredible empathy and compassion and human engagement with one another. I’ll let Dawn speak about culling them down, but those were the photos that excited me the most.
Dawn Porter: Pete took 1.9 million photos over eight years of the Obama presidency. Each of his shows he customizes to what themes he is going to discuss. We had the opportunity to see his show in public, but also the first time I met Pete, he did a version of his one-man show for us in a conference room, and it literally made me cry. I felt like exhaling, like it wasn’t all a dream. It’s not that Obama is perfect, or we want him back, but I think we want the feeling back of having a President who you feel is capable of taking the job of being President seriously. There are 650 images in the film, and a lot of that is due to the really hard work of our edit team— Ben Zweig, Jessica Congdon. Ben became the image expert. In my edit suite, he had all the books laid out and then we went through and tabbed the ones we were interested in, and then used those as a jumping off point. We went through them on whitehouse.gov, you can pick your favorites too! So that’s where we started. Then the second part was choosing themes that would come out in the movie, like empathy or kindness, leadership, or even the seriousness of the job. We had these buckets of photos and had our choices, and then after a couple of rounds of narrowing them down, we brought Pete into the process. He wasn’t seeing the film, but he knew which photos we were interested in, and he would say “oh there’s a better one here” or “you should really look at this one.” His encyclopedic knowledge of the photos could usually get us in the neighborhood of images to scroll through; it was a real embarrassment of riches. You could make this film forty times using different images, which speaks to the breadth and depth of the archive.
Pete, how difficult was it to stay neutral during the more emotional times, such as when President Obama was comforting the families after the Newtown tragedy?
PS: Well, those are the hardest times, certainly, when he was consoling and comforting people that had been affected by tragedy, whether it was a mass shooting like Newtown or a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane. We had to do it many times, and there’s just a sensitivity about it. I don’t think it changes the way I photograph, but I am careful not to make anyone uncomfortable by my presence.
It was one of the most moving sequences in the film. As filmmakers, how did you approach the interviews?
DP: It became clear that one of the ways to elucidate what we’re seeing in the photos is to go back to some of the more iconic ones, like the one of Obama comforting the Wheelers after they lost their son. Pete got in contact with them and asked if they would be okay with their photo being used in the film, and would they talk about what the photo meant to them. I was really glad that Pete had that initial conversation with them privately, so that they could really express any reservations. Then I spoke to them with one of our APs, and David Wheeler said he would be honored to be in this movie about Pete, because Pete had been so careful with them before his book came out with that photo in it. He had not only called them, but he had gone to visit them and sat with them in the backyard and spent time with them. The photos are public; they belong to the American people. But they really appreciated the care and sensitivity Pete took with them before using that photo, and they extended that trust they had with him to us as filmmakers. It was the hardest interview I had ever done. I was asking him about the worst day of his life, which had happened several years ago, and knowing that I am going to bring him back to that moment is not something you do lightly. The photo of his wife sobbing into the arms of President Obama pretty much sums up the then, and the now. It was extremely hard and we are extremely grateful that David Wheeler did that interview. We tried to set it up in a place that was the most comforting for David, but in minutes the entire crew was crying. It was really tough.
PS: I’d like to point out that Obama did that with every family that night. It just so happens that the picture of the Wheelers was one that – I hate to use this word but – representative of that whole experience. But he did the same thing with every other family that night. He did that with twenty-six families. It’s hard to comprehend the pain and emotion involved.