Film

Interview: Documentarian Dawn Porter on John Lewis’s Influence, Sifting Through 2 Million Photos for The Way I See It, and Decency in the Presidency

Documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter is having a tremendous 2020, having directed John Lewis: Good Trouble (released earlier this year), and the recently available The Way I See It, a documentary getting its television debut (commercial free) on MSNBC on Friday, October 16, at 9pm CST. The Way I See It profiles Pete Souza, the photojournalist who had top-secret clearance and total access to two of the most popular and influential presidents in recent history: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. As the chief White House staff photographer, the list of memorable moments Souza captured seems endless, but in the documentary, he gets to add a few of his own captions to the photos he took. It’s an exceptional look behind his process and often the way in which presidents make decisions.

Dawn Porter / The Way I See It

Filmmaker Dawn Porter and former Chief White House Photographer Pee Souza. Image by Lauren Justice.

Porter followed Souza on the book and lecture tour that accompanied his two books, the coffee-table release Obama: An Intimate Portrait, and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. The latter gloriously reproduces Souza’s Instagram account where he references a particularly un-presidential tweet from our current Commander-in-Chief alongside a photo of Obama handling the same issue like an actual leader. Souza finds it disturbing that Donald Trump gives the current White House photographer almost no access outside of designated photo ops because he’s afraid to let the public see what lurks behind the smiles and handshakes of the posed images.

I got a chance to speak with Porter (who also directed the documentaries Gideon’s Army, Spies of Mississippi, and Trapped) earlier this week, and we talked about both of her 2020 releases and the prospect of having two films in competition at next year’s (presumptive) Academy Awards. Please enjoy…

Who was it that first brought you together with Pete Souza’s work, and what was it about it that intrigued you so much?

The film’s producer Jayme Lemons, who has a production company with Laura Dern, knew his books, and the two of them went to see one of his one-man shows, and the two of them cooked up the idea that the show would make a great film. So they were working with Evan Hayes, who produced Free Solo, and the three of them came to me, and I was like “Who doesn’t want to meet Laura Dern?” [laughs] Then when I discovered Pete, it was like scratching an itch; he was saying the things that I wanted to say, but he was really clever about them. We were always saying “Pete has receipts.” He can speak from a place that not a lot of people can speak from with authority.

Also, it was because I was winding down from the John Lewis movie. You work on a movie like that, and it gets to you. He’s always saying “If you see something that’s not right, not just, say something, do something,” and that’s what Pete was doing, so I felt like it was such a great follow-up—totally different styles of movies, which is also really fun to do. We had the same editor, Jessica [Congdon], and we just pivoted from one movie to this one. It was a really rewarding and truly unique experience to go from one to the other that went so well together.

It’s funny you say that about being inspired by working on the John Lewis documentary, because I went to journalism school, and I always looked at documentarians as an extension of journalists, who were supposed to be emotionally removed from their subject and are more of an impartial observer. But those days are long gone, and I can’t imagine anyone working on either of these films and not being changed by it. How did these two people change you?

I also come from a journalism background; I worked for ABC News for almost eight years. I represented newspapers when I was a lawyer. I taught journalism at Berkeley. For Pete, I think for him to cross over into opinion was a huge thing. We’re trained to, as you know, be somewhat removed and always try to be objective, whatever that is. So for him to effectively give that up, that’s engrained in you; that’s what you do. This isn’t a little thing, like when we pivot in our 30s; this is after a very long career, he decides to speak with an opinionated voice. That impressed me in a way it might not have impressed somebody who hadn’t spent so long in newsrooms. I think for both movies, and a lot of my other work too, I’m always interested in what it takes to get somebody to leave their house, to take a risk, to do something that might not be popular. Pete didn’t know what the response was going to be when he started, and he got a lot of hate mail. It’s not an easy things that he does.

With John Lewis, we were very focused on the big moments—crossing the bridge—but he would always make the point with me that he was just doing the next necessary thing. He didn’t set out to be the grand leader of a movement; he set out to help out where help was needed. I would talk to him a lot about being anxious about what was happening in the country—kids in cages, for example—that’s not anything I could imagine any American government doing. And instead of focusing on how helpless I felt, he would focus on “What can you do?” He would guide the conversation that way. It’s funny, my husband was like “He’s your life coach.” He’s just a very positive person, and if John Lewis can still believe in America and democracy and our system of government, then I can, and I can get off the couch and not complain and see what I can do to help. They both really did influence me that way.

Both documentaries show us clear examples of the best that politicians can be, and by doing so, you’re also showing us the worst.

And you don’t have to say too much about the worst. You just need to fill in the blanks [laughs].

Even with Reagan, he certainly had opinions and policies people did not like, but you got a sense that he had a respect for the office.

That’s the point, exactly.

And you also underscore that, for Pete, this wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans. Why did you want Pete’s story out in the world right now, right before the election?

For myself and my family and a lot of my friends, we’ve become really worried about a certain resignation that all politicians lie or are self-obsessed, and I just don’t believe that. From the very first time I saw Pete do his very simple one-man presentation, I realized that the pictures here are not lying. He took 1.9 million pictures; there is so much volume to his pictures, that it has almost become the moving image—click, click, click. People should remember that when they’re voting. It was super important to Pete that this come out before the election, and we worked really hard. It was not easy; we still had interviews to do, we had to send Pete a camera that was configured by a DP, we had to do a remote sound mix and color mix and other interviews, but it was all worth it. We put our heads down and said, “We’re going to shift and pivot a bit, but we’re going to stay on track,” and we got it out there, and people are responding. I’m really happy about that.

I think it’s mentioned briefly in the film, but I couldn’t help think about the person or people who have the White House photographer job right now, because they aren’t getting any of this access. It’s not their fault, but they have about as much to say as a yearbook photographer.

[laughs] That’s a great analogy!

I want to hear about those people when Trump leaves the White House. There will be a story there.

Pete is very careful not to criticize the photographer. It’s not her fault about what she’s being given. But he also makes the point, if you ask him, he knows Joe Biden, and he’s going to call Biden hopefully after the election and talk to his advisers and emphasize how important it is to have somebody…maybe they aren’t going to get the access Pete got—Pete and the president knew each other, they had already worked together, and they had a trust. That’s something President Obama told me, that he trusted Pete tremendously, and Pete never violated that trust. He was there, he agreed to do things the way he saw it, and that’s what he did. I think that’s really necessary for democracy. The President is our president; it’s the people’s house; we’re not a dictatorship; we do not do phony set-up situations, like what we’re seeing now. That is dangerous that people do those set-ups, and I think it’s particularly dangerous when you have someone with criminal proclivities.

We’re going to have a lot of work to do to rebuild the trust in government. We even need to rebuild the trust in the CDC. Do you believe the CDC today? Sadly, no. I don’t know who’s in charge. That’s crazy. It never occurred to me in my life that this would be the situation, that I would doubt the CDC, and that’s a real loss for us. I hope that Biden and Harris recognize some more transparency, because that will help us heal. And I think that this example is going to help make that case.

You mentioned before that Pete took almost two million photos during the Obama administration. Let’s talk about the volume of actual work you had to do in going through those images. How many photos did you go through? What were you looking for? Did Pete advise you in any way? And did assembling the photos help create a timeline for you?

It was this daunting task. The thing that documentary makers hate the most is the idea that they’ve missed something, that there’s that one golden, perfect thing that they didn’t get. So we had two editors on this, with Jessica being the senior editor in charge and a junior editor who was super strong and great, and his job was to come up with a process of evaluating the photos. So what Jess and I did was come up with themes that we wanted to explore: leadership, family, compassion. And then the junior editor had every book Pete had written—the Obama biography, a Reagan book, some historical books—and we got it down to several thousand photos, and then we culled it down to a manageable amount, and then we brought Pete into the process. He hadn’t seen the film but he knew that these were the stories we were telling. Originally, we had plans to do more interviews with some of the subjects of the pictures, just like we did with the father of the child killed at Sandy Hook. But then COVID happened, and we couldn’t do those shoots, but it ended up fine. So then Pete, after we made our picks, gave us some guidance like “If you like that one, you should look at this one that I think is better.” He came in about three-quarters into our selection process. He has this insane memory, so there were a couple of times when we were like, “Pete, we have this great quote from somebody,” and he’d say “I have this,” and he’d shoot us something back within minutes, so that was really fun. Does Pete have a picture? He undoubtedly has a picture.

And his Instagram account proves that. The film touches on the role of the staff photographer as part of the image-making team—somewhat with Obama, but more so with Reagan. You have that priceless video of the Reagans in Western wear being posed by Pete. How does Pete feel about that aspect of his job?

He very strongly does not think of himself as part of the marketing, and that’s part of the reason for the volume of pictures. He’s documenting important moments for history. But there is a certain amount of, as the Q&A in India gets to the heart of, he was making Brand Obama. So he always had a little bit of a dance with the press office, because he wanted to make sure that the image that was put out really captured the moment, that nothing was doctored or overemphasized. Ironically, he ended up being the person that picked the photos, and he would say, “This is the photo that captures what happened in this summit meeting.” He’s not criticizing the president; it’s not like a straight journalist is coming in there, but knowing Pete, he’s so hyper-focused on accuracy that he would never release a misleading image, and for that, there has to be a certain amount of trust from the photographer to the audience that you’re not part of a PR machine, that you can’t fake this. Overall, it’s such an enormous body of work, and all of the photos will be public; they belong to you and me. They’re going to be in the National Archives; you can go through them and make your own movie [laughs].

Both of these films are scarily relevant, maybe even more so than when you started making them. I’m almost scared to ask what you’re going to do next because I don’t want to hear you predict the future. But you clearly felt that both of these stories needed to be told now. Why is that?

One of the things I adore about being a documentary filmmaker is that I get to work through my own questions and emotions in my work, and that’s not a usual thing for most people. What I was feeling in the second year of the Trump presidency was, I wouldn’t say despair, but such disappointment and fear, and I wanted to level that. And instead of reacting to all the negativity, I wanted to think back to people I admire and explore how they went about their work, how did they come to receive our admiration. Working on both of these movies was really joyful. Every movie is hard and has challenges, but seeing archives of John Lewis, not just marching across the bridge but working with young people, seeing them plan and strategize and show up every day—that makes you proud that you come from a country that could produce that. The same with Pete. I don’t agree with everything President Obama did; I certainly think there are many things you can criticize, but this is not a politics movie in that sense. This is a movie about the Office of the President and what that should mean to us.

Symbols matter; I think we’ve lost a lot of international respect, and I hope that we can get that back. But seeing a president not always making the right decisions but doing his best in an ethical and compassionate way—and that goes for Reagan too. I protested Reagan’s policies when I was 20 years old. I lived in D.C.; I was protesting. But it’s not about that; but Reagan was a decent person and Obama is a decent person, and Trump is not.

Both of these films are eligible for awards consideration, so you could feasibly be competing against yourself at some point.

Yeah, the distributors are very happy about that, let me tell you [laughs].

So do you have some ideas about what you’re going to do next?

I’m thinking about it. I’m finishing up a series with Oprah on mental health [for Apple TV], but I’m looking for…I like these exploratory political history movies. But I like different things too, so I’m looking for the perfect thing.

Best of luck against yourself next year. Thanks for talking, Dawn.

Yeah, thank you so much.

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