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Filmmakers Drawn Into Clinton's 'War Room' : Movies: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus get a backstage look at the army for the 1992 campaign.

November 26, 1993|JOHN ANDERSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not exactly a movie with a surprise ending. For that matter, "The War Room"--a backstage look at the Clinton campaign, which opened last week--isn't even the movie that D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus set out to make.

Not that they're complaining.

"A lot of people go into marriages they didn't want to make either," Pennebaker said with a laugh--and a quick glance at Hegedus, his wife of 11 years--during a recent interview in New York. "But in the end they come out OK. You take your chances."

Pennebaker, 67, the innovative, celebrated director of such seminal '60s pop documentaries as "Monterey Pop" and the Bob Dylan film "Don't Look Back," has been collaborating with Hegedus, 41, for the last 17 years. Married in 1982, they have produced, among others, "The Energy War," their acclaimed, five-hour chronicle of Jimmy Carter's battle for an energy bill; "Rockaby," which follows actress Billie Whitelaw and director Alan Schneider through the rehearsals and opening of Samuel Beckett's play; and "DeLorean," a profile of the auto maker done before his arrest for selling cocaine. Their output has also included numerous music and performance projects, most recently "The Music Tells You" (1992), featuring Branford Marsalis.

"Most of our films," Hegedus said, "are made because somebody says, 'I have this really interesting story or person and you have to come make a film about him,' and you say, '\o7 Aaarrgghhhh\f7 ,' and then we go and you just get involved in what's happening to these people. And if there's a lot at stake for the people you're watching, you just get drawn in."

They couldn't have gotten drawn into a story in which there was more at stake, for more people, than the 1992 presidential election. And with exclusive access to the "war room"--a large space located in an old newspaper building in Little Rock where the inner circle of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's corps of volunteers and professional strategists helped define and decide the campaign--they've made a documentary whose production was fraught with as much frustration and serendipity as the campaign itself.

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The pair was first approached, two weeks before the Democratic Convention in July 1992, by producers R.J. Cutler, a Peabody Award-winning director and producer, and Wendy Ettinger, a Broadway casting director (Pennebaker's son Frazer would later make it a trio).

"They wanted to make a film about the election," Hegedus said, "mostly because it was such a strange race that was developing, with (Ross) Perot as a possible player, etc. Penny (her nickname for her husband) and I had just finished doing the Branford Marsalis film and were kind of looking forward to a weekend off. So we gave them the chore of trying to find access to the Clinton campaign, and the Perot campaign, and (George) Bush, and the White House."

Hoping they would bail out?

"Sort of," Hegedus said. "The last time we did a political film was during the Carter Administration and it took us two years and practically killed us. But we thought, well, if they're serious . . . "

They were. Cutler and Ettinger returned with 10 pages of names of people they had called in the various campaigns.

"It didn't necessarily mean we were in," Hegedus said, "but it showed how serious they were about getting in."

The person who really had the say in the Clinton campaign was George Stephanopoulos, the 33-year-old former Rhodes scholar and theology student and half of the brain trust behind Clinton's unorthodox political machinery--the other half being James Carville, the "Ragin' Cajun," political maverick and rising star of "The War Room."

"We tried to work on George from all different angles," Hegedus said. "We called everybody we knew--everybody who someone we knew knew--to put in a good word. In the end, the word came down that no, we could not film with Clinton. But they did say, 'You can come film the staff.'

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Pennebaker said he had been confident about Clinton early on, not so about the film.

"My sense, in being around the campaign, was, 'My God, he's going to win,' " Pennebaker said. "Because no one was going to sit through four more years of what we'd had, for whatever reason, even if just to see something different.

"Perot was a wild card, and in the end this country never goes for the wild card. So I thought, 'OK, this guy's got a really good chance of winning and if we can get access, great. If we can't, is it worth the money and trouble to be with the winning staff? And what happens if it's the losing staff? You don't have anything.' At least if you had Clinton and he lost, you've got something."

So off they went to the convention in New York. They decided to begin their film, however, where Clinton's campaign began, in New Hampshire.

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