Bill Clinton

Photo courtesy of CUNY

Clinton Vs. Scorcese: Clash of the Titans
| published January 24, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Former President Bill Clinton has what even his friends and political allies might call a strong personality. Though generally even-keeled in public, and a master of the politics of people, he is known in private to be headstrong and prone to red-faced outbursts of temper. For avid readers of autobiographies by political insiders and tell-alls by former Clinton staffers and former cabinet members, there are some two dozen entertaining books with hundreds of anecdotes.

Martin Scorcese, likewise, is a perfectionist and a micromanager of his films and documentary productions—an Oscar Award winning creator and producer whose films have chronicled politics, organized crime and Wall Street power, and whose exhaustive and thorough documentaries have illuminated the lives of George Harrison and the Dalai Lama. Scorcese has skillfully directed Hollywood heavyweights like Robert Di Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Newman, Harvey Keitel, and Jack Nicholson—all strong personalities themselves.

So what happens when you put Scorcese in the driver’s seat of a massive, much-talked-about, big budget documentary chronicling the life of Bill and Hillary Clinton? The result of such a confluence of personality and ego is, apparently, a recent implosion, the result of a series of nasty dustups between the two headstrong task-managers.

Reports in the media indicate that there have been disagreements over management and “control” of the editing and the finished product. Part of the problem reportedly comes from several major Clinton donors and contributors—who in this case have given large sums of money toward the production of the film, and who may also share credit as “producer” or “associate producer”—have a desire to make sure the documentary reflects positively on the Clintons. As director and executive producer, Scorcese may have differing views creatively, and may have—in an effort to produce a film which is historically accurate—run afoul of Bill and Hillary’s desire for a film reflecting the power couple in as favorable a light as possible.

Adding additional stress to an already stressed project is the purported confusion over Chelsea Clinton’s role in the project. The younger Clinton left her high-paying job as a correspondent with NBC News after a very public brouhaha over how much work she actually performed while at NBC. While at NBC, Chelsea was drawing a salary of $600,000—much higher than the salaries of other correspondents—but had in fact produced only about 15 news segments during her stint as a reporter. When the controversy reached a boil in the national media, Clinton left NBC for good. At the time, it was widely reported that she would take a key role in the production of the Scorcese documentary, possible as executive producer. This led to a turf war, at least according to some with access to what was happening on the production.

Scorcese, who is not accustomed to being told “no” by his performers, nor used to accepting compromise or outside micro-management, has run headlong into the unique machinations found in Clintonland. The long-form documentary, for which shooting has been ongoing for two years, and for which existing footage remains in a partially-edited state, was due to coincide with a release late in 2015 or early in 2016. If that sounds suspiciously like something that could produce political mileage for the inevitable candidacy of Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State, well, it’s no coincidence.

Scorcese had taken on the project for HBO even as other Clinton documentaries and docu-dramas were having their own logistical, legal, or public relations problems—including a massive Hillary docudrama commissioned by NBC/Universal and another documentary for CNN. Those projects ran afoul, in the view of Republicans, of Federal election laws and equal fairness doctrines as established by the FCC. So angry was the GOP brass, the Republican National Committee voted to exclude both NBC and CNN from any participation in Republican candidate debates set to begin later this year. Under pressure from both advertisers and stockholders, both projects were pushed aside or scrapped, or at best delayed.

But the Clinton’s continued to draw media attention and movie-making potential. A drama/feature film tentatively titled “Rodham,” which tells the story of the early days of the Bill and Hillary relationship and political partnership, is under early development through Lionsgate Films, which bought the story back in 2013. But that big screen project too has run into a few issues—rumored to be related to conflicting aspects of some stories of the early Clinton years—and as of now Lionsgate has no clear date for when the feature film will be released. There is even talk of an Off Broadway musical based on the life of the Clintons (and no, we did not make that one up) which is set for a March debut.

In the light of the meltdown of the other Clinton TV dramas or documentaries, the Scorcese documentary loomed larger. When the project was first conceived and announced in 2012, both Bill Clinton and Martin Scorcese heaped praise and flattery on each other—the legendary president and the legendary director working side-by-side—that sort of thing.

Clearly that did not work out as nicely as it appeared on paper back two years ago. In the meantime, as Hillary Clinton’s presumed candidacy looms larger with each passing week (and as more and more Republicans appear to be ready to enter that fray, eager, apparently, to have the honor to engage in single combat with Clinton in 2016), the notion of a truly objective documentary becomes ever more elusive.

Those with a stake in seeing the documentary project reflect happily on the Clintons saw Scorcese and his crew as interlopers, in some cases bent on including some unflattering incidents from the Clintons’ storied past and a few unblinking reminders of those times when things did not go well for the Clinton dynasty. Scorcese’s advocates complained that it was those pro-Clinton micro-managers and “donors” who wanted not only to exorcise any negative material from the film before it became a talking point for the GOP marketing machine, but also sought to shape the narrative even of the family history. Worse, say those with close ties to Scorcese, were the increasingly heavy-handed demands that Clinton’s advocated exercise advance control over the questions he would asked, the situations in which he would be placed, and a large say in the final edit of the film.

Those close to Mr. Scorcese say that the project is not merely on the back burner, but shelved indefinitely. But some at HBO are hopeful that the film can be completed soon, perhaps within the next 18 months. HBO has scored well critically with major political documentaries in the past, including well-received films about Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

In the meantime, this latest attempt at a big-budget, major documentary or docudrama about the Clinton’s has stalled, perhaps temporarily, perhaps indefinitely. It is not immediately clear if Scorcese will return at some later point to complete the film, or if the powers-that-be will locate another director—one perhaps more agreeable to the traditional Clinton management style of tight control and close supervision.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Have the Midterms Damaged the Clinton Franchise?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 5, 2014.

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.