Michael Kirk On ‘The Choice 2016’: “What Do You Do About A Film Where Nobody Likes The Two Candidates?” (Q&A)

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With the U.S. general election a little over a month away, our cousins across the pond are grappling with the choice of voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to succeed Barack Obama and become the next President of the United States. To give a better insight into both candidates, PBS’ Frontline has produced feature-length documentary Trump Vs Clinton: The Choice 2016.

Frontline, PBS’ award winning current affairs strand, has been producing The Choice every presidential election year since 1988; giving a fuller and more rounded picture of the major party candidates. The 2016 edition, which traces the lives of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump from childhood through to present day, hails from respected film-maker Michael Kirk, whose previous credits include Frontline’s 9/11 docu The Man Who Knew as well as three previous iterations of The Choice.

Ahead of the premiere of Trump Vs Clinton: The Choice 2016 on PBS America this Sunday, TVWise caught up with Michael Kirk on his recent trip to London to discuss the ins and outs of the movie, the unique challenge posed by covering two candidates with such high unfavourable ratings, how he tackled the much discussed issue of false equivalence and what surprised him about both presidential candidates.

TVWise: You’ve been producing these The Choice films for PBS for quite a few years, how did 2016 compare to previous cycles?

Michael Kirk: This was absolutely different from the other films. If only because Donald Trump is such a newcomer to the process and such a new fresh story in the political world. And with Hillary having been on the stage for 40 years, the idea of being able to pull together all of the history of her that exists in stock footage, stills, documents and interviews with her closest friends and family – it was just ripe for people who do what we do. [The interviewees] were especially interested because most of the press in America is all highly-disposable, 24/7 cable news and nobody goes as deep as we do. The idea of being able to lay the two biographies, woven side-by-side in six minute increments appealed to them and to me as well; partly because they are so different that you could just cut from a Trump moment to a Clinton moment and it just kept the narrative rolling.

TVWise: It’s no secret that Trump and Clinton have the highest unfavourables of any major party presidential nominees in the history of the United States. Did that make this process any more difficult for you?

Michael Kirk: It did at the very beginning. When I thought about it, I kept myself up all night worrying about it [laughs]. I mean what do you do about a film where nobody likes the two candidates? We decided that one of the reasons that people didn’t like them was because of this really partisan blood sport that is going on between [the Democrats and the Republicans] and these two represent that partisanship. So going in, we knew that whatever film we made was going to have at least half the people gnashing their teeth and shaking their first at the screen, which was kind of a cool, original and new idea for us. People feel really vehemently about anti-Hillary and anti-Trump in the States and it freed us in some way to just lay out their stories, warts and all, and even emphasise it a little bit to get at what it is about these candidates that people don’t like and how they came to that place.

TVWise: In Hillary’s case, she went from hovering at around a 60% approval rating when she left State in 2012 to having high unfavourables now. Do you think you got a sense of why public opinion changed so much in four years?

Michael Kirk: In the first place, she didn’t do very much in the State Department, but part of that was the design of Barack Obama. Much to her surprise, after Hillary accepted the job, she learned that Obama was going to run foreign policy out of the Oval Office. I think that really surprised her and it took her a couple of years to gain access as such. And the Obama foreign policy, run as it was from the State Department, given the craziness of world events – namely the Arab spring that was supposed to be democracy and the miscalculation by the administration – I think effected the long-standing legacy she had hoped to earn and that’s come home to roost in some ways for her. America is re-trenching and not very interested in the world in lots of way, which is why there is some enthusiasm for Trump’s lack of foreign policy. In light of all of that, I think her talking about an important role for America in NATO and a non-antagonistic relationship with China, has a lot of people wondering if she is the right person for this time.

TVWise: One of the big issues with coverage of this campaign has been false equivalence, is that something you ran up against with The Choice?

Michael Kirk: There was a terrific New York Times review of the film where the critic actually credited us with being the first major piece of journalism that got it right on what to do about false equivalence. The way we decided to do it was just to tell their stories, not worry about ‘are we going to give exactly equal time?’ or ‘if we’re tough on her, we’ve got to be tough on him’ and just lay the stories out as much as possible along the chronology that revealed what we needed to reveal about their lives. That was the right idea, according to the Times’ critic and obviously according to me. Their stories are interesting, so you just roll them out and just let the chips fall where they may.

TVWise: Can you talk about the process? From start to finish, how long did it take to put this film together?

Michael Kirk: We knew we were going to be doing it about a year ago. We do most of the big stories for Frontline – the White House stories, the national security stories, the military stories – so we knew we were up, that we were going to do [The Choice]. We were really working earnestly starting in April and the team of eight of us were working at 150% between then and about a week-and-a-half ago. We interviewed sixty or so people, and our interviews typically run two to three hours long. So finding the people, winnowing it down, and finding thousands of hours of stock footage and still photographs was quite a challenge. It was really a challenge, but also really fun and interesting. The idea of doing two biographies, one with an absolute political newcomer, was also really fun and interesting because it allowed us to go into The Apprentice and other places, in a way that you wouldn’t do if it was Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio that was running against [Clinton].

TVWise: Do you sketch out a narrative first and then locate interview subjects or is the process a little more organic than that?

Michael Kirk: We’re very much students of the two candidates and of the process so I have researchers prepare – this sounds like an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s not “truthful hyperbole” – a thousand-page book of stories and clippings. We read them all and build a narrative, then we go and populate it with [interviews with] people who have emerged from that reading and people that we hear about or learn about from other people. If you go to biographers, they’ve got wonderful files that you can go through and then it’s just a matter of convincing people to do these really long interviews. Actually, [the interview subjects] are usually thankful, because the rest of the press, especially television, just roll in, do a fifteen-minute interview and get the three well known soundbites and move on.

But that’s different from what we do, we’re really deep-diving and what emerges is something that often is different than what we thought we were after. You put it all together and you start to look at it and say “Oh my God, that’s really interesting!”. A good example is the opening scene with Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. That was a scene where we didn’t exactly know it’s power until we saw all of it and saw the look on Trump’s face while Obama uses him as piñata. When we interviewed people and they said this was the moment that Trump, feeling humiliated, decided to exact revenge on Obama and the Democratic Party, we realised we had something very powerful. Before that it was just another box on the chart that you had to check off, but now you say ‘Oh my God, let’s go down inside this and really figure that out’. That’s what happens throughout the process.

TVWise: That being the case, was there anything you discovered about either candidate that really surprised you?

Michael Kirk: Tremendous amounts. I was just really amazed at how big of a failure Trump had been and how often he climbed out of the business failures. Going in I thought this guy was worth $3-10 billion and there would be really interesting stories about that, but as I began to interview people I realised that this man had really gone down, almost out-of-money down. One of the things that the New York Times story about his taxes last week revealed was how precarious his empire really was. We talked about it a lot in our film, but it’s apparently even more precarious than that. His utter hatred of being a loser and voraciousness of winning was astonishing to me. I was also really surprised to the extent to which [Hillary Clinton] really is, if she could be, in permanent hiding. That’s what the secrecy is about. She has so many things, between her husband’s peccadilloes and other things that have happened in the course of her life, that she’s really in lock-down about a lot of other stuff. That is very interesting to me.

Trump Vs Clinton: The Choice 2016 premieres on PBS America (Freesat 156, Virgin 276 & Sky 534) on Sunday October 9th at 8pm