Six degrees of Ed Norton
Being in the right place at the right time helped Barack Obama go from obscure state senator to president in less than five years. And it helped two newbie film directors get themselves positioned to chronicle his remarkable ascent -- resulting in a behind-the-scenes campaign documentary now getting a splashy launch from HBO.
"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," debuting Tuesday night, has drawn buzz for the insider access directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams got during the 2008 campaign: The candidate daydreams on a sunny campaign stop and nearly misses his intro to speak. Sasha and Malia chatter away to "Daddy" over the phone. Poll workers don't recognize David Axelrod as he goes in to vote on primary day.
How'd they get into those rooms? Partly by being the first to ask. Rice, 33, had mostly worked as a cinematographer on student films and reality shows when she saw Obama's 2004 convention speech. "I thought, 'This guy could be the first African American president, and wouldn't that make an interesting documentary?'." She mentioned the idea to Sams, a producer of TV documentaries she had worked with before. ("That's a great idea -- don't tell anybody!" Sams replied.)
But Rice couldn't get anyone from the new senator's office to return her calls. That's where knowing the right people helped. Through her close friend, director David Wain, she knew his childhood pal Stuart Blumberg . . . and his Yale roommate, the actor Ed Norton. Norton (scion of the Rouse family, whose Enterprise Foundation is a giant in affordable housing do-gooding) was able to get the meeting with Robert Gibbs that got the fledgling directors in the door; he and Blumberg signed on to produce. (Rice's pal, the actor Tate Donovan, helped out as an assistant director.)
Did it help that, well, the team was clearly crazy about Obama? (Both directors voted for him; Norton gave tens of thousands to Obama and Democratic campaign funds during the race.) "I don't think objectivity is an issue," Sams told us. "We were chronicling the story of the people working for him. It wasn't about what we felt, it was about what they felt."
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