'The Reagan Show' Editors Reveal America's First Reality TV President
Three editors sifted through thousands of hours of footage to bring Reaganism alive—to unsettling effect.
There is not a single talking head in Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s documentary The Reagan Show. No one sits around glibly pontificating on Reagan's legacy. Instead, history speaks for itself, and it's the audience's job to listen.
This left the film's three editors with a daunting task: to build an evocative narrative solely from archival footage. Daniel Garber, David Barker, and Francisco Bello sifted through thousands of hours of news reports and White House TV footage, shot by the Reagan administration in an unprecedented effort to document his presidency. The result is an eerily prescient window into America's first performance artist president.
“There have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor,” Reagan tells a journalist in one of the film's many revealing news footage outtakes. Even as the stakes rise from a mirage of populism to the Iran-Contra scandal and Cold War negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan maintains his actors' veneer—and brings it with him into policy. Though it does anyway, The Reagan Show doesn't have to show Reagan saying "Make America great again" to evoke echoes of Trump.
"We thought about Reagan as a protagonist in a Hollywood movie."
No Film School caught up with The Reagan Show editors Garber, Barker, and Bello to discuss how they crafted a narrative out of so much found footage (and how they secured the rights), the most surprising clips they unearthed, how Trump's election factored into the editing process, and more.
The Reagan Show is currently streaming on iTunes.
No Film School: What drew each of you to this project initially?
Daniel Garber: I started on the project in 2013. It started out with this very simple idea that Reagan was one of the first people to have his entire life documented in sound and image. He was a radio announcer, and then an actor, and then governor, and then president. And that was sort of a precursor to the kind of lives we lead now, where people are basically recorded constantly from birth to death. The idea of somebody who has lived his life very publicly in front of the camera was really fascinating to me.
David Barker: I got involved when it shifted from a research phase. Daniel and Pacho [Velez] and Sierra [Pettengill, the film's co-directors] had already made number of really good shorts, but when they shifted into actually trying to edit the feature, I got involved. I'd gotten to know Pacho while teaching at Bard College for a semester. I drove up and we spent many hours talking about Reagan.
Francisco Bello: I came in at a later stage in the process. At that point, CNN Films had come on board, and we had a couple of executive producers at Impact Partners. I was recommended to the project to sort of do one of the last rounds of editing to give it the narrative shape. I had edited another presidential film found footage, all-archival documentary—to get really specific with the sub-genre—called Our Nixon.
"Trump was very much on our minds."
NFS: How did you begin the process of unearthing the trove of archival footage?
Garber: It started way back at the beginning of the research phase, with Pacho, Sierra and me going through all of these different archival sources. We tried to cast a very wide net and find every source of archival footage of Reagan that we could find—that was everything from his Hollywood films, to appearances he made in newsreels, to all of this footage from his presidency, which included the news footage. And then, ultimately, footage that was recorded by White House videographers. And when we discovered that archive, that immediately grabbed our attention because it was a really expensive record of the presidency that was, in a way, authored by the president himself, or at least by his administration.
Garber: It was a very long process of sifting through logs and logs and logs generated by the Navy and viewing hundreds of hours of footage from that archive. I think Francisco and David can talk about some of the additional research that we did later on. It would have been very difficult to make a film entirely of that behind-the-scenes public domain archive, so we used footage as well to help craft a narrative with some outside perspective.
NFS: The White House TV footage was public domain?
NFS: And the rest of it—how did you get access to the network news footage?
Garber: That was a mixture of licensing footage from the networks and claiming fair use for some of it, which is something that we were only really able to do because we were contextualizing the footage enough that we could claim that we were commenting on the footage, rather than merely reproducing it.
"Reagan was one of the first people to have his entire life documented in sound and image."
It's damn near impossible to make a broad fair use claim about everything. At a certain point in the edit, near the end of the process, you have lawyers come in and look at the case-by-case usage. Each individual use or referencing that has a piece of archival footage has to stand on its own on sufficient tenants of fair use to hold water.
As a result, even the films that make the most aggressive fair use claims will have a good dosage of material that they do license, because it actually bolsters fair use claims. In a case like The Reagan Show, it's really critical that the legal arguments for the use of archives are very strong.
Barker: Dan, would you say that in the case of this film, because of the fact that it was media criticism, that there were maybe more cases of fair use than the average film?
Garber: Yeah, definitely. Though I think one of the difficulties with this film was that since you we were not using any original interviews or voiceover narration, there is only a limited amount of narrative text. All of the commentary that was being provided was really supplied by public domain footage or licensing footage, and not by the voice of the filmmaker directly. So, it's a bit of an unusual fair use claim to be making. Although, geater than 50% was either licensed or public domain. It was really the minority that was fair use.
NFS: Since you weren't relying upon voiceover narration or talking heads, how did the story evolve?
Barker: That was basically developed during the six months that I was involved with the project. Daniel had been making assemblies of different episodes. There were thousands of hours of material. We worked on putting together all of the interesting material, as it covered Reagan's whole presidency.
After a few months, I remember we watched an eight-hour assembly, and through discussions with Pacho and Sierra and Daniel, we figured out that the movie would revolve mostly around Reagan's relationship with [Mikhail] Gorbachev—partly because that was the clearest story, partly because it was actually covered in the material, and partly because there was some of the most amazing material there. The footage in Red Square and some other coverage around Geneva was really great.
"By being consistently underestimated, while also having such mastery of public relations, Reagan was able to succeed. The same can be said of Trump."
Bello: We embraced the thematic position of how the media was representing Reagan's performance. The material surrounding the Cold War really lends itself to spotlighting those ideas because it was the media themselves that were commenting—not just Reagan's performance, but also his performance in relationship to Gorbachev, and Gorbachev's frequent upstaging of his performance as a leader of the free world. Of course, it's not that it was baked in—there was a lot of research that had to be done to extract it.
Garber: There was a final path that we did through the film, when Trump was very much on our minds. And we did that path with a great writer, Josh Alexander. And he also really helped hone the story and bring out some of the elements of public relations.
NFS: This may seem self-evident to you as the film's editors, but for people who haven't seen the film yet, what are some insights that we can take from Reagan's presidency into the era of Trump about the performative nature of American democracy?
Garber: I will throw an answer, but I think the film should speak for itself. I think there's a lot to be said for politicians using whatever medium of that day—whatever newfangled method of communication—to get their message across. People consistently underestimated Reagan. You can look back at these campaign ads that Pat Brown ran against Reagan when Reagan was running for governor. And they basically just stated the obvious: that Reagan was an actor and that actors don't get elected governor. But of course, Reagan had much more mastery over the very medium in which Pat Brown was trying to attack him. And I think by being consistently underestimated, while also having such mastery of public relations, Reagan was able to succeed. And I think that the same can be said of Trump.
Bello: Although I would hesitate to say that he has mastery of his chosen medium of Twitter.
NFS: Was it difficult mixing formats, technically? And enhancing the original production sound?
Barker: Nothing was shot on film, with the exception of Reagan's movies, right? So, it was all NTSC.
Garber: It was almost entirely video, but there was a little bit of film that made it into the finished movie. Yeah, we were mixing and matching a lot of different source formats, and it was fortunate that we had a really great post facility to help us conform all of that and make it look beautiful, even though it started out looking extremely standard def.
And we also had a wonderful sound mixer, editor, Ryan Price, who removed all of these awful buzzes that you could hear throughout almost all of the standard def footage. You could hear the sound of the cameras operating, and he made everything sound crisp and beautiful.
"If you ran into a wall on some sequence, you could always pass it off to another editor and say, 'Why don't you take a crack at this?'"
NFS: Were there any guiding principles that you used to help shape the film, or parse the film down from eight hours to its final end time?
Barker: Don't make it boring.
Garber: That's a good one. I think Pacho and Sierra were really excited by the idea that you could tell a story about a movie actor that was itself modeled after the structure of a Hollywood movie. And so, even though much of that is probably unrecognizable in the finished version of the film, at least going into structuring the film, the idea of a three-act structure was very much on our minds. We thought about Reagan as a protagonist in a Hollywood movie. But of course, it became something very different—more about the presentation of that image to the American people.
Bello: And if you were to sort of boil down the rhythm of the film, there is a pattern to it, wherein we live in White House TV moments, the behind-the-scenes stuff that plays individually as non-sequiturs, but cumulatively starts to tell you a little bit about Reagan, the machinery behind him, and the awareness of the camera.
Then, we dive headfirst into a major geopolitical event—a moment in the Cold War narrative—and live in that for a while, allowing the commentators from the media to turn the light back on the performance itself.
NFS: As an audience member, it does feel like film exists extra-temporally at first. Then, as the Cold War narrative starts to coalesce, it's kind of jarring when you're taken into then-current events, making you reflect on current-current events. It's an effective strategy. What were some challenges associated with organizing your workflow between the three of you, and generally communicating effectively?
Garber: It was really nice to have multiple editors working on the project because if you ran into a wall on some sequence, you could always pass it off to another editor and say, "Why don't you take a crack at this?" We did sort of divide and conquer once we were working with the entire film.
Bello: Yeah, that's exactly right. Although Daniel was sort of the dungeon master, as far as knowing the footage, where things were, what we had, what we didn't have.
NFS: Do you remember any footage that surprised you or that stuck out to you as incredibly interesting? Whether or not it made it into the film.
Garber: Oh, there's a whole treasure trove.
NFS: That is priceless.
Barker: There were a lot of things which couldn't work in the film because they just take too long. Moments where you'd see Reagan's façade drop for a second. But for those, you have to really watch for a long time.
Garber: There's a moment when Reagan actually took a meeting with Clint Eastwood in the Oval Office, and they're about to go outside to the Rose Garden for a walk, and he's going to make some sort of speech in front of an audience. The announcer says, "And now, the President of the United States," and Reagan starts to step out of the Oval Office, but stops on the threshold and says, "Oh, I left my brains on my desk." He runs back over to the desk and grabs his index cue cards off of the desk.