'The Final Year': Greg Barker on Releasing an Obama Doc in the Age of Trump
The (un)expected conclusion of an eight-year journey.
A prequel to our current American nightmare, Greg Barker's The Final Year acts, as its director has previously described, as a "campaign film in reverse." Following Barack Obama's foreign policy team in the final 12 months of their service, the film documents a globe-trotting race against the clock as the men and women tie up loose ends, attempting to reach outstanding agreements with foreign leaders before the next President—whomever that may be—takes office. Depending on your politics, there's a good chance you will cheer when Obama's administration joins the Paris Agreement and subsequently shudder in fear upon the realization that our current administration has reversed course.
As its leads, the film chooses John Kerry (Secretary of State), Samantha Power (United States Ambassador to the United Nations), Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications), and President Barack Obama. These co-workers bring the viewer into the story and are visibly hardworking, stressed, exhausted, and, in somewhat of a surprising twist, pretty normal human beings. It's that last element that Barker is most interested in.
As the film opens theatrically today, Friday, January 19th—marking 364 days since Donald Trump was sworn into office—No Film School spoke with Barker about gaining unprecedented access to the Obama administration, how he was able to film inside the White House without making a commotion, and how the documentary reads ever so differently in 2018.
No Film School: You've previously described your movie as a "campaign film in reverse." What were your influences in making this film?
Greg Barker: Well, The War Room is one of my favorite films. I'm just kind of a political junkie, and I always have been. I like films that take us inside of worlds we’re not used to penetrating, and that’s particularly true of access to government. It's hard to convey the humanity at play when it comes to government. Cameras haven’t even been able to document the behind-the-scenes workings of the White House and The West Wing since probably the Kennedy administration. Since then, we've had this massive expansion of the White House Press Operations controlling the messaging. The whole system is designed to make sure guys like me don't get inside.
At the same time, I think even the principals inside the White House get kind of frustrated with the whole process. That's why I was able to leverage with them when I pitched the film. I think Samantha Power said this during a Q&A we had last night, and it's true with Ben Rhodes as well, that they kind of felt like outsiders within the government, looking around, like, "Wow, am I actually in this room?" I think they were struck by the fact that the process is just made up of a bunch of people in a room making decisions, and they wanted the film to convey that. When I pitched the idea of wanting to capture the humanity involved in their jobs—the kind one might see in a campaign film—and that the only difference was its taking place in the institutions where they all currently work, [they approved]. It struck a chord with them. Then there was the challenge of actually making that happen. As you know, in a campaign film, there's very little security surrounding the candidates...
NFS: Because they haven't been selected by the American people yet.
Barker: Yeah, so that's a whole different operation. [Getting access] was a challenge, but I think emotionally, they just were attracted to that idea. I was not interested in making a policy film. I just wanted to capture the emotions and the humanity at play. That's what they responded to.
"The biggest hurdle was logistical, to prove that we could do it and not get in their way."
NFS: After you gain access to the Foreign Policy team, you're quite literally traveling with them all over the world. You even found yourself in the White House a lot. What kind of hurdles did you have to jump over to gain that access?
Barker: The biggest hurdle was logistical, to prove that we could do it and not get in their way. Once they said, "Okay, let's try it," then we were okay. There was a career press guy for the State Department who said, "This is the most ridiculous idea that I've ever heard in my entire time in government. But for that reason, I want to help you make it happen." Could we get into the rooms that we needed to when our cameras needed to be there, to not get in the way of what was actually happening? You can't ask, "Can you guys wait a few minutes while we put up some lights? Maybe rearrange where you're sitting so we can get a better shot? You're too close to the window! We'd like to adjust those blinds..."
NFS: It's hard to storyboard important individuals doing important work.
Barker: Right, but even in a lot of docs, we would do that. I've filmed with presidents of oil companies before, for example, and it's like, "Hey, the light's not good there. You guys mind talking over here?" You can do that in those situations, but you can't really do that with the Secretary of State. Once you try, your access is finished. They're never going to let you back in.
Could we actually just kind of make this stuff happen? I chose my group very carefully, and we chose our camera gear, sound gear, and sound person very carefully. We needed people who could move fast and not get in the way, people who were smart and engaged in conversation with these principals. They needed to be cool and relaxed in these situations. We started with Samantha Power and her team. The bureaucracy was just like, "Whoa, what's going on?"
NFS: Was that a trial run to prove you could pull off the project?
Barker: Yeah, kind of; it was a trial. We started here in New York, in the UN meetings in September of 2015 with Samantha and her team. Some of that stuff is in the film. We were filming meetings, and at first, people were freaking out that we were in there. Samantha was relaxed though, and then her team got relaxed. From there, we went to the White House and eventually the State Department. Each institution had its own sort of dynamics, but this project was ultimately approved by Obama in an Oval Office meeting where it was pitched to him. He signed off on it. Once that happened, whenever the bureaucracy started to give us pushback, we were like, "Hey, this has been approved by the President. He wants it to happen."
NFS: Given that level of intimacy, what kind of cameras did you use for the shoot? Did your spatial constraints affect the gear you chose?
Barker: We shot with a Sony PMWF55, as that's a bigger camera with bigger lenses, and we shot a lot with the Sony a7S, a small DSLR, often putting very good prime lenses on that. The a7S is a really small camera, and the sound gear was very sophisticated and compact. We invested in the encrypted wireless mics (which cost a lot of money) so that we could make sure we weren't bleeding our signal out. We were as light as technically possible, which nowadays can thankfully be very small.
The film looks great now, but it didn't look that way for a very long time. We didn't have enough time to worry about light balance going in and out. We didn't use a light at all in 16 months of filming. We had to spend a lot of time in post-production cleaning up shots, essentially lighting people. The technology is amazing, and the film now has a certain look that it definitely didn't have while we were filming. Don't get me wrong: the DPs did a great job, but it was all over the place. It was really down to the colorists and the post people to make it look cinematic. It felt cinematic to me, the movement and all that, but the look was..., well, ultimately, it's not just about the gear, but also what you can do in post that really made the film possible.
"We had multiple cameras all the time, but we had to keep it logistically very small. There are limited seats on those airplanes!"
NFS: Did you ever have multiple DPs shooting with you?
Barker: Only once or twice did we have multiple DPs, but we often had multiple cameras. So we'd have a DP with a camera and I would have a camera as well, a small one. Depending on where we are, we would have a bigger camera on a tripod with a longer lens and I would have a smaller one. We had multiple cameras all the time, but we had to keep it logistically very small. There are limited seats on those airplanes! You can't say, "I'm gonna bring 10 people with me!" You can't do it. You have to be very, very compact.
NFS: There's this beautiful shot in the Oval Office, where the heavenly sun flows in and the camera appears to be gliding across the room. Even though most of us have never been in it, we know what the Oval Office looks like, and your camera finds new ways to present it. I don't know if "cinematic" is the right term to use, but the office is presented in a context we're not as used to seeing. Did you try to find new ways to shoot those iconic locations?
Barker: Filming the Oval Office was kind of a challenge because, like you say, we've all seen it. But we just decided to film it! We over-cranked the camera and gave it a certain feel as if you're entering this space where decisions are actually made. That went for the Situation Room, too. We just tried to give it a certain flow that is in contrast with the more harried nature of the rest of the film. It fits that particular sequence.
"I wanted to film everybody going to work and I always wanted the film to end with them leaving office."
NFS: The film opens with our four leading characters beginning their mornings as regular civilians. Power is getting her kids ready for school, Kerry forgets his cellphone in the house, etc. How did you plan to open these men and women up beyond the stoic role we identify them with as public servants?
Barker: I wanted to film everybody going to work and I always wanted the film to end with them leaving office. I said, "I want to film you guys as you're packing up and leaving on the last day." I said that a year before it actually happened! So, along the way I was like, "You know what? We want to film you going to work, exactly as what it's like." That was to humanize it all. They're just people.
John Kerry, our Secretary of State, also happens to be fabulously wealthy. Samantha Power is just this person who has kids and is trying to juggle all that stuff. Ben Rhodes is a dad who wants to take his daughter to preschool on his way to work, and for him, work just happens to be at the White House. This is part of the original concept of the story they had responded to, to humanize everything. I just felt like we wanted to ground it in these people's lives.
NFS: The tight schedules and intense travel commitments are apparent throughout. There are many instances where they're working against the clock and only have a few minutes to give before they're flying to the next place. How did you work with your editor to emphasize that time crunch?
Barker: For a year or so, we were assembling scenes as we got them. For example, we'd take a trip to Africa with the foreign policy team, shoot it, and assemble the best 20 minutes of the footage. However, we weren't really cutting the film until after the 2016 presidential election when we had to put together the first rough cut. I think the insight into this was to create a real sense of motion. We don't actually see the characters together that much! They're rarely in the same place at the same time. They're talking on their phones and they're exchanging emails, sure, but they're rarely in the same room.
Cutting the film provided that sense of simultaneity. Each character is informing someone else of an issue and they all weigh in and keep moving, etc.; you can sense they're all part of this team. While we'll occasionally settle on a place, like the sequence in Hiroshima, and stay with them for a little bit, we wanted the pace of the film to reflect the pace of their jobs. It's relentless. It's quite hectic dealing with dozens of things at the same time, and we certainly felt that while filming it. The pace and logistical challenges of going to 22 countries [caught up with us]. While it was exhilarating, it was also totally exhausting, and if you're actually in those jobs, even more so.
Filmically, the pace prevents the film from getting too bogged down in any one particular issue. Any time you settle on an issue, it just takes a lot of time to explain it and give the exposition and all that, and it slows the film down. I wanted to keep a fast pace that moves through the whole film. You're on this emotional rollercoaster.
NFS: I keep remembering the shots where your camera looks out out the airplane window and observes the plane wing. It's a recurring sight. I guess that sense of motion is figurative and literal here.
Barker: It is, and that's what their lives are like. We just compressed it into 90 minutes. That's how they get things done! The people in those jobs are very good at getting stuff done on their BlackBerry or working in the back of their car. It's happening constantly. I always try to settle down at my desk for "x" number of hours a day, but these people rarely have that much time. They're always doing stuff on the fly.
NFS: You mentioned the Hiroshima scene earlier, where Obama becomes the first sitting American president to visit the city. I loved when you cut away from Obama's stay to show an unidentified man sweeping the leaves off gravesites. The shot makes us think of the 1945 atomic bomb victims. How did you work to add context through cutaways and archival footage?
Barker: Well, thank you. We had some time in Hiroshima and we went driving around, getting a few views and found this cemetery. I love that moment of the man sweeping. We then intercut it with some of the faces of the original survivors (and did the same thing in Laos when we show archival footage and we hear Richard Nixon). This idea of the past informing the present is something I like to explore in my films. You don't want to have too much of it, of course, because then it feels too archival. You have to find a balance and it's all within the magic of editing, a process I totally love. When you work with great editors, it takes on a life of its own. I'm glad you picked up on that.
NFS: Are there any final takeaways you have after having completed the film?
Barker: I've never had a film before that plays on multiple levels simultaneously. You have the narrative of the film on screen [of the Obama administration] and the narrative in our minds of what's to come [the Trump administration]. It counterposes what we're watching in the film with what we're currently experiencing [regarding 2018 American politics]. Different scenes take on different meanings depending on what's going on in the news on any particular day. Just by pure chance, we have this record of a particular year that now seems like 10,000 years ago, and it speaks directly to where we are now.
NFS: I wonder what it will feel like to watch the film in 10 years. Hopefully, we'll be able to look back and think, "Well, we got through it."
Barker: Truly. It will have a totally different feeling.
NFS: More optimistic?
Barker: I hope!
The Final Year is now in theaters and available on select digital platforms.