A short film screened at the Saban Forum last Friday left New Yorker editor David Remnick without a doubt in his mind that, yes, “Hillary Clinton is running for President.” The eight-minute tribute, said Remnick, was like “an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.”
The Remnick dispatch blew up on Twitter Sunday night, and the video, posted days later, stoked suspicion of what new polls confirmed early Wednesday morning. Everyone — Democrats and Republicans, at home and abroad, active and retired — wants Hillary to run.
But Richard Kaufman, the man who made the film, says it had nothing to do with 2016. It was produced without Clinton’s knowledge, and solicited and funded privately by Haim Saban, Clinton mega-donor and founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, for its annual dinner, where Hillary Clinton was the keynote.
Kaufman said he laughed when he read Remnick’s interpretation.
“He’s just trying to stir something up,” said Kaufman. “It was very nice of him, but there was never that intention. There was never a discussion about 2016. This wasn’t done by her team. It was done by Haim to be praiseworthy — to say thank you for her work over the last four years.”
Kaufman — founder of Goodspot, a Los Angeles production company — has worked with the Clinton family before. In 2008, he made the film that introduced Hillary Clinton on the second night of the Democratic National Convention. Daughter Chelsea narrated over gauzy images of Hillary past and present, and the knock-out line — “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling — brought Denver to its feet. When Clinton became Secretary of State, Kaufman made three films, narrated by Matt Damon, for her global food security initiative.
But Kaufman did not collaborate with Clinton or her aides on the Saban film. Although the tribute appears to include an interview with Secretary Clinton, in which she talks about the importance of “face-to-face” diplomacy, those clips were outtakes from another project Kaufman worked on last year, he says.
The first time Clinton had seen or heard of the film was at the gala Friday night. Her reaction, said the filmmaker, was “genuinely moved.”
When Clinton came up to the podium to deliver her keynote, she took a moment of pause. “I am somewhat overwhelmed, but I’m obviously thinking I should sit down” she said. “I prepared some remarks for tonight, but then I thought maybe we could just watch that video a few more times.”
Work on the tribute film began six weeks ago, when Kaufman got a call from Saban.
The Israeli-American — who made his money bringing the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” to American television — said he wanted to show a tribute video to Hillary Clinton, and he wanted Kaufman to make it.
“I want you to interview as many world leaders as possible,” said Saban.
“Basically my jaw dropped,” remembers Kaufman. “That’s no easy feat.”
But, in coordination with Brookings, Kaufman put together a list of some of the biggest names in global politics — Benjamin Netanyahu, Tony Blair, Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres, Henry Kissinger, and of course President Obama himself. They reached out to 13 leaders in total, and all but one — a leader in the Middle East dealing with turmoil in the region, said Kaufman — agreed, eagerly, to participate.
“I got to talk to these people for 15 minutes or so each, and from the first to the last person,” said Kaufman, “they were all so unanimously effusive and candid about Hillary. I didn’t want them to have prepared comments. I asked each of them to talk about something that was emotional or heartfelt or personal that we didn’t know — and that’s what they gave me.”
Kaufman didn’t travel to each country — the time constraints didn’t allow it — but instead set up his interviews using Skype, carefully coordinating the set, lighting, and camera work on the other end to keep the “cinematic look” consistent.
President Obama got the last spot in the film — a direct-to-camera message, delivered in the second-person, to Clinton herself.
“I’ll say it again,” said Obama. “You’ve been one of the best secretaries of state in American history. And finally, Hillary, a lot’s been said about our relationship, and here’s what I know: you haven’t just been one of my closest partners — you’ve become a great friend. I’m so grateful for your grace, you humor, your friendship.”
The two-minute clip was orchestrated independently through the White House. Kaufman neither interviewed the president, nor gave him direction on his statement. “We let him have his own time,” said Kaufman.
Although portions of the film included comments on Secretary Clinton’s policy achievements — Netanyahu singled out the ceasefire deal Clinton helped facilitate last month — Kaufman said the tribute was “not meant to be a political film as much as all the people have been speculating.”
The interview with the Prime Minister was filmed shortly after the ceasefire. “I was making this as bombs were dropping on Israel.” said Kaufman, “There was a crisis in the Middle East, and so for everybody to take 15 minutes to talk to me was pretty special.”
Gail Chalef, communications director at the Brookings Institution, added that the video was shown as a way to honor Hillary as the evening’s keynote speaker. “I know there’s a lot of speculation about Secretary Clinton’s future, but that’s not why the video was created or what we were focused on,” she said.
Instead, Saban wanted something layered, something that would show “a 360-degree picture of her,” said Kaufman. “When we started looking at Hillary’s entire career, we saw what we called the three Hs — historic, heartfelt, and humor — and wanted to make sure we captured all three.”
A statement in the film by former Prime Minister Tony Blair — “I just have an instinct that the best is yet to come” — set off perhaps the most speculation about Clinton’s 2016 ambitions. Netanyahu also added, “I can tell you, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Hillary Clinton.”
The two comments, said Kaufman, were spontaneous and made voluntarily by both leaders.
“This wasn’t meant to be a biography piece,” said Kaufman. “It wasn’t meant to only look back, but to look forward, too. Her legacy is still being written.”