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“We Knew We Would Never Satisfy Everyone”: Editor Tal Ben-David on Hillary

A still from Hillary by Nanette Burstein (courtesy Sundance Institute)

Hundreds of hours of 2016 campaign footage, archival documents and original interviews are edited together in order to portray a more nuanced portrait of one of America’s most divisive political figures in Nanette Burstein’s Hillary. Just a few days ago, Clinton’s remarks concerning Senator Sanders during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter for Hillary already had prospective viewers either elated or outraged—the unflinching look at Clinton’s campaign and how it mirrors her own political history might very well leave viewers with similar sentiments. Editor Tal Ben-David explains her extensive working relationship with Burstein and why she believes a cultural re-evaluation of Hillary Clinton is important. 

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Ben-David: The film’s director, Nanette Burstein, and I have worked together on various projects going back almost twenty years now. There’s a certain level of trust we’ve built up over time that makes it a very simpatico working relationship; we have similar sensibilities and story-telling instincts, but can also challenge each other’s ideas in a healthy way. When she was approached to do Hillary, I think she knew it would be a monumental challenge—literally and figuratively—and wanted someone who could be in the trenches with her figuring it all out. 

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Ben-David: The first challenge was how to deal with literally hundreds of hours of 2016 campaign footage that HRC’s office gave to us. We knew we didn’t want to make a strict “campaign film” so we decided early on that this material would be woven into the linear telling of Hillary’s life story. So the idea is that you see some of the challenges that she faced in 2016, but also see how past chapters in her life informed the candidate, and person, that she was by 2016. The other editor, Chis Passig, and I spent the first few months just sifting through campaign event after campaign event (it could be mind-numbing) looking for those nuggets that give you a real insight into what 2016 felt like behind the scenes. 

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Ben-David: We knew we wanted to interweave essentially two parallel stories—her personal history, and the 2016 campaign—without feeling like you’re losing steam or losing the thread of the narrative when going from one to the other. The key to this structure working would be finding the right inflection point to make the transition to the past or the present. Those transition points got reworked a lot, finding the right interview bite or archival moment that would feel like an organic segue. What was so interesting was seeing how these chapters started mirroring each other in places. You start seeing how far we’ve come, and yet haven’t. It was easier to understand HRC’s perspective on the world when you’ve lived through her personal history with her. 

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Ben-David: I came of age right when the major shift from traditional editing (Steenbeck) to non-linear (Avid) was happening. I realized I could skip years of sorting film trims as an AE and get ahead by just learning this new technology and having those skills. Having a background in writing and photography helped too. I started at MTV in the 1990s when the network was still influential and hiring a bunch of young people to make TV. There was a real “let’s put on a show!” kind of attitude. We were definitely flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time, but a lot of great people came out of there.  

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Ben-David: Avid. Tried and true.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Ben-David: I think the most difficult section of the film to deal with was Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Rightly or wrongly, I knew that that part of Hillary’s story would get a lot of attention and we needed to handle it honestly and not salaciously. To Nanette’s credit, the interviews in this section are open and candid in a way that I think people have never seen before. Ironically, it wasn’t very difficult to edit together because I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to structure it. There were not that many revisions to that section from it’s first pass.

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Ben-David: For me personally, I loved discovering that Hillary Clinton is a dork in absolutely the best possible way. She’s someone who says things like “okie dokie artichokie” with no irony. I think she would be happiest sitting in a room with stacks of books crafting public policy that would make people’s lives better. But instead Hillary Clinton has become this hugely polarizing figure, and part of the arc of this documentary is exploring “How did this happen?” Some of her failings are purely her own and some of them speak to larger societal issues. We knew we would never satisfy everyone. We couldn’t re-litigate every single scandal and conspiracy theory that have accrued over 40 years in public life. But we thought we could offer a window into the experience of a brilliant, imperfect woman who by sheer grit paved the way for generations of women to come.

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