We have President Carter for 30 minutes; he arrives exactly on time and we are ready. We study him in the chair intently for 30 seconds, make him up, and turn him over to Bill C. Carter is 77 and grayer than during his term in office, but he glows with a sharp mind, a gentle wit, and a twinkle in his eye. He discusses the difficulty of unpopular decisions that could put Americans in harm's way or devastate civilian populations abroad. Sometimes, he notes, these policy choices can cost an election, as his own actions in the Iran hostage crisis did. His articulateness, his warmth, and his candor are impressive. Bill C. enjoys concluding the interview with "Thank you, Mr. President," we take a group photo with Carter, and he is gone, 30 minutes and 40 seconds after arrival.

We are all delighted. Our shoot has come to the end of a long road, and it seems unlikely the network will pursue more interviews: now we have a president, and the airdate is only weeks away. "We've got to stop meeting like this," says Bill C. to Jim and me. He needs uninterrupted time in the editing room with editor Terry Schwartz. We say goodbye to Bill and our Atlanta crew and wish each other well.

We already have 17 interviews and more than 400 pages of transcripts, and the historical weight of our story is compelling. Our subjects consider public service a noble and uplifting profession, despite the political maneuvering and personal sacrifice. They all miss their time in the White House, except Rove, who is currently ensconced there. Any would go back in an instant.

Except for postproduction, this job is over.

Or so we think. Ten days later, Anne calls. Clinton is back from Australia, she says, and he is interested in appearing on our show, now that we have interviewed Carter. Soon we are back in New York, setting up in Clinton’s office, a long room with 40' of south-facing windows. The view is a unique perspective from the 14th floor of this federal office building in Harlem. As I look across Central Park from the north, the Empire State Building is now the tallest building in the skyline, and I wonder if Clinton was here on September 11.

We once again shoot with the wall at our backs, the length of the office behind Clinton, his desk and bookcases deep in the background. We don't plan to see the windows here, so we cover the glass with black Visqueen plastic.

Gaffer John Merriman sets our usual portrait lighting, and we paint the background with cool washes from the HMIs and Flos and warm streaks from the Lekos. Because the office has great depth but is only slightly wider than our 12x12, we forego the background net, which would gobble up the room and restrict access. Clinton's staff tells us this is his first television interview there, other than a brief statement at his desk after September 11 with a news crew. This is also the only interview where we show anyone in his own office.

The former president is gracious and jovial and clearly enjoys meeting people and exchanging ideas. He looks trim and fit in a well-cut suit, and I am struck by how young and vital he appears. His hair is whiter than I had anticipated, so we turn off the minimal hair light we had planned. His daughter Chelsea, who was on our plane from San Francisco the night before, shows up at the office later in the day.

Clinton loved the presidency and tells us he ended his tenure in the White House more idealistic than when he started. He loves to talk, and sticks around for pictures and chat after his interview. When asked about his future plans, Clinton mentions that former strategist James Carville recently told him that they are both eligible to run for President of France. Because Carville and Clinton were born in Louisiana and Arkansas, respectively, both parts of the formerly French Louisiana Purchase, they could move to France, establish residency, and run for office. "I don't think I will," says Clinton, with a broad smile. "I'm sure I would soon start to take flak for my French accent."

As we wrap out of Clinton's office, certain that this shoot is now over, Bill Couturié gets a call. "Hey, we got Ford," he calls out to me as we head to the elevator. "What, commercials?" asks one of our local crew. "No, Gerald." Of course, it makes sense. Now that we have two Democratic Presidents, the show needs a Republican.

Later that week, and less than two weeks before our airdate, we interview former president Ford in the Board Room at the Lodge at Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs in Southern California. The room is paneled, cozy and smaller than we would like, but the double net helps the background to recede. Gaffer Larry Roth and his crew dash around making it all beautiful.

"The guys at The West Wing are all jealous," reports Bill C. "No one gets to talk with three presidents in a month." We had heard earlier that Ford was ill, but the former president, now 88, has a spring in his step and looks much as he did when he succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974. "You guys just don't age," says Bill C. when he meets Ford.

The Michigan Republican has an easy laugh as he answers the questions clearly and articulately. He is particularly earnest and candid in defending his pardon of Nixon, maintaining that he needed to get the problem "off his desk." Ford is proudest of the fact that he came from a broken home and rose to be president of the United States, a "tribute to our system."

At last our shoot is really over. The show airs 12 days later and is a great success. The blending of the interviews with the fictional scenes is skillful and poignant. And getting three ex-presidents to participate in anything together is a unique achievement and a matter of some historical significance.




Digital Betacam

Ikegami HL-388, Sony 790WS

Canon 15x8mm zooms

About the author:
Bill Zarchy is a free-lance director of photography based in San Francisco. Over the past 30 years, he has shot hundreds and hundreds of talking heads, and many other film, video, and HDTV projects, in two dozen countries and three dozen states. The West Wing Documentary Special episode he describes here won a 2002 Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Program. He was also Director of Photography/Virtual Sets for the feature film Conceiving Ada. More information can be found online at www.billzarchy.com, and Bill can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.