After six long years, hundreds of hours of footage and being at the center of two failed campaigns for the Presidency of the United States, documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley had his movie. In “Mitt,” which debuts exclusively on Netflix Jan. 24, Whiteley is given incredible access to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during his run for the White House in 2008 and 2012. During an interview with me this week, Whiteley talked about how he viewed his job as a documentarian during this intense process and why he doesn’t see how the average American can ever really know a political candidate when he or she is riding the campaign trail.
On the “Today Show” Wednesday morning, you said the reason you didn’t include Mitt Romney answering questions about his comments on the “47 Percent” in the documentary was because he gave you an answer that he had given 100 times before to other media outlets. As a filmmaker, were you disappointed you weren’t able to get him to open up to you about that issue?
I think I made a mistake on certain occasions of asking him questions while I was in a hotel with him or on a campaign bus. He would sort of look at me with the strangest look and give me the answer that he’s given 100 times before. It was like, “Look, I’m not making this up. That’s the answer.” The strength of my footage was enhanced with me just keeping my mouth shut and blending in with the wallpaper. As a result, I was able to capture candid moments. I let those moments speak for themselves. In many respects, I’m just not a traditional journalist. I’m a documentary filmmaker. As such, the film is made better by allowing certain moments to just breathe. It took me a while to figure that out.
Did spending six years with the Romney family and getting close to them make it difficult to stay objective while making this film?
I think the notion of subjectivity and objectivity is somewhat outdated. I think it’s a façade. I think what you would want both journalists and filmmakers like myself to have is a strong sense of authenticity and fairness. You can bring your biases and subjectivities to the table, but allow them to be shifted and shaped by the very thing you’re covering. I think in doing that, at least to the extent I believe I was doing, the film speaks for itself. Those moments can’t be faked. They’re as real as any moment you’ll see ever captured by a political documentarian and yet they’re not free of bias.
During one point in the documentary, you get a really interesting and candid interview with one of Romney’s sons where he answers one of your questions in two ways: once with a stock answer he says he’s been trained to use with the mainstream media and once with an answer that is a lot more authentic. Do you think that’s a problem in today’s political atmosphere? Nobody really knows these candidates because so many of them and their camps are too afraid to speak from the heart. They’re afraid they might get too emotional or give an answer that hasn’t been crafted by someone on their public relations team.
Yes, but I don’t know if there is a way to solve it. I’ve thought a lot about that. I think it’s so strange. I mean, don’t blame the media. I think the campaign is also at fault. But I wonder if some of the blame should be given to us – the people who consume media. I wish I was smarter and could come up with a solution. It seems to me, we might be better served – at least in some respects – if all the candidates were required to have me make a 6-year-long film about them. If you can lobby for me, I think I’d like to put the machine in place to make that happen.
Is there something you think the American people didn’t learn about Romney during those two Presidential campaigns that you wish they had?
I don’t think I had any wishes or desires along those lines. I was just there to film. But, you know, I think it’s easy to blame the campaign for not getting “that” Mitt Romney out there. But in fairness, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum or Barack Obama for that matter, they weren’t allowing that kind of access either. Romney’s campaign didn’t know what I was capturing. Frankly, I didn’t either. I didn’t know if the portrait I was painting was going to be one that was flattering to the campaign. So, I don’t know how you do it. The campaign staff did not like me filming. They looked at me as a liability. Frankly, it’s something I completely understand. It was frustrating at the time when I was filming, but now I completely get it. Something I pointed out to Stuart Stevens, who was [Romney’s] campaign strategist [for the 2012 campaign], was that the interests of a documentary filmmaker are simply different than that of a campaign. They are not congruent. [A documentary filmmaker] is trying to tell a story in an authentic and entertaining way. [The campaign] is trying to get someone elected President. I think there is a reason no one has ever done what I’ve done and then tried to release it before the election to influence the election. I think if I’m doing my job right, I’m not going to be able to predict if it would be helpful or not.