Brock Swinson

Kunhardt Films Documentarians Talk about Making The John McCain Film For Whom The Bell Tolls

Kunhardt Films Documentarians Talk about Making The John McCain Film For Whom The Bell Tolls
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“I haven’t always done the right thing,” said the subject of John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. “But you will never talk to anyone that is as fortunate as John McCain.” The Senator, who has lost two Presidential elections, survived as a Vietnam POW for five years, and received a brain tumor diagnosis, is surprisingly optimistic, potentially the last of his kind, and the latest subject for Kunhardt Films.

As a production company, Kunhardt Films specializes in documentaries “about the people and ideas that shape history.” In the past three years, the directors and producers have made films like King in the Wilderness about Martin Luther King Jr., The Newspaperman about Ben Bradlee, and Becoming Warren Buffet.

Producer George Kunhardt said, “We had done a similar documentary [in 2009] when Teddy Kennedy announced that he had brain cancer. Teddy, when he read it in the news that McCain had been diagnosed with this, we thought it was a natural [progression] since McCain was the other line of the Senate and had a long life that paralleled the last half-century of American history.”

Three weeks after the diagnosis, the producers started working on the film. Kunhardt Films, which launched in 1987, consists of six-time Emmy Award winner Peter Kunhardt and with his two sons, George and Teddy. In this interview, the three creators talk about John McCain as a character, how to gain trust as a filmmaker, and the importance of subjects that you’re willing to spend a year with.

We recently spoke with Trey Ellis for another documentary you produced called King in the Wilderness. That film was looking for a different side of Martin Luther King Jr.’s story. With this John McCain documentary, how did you pick out the pieces to discover what’s most important for this story?

With John, who has led such a long life, we scripted out a timeline of his story. We figured out the highs and lows, [then] focused in on what we thought were important milestones. One thing I should say, when we met with Senator McCain the first time, he said “I want this film to show warts and all. I don’t want you to shy away from them.” So, whether it was the Keating Five or the South Carolina Confederate Flag comment or his divorce from his first wife, Carol, he was an open book and we were able to stitch together a narrative that did the highs and the lows.

In a funny way, he was obsessed with his mistakes. He would constantly bring them up. He was trying to deal with them head-on or apologize for them or acknowledge them head-on. As his family has said, he is his own harshest critic.

At the time we interviewed him, he was 80-years-old, so now he’s 81-years-old. This is a man who’s facing the end of his life, who is extremely reflective. When we interviewed him and the timing of our interview is completely different, had we done this fifteen years ago, for instance. He was an open book, more reflective, and willing to tell a story that we haven’t heard before.

In terms of recording, how many times did you actually sit down with John McCain? Which of those occasions uncovered the title of the film?

That’s two separate questions. The first is, we spent three days down in Sedona about three weeks after his diagnoses. Then, we did another three days in D.C. One of which was just following him around like a fly on the wall. The title came later in the process. We were having trouble with the title and Peter said, “It’s right in front of our face. It should be, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is the sub-theme of the whole film for Robert Jordan’s fight for a cause greater than oneself.” It just sort of came out of the film, itself.

Every time we interviewed Senator McCain, he harkened back to the influence Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” had on him. Here’s a guy who’s greatest heroes were his father, an Admiral, and his Admiral grandfather and yet, when asked who his greatest influence was, it was a fictional character who represented the same values and courage and kind of humble strength that he prizes in himself.  

The interviewees in the film come from the left and right. There’s a friendship between Joe Biden and John McCain, for example. How conscious were you to make sure the film played down the middle rather than one side or the other?

That is the biggest thing that we wanted to take away from this film. Both sides need to come together and John is the epitome of this. John is a Conservative Republican, but as you pointed out, his friends and colleagues are across both aisles. When we conducted these interviews, we were surprised by how many Democrats we interviewed. Before we started the project, we thought it was going to be Republican-heavy and it was a great surprise just to see how bi-partisan his friendships are.

But, I want to note that the people we interviewed were extraordinary. It was a situation that we’ve never encountered on any film. When we approached someone like President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton, usually it takes weeks, months, years to get access to some of these people and get green-lit for an interview. They accepted almost immediately. They would say, “Ok, we love John. We want to do this. How’s next week?” We had such amazing lines of connection to these interviewees and who he is and his relationships in the Senate.

We really don’t make political films. We try to do timeless evergreen films that get to the center of the character and the moral compass that leads McCain in this case. So, one of the things that we were most struck by was the consistency of John’s political message. In these rough political times today, it appears that he is saying something that is needed right now in politics in America. If you go back in time, he’s been saying the same thing decade after decade. We were struck by the consistency of his message. It’s just that most people haven’t heard it before and it seems to ring truer today than it has in the past.

I would also add that a lot of people are surprised by the turnout of Democrats in this film. John would say, “That’s the reality. I am friends with Democrats. It’s not about Party. It’s about all of us. It’s about Democrats, Republicans, Independents. It’s not a surprise that there was this great turnout. It’s about country.

To add to that, there’s a scene where McCain shuts down one of his supporters that spoke poorly of Obama during the campaign. Is it possible that he’s too moral for politics? Is he the last of his breed or does the film give us hope that more people can follow him into a bipartisan view?

I think all of the above. Yes, he didn’t get elected President because he put his moral beliefs in front of politics. He made the conscious decision not to run negative ads, which hurt him. He’s offering himself up as an imperfect model—but a model—and his message is to his fellow Senators to get their act together to stop being so partisan and so divisive and to begin to try to accomplish something. So, I do think he’s from an old school of politics, but something that he feels strongly needs to be [rebuilt].

Did you put much thought into classifying the different eras of politics? For example, in the pre-Nixon era, more people respected their government and political representatives. In 2008, the media was drastically changing and there was less respect. Did you put effort into characterizing these different generations in terms of McCain’s career?

I think it wasn’t [pre-conceived], but what became very clear in interviewing the advisors he had around him was that McCain was a talker and a thinker. As the press changed from a slower, longer-formatted venue, where he could sit in the back of the bus and talk all day with journalists and really dig deep.

Once that turned out to be more digital and fast-paced and smaller snippets and the message was online before he could finish speaking, that really wasn’t his thing. The technology kind of passed him by and I think that was hard for John and still remains hard for John. I think John would like to go back to those earlier times when journalists and politicians had a dialogue, which they don’t seem to be having much today.

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I would also add that in 2000, John was the underdog and everyone loves the underdog story. In 2008, he was the presumptive nominee and he was the frontrunner and Obama was the underdog, so there was a natural shift that hurt John.

It seems like everything was going against him in 2008. American was looking for a change. Obama was the first African American nominee and everything was changing with technology and media. You can see his frustration in the scene where he’s speaking with the Press on his bus.

Definitely, it was this whole idea of “gotcha” journalism was prevalent. When Lehman Brothers fell, that was just icing on the cake. He just couldn’t win.

For novice filmmakers who want to get into documentary filmmaking, it’s unlikely they might get this type of access right away. What advice do you have for up-and-coming documentarians that are looking for the right subject matter, getting started on a small budget, or just making the best film possible with limited resources?

The way that [we] come up with the subject matter—and it changes every film—is that we read a lot. Read the Times, read LA Times, read Wall Street Journal—you name it—and we find interesting stories that we want to spend a year working on. We don’t want to dedicate our lives, resources, and time on something that doesn’t motivate us.

So, my first piece of advice is to find a story and subject matter that you want to live with and are passionate about. Regarding budgets and all that type of thing, it’s taken thirty-plus years of our [Peter’s] career, ten years of [the sons’] careers to kind of get to the place that we’re in, but the best advice that I have is to find something where you can start off small or pull out favors. There’s a lot of cheap equipment these days. There are ways to do it on a low budget.

You can get a cheap DSLR that shoots 4K and looks beautiful and there’s editing software from Adobe to Final Cut that is cheap and easy to use. So, just keep playing with it.

Start small and slowly expand. It’s all about connections, timing, and dedication because a lot of these people are very hard to get to. It’s taken us years to gain the trust. For instance, with this McCain film, Meghan McCain told us she was very skeptical of us before we did this. This was a very personal story where [she] had a hard time letting [us] in. But, we did the same thing with Warren Buffet and his family. They trusted us completely by the end of the film. The same can be said about the Bradlee family (The Newspaperman) or with Gloria Steinem.

It’s about building a reputation of people trusting you and trusting that you’re going to tell the story with their best intention. We think that that has come through on the screen and that people now are opening up and trusting us with their story.

Trust is at the core of being able to tell a good story. My advice to a young filmmaker it not to follow a story because you have a political agenda that you want to follow. Tell a story because it’s a good story. So, it didn’t matter to us about John’s political background. What mattered to us was that John had a fascinating story to tell. If you focus on story and not pushing your own agenda, you come out with a much purer, cleaner, and honest product in the end.

Listen to the full interview HERE.

Check out the trailer below:

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