Editor's note: This is part one in a two-part series.
2012 was a big year for documentary films by conservative filmmakers with Runaway Slave, my own film Fear of a Black Republican, and 2016: Obama’s America hitting America’s movie screens. Before making a big announcement at CPAC 2013 for his newest collaboration with Dinesh D’Souza and Gerald Molen, John Sullivan was gracious enough to have a “Filmmaker Conversation” with me about his previous project 2016: Obama’s America. Undoubtedly, John’s film was American documentary film’s moment of the year and the market responded with a domestic gross of over $33 million. The film generated many controversial headlines, some false charges and a ton of consternation from the mainstream media and President Obama’s supporters. As we’ll see in this two-part interview, the sun hasn’t set on 2016: Obama’s America and its talented Director, John Sullivan.
KW: How did you come to be a filmmaker?
JS: I was a concert promoter for fifteen years, then transitioned into filmmaking. Actually, through the internet. I saw that the internet was going to be a great vehicle. We started doing concerts on-line and decided that everyone was going to be a broadcaster at some time. Went to film school and then started doing commercials and production work. I thought I wanted to do special effects and hated it. (Ha-Ha). I missed the production side of the equation, but I decided to kind of put it on the shelf. I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy and I got roped back into a movie called Expelled with Ben Stein and then connected with Dinesh in about 2010.
KW: What do you like most and least about documentary filmmaking?
JS: The thing I like most about documentary is that it is issues-oriented and you’re capturing a reality in that. The thing I like the least is that I just want to blow stuff up and I don’t ever get to do that! I’ve been on sets of really big movies and it’s cool to see really big action-sequences [done]. I love movies too and you’re a little bit limited in the imagination because you have to stay in that realm of reality. However, with 2016, we took some really good creative direction in the recreation scenes we did with Dinesh back at Dartmouth and stuff like that. And people really appreciated bringing that element to a documentary. Rather than it just be talking heads or something like that. I’m really encouraged. I just saw The Men That Built America. That was the most amazing series I had ever seen, which combined reality along with re-creations. I think that’s kind of the new format for a lot of documentaries.
KW: Do you consider yourself a Republican or a conservative?
JS: I consider myself a conservative [but] probably more libertarian-leaning on a lot of issues. I was raised in a split-household. My grandmother babysat us after school and she was a die-hard “Kennedy-Democrat.” Irish-Catholic Democrat. And my Dad was kind of the first Republican. So I remember the 1980 Election very vividly. How great Jimmy Carter was in the afternoons and at night, I heard about how great Ronald Reagan was. So, I definitely would consider myself in that Reagan camp. But, if we could all be adults, I would absolutely be a libertarian. I think, unfortunately, we’re not all adults at times. Foreign Policy, things of that nature, we have to take different positions and tacts.
KW: 2016… you’re obviously making on a film that would be “of its moment.” Did that put any extra pressure on you editing-wise to get the movie done and that it could impact the election?
JS: Yes. We knew that it was a melting ice-cube. That there was a certain amount of time we had with it. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Our Editing team and myself were putting in fourteen to twenty hour days. Every single day for months to get it launched…. because we had a limited window. What really limited us more than anything else was the DVD window. We wanted to have that. We actually looked at what Michael Moore had done with Fahrenheit 9/11 and said “Okay, this is the kind of format.” You had to commit to be in the theatre for ninety days before you go on DVD or VOD. It was market-timing. You have an election coming up. People are going to be interested in the subject matter right then. The thing that is surprising is that VOD is still doing very strong for us right now. I think people are seeing what happened after the election, so to me, 2016 is still very relevant.
KW: Because “We were right!”
JS: Yes, exactly. We were right! Unfortunately, we were right! But, I think people have that interest still. They want to know who this president is, because people thought he was still the “Hope and Change” guy in 2008. They bought into that. And they’re seeing now that he has no more campaigning to do, who he really is and what his agenda has become.
KW: So, do you see your film as “evergreen”?
JS: To a degree. Well, not maybe “evergreen,” but at least a four-year run on it. But, I think what it shows is… this is the “New Left” in this sense, this is that mindset. Something we connect on in the movie is the fact that Obama is not that far from Occupy Wall Street. This whole anti-colonialism is something that is in the agenda of Occupy Wall Street. So this is kind of the New Left, if you will, it’s this anti-colonialist…the U.S. is bad. It’s historically been bad. North Korea, Iran – these are not the bad guys. The U.S. is the bad guy. Therefore to be the good guys, we need to shrink the U.S. Shrink our military, our foreign policy, shrink our economy. It’s kind of like everybody gets a participation ribbon for governance. I think that’s what we are seeing now and that’s what is what will make this [movie] a little more “evergreen.”
KW: In 2016, Dinesh D’Souza is a vessel for the audience’s journey towards learning more about President Obama’s life story and the origins of his political theories. Can you talk about how you sculpted the film before shooting and how you sculpted what we ended up seeing on screen?
JS: You are absolutely right. I think in documentaries, Michael Moore gave us this…I really think he kind of re-invented the Documentary in this way. He took the “Hero’s Journey” which is kind of evident in most feature films and he applied it to the Documentary. And so, in this sense… Dinesh is the proxy for the audience going along and how you introduce [things]. So, we knew that we wanted to go to Kenya. We knew that we wanted to go to Indonesia. We knew that with his “anti-colonialism,” we had to be in those locations to give a sense and the feel. A lot of people had read Dinesh’s book. It had been a New York Times bestseller, but I even had conservatives prior to making the movie saying, “I kind of get it, but I don’t really get it.” But then afterwards, I talked to them and they said “Got it…emotionally.” And that is what the film does. Its puts you in an emotional space to make these arguments and then it’s suddenly connecting on multiple senses. So, it’s reaching the heart and then reaching the head. As we set  up, we knew we wanted to be in these locations. We knew we wanted to be in Hawaii, so we just look at Obama’s life and said, “What were the influences? Where did we need to go?” We tried to interview “Granny” Obama as evident in the film. That didn’t work out, but we were there. We interviewed George in Kenya. Alice Dewey in Hawaii. So, we knew that we wanted to get to these various people and these influences.
KW: Is that where a lot of your production budget ended up going, rather than somewhere else?
JS: On these kinds of films, your budget goes into a couple of things. Travel is just the biggest one, to be honest. You’re flying all over the world. You’ve got a crew of people. You’re a filmmaker and you understand… we’d shoot with small crews, but still a ticket to India and Kenya costs a certain amount of money. So that is where a lot of the budget goes. We also did a lot of recreations in this film to bring people in dramatically and again, to create that emotional space for them.
KW: How big of a crew did you generally have for the shoots?
JS: It was generally very small. Four people, very small. And then some times, we’d have bigger ones for the bigger productions. But, you’ve got to create that emotional space for people and that is the part where documentaries have for the most part, they fall short. They’re just informational and that only connects to so little of the population.
KW: Having a budget definitely helps with doing that.
JS: Michael Moore’s stuff is usually about $9M. The stuff I’ve shot is about $2-3M. Expelled was actually higher because we’d had more travel on Expelled. Also, [with] Expelled’s budget, we had a huge music licensing budget. Which we didn’t have in this one. If you’re going to use a Bob Dylan track, that’s going to cost you [40 to 50 thousand dollars]. But, I think that music is such a character. Particularly for these types of films. They help root people in popular culture and say, “this is part of who we are. We understand who we are. And we understand who you are as the audience and the time-frames.” So, having an 80s song in 2016 when we are going through the Reagan Era really helped.
KW: How much of the film changed as you shot more and more footage, from the original script?
JS: Well, the positive thing with this [film], comparing my other experiences… we had the book. Dinesh wrote “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” and that gave us the base-line for what we needed to do. What I found… it’s funny, I will sit down with people who want to see a script on a documentary. I say, “I can give you an outline. But, I can’t script out what these people are going to say when I sit down with them.” I’ve had interviews where I’m very excited to interview somebody and it turns out to be a dead interview. For whatever reason, the energy wasn’t right. They just didn’t come through. They mumbled. There’s all kinds of things and you have other people who are jewels that you just didn’t expect. So… in these situations you always have to have a huge contingency in the budget, because we might have to go out and re-shoot.
KW: And that is what makes documentary harder than narrative (scripted film), because with narrative you have a script and actors.
JS: Yes, I can sit down with a narrative film and say, “Six more weeks is our shooting… Here’s our days in-days-out”. But with a documentary, you don’t know and you’re always limited in that time-frame in getting what you can. I always look at it this way… you shoot the film you think you’re going to make. But, you kind end up making a different film.
KW: Kind of three films.
JS: That’s it. You’ve got the film you’re going to make; the film you’re making; and the film you’ve made. So for documentaries, there’s even more of that because we usually come back, we filmed and we say “Whoa! This is new information or this person responded differently and so therefore so you have to back-fill, re-tread, move [in] a different direction more than you do ever in a narrative film. And I always think that documentaries are made in the editing.
KW: Were you surprised about at all how long it took for the film to begin getting some national exposure and some traction? And then having such negative reviews written about the film or worded as they were?
JS: Ha-ha. Just to put that in comparison, there’s fifteen films that were short-listed for the Oscar. They didn’t even add up to one-third of the box office that we did, yet we didn’t get nominated. So when you have people in this industry like Michael Moore, who sits on the Academy’s Documentary Branch… and Michael Apted, Rob Epstein… you just know. Same with the reviewers. Actually, it was funny. We got kind of this review/non-review from the New York Times that just stated stuff and our whole team was like… “what is this?” And they didn’t count it as a review, it wasn’t positive or negative. It was the weirdest thing. So I think that in this, we expected that we were going to get hit. The opportunity was created, honestly, we knew this. Because the Media had the president’s back. We’re not expecting to get great reviews in this situation. So to me, I’m a capitalist at heart. I’d rather win at the box office than at the Oscars.