More than one funny thing happened on the way to Alexandra Pelosi’s new HBO documentary, The Words That Built America.
She got to direct her mother, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for the first time. (“She does not take direction well.”) She filmed former Vice President Dick Cheney in a cowboy hat. She walked through the front door of the White House — the entrance heads of state use — and was greeted by President Trump, whom she found to be far less formal than his predecessors.
And the veteran filmmaker (Journeys with George, Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?) became fast friends with Gov. Christie.
“It was like magic,” Pelosi said in a phone interview Wednesday of hitting it off with Christie. “He invited me to visit him in New Jersey. I went to the Jersey Shore with him. I brought my kids. They had the time of their lives.”
All these experiences were made possible by the U.S. Constitution, whose words, along with those of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, form the unifying backbone of The Words That Built America (7 p.m. Tuesday, HBO). Narrated by historian David McCullough (John Adams), the film includes dozens of representatives of both major parties — among them all the living former presidents and vice presidents — as well as Supreme Court justices, an assortment of celebrities and TV newspeople, and some schoolchildren, all reading from the unabridged documents.
And so we find Rosie O’Donnell and Meryl Streep sharing a film, if not physical space, with the president, as the actors enumerate a new country’s grievances against King George III. Representing Philadelphia, where so much of the script was written more than two centuries ago, is actor Kevin Bacon.
(In the spirit of inclusion, HBO, which will donate the film to the National Constitution Center, will make The Words That Built America available to nonsubscribers online at HBO.com and on the network’s YouTube channel, and on On Demand.)
The approximately 48-minute film might sound like the project of a particularly well-connected Eagle Scout, but its earnestness works. It’s fun to see who reads what — “I would say nobody wanted impeachment … that’s a tricky one,” said Pelosi, who ended up featuring Cheney in that passage — and the ever-changing readers approach the task with such a variety of expressions and levels of enthusiasm that it seldom bogs down.
The idea grew, Pelosi said, from a conversation she had during the presidential election campaign with Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. “We were saying that it’s so sad that in this country, that no matter who wins the election, half the country is going to be disappointed,” Pelosi said, and they wondered: “ ‘What can we do that isn’t going to divide?’ Because documentaries are notorious for dividing.”
It was Nevins, she said, who suggested they do a film on the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. Not that even that was simple.
“The very first shoot was [former president] Jimmy Carter, the morning after the election, in Atlanta, Georgia. And I walked in and got him to read the Constitution, and he read from beginning to end, and then we talked about it,” she said. “We had a great conversation about it. I really thought we could have a deep conversation in America about the founding documents. It turned out later that the sort of commentary had to be removed in order to facilitate all the bipartisanship. Because once you start saying, ‘What does impeachment mean?’ or, ‘What does due process mean?’ or, you know, ‘What does emoluments mean?’ it gets sticky, and we didn’t want to get sticky. We wanted to unite.”
She let the readers choose their sections, within certain parameters. For instance, Congress, represented by 49 senators and 11 House members, focuses on the passages about the legislative branch.
“[Sen.] Ted Cruz walked in. He knows the Constitution from beginning to end. He could recite the entire Constitution for you. Because when he was in high school, he traveled around Texas on Saturday nights, reciting the Constitution,” Pelosi said. “So he came in and … did the whole Constitution. He knows it by heart. Remarkable.”
She tried to keep the parties balanced. “The initial goal was to go blue, red, blue, red…but people made mistakes in words that you didn’t notice,” and they were still finding mistakes during post-production, she said. “The patchwork of it all, it wasn’t political, it was just practical — who read the sentence correctly, and try not to stick all the Democrats back to back.”
She might not have been able to do any of it without the cooperation of one particular reader, she said.
“Donald Trump. Let’s face it, Trump sells. I won’t hide the fact that I didn’t think I would have accomplished the objective if I couldn’t get the sitting president,” Pelosi said.
She’s also happy to have been able to include former President George H.W. Bush, who was in an intensive-care unit at the time of Trump’s inauguration. “I took my kids to the inauguration and I wanted them to go talk to George W. Bush because I rode on a bus with him for a year and a half when he ran for president [the experience that led to her first film, 2002’s Journeys with George], and … we have this whole sort of relationship even though we don’t agree on anything politically,” she said.
“So I brought my kids over to see George W. Bush, and he said, ‘I have to leave because I have to go write my father’s eulogy.’… And then I was filming [his father] months later. So I was really proud of that. Because he has so many lives in him, George H.W. Bush,” she said.
“I have to say that walking into the Trump White House was, for me, like [being] a kid in a candy store. Because I’ve gotten to go to the White House — my mother’s taken me over the years, for every president. And because President Trump isn’t into the protocol, and the pomp and circumstance of being president. It was fascinating,” said Pelosi, who filmed the president and Vice President Pence on March 1, a day after Trump had addressed Congress.
“They were very gracious, I have to say. Mike Pence couldn’t have been more gracious, couldn’t have been a nicer guy,” she said.
“In the past, other presidents have gone maybe too far with the staffing, to be polite about it. President Trump has gone completely in the other direction,” she said. “So we got a real all-access kind of experience, which was surreal for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been to the White House and been able to roam the halls like that.”
Earlier that day, she’d filmed Cheney, in his cowboy hat, at his Virginia home. “I never thought I would say that Dick Cheney would be my John Wayne. But you know, the Constitution has a funny way of bringing people together.”
Including, yes, the daughter of the House Democratic leader and the Republican governor of New Jersey.
“When you do a show, sometimes you talk to a hundred people. You never see them again as long as you live. And then one just becomes your best friend. And out of this project, I became best friends with Chris Christie. Why? Because everything he said to me in private, even though he’s from a completely different political perspective, the truths about clickbait and why he’s so hated and so unpopular, really rang true to me,” Pelosi said.
“He is clickbait. People love to hate Chris Christie, so they love to click on his name,” she said. “I’m not going to defend him” politically, but “people who want to go into public service, there’s a huge price they have to pay, and their families have to pay it, too. And I love that conversation.”