The AFI DOCS Interview: THE DIPLOMAT’s David Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke was a crucial diplomatic negotiator for two Democratic presidents, but his charisma and his talent for foreign policy also came with a brashness that earned him nicknames such as “The Bulldozer.” Through the eyes of Holbrooke’s filmmaker son David Holbrooke, THE DIPLOMAT examines a career with global reach and unquestioned historical impact. Holbrooke’s unflinching view of his father, who passed away in 2010, adds emotional resonance to a biography of one of the most influential public servants of the last five decades.
We spoke to Holbrooke about the source of inspiration behind the documentary and what it was like to make a film about his own father.
What inspired you to make the film about your father?
I really knew that I had to make a documentary about my father when I sat on the same stage at the Kennedy Center with Hillary Clinton, her husband and her boss, not to mention a few other luminaries. While I knew he was a larger than life figure who shaped history, I knew that I had to understand his achievements in a deeper way. I had to do this for several reasons: I felt my father had more to say about the world we live in; I wanted my kids to have a richer understanding of their often absent grandfather; and as I say in the film, I set out to know him better in death than I did in life.
What did you discover about your father through the making of the film?
I found him fascinating — endlessly so. He was an incredibly complicated man who used his talent and brilliance to achieve so much, yet still ended up falling short of his own lofty ambitions. What I wonder sometimes is how he would have found the film I made about him. On one level, my honest take on his life and legacy would have made him uncomfortable but I think he would also really like to know that he is still making a difference and having an impact on the conversation several years after his death. And I think he’d find the film both unnerving and exhilarating.
Can you share a particular obstacle you faced during production?
I feel that the array of Washington power that appears in THE DIPLOMAT is particularly impressive and it took several years of diligent casting to make that happen. One of the real challenges that we faced was making sure that we could successfully advance the story of my father so that it had a narrative arc, which meant sometimes having to cut out interviews that did not achieve this end. One day we had a terrific set of interviews with Pulitzer Prize winner Nick Kristof, renowned playwright John Guare and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. My producer and I high-fived after this high-flying day of shooting as each interview was thoughtful and compelling. However in edit, we had to make the difficult decision not to include any of these three luminaries in the film not because they weren’t worthy but because they just didn’t help the story move forward.
Was the style of THE DIPLOMAT influenced by a particular documentary film?
Several films influenced THE DIPLOMAT starting with MY ARCHITECT and in fact, I used to jokingly refer to the film as “My Diplomat.” MY ARCHITECT created a genre of films by filmmakers about their parents and I watched a lot of these films: ETHEL by Rory Kennedy, WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE by his daughters Sarah and Emily; THE MAN NOBODY KNEW about the CIA Director William Colby by his son, Carl; and the exquisite STORIES WE TELL by Sarah Polley. All of these films impacted the storytelling of THE DIPLOMAT but so did Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, BOYHOOD with its passage of time and the imperfection of its characters.
To you, what is the significance of screening THE DIPLOMAT in Washington, DC?
My father died in Washington, DC and much of the film’s action and interviews take place in the city. Despite this, my father did not love DC and in fact, found it a very challenging place to live, especially at the end of his life. One of the many aspects of this film that I think is worthwhile is the revealing look at how power gets used in the Nation’s Capital.
What did you learn from making your film that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Persistence matters. If something is not coming together the way you want to but it’s important to the film, you have to rethink your approach and methods. Often, more than once.