‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is shaping up to be one of Netflix’s biggest documentary releases of 2018. The four-part series is not only a fascinating study of American politics during that period but also an intimate portrait of the complex Robert Kennedy. We had the chance to catch up with the series’ Archival Producer, Rich Remsberg, who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers. We spoke about the monumental archive research and production that made this series a true achievement in historical documentary.
How did you get involved in the project? There are plenty of films dedicated to the Kennedy’s, what made this one unique for you?
From the initial phone call with the producers, it was clear that this project would go deeper than the usual treatment of Robert Kennedy. For starters, the four-hour format allowed for the archival to breathe in a way that is not possible in shorter docs. The intelligence that the director and producers conveyed in talking about the story suggested that they understood RFK’s complexities and contradictions and that this story would be told with a good deal of dimension.
Considering the enormous volume of archives coming from multiple sources, how did you manage to organize the workflow?
Largely by relying on colleagues! During the research phase of the project, I was focused on finding material; our archival co-producer, Brian Becker, sorted and tracked it all. We used color coding and a couple of pretty straightforward spreadsheets on Google Docs, and Brian had a lot in his head. Our assistant editors ran a very tight ship, and our story producer, Elizabeth Wolff, had total recall for every aspect of RFK’s history.
For managing costs and licensing, I had a more complicated set of linked Excel spreadsheets to accommodate the four individual episodes and project totals. I came to see spreadsheets as something like crossword puzzles, where the game is to fill in every square.
What was the most challenging part of the process?
Without question, the most difficult part of the project was the effort to get footage from archives that would not grant access or made it difficult. There were several, with varying reasons and importance to the project, and they resolved in different ways. For political and politeness sake, I won’t go into details, but it was extremely stressful and we lost a lot of sleep over it. My hair was actually falling out in clumps.
Negotiating terms to meet our budget and ironing our contract language for so many different sources was also a challenge. Because we started ordering for the first hour before we knew what we were using in the fourth, it was especially awkward. I’m grateful to the archives who were willing to work with us on this.
What was your ‘eureka’ moment?
Hard to say, the production schedule didn’t leave much time for savoring in such things. Certainly, finding the footage of Marian Wright Edleman testifying before the Senate committee was an important moment. She speaks so unbelievably beautifully, and she laid out most of what we needed for the exposition of RFK’s southern poverty tours. It also alerted the team to her as a contemporary interview, and she added a lot to the film in that respect.
Another important moment was finding Howard K. Smith’s critical commentary on the Kennedys. There wasn’t much in the way of television news commentary in those early years – Smith and one other commentator were about it. I went through a lot of old TV listings to find references to the original aired programs, but the films were not in the ABC archives. There was a moment of panic, but then I managed to find surviving reels of enough of the programs at the University of Wisconsin. We were able to access from UW and clear with ABC.
Is there a specific piece of footage that you are the most proud of?
There are probably bigger moments to point to, but I liked a lot of the small details, mostly from local news archives, that helped paint a very human picture of Bobby – both the ways people connected with him and their deep dislike of him: Paul Newman’s terse comments from WTMJ, the woman with the excellent bouffant hairdo from Southern Methodist, a dozen different pieces from University of Georgia.
Did you use any international sources to bring fresh new perspectives to the story?
Only a British Pathé newsreel and a British interview that is now in an American archive. This was mostly a US-focused story. For the bits on RFK’s travel to Europe and South Africa, we mostly relied on coverage from the National Archives and the networks.
Could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director? How did the script evolve over time with the footage you found?
I worked with Dawn Porter, the director, and Laura Michalchyshyn, the Executive Producer, mostly on big-picture aspects of the project: tone, overall story, the nature of Bobby’s character, key elements, and so forth. Also on budget and legal concerns. For the more specific development, I worked closely with Elizabeth and Brian, considering how to fill story beats, figuring how best to use different pieces of archival, how the archival could build the story structure. As Elizabeth developed the script, there was a lot of her hitting me with requests and my finding the footage quickly to get it into the edit.
Everyone on the project favored using the best footage we could and figuring out how to clear and pay for it later. That made for some long days toward the end, but I think it paid off on the screen.
Netflix is putting a strong focus on heavy archive-driven projects, proving that there is a real demand for the genre. What was the key to creating an immersive experience for a broad audience? How do you think the film appeals to a younger generation?
I think we’ve recently entered a golden age for archival documentaries. One of the best things about that is the platform allows for greater integrity of archival material. Rather than dropping bits of illustrative archival into one- to six-second slots during interviews, there is time for the archival to breathe, to create a more cohesive immersive environment, to convey subtlety, to suggest mood, to express more complex thoughts, to live with contradiction, to get a visceral feel for the atmosphere of the time. OJ was great about this, so was Wild Wild Country. We’re seeing it more and more. I’ve been saying that four hours is the new hour.
Another is that by virtue of being archival-driven it can be less mediated. Interviews can still offer some perspective and keep the story on track, but allowing the archival to carry the historical information leaves more space for the viewer to bring his or her own understanding to the story. I think the best films leave the audience with a complex understanding of the subject and room for different viewers to have different understanding.
I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where an executive producer says that young people just aren’t interested in history. I’ve never believed that to be true, and what I’ve found from talking to actual young people is that they expect the visuals to look good, and they don’t want the film to tell them what to think.
How do you think the movie resonates with the audience considering the current political and social developments in USA?
Hoo boy, this really merits a much longer rant, but in the interest of space, I’ll say that 1968 was a node in history where we might have taken a better path. It can be dangerous to play with counterfactual what-ifs, but it’s hard not to entertain at least a thought of that road not taken. I don’t harbor a simple belief that Bobby would have taken us into a beautiful sunlight-bathed world of compassion and justice, but he was an extremely powerful voice – arguably the best voice – for growing in a more mature way as a country, in understanding what it means to be an American citizen.
But here we are, a half century later, with the path taken, a selfish decline to the end of empire. At the same time, there are also other forces at work, and it’s right to ask where in that Bobby’s spirit dwells. It can certainly be found in much of the political resistence, of course, and I think it can be found in our individual sense of decency – not only in committed activists or people who even identify as especially political, just regular people whose conscience says, No that’s not okay; I recognize a different responsibility, and I feel something kinder.
We were never able to fit it into the film, but we tried working with the Dion song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It’s a romantic piece that misconceives the killing of Lincoln, JFK, King, and RFK. The part that still gives me chills, though, is the bridge where he asks the simple questions, “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good in you and me?”