When you consider how often you hear the words “Russia” and “collusion” in news media since the election of Donald Trump, it’s extraordinary how difficult it is to get a clear and comprehensive explanation of what they mean. But that’s exactly what filmmakers Marley Clements, Laura DuBois, and Jack Bryan provide in their urgent documentary, Active Measures. With their sleek presentation of dense research and marquee interviews (Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Asha Rangappa and more), they craft a compelling—and alarming—case for the role of Russian interference in the Trump election and administration, as well as other elections around the world. The film had a limited theatrical run beginning in August and is now available to stream on Hulu, and the filmmakers are also in the process of arranging screenings in swing districts in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections in November. Here, writer/producer Clements, a D.C.-based campaign and communications strategist who made her filmmaking debut with Active Measures, sheds light on the complex, exhilarating, and sometimes mind-boggling journey of making the film, and producer DuBois discusses her reflections in the wake of its release.
MARLEY CLEMENTS (Writer and producer)
Rachel Mosely: Can you tell me about your day-to-day role in the production of the film?
Marley Clements: When we started, it was research. Jack Bryan and I went into a friend’s house in Maryland and turned it into what we called a bunker. We spent two weeks researching for fifteen hours a day—really going all in on looking at the elections around the world that Putin was accused of interfering in, and looking through every single person we were able to find who worked on the Trump campaign—looking at their background, and seeing where we could find potential ties to Russia and how they might have been able to penetrate the Trump campaign. I also spent a lot of time looking at who was on the ground during: the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2016 election in the US—who was impacted by the cyberattacks and things like that. And finding those people. I spent just about a month writing long emails specific to the person and what we wanted to focus on. And for a lot of these people, I sat there and guessed email addresses.
Rachel Mosely: Really?
Marley Clements: Really! We were like, “It’s got to be some combination of the name.” Laura and Jack were in Washington this entire time with me. My background is in public policy and campaign strategy. and so we would go to different think tanks, both left and right, and hear from their scholars about what they thought, and incorporate that into our research. I was managing that whole process—the DC connection as well as research.
Rachel Mosely: Some of your interview subjects were risking a lot by making the statements they did in this film. Was it ever difficult to get people to speak and illuminate the subjects that you wanted them to?
Marley Clements: One of the things I've learned from my time in Washington is that you know, you look at John McCain and Hillary Clinton and people focus on [them]. But behind people like them, and behind all the great politicians, there are hundreds of men and women who are on the ground, or in the basement of a think tank crafting research, working very hard to build the public policy and the legislation that actually ends up getting voted on in the end. It’s this group effort. So in the early outreach phases, I focused on getting the academics and the diplomats and the wonks that I knew were trusted by higher-profile people. Once we had them, it became a little easier to reach out to the big names because it showed that we weren't going to be doing some sort of sensationalist hit piece. We worked really hard to convey that through the people that we chose. People would ask me, “How did you know how to produce a movie?” It turns out producing, in the way that I was doing it and the role I played, is not that much different than running a campaign or trying to get legislation passed, frankly.
Rachel Mosely: Is that because it's about synthesizing all these moving parts?
Marley Clements: That, and knowing who the people are to get to. Having a relationship with staffers. Knowing what you want the end goal to be and putting the puzzle pieces together in order to create that larger narrative.
Rachel Mosely: Was there any part of that process of securing interview subjects that shocked you? That made you go, I can’t believe we were able to pull this off.
Marley Clements: Oh yes. So many! The way we got President Saakashvili [the former president of Georgia] was crazy. I was given the email addresses of a bunch of people who had worked for him at one point. It’s kind of weird thing to do. “Hey, you used to work with somebody. Would you mind passing this message along?” I didn't know these people at all, and finally I get through to the person that said, “Yes, I can actually pass this along. I will talk to the President about it and get back to you.” And then he called me a couple hours later and he said yes. I was so excited. But what was really crazy was when he came to New York to do the interview—he was living in Ukraine at the time. Upon landing in New York, he realized that he had a political turf war going on with the president of Ukraine at the time. That president had taken [Saakashvili’s] citizenship the second he'd left the country, so he was a man without a country. Floating around these different NATO countries. I saw that news the day it happened, and we were supposed to do this interview the next day. I was like, “So…this just got a lot more complicated.” His people said, “Yeah, we're definitely not doing this interview anymore.” So I just kept following up with the person who had connected me for the next several months. We’d finished all our interviews, and it was actually, I think it would have been today last year. I was in Los Angeles, going for a walk. And I got a call from my contact, who said, “Misha is in Poland. He's going to basically walk into Ukraine next week, and tell [Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko that he's a legal citizen. Would you like to come and be a part of this, and you can do the interview?” So I called my partners immediately, and we got on a plane to Warsaw. We spent a very wild few days in Warsaw leading up to this incredible, weird geopolitical battle between these different forces in Eastern Europe. Eventually we did cross into Ukraine with [Saakashvili], and Jack and I were detained. It was a lot, but I think that was actually one of the coolest moments. Thousands of people in the streets, and Jack and I were far enough away from each other that we couldn't hear each other, but we sort of made eye contact. We're like, we're actually in our movie right now. We had spent so many hours watching footage of Ukrainian riots, and we were like, “Oh my god—we're here.”
Rachel Mosely: That’s incredible. Were you ever concerned about the “preaching to the choir effect,” so to speak—the ideas that the film is not going to convert anyone who wasn’t already convinced of its thesis?
Marley Clements: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Rachel Mosely: How did you deal with that, especially in the production of the film?
Marley Clements: One of the things we did was we worked very hard to get an almost 50/50 split of Republicans and Democrats in the film. Senator McCain is obviously sort of “the” Republican because there’s the R in his title, but a lot of the diplomats, and academics, they are conservative voices in Washington. We worked really hard to do that because there's of course going to be the Trump base that maybe we're not able to reach. But I think that there are still people who believe in fact and objectivity in both parties. We are really trying to reach that middle group, sort of center left and right. That's really who our target audience was.
Rachel Mosely: Was there anything that you wanted or intended to cover, and it just didn't end up being feasible once the film was coming together?
Marley Clements: Definitely—a lot of things. We cut so much from this. We had to get it manageable, but there were a lot of little pet projects of both mine and Jack's that didn't make the final cut. I would say for me, really, my biggest ones were, I really would have liked to do more about Brexit. At the time that wasn't really being covered, and it felt really important to me. I would have really liked to go in on Brexit, as well as the French elections. That was happening while we were in pre-production, and that was a huge active measures campaign against Macron. I love the global stuff. All of that is really interesting to me, and it felt really important because while it’s incredibly important that this has happened to our nation, it's also happening around the globe, and I think that's sort of lost in the idea of “Collusion!” and Trump. This is a global campaign to undermine liberal democracies. Democracy is very much at stake right now—it's in a fragile state. And it's not just here, and it's not just Brexit, it's all over. Italy, France, Austria, so many. For me, the gravity of that situation was a hard thing for me to part with in the film.
Marley Clements: You know, I don't know yet. I'm trying to decide, but this was the best thing I've ever done. I couldn't be happier, I love it. I like films—I'm not ruling them out yet for sure. But right now my main focus is just securing our country, and bringing it back to the ideals we were founded upon. I'm not sure what path I will take to do that. It could be a campaign, or it could be continuing to do films. Washington is so wonky—it's so difficult. In order to protect our country from attacks like this, ongoing in the future, we've got to not write more white papers that are really complex and nobody is going to be reading. When they have two jobs and they get home at night, they don't want to read a long paper. But doing a better job as a country of telling stories around what is happening, and being able to make complex issues digestible for middle America is really important. And so, I'm not sure which path I’ll take, but I imagine in my future there will be more of that.
LAURA DUBOIS (Producer)
Rachel Mosely: What’s the origin story of this film? How did you and the other filmmakers find each other?
Laura DuBois: I first started working with Jack in 2010. I was the head of development and production at an independent production company in Tribeca, and Jack was the head writer/director. And then about six months into being there we decided that we could make our own production company, and we called it Shooting Films. Since then, we've been making independent films together. We were actually going to make a narrative film—we’d been working on developing this film for years. We’d just finished casting the lead for it and we’d just put financing together. And then Jack called me one day—it was April 1st, 2017—and said, "You have to drop everything and make this documentary." Jack and Marley have known each other for a while, and so I’ve known Marley for quite some time too. I wasn’t even sure what the story was yet, but I trusted them. I said, “OK!”
Rachel Mosely: Did you have any hesitations about taking on this kind of subject? Was there any fear going into it, especially since you had mainly done narrative film?
Laura DuBois: Absolutely. I was expecting by now there would be more films out there that cover this topic. And I think we're going to see those films coming out in the next year or two. But I think the difference with Jack and Marley is that they were so ahead of the curve on the story. Being ahead of the story was scary in a sense because when we first started making the film, we were talking to people and we had this story that no one else was doing yet. For me, when Jack and Marley were first talking about the story I was thinking to myself, this sounds like this is really hard to believe. I know you guys are brilliant but I'm not totally on board with this yet. But let's just hit the ground running. So the first thing that we did is go and meet with a think tank in Washington and it was in that meeting when they were comparing notes that I was really blown away. I was realizing how big this story was and how many facets there were—each one of these different legs in the story could be its own movie. Another part of it was that creating credibility was one of bigger challenges in the film, because I knew people were going to be out to debunk us in every single way. So for me, having every frame of this movie be something that we can back up and stand behind a hundred percent, was the absolute key. For everyone that we interviewed, for every comment we made and to also have it come from their voices, and even down to the way that we shot them. We were thinking creatively that it needed to be very clean, clear cut, professional and just on point with every element to help create that credibility.
Rachel Mosely: What did that actually mean in terms of the production of the film? Does that mean that you ask more questions during the interviews, or that you had to do more research before you even got to the interview phase?
Laura DuBois: Creatively, for me, it was about having all the interviews feel very consistent and really professional and polished as if you were watching, for example, a news channel. People were a little hesitant about us. We would sit down for an interview, and [they’d say] I'll give you five minutes. And then with the questions that Jack and Marley would ask, something would turn in the interviewees. The first five to ten minutes of the interview, they would be a little bit standoffish. But after they would realize where we were going with this line of questioning, they would start opening up more. They usually wouldn't get those kinds of questions. Especially at that time—this was last summer when we shot this. Now we hear it on the news all the time. I think that helped them to be candid onscreen. Also, with the credibility—that also happened a lot in the edits. We approached it like a narrative film toward the end, because we wanted it also to be entertaining and for people to absorb what we were saying instead of being jam-packed full of information. So we would take out anything that was a little bit salacious or anything that was, you know, ‘maybe true, maybe not.’ And just do the facts. We didn't want to leave the door open at all for someone to come in and say, “That line hasn’t been proven true.” We didn't want to allow that to happen.
Rachel Mosely: I'm sure the cut footage is fascinating.
Laura DuBois: Oh yeah, it's great! We could easily make a miniseries out of it.
Rachel Mosely: I'm curious if the mission of the film, your drive for doing it, has changed at all? You started working on it last year. A lot has happened since then—we hear about more that’s happening on this subject and in politics every day. Has anything about who you would like the film to reach, or what you want them to take away once they've seen it changed from the time you started working on it to now?
Laura DuBois: Actually, I would say no. I mean our extreme deep passion for democracy and sense of duty with this film that we had when we first started making it, has not changed. I feel as passionate in the beginning as I do now. But every American needs to see this movie and I really hope that they respond to it well. I think Jack and Marley would probably say the same thing. I think that goal to protect democracy here and abroad, is the thing that has carried us through all of the difficult times and all of the challenges that we've had doing this. So we have to have that.
Rachel Mosely: What would you say to somebody who goes to see the film and leaves feeling overwhelmed, or frustrated, or helpless? If they were to say, “I feel all this urgency, what should I do with it?”
Laura DuBois: I’d say focus on the fundamentals of democracy. Focus on talking to your friends and pulling together a community. Put your party affiliations aside and focus on protecting democracy here and now. Go out there and vote—that's the most important thing. I think that Americans now take a lot for granted. I think we are really focusing on ourselves more than our communities and we need to have democracy here at home.
Rachel Mosely: Has what you see for yourself in the future changed as a result of working on this film? Do you see yourself doing more documentaries? Do you see yourself doing a follow-up or continuing to cover politics as a filmmaker?
Laura DuBois: That's a great question. I have to say that whenever I think about doing a narrative film, it doesn't feel as important as this. I don't know what in my life feels more important than this right now, but I hope I’ll find more great stories to tell. I'm not sure if that's a narrative or documentary but after making this movie I know whatever I make needs to really matter in the heart of the audience who watch it.
© Rachel Mosely (9/17) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Super LTD.
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Read FF2 Media's review of Active Measures by Hannah Mayo.