In his new documentary “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!,” director Nick Broomfield indulges in some of his characteristically bumbling, nice-guy provocation, learning more about Palin’s background and hometown while engaging in what seemingly becomes an increasingly futile attempt to secure an interview with her. Fortunately for ShockYa, the British-born filmmaker isn’t as difficult to pin down as his most recent subject. We had a chance to speak to Broomfield one-on-one recently, and although the conversation occurred just days before Palin officially announced that she is not seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the light that he sheds on her upbringing and early political career via the nearly three months he spent in Wasilla, Alaska, during his film’s production is still eye-opening and quite illuminating as to her mettle. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: What’s the crux of your tour take as a Brit, and a little bit of an outsider — are Sarah Palin’s story, character and persona uniquely American, or do they have a global dimension as well?
Nick Broomfield: Well I think anyone American is really a global figure, because America is the dominant power and there’s immediately a global influence. There are certain aspects of her story that are uniquely American — obviously the Evangelical background is pretty uniquely American.
ShockYa: When were you first intrigued by her as the potential subject of a film?
NB: It was really about this time last year that I thought of doing a film about her. I felt that she was a very iconic figure and very representative of the changes that had happened in the Republican party — the increased influence of the Evangelical right as well as the disillusionment with established political figures.
ShockYa: Do you see any parallels to the U.K., where there’s currently a divided government? Or any translation of her rhetoric?
NB: But they’re still very established political figures. You couldn’t have a much more establishment government than the one we have in Great Britain — almost ridiculously so. Most of them went to Eton and Oxford. It’s the same kind of government that we’ve had the last 200 years. Even Nick Clegg is Eton and Oxford too.
ShockYa: The film spawns all kinds of questions about access, and your self-reflexive style goes part and parcel with those questions. How long were you there in Wasilla, and the sort of outerwear Alaskan starter kit that you sport — did you purchase that on site?
NB: It was one main trip, for about 10 weeks. And then it was back again for about a week thereafter, to get the other stuff. And I got all that stuff when I was there. They obviously had very cheap thermal underwear, and that sort of lumberjack outfit is what people wear out there.
ShockYa: What was surprising about Wasilla to you, based on any expectations you had going in beforehand?
NB: You know, I’d never been to Alaska before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t really do any reading up about Wasilla. When you first get to it, you’re shocked to see what an ugly town it is in such a beautiful place geographically. It’s nestled in the middle of these beautiful mountain ranges, and it’s really just a sprawling mass of unregulated buildings, which is very disappointing. That’s your initial impression — you think, “My God, it’s hard to imagine how you could have made something more ugly if you’d tried.” And then you get on with trying to settle in, and it’s basically an enormous freeway going through this very unattractive group of buildings. And then you see some pictures of what it looked like in 1917 or whatever it was, when it was first built.
ShockYa: You said you were there for 10 weeks, and the manner in which the film is constructed dictates to a certain extent that its form is found in the editing room. But what was a typical day like? The film evinces a feeling of you out there searching, sometimes not necessarily knowing what you’re going to find. Is that accurate or true, or was there more rigidity than we see?
NB: I think that’s very much what making these films is like. I didn’t go in there with a lot of preconceptions, and I didn’t go in there to “do in” Sarah Palin. I wanted to get a sense of what this place was like, and to learn as I went. And I don’t think it’s very dissimilar to the approach I’ve used in my other (documentary) films — they’re all very much… well, in a sense the film is a research, so that’s what I did.
ShockYa: Her parents are super warm and welcoming to you the first time we see them — they invite you into their home, and we see their dog trained to snatch antlers from the floor and what not. Obviously at some point someone gets to them, and it seems there’s some sort of whisper campaign about this Nick Broomfield fellow.
NB: Well, I think what happens a lot is that it’s a very small community — everybody knows everybody else, and everybody knows what’s going on. And certain people don’t speak to each other. And specifically what happened was that we were living about two doors from Colleen Cottle, who was the deputy mayor when Sarah was mayor (of Wasilla). And for some reason the two of them had a falling out. I don’t know what the exact reasons were, all I know is that Sarah Palin’s family, and her parents, were no longer speaking to Colleen. And when Chuck Heath (Palin’s father) learned that we had talked to Colleen and knew her, almost that second his attitude changed. It was like we were cohabiting with the enemy. I think that is also interesting, in that it reflects what life in a small town like Wasilla is like. So I thought it was very relevant to a portrait of them, and the town, and the way they think, and also to the way in which Sarah Palin conducted her governorship. I think a lot of the problems that we’ve seen with Sarah Palin, and particularly the way she personalizes politics with someone like (shot Arizona) Congresswoman (Gabrielle) Giffords, is that you can take Sarah Palin out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of Sarah Palin. She remained incredibly petty and vindictive in that way, and that’s why I felt it was relevant. What happened to us was so reflective of that same [mindset].
ShockYa: The film rather brilliantly shows that there’s also this warm and personable side to Palin. Granted, [your meetings with her are] at a book signing, where there’s a transactional interaction, but was there ever an official “pass,” or thanks-but-no-thanks on the interview from her camp, or was it just endless, evasive bobbing and weaving?
NB: It was really just evasive bobbing and weaving. We tried through her lawyer, we tried through her parents, as you see in the movie. We tried through SarahPAC (her political action committee) several times. So there was no lack of trying on our part.
ShockYa: What about (ex-McCain campaign official) Steve Schmidt, who had some rather shocking things to say about Palin, and Levi Johnston’s agent, with whom you also speak on the phone — those people you got on the phone, would you have wanted to ever do separate in-person interviews with them, or would that be off-point, in your eyes?
NB: I was more interested in revealing the way in which individuals made a lot of money from the whole Sarah Palin story. I thought it was very relevant that Levi Johnston wanted $20,000 (to talk to us). That’s what I was interested in; that’s what I wanted to reveal (more than what he had to say).
ShockYa: There’s a quality to your voice which, to me, is so amusingly world-weary, especially here. So when do you write your movies’ narrations? Is that the last thing you do?
NB: It’s something you do a lot in the editing. You work at it a lot, and often you have to re-cut the film around the voiceover. You do lots of re-writes, and so the voiceover kind of ends up shaping the structure of the film.
ShockYa: What’s next for you?
NB: I’m actually doing a feature film next. It’s based on a novel by Ronan Bennett called “The Catastrophist,” and it stars Steve Coogan, an Italian actress called Valentina Lodovini, the rap star K’naan and Stephen Dorff. We’re starting in January, and shooting in Tanzania.
Written by: Brent Simon