Forget red wine on Olivia Pope’s white couch.
When Shonda Rhimes sat down with Hillary Clinton – for five hours – in the making of the biographical film “Hillary” that was shown Thursday at the climax of the Democratic National Convention, it was at Clinton’s kitchen table. Over coffee.
“I wanted everyone who sees it to feel like they were sitting with a friend, drinking coffee, so that had to be authentic,” Rhimes tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview with her producing partner, Betsy Beers.
“Hillary drank tea, actually. You can’t drink coffee for five hours and expect her not to bounce off the walls,” says Rhimes.
“It would have been a totally different, ugly film,” Beers says with a laugh. Adds Rhimes: “A dark film. For me, at least. I would have been laying on the floor!”
Rhimes, the creator/writer/producer of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and other hits, has worked on ads for Clinton’s presidential campaign before. But this project, capturing in 12 swift minutes Clinton’s life and career – from standout student to lawyer, children’s advocate and first lady of Arkansas; to first lady of the United States, senator from New York and Secretary of State – was different.
“It was invigorating,” says Rhimes. “The geeky student in me who loves doing homework and research, I got to immerse myself in photos and articles. I’ve spent more time on Hillary Clinton’s Flickr page than any other human being on the planet.”
She and Beers, with their lineup of TV hits on summer hiatus, were headed out on vacations (“I was going away for three weeks, the first time in 12 years,” says Rhimes) when the Clinton campaign called and asked the duo to put together the film traditionally shown on a national convention’s final night, before the presidential nominee makes his – or, in the case of this historic first, her – acceptance speech before millions of viewers.
“Shonda and I looked at each other and went, ‘There goes vacation,’ ” says Beers, laughing.
They agree that their toughest challenge was getting viewers to get an intimate feel for a public figure they’ve seen in the headlines since at least 1992. They interviewed former President Bill Clinton for three hours, President Obama for 40 minutes (“the man is running the country,” says Rhimes, calling his interview, “the best 30 to 40 minutes of my life”) and also sat down with Clinton’s best friend since age 11, Betsy Ebeling, along with a 9/11 survivor and first responder who recalled then-Senator Clinton’s response to the 2001 terror attacks.
“There were so many stories that one of the massive challenges for us initially was, honestly, sifting,” says Beers. “It was a mini-series when we first started. It could have been three hours,” says Rhimes.
The women put together a 30-minute film, but the campaign told them it had to be 12 minutes.
“We were sawing away,” says Beers.
As for what Clinton thought of the finished product, Rhimes is quiet for a long pause, as if savoring a very personal memory, before deciding: “No comment. I’m going to hold that one close.”
Even if Hillary didn’t, in the end, include all the producers had hoped to jam in, both described it as a refreshing change from the fraught lives of their creations in the Fitzgerald Grant administration and Seattle Grace Hospital.
“It was the best development project ever because it was such a different world,” says Beers.
“As a writer who builds characters for a living, it was exciting to take an actual human being and pieces of who she is and see how it builds a person and her character, why she is who she is,” adds Rhimes. “Given the Trumpiness of the world today, we felt like we were doing the work of angels.”
“And the best part? I didn’t have to add a plot twist!”