Jeffrey Roth spoke with Solzy at the Movies about President in Waiting, a new vice presidential documentary airing on CNN.
President in Waiting airs on CNN this Saturday night. When did you first come up with the idea to do this documentary?
Jeffrey Roth: Three years ago is when it really stuck in my head and then I decided to move forward at that point.
I’m assuming that the President George H.W. Bush probably wasn’t in the best of health at that time.
Jeffrey Roth: Correct. At that point—as he was going through end of life there, he couldn’t get out more then even a sentence. There was gonna be no way to do that.
This is the first time that all six living Vice Presidents are gathered together in one film—albeit not in the same room. Did you ever consider bringing everyone together for a roundtable conversation or was it just too hard to get everyone in the same place at the same time?
Jeffrey Roth: Yeah. I had considered the idea of getting them somehow together—not necessarily a roundtable but some way but just logistics, timing, and everything. It took me a year and a half just to get these guys and to then get two or three in a room, they wouldn’t do it—whether they wouldn’t travel or whether they didn’t want to be in the room with somebody else. It just became a logistical nightmare that we couldn’t deal with.
How long was the initial cut and how many hours are on the cutting room floor?
Jeffrey Roth: We had a working cut of probably about two hours before we started cutting it down. On the cutting room floor, maybe 10-12ish. It wasn’t really strung together—just their talking points as opposed to just airtime in between.
Did you ever consider making the film longer than 80 minutes or did you feel that enough ground was covered?
Jeffrey Roth: Well, I wouldn’t say that we went in with any sort of timing note in our head. It was just to make a film that we felt would however play itself out. Because of everybody talking independently and trying to make it say more stuff, it just—to do a longer piece would have probably been more difficult in terms of making it more entertaining.
In talking with the former Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the current Vice President, what did you find the most surprising?
Jeffrey Roth: Of the people I’ve spoken to—really how much of a partnership they tried to create the relationship between the President and the Vice President. I think I was even surprised more so talking to them rather than going in and understanding what I thought it what was. Also, just the shift of where the Carter-Mondale plan started to create this “modern day vice presidency” that has since allowed the effectiveness of the Vice President. For people that are saying that Dick Cheney is the most powerful Vice President, you could backtrack back that to Walter Mondale.
I was actually surprised that President Harry S. Truman had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project.
Jeffrey Roth: Yeah, that was a little surprising considering the fact that from the time he was Vice President to becoming President to dropping the bomb, I believe, was roughly nine months. He had to get up to speed real quick and to also understand really what he had.
You had previously done a documentary on President George H.W. Bush. Did you consider incorporating any of the previous interviews from that film?
Jeffrey Roth: We had considered it. I had gone back to look at the footage to see if there was anything of interest. This was more or less before we were figuring out the format of how this would look. Because the 41 film was more of his life, there really wasn’t much in depth about the vice presidency that was left there on the cutting room floor that would then incorporate into this.
We all know about the White House but I really didn’t know much about the Vice President’s residence.
Jeffrey Roth: The residence is definitely more of a private affair. Even if you drive by it, you don’t know it’s there because it’s just surrounded by the fence and these trees. It’s set back unlike the White House, which is just there for everybody to see. I think what surprised me learning about that was fact that there was no VP resident until really when Mondale moved in even though Rockefeller could have used it for the first time. They still lived at home. I mean, that was what blew me away in the sense that a vice president living at their own house and going to work every day.
I’m just trying to imagine the national security threat right there.
Jeffrey Roth: Yeah. Even the Vice President, I think, is a little more protected than the President. The White House is open and exposed versus this sort of large piece of property that is there at the Naval Observatory.
I’ll be interested in seeing what the Kamala Harris position role looks like under President-elect Biden.
Jeffrey Roth: It hasn’t happened too many times that the vice president becomes president, and being in that job for many years, he understands what the job is and what the details are. I think that will help him with his vice president to help get up and running and to create a relationship that he needs for himself being present.
When did you finish locking the film?
Jeffrey Roth: Two weeks ago.
That brings me another question. What are the challenges that come with doing post-production, editing, and all that fun stuff during a pandemic where everyone is working remotely?
Jeffrey Roth: Yeah, that changed everything. We were shut down for a while because at this point being in post-production, obviously, the most important person cutting the film is the editor. The editor really didn’t want to be in a post-production house. Then you think, Okay, well, we’ll bring a system into your house, and they’re like, wait a minute, we don’t want anybody in our house either. So what do you do? Everything has been remote except for the editor, the mixes, or the score. Everything I’m doing—normally, when you would go in to watch it, gear it, record it, whatever—has been off of the computer. Our music was recorded or my composer conducted the score via remote. Any mix, color, timing, all that stuff—all from home.
I’ll be interested in seeing which of these remote practices continue and which goes back to whatever the new normal will be.
Jeffrey Roth: It’ll be interesting to see. I think right now, it’s like the Office of the Vice President. Everything is evolving. Nobody knows where it’s gonna end up. That’s to be determined.
What do you want audiences to take away from watching President in Waiting?
Jeffrey Roth: The takeaway is just how inconsequential this office was treated. I don’t think it was necessarily set up that way at the birth of the country but yet it turned into this animosity between a president and vice president, even though the vice president is the one that in a heartbeat could take over. And yet, the vice president, there was this big shift, going back to the Carter-Mondale plan, which Carter allowed his vice president to create this, I believe, was a 12-page document, which he then approved to set up how the vice president is allowed to basically do their job because there is no really defined role of vice president.
Outside of the breaking the tie in the Senate.
Jeffrey Roth: Yeah. So really, as they say, in the film, the power on the Vice President is reflective from President—whatever the president decides to allow the vice president to do. They also brought, which I guess I never thought about, the Office of the Vice President into the West Wing. And now how vice president is considered to be the confidant and the last person in the room to discuss things whether it’s national security, policy, anything to where they want to make a decision, they became their closest and trusted advisor.