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Martin Scorsese documentary on President Clinton stalled

The status of a Scorsese documentary on Bill Clinton is unclear after reports of a rift over control

A director likes to be in control -- it’s basically in the job description. The same could be said for a politician, particularly one who’s been leader of the free world. Put the two together on one project and, well, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to play nicely.

In late 2012, HBO announced with great fanfare that director Martin Scorsese was embarking on a documentary about President Clinton. Scorsese, who has previously made documentaries about such luminaries as Bob Dylan and George Harrison, called Clinton “a towering figure who remains a major voice in world issues,” while Clinton said he was pleased to have a “legendary director” like Scorsese chronicle his years as president and his work since leaving the White House.

More than two years later, that project, which has been partially shot, has now stalled, according to a report in the New York Times. The alleged issue? Control. Specifically, Clinton -- looking to protect both his own image and that of his wife, Hillary, who's poised for a likely presidential run in 2016 -- wanted to exert more influence over the content of the film than Scorsese was prepared to allow.

Representatives for Scorsese declined to comment, but Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna told the Los Angeles Times that reports of a rift over the project were “inaccurate.” A spokesman for HBO said simply, “It’s not happening soon, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

For now, the status of the documentary remains unclear. Sources close to the project tell the Los Angeles Times that, given the extremely busy schedules of both Scorsese and Clinton, the film was always expected to be a long time in the making. HBO had never officially slated it for a particular release date.

As for how the documentary would portray Clinton, discussions about that had, indeed, taken place at various levels all along the way. The reality is, though, that that kind of back-and-forth negotiation between subject and filmmaker is to be expected on any documentary, let alone one involving a public figure of Clinton’s stature.

Given Clinton’s complicated image and legacy, it wouldn't be surprising if there were internal disagreements over the direction that the documentary should take -- indeed, it would be more surprising if there weren’t. The heightened political sensitivity around an expected Hillary Clinton presidential bid was bound to only raise the stakes even further. 

Earlier projects centered on the Clintons had also run into snags. Though PBS mounted a four-hour "American Experience" documentary on the Clintons in 2012, a planned 2013 CNN documentary on Hillary Clinton was scrapped because its director, Charles Ferguson, felt he couldn’t get sufficient access or cooperation.

"When I approached people for interviews, I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film,” Ferguson later wrote. That same year, NBC dropped plans for a four-hour miniseries about Mrs. Clinton, with Diane Lane set to star.

Lionsgate is currently developing a script called “Rodham” -- which landed on the 2012 Black List -- that dramatizes the early years in the Clintons’ relationship. But at this time that project has no director or stars attached.

Meanwhile, Scorsese has several other irons in the fire. He is preparing to shoot the period film “Silence” in Taiwan with stars Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield; he recently shot the pilot for an HBO series set in the rock world of the 1970s, executive-produced by Mick Jagger; and he is set to direct the mob drama "The Irishman" with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro

As for Bill Clinton, it’s safe to say that he will have no problem keeping busy, HBO documentary or no HBO documentary.

Meredith Blake contributed to this story.

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