Director's Statement

By Charles Ferguson

Content and Goals

In deciding to make Watergate I wanted to do two things. The first was to tell an astounding story, whose plot and characters are more fascinating than any Hollywood thriller. As a teenager, I lived through Watergate, and I recalled how powerfully it gripped America, and the world, for nearly three years. And yet, despite many excellent books and films, the full story of Watergate cannot be found in any single place. In part, this was because some of the most important evidence, in the form of Nixon’s White House tapes, did not become available until twenty years later. Thus I felt that the story of Watergate and its lessons were in danger of being lost, forgotten, or never learned by people too young to have experienced it. And so I set out to tell this story in a comprehensive, but also compelling and entertaining, way.

My second goal, however, was to examine how America – Congress, law enforcement, the media, the Supreme Court, our political parties, the American people, and the Constitution itself – responded to our most profound systemic crisis since the Civil War. For what we now call “the Watergate scandal” was not just the bugging of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. It was a pervasive, and disturbingly successful, abuse of Presidential power and what we now call “dark money” to subvert American democracy, elections, and free speech. The failed burglary of June 17, 1972 was possibly its least important component – except for its role in triggering the investigations that uncovered everything else.

But, of course, during production a third reason for making Watergate became all too clear. Regardless of one’s views about Donald J. Trump, it is inescapable that the United States is now gripped by a crisis whose parallels with Watergate grow closer every day. A country divided by social and racial tension; a President at war with the media; illegal eavesdropping by Russian hackers of Democratic candidates and campaigns; attempted subversion of a Presidential election via fake news; investigations by special prosecutors; firings of those in charge of investigating the President; secret tapes of Presidential conversations; former advisors turning witness under pressure from prosecutors – the echoes of Watergate are undeniable.

I could not ignore these parallels, but I also felt strongly (and still feel) that I shouldn’t pander to them either. Watergate does not contain a single word about Donald Trump, Russian hacking, the Mueller investigation, Michael Cohen’s tapes, or any reference to current events. But what I did do was show how the American system worked and did not work, and why. How well did our Constitution serve us? The FBI, the Department of Justice, Congress, the Federal courts, the Supreme Court, the media? How important were the roles they played? How did the impeachment process work, and was it driven by partisan politics or sincere belief? How important was individual character, honesty, and courage? (Very important.). If forced from office, should the President be pardoned or prosecuted? Was justice done?

Those are the questions I have tried to answer. Having seen this film, I hope Americans will then ask themselves: Would the same issues be handled in the same way now? Should they be? Are our institutions, and the people in charge of them, better or worse equipped to deal with systemic crisis than before? Those are the kinds of questions I have tried to illuminate, and if I have succeeded, then I think that Watergate can make an important contribution to the debate about our current problems.

Production, Format, and Stylistic Decisions

Watergate is long – over four hours as a film, six hours as a commercial television miniseries – and I have worried about that. At the same time, it could easily have been twice as long without the slightest repetition or slowing of pace. I had to omit dozens of fascinating and important events and issues – from the kidnapping and drugging of the attorney general’s wife, to Donald Segretti’s and Herbert Kalmbach’s Senate testimony, to Henry Kissinger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spying on each other, to 18 large corporations pleading guilty to making illegal campaign contributions, to the debate over whether the falsification of Air Force records about the secret bombing of Cambodia was an impeachable offense. Maybe later…

I was able to interview many of the most important surviving participants. Interestingly, for the most part those who were on the good side have lived longer, healthier, and more successful lives than the perpetrators. Not everyone agreed to talk, and not everyone who talked always told the truth. But I have been very careful to include only truthful statements, except for cases in which I directly note something questionable.

Obviously Watergate required an enormous research effort, and the result is about half archival footage. I will say that I was sometimes disturbed to discover how poorly and casually this footage, so vital to our history, is cared for. We need to respect our past and preserve it.

Nixon’s White House tapes presented a huge challenge. Their audio quality is very poor; there is no video coverage of them; and they are often rambling, meandering, digressive, and borderline incoherent, particularly when people talk over each other, which was often. I decided to edit the transcripts for length and clarity, but without adding or changing a single word, and then create a script embodying the most important conversations. I then used re-enactments, with a script supervisor forcing the actors to be word-perfect (which requirement they found difficult, but which they honored scrupulously). October Studios constructed a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, with astonishing fidelity to detail, inside the former gymnasium of an abandoned RAF air base outside of Norwich, England. It was an extraordinary effort. But I very deliberately did not try to find perfect replicas of characters or voices; I wanted people to realize that the re-enactments are a way of delivering crucial, factual, accurate information, rather than normal entertainment or a “docudrama.” Everything you see actually happened, although it usually took far longer for them to say.

Finally, this was a Herculean effort involving hundreds of people, many of whom worked very hard indeed. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone involved – and happy that it’s now finished.