'Between Two Ferns' director reveals 'high pressure situation' of filming Obama episode

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

How do you direct the president of the United States? Well, if his people have any say in the matter, you don’t. During a chat with BUILD Studios yesterday, Between Two Ferns mastermind, Scott Aukerman, shared the story behind former POTUS Barack Obama’s memorable 2014 appearance on Zach Galifianakis’s hilarious web series. Aukerman directed that episode as well as the new feature film version of Between Two Ferns, which is currently streaming on Netflix. Based on his own account, making a major motion picture sounds like a cakewalk compared to helming a 7-minute short filmed on location in the White House. (Watch the video above.)

As Aukerman remembers, his nerves started acting up the moment he, Galifianakis and the crew entered the president’s official residence. “It was such a high pressure situation where if I had messed it up, not only is the opportunity lost, but the money spent getting everyone out there would be gone.” Adding to the tension was the fact that he’d been given several difficult restrictions by President Obama’s handlers before filming began. “I was told that the president is a one-and-done guy; he would do one take, and that would be it. I noticed that they were used to dealing with news organizations... [where] he says what he’s going to say, you put it out and that’s it.” The staff also instructed him in no uncertain terms that he would not be permitted to speak directly to his leading man. “They said if you really need another take... give me a nod and I’ll nod to the president.”

Once the cameras started rolling, Aukerman knew early on that a second take would be required. “[It] was not actually going all that well, so while it was happening I was in my head going into damage control and editing [mentally],” he remembers. “We shot for seven minutes, and half of it maybe didn’t work.” With no way of communicating that to Obama, Aukerman resigned himself to cutting a truncated version of the video. But then the president saved the day by speaking directly to his director. “He turned right to me and said, ‘Well, how’d I do?’” And Aukerman gave him the unvarnished truth: “I said, ‘To be honest, Mr. President, I thought that midway through it got so good, and you guys were really on fire. I would love to retake the first half again with the same energy.’”

Far from getting offended — or calling the Secret Service — Obama took the criticism totally in stride. “He kind of pauses and goes, ‘Let’s go again!’ And then that take was amazing, and that’s the one that’s the one we basically used in the thing.” That just goes to show you that it’s always a good thing to speak truth to power.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

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