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updated 10/21/2008 8:16:50 AM ET 2008-10-21T12:16:50

When D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus set out to make a documentary about the 1992 presidential election, they struggled to gain much traction.

The two major presidential candidates — George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — turned down their requests for access. The third — Ross Perot — denied he was running.

The only opening they got was with two Clinton campaign staffers — James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, both largely unknown at the time — who didn't seem to mind having the husband-and-wife filmmaking team around.

"So we said, 'Maybe we can make a film with you guys?'" Pennebaker told msnbc.com.

Stephanopoulos was unsure. But after some back and forth with Carville, Clinton's senior strategist, Pennebaker and Hegedus were allowed to record the campaign, with a big caveat — they could only shoot what went on in a central area of the Little Rock, Ark., campaign operation dubbed "The War Room."

"It was the booby prize, frankly," Hegedus said of getting partial access to the desk-filled, noisy nerve-center of the campaign. "But once we stepped in there, everyone was so interesting and so passionate. It was just mesmerizing."

Slideshow: Clinton's legacy The resulting film, "The War Room," was released in November 1993, ten months after Clinton's inauguration. The documentary helped make stars of the two main characters, Stephanopoulos and Carville, as it brought the public a rare look behind the scenes of a national campaign.

The filmmakers, who have been directing documentaries for decades, recently re-interviewed "The War Room's" original characters, many of whom have become well-known political analysts, consultants and journalists. Those interviews were woven together in a new movie, "Return of the War Room," now showing on the Sundance channel.

"One of the questions that's been rolling around my mind is, is the era of the war room dead?" Stephanopoulos asks in the new film.

"The war room was very, very intense, but it was kind of like a butterfly, because it had a short but glorious life," says Carville.

'The economy, stupid'
The filmmakers said the first time they met Carville, back in 1992, they thought somebody had let their "crazy uncle" into a campaign meeting.

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"When we stumbled across James Carville and he was the so-called head of strategy, or whatever his title was at the time, we were like, 'You have got to be kidding,"' Hegedus said. "Of course, you spend a little time with James and you get the character out of the way and he is brilliant."

Perhaps most memorably, Carville distilled Clinton's strategy into three short phrases, which were written on a wall: "Change vs. more of the same"; "the economy, stupid"; and "don't forget health care".

"It's kind of obvious, but there are really only two messages in presidential politics — it's time for a change and stay the course," Paul Begala, a senior adviser on the 1992 Clinton campaign, says in "Return of the War Room." "But sometimes the obvious escapes smart people. So James, because that war room was full of Rhodes Scholars, wanted to put something up there to keep them on task, keep them on track."

To the filmmakers' advantage, the 1992 campaign was an interesting one. Bush, an incumbent president, was trying to extend 12 years of Republican rule, while Perot, the third-party candidate, was on a quest to raise the profile of the federal deficit.

"Perot was such a primal scream for change. And he was so flawed and yet he got 19 million votes," Begala says.

And then there was Clinton, whose ups-and-downs during the campaign foreshadowed the turbulence of his presidency — Jennifer Flowers claimed a long-running affair with the candidate and Republicans charged him with draft-dodging, pot smoking and lying about all of the above.

"Most of the bimbo eruptions took place pretty much before the convention. That campaign was a disaster before the convention. It was completely disorganized," Pennebaker, the filmmaker, told msnbc.com. "After the convention, when they all moved out to Little Rock, they really got themselves together."

Much of the action in the "War Room" revolves around the daily activities of campaign staffers as they tweak the wording of ads, try to get a news network to run a negative story against Bush, and encourage the campaign's foot soldiers. The public face of the campaign — the rallies, the TV appearances — serves as mere backdrop.

"What you see in the 'War Room' is a guy who has persuaded a whole group of people who are really talented and important that he knows what to do," Pennebaker said. "And they'll go to the wall to make sure he gets to do it. That is sort of the characteristic of the campaign."

"The only other real kind of similar thing I've ever seen was the Kennedy campaign, where there were about eight people involved and they all sat in a hotel room together and they'd all known each other for years," Pennebaker said.

'Incredibly painful'
When looking back over the interviews they did for "Return of the War Room," Hegedus said she was especially struck by the comments of Begala, one of the few staffers from the 1992 campaign who was still with Clinton during the impeachment proceedings in 1998-99.

Begala told them a story about Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti, who worked for Lyndon Johnson, urged Begala to stick with Clinton. So Begala did. But the day after Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, Begala gave his two-week notice.

"You could see it was incredibly painful for him," Hegedus said. "It is interesting to me to watch people like Paul and others who worked for the campaign and were really idealistic then go into the presidency and have to deal in that situation."

The filmmakers were surprised to learn how close some of the people from the campaign remain.

"There is a whole group of them who talk to each other every single day," Hegedus said.

In the movie, Stephanopoulos describes it this way: "It's sort of a conversation that never stopped."

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