Film

Interview: Mayor Pete Filmmaker Jesse Moss on Following Buttigieg’s Campaign, the Importance of Transparency, and Where the Candidate Goes Next

Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Mayor Pete is director Jesse Moss’s follow-up to his exceptional, award-winning documentary Boys State. In the tradition of campaign trail films like The War Room and Knock Down the House, Mayor Pete takes audiences inside the brief but trailblazing presidential campaign of South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, if elected, would have been the youngest and first openly LGBTQ U.S. president. From the earliest days on the campaign trail to his unlikely, triumphant victory in Iowa and beyond, the film reveals the strategizing and suspense of pursuing the highest office in the land—and the myriad ways that pursuit changes the lives of those at its center, including Buttigieg’s husband Chasten and his diverse campaign team. Buttigieg’s obstacles were many (including an officer-involved shooting back in South Bend, which turned into a public relations crisis in the midst of the campaign).

Mayor Pete

Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

I had a chance recently to sit down with director Moss to discuss how he was connected with the Buttigieg campaign early on and the steps he took to get beyond the man in the campaign image. I’d expected the film to be a fairly lightweight behind-the-scenes look at the relatively short-lived presidential campaign, but Mayor Pete turned out to be something far more substantial than Buttigieg’s mild-mannered, even-tempered persona might have you believe. Check out the engaging film, and please enjoy this conversation with Jesse Moss.

It seems like you got in pretty early on in the Buttigieg campaign, and there were quite a few candidates to choose from at the time. How did you land on him and begin those discussions with his team?

Yeah, it would have been hard to get in earlier. At the point that we started, he had a campaign staff of about five, if that. His office was like a private detective’s office. The field was taking shape, and he had not yet announced his candidacy, but he had formed an exploratory committee, so there was a little bit of conversation. He had done one CNN town hall, so what happened was, the producers, who are old friends, reached out and said “You might be interested in Pete.”

I used to be in Democratic politics way back in my early 20s but left that behind. Until Boys State, I didn’t even make political documentaries. But like most people, I was paying attention to the 2020 field, which seemed pretty unpredictable. And Pete, I was aware of because his wedding had been written up in The New York Times—he was clearly an ascending star in the party, but I wasn’t fully checked in on him as a candidate until one of my producers called and said they had reach out to Pete through a mutual friend and asked if he’d be interested in a documentary about his candidacy, which I’m not even sure Pete was taking seriously at that point. To their surprise, Pete was open to the idea. I think the stakes were low enough at that point that he could really contemplate it. So when they called me, I said “No, I’m busy with Boys State. I’m editing this other movie and I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. I’m full up to my ears in politics.” But they told me to check out Pete’s town hall on CNN, and I watched and said, “Okay, he’s got something going on. He’s pretty interesting,” and I said to the producers, “If the access is real, let’s kick the tires and consider a development shoot.”

So I went out to New York where he was doing something with Al Sharpton, and then I traveled down to D.C. with him, and it was kind of a proof-of-access trip. I met Chasten, who was really great. It was hard to get to know Pete because he was already moving pretty quickly and clearly had a lot on his mind, running for president, even as an outsider candidate, which he was. I went to introduce myself on an Amtrak train to D.C. from New York after just having filmed him in Harlem, and he was like “Hi” [he mimics turning immediately away]. I was like “Wow, this is going to go nowhere.” And he wasn’t rude, just not ready for smalltalk. It was hard, but I knew that part of what this was going to be about was recognizing that he’s got a job to do, and I’m going to have to pick my moments, and it may be a matter of patience and persistence.

You know my film The Overnighters, that’s vérité filmmaking. Boys State might be the exception, but it’s really a longitudinal journey, so I took a breath, and then I met Chasten, who is way different than Pete, which is great. Chasten is like “Who are you? What are you doing?” It was just me, no crew—I love to work that way. This was a film I knew needed to be made more intimately. I don’t think the campaign staff wanted a big crew, and I don’t like to work that way. But in that first shoot, he was speaking where he talks about coming out, and there’s that quiet moment between him and Chasten afterwards, and they let me be there for that moment, which was really personal. It was a genuine moment, and maybe they were willing to let me in. We still didn’t have all the financing for the film and a whole year ahead of us or more.

Were there any discussions about access limitations?

We made it very clear that it needed to stand on its own as a work of editorial integrity. I wasn’t coming in as a supporter of Pete and I wasn’t going to make a promotional film for him, and he respected that. So we had some ground rules defining our independence, and it’s always a bit of a leap of faith. Plus, you can have a contract that says you’re going to get access, and then no one gives it to you. We said, “These are the kind of things we need and want to be able to do,” and frankly we weren’t sure we’d be able to get them. We wanted to be behind closed doors with the strategists, really go home with them, and what presidential candidates are going to let you do that? And Pete really lived up to his commitment, and part of that was patience and being committed to transparency. What you see is what you get, and you might think that’s a line, but it really is true. But even with a commitment to transparency, you have to draw boundaries around your private life, and I think their openness to let me into their relationship, I found as compelling as the political narrative. I mean, they’re related.

There comes a point in the film where it goes from being a document of events to a character study of this relationship and this profoundly decent human being.

It’s two young people holding on tight to each other in a relatively new relationship, going though a transformative experience for the both of them. It’s going to test them and challenge their relationship and force them to change. And I love that Chasten, at the top of the film, sets out that central question, which is, “Can Pete be his authentic self and still run for president?” That’s something we always ask of our elected officials or candidates: “Are they who they present themselves as? Who are they in private? Who are they in public?” A lot of my work measures the private self and the public self, and what more interesting a stage to explore this question than a presidential campaign? What I love about their relationship is that it’s so old-fashioned. They go to the Dairy Queen on a date, but it’s still novel to have a gay couple on a public stage and Pete trying to figure out how much of his personal life and identity to they put forward, and how do they not let it swallow everything else they’re about.

In addition to the groundbreaking elements of this campaign, what I remember about Pete almost as much is what he did in the immediate aftermath of dropping out. He became a very vocal Biden supporter who went on Fox News a lot—talk about walking into the lion’s den. Did you consider following him after he dropped out? When did you know when it was time to stop filming and start working on this film?

That’s always the question of vérité films. For Pete to have ascended to the cabinet, to this historic role and this tremendous amount of responsibility, we did have conversations about whether to continue filming, whether this should be a 10-year project, a political 7 Up, if you will. I think because the campaign has such a trajectory, we felt that the appointment to the cabinet was the appropriate place to end this chapter of Pete’s story. I love that conversation with him at the end of the film about his future. He says “Time is on my side.” That was the question going into the film, will we have enough story? Will he flame out?

It becomes clear as the film goes on that he and his team made the decision not to attack his opponents, especially the ones in his party. To your knowledge, was there a conversation about that that we don’t necessarily see?

I don’t remember an explicit conversation about that, as a matter of tactics or strategy. It was interesting to see those moments in the debates to see Pete push back. He’s a nice guy but he’s also capable of defending himself.

Defending himself without getting defensive necessarily.

That’s right. He does do that high-wire walk in so many ways, so well. Also, his ability to radiate intelligence without sounding too highfalutin, which allows him to talk about complex ideas but still be accessible. It was also interesting to see the things he struggled to do. For example, in debate prep, he is challenged to be more emotional.

Let me just say, you linger so long in those debate-prep sessions. Those are my favorite scenes, partly because we see him go from wishy-washy and get called out by his team for being “like the Tin Man,” and he listens and adjusts, and by the time we get to the debate, he’s a different person. It’s a credit to his team and him not thinking he knows everything and acknowledging his shortcomings. It’s a remarkable transformation.

Yes. It’s not what you would have expected him to say, it’s not pre-planned or scripted; it was much more therapeutic. They challenge him to tap into that part of himself that he would need to in order to connect with people on that stage. And that was alien to how he’d defined himself and built himself up. That exquisite tension goes back to that question that Chasten raises about “Are you sure you want the campaign to be about this? Are you sure in your quest to be authentic, you want to reveal so much?” He doesn’t want to do that in a way that is false to him; that would be a betrayal of who he is. We shot a tremendous amount of debate prep footage, and we were drawn back to these moments about his core identity and letting people in on that. Those moments on stage were not things that he’d worked out, but they came from feelings in him that were unlocked through that process.

The officer-involved shooting in South Bend that he goes back home to deal with, that is something I did not remember. It’s treated here like a defining moment in his term as mayor and it does come back to haunt him during the debates, but the way he handles it is impressive. Do you think it ultimately was something that impacted his campaign, or do you think it was more of an internal disruption?

From the vantage point of the campaign where I was, it was seen as an existential crisis that would likely end his campaign; it was a nightmare scenario, because Pete did a lot of great work in South Bend, but there were real problems with policing, and you see them surface during the debate, and you see how Pete tensely navigates it, not out of the political playbook. It foreshadows what was to come later with the George Floyd protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t threaten to entirely swallow the campaign, and Pete was shellshocked by it, and it foreshadows the reckoning that comes in South Carolina, where he had trouble earning the votes of African-Americans. There are a lot of other candidates who struggled there too, and we could have a whole other conversation about that, but I think it was a threat that coursed through the film as it coursed through the country. It surfaced earlier than some of us realized it would.

It was nice to have the benefit of hindsight—after Black Lives Matter rose up, after Trump’s defeat—and it was very clear that Pete was learning to talk about structural racism and the racial reckoning that we are engaged in as a country. So watching him struggle sometimes and trying to connect around his own identity as a gay man who felt like he didn’t have a place in his community at times, you see some sort of pushback around that way of expressing himself. So part of what you see is him learning as the country is learning, as white people are learning to talk about and think about and own their responsibilities. I think the film also provokes a larger conversation about the Democratic party and its duty to its constituents. Who are the candidates in the party that, when Biden isn’t president, who are going to do that? That’s a very real and important question.

Do you think he’ll run again?

I love putting that question to him at the end of the film, when he says “Time is on my side.” I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure he’d say now that he’s very focused on the big job he has to do. I think he genuinely loves to serve and has a gift for politics, and I mean that in the best sense of bringing people together and finding common ground. I think voters will decide if Pete is that person or can be part of that solution. He is already—Biden selected him for those reasons.

How important is the documentary The War Room to you, and have you also hoped you’d get to make your version of it at some point?

I should tell you, I worked on the Clinton campaign in 1992, so when that movie came out, I was still working in Democratic politics in Washington, D.C. I never worked in Little Rock, so I wasn’t aware of the film being shot, but I went to see it at the Key Theater in Georgetown.

I grew up in D.C., so I know that theater well.

It was a thunderclap to see that movie on a big screen. It was a remarkable political document, it showed the power of nonfiction cinema, the access they had to George Stephanopoulos and James Carville was extraordinary, the narrative of the campaign defined what documentary and political documentary could be. The other film I saw in 1994 was Hoop Dreams, also in a D.C. theater, and I left politics shortly after that and went into documentary film. Those two movies propelled me, and I don’t think I’d ever make movies like that. I loved Boys State because it was an inversion of the conventional campaign film, and I don’t think I’d ever make a conventional campaign film because they’re kind of awful to make and hard. Candidates don’t want to show you who they really are, and they’re all designed to present a façade and one dimension. So that’s part of the reason I jumped at this. I didn’t want to measure what I’m doing against [The War Room], because that would cripple you, but that film is incredible and the filmmakers are amazing, so I consider myself a disciple. I mean, I’m a child of Barbara Kopple, the Maysles and Pennebaker.

What do you want people to be thinking about after they see this film, not just about Pete but about politics?

One important thing is the hard work of bringing people together and finding common ground in American life, which is precious but necessary. We’re all asking these question about democracy and the existential threats against democracy and the quality of our political leadership, and who we choose and why. We should know who they are as political leaders and who they are as people. Not that we should get too wrapped up in questions of political character, but I think they are pretty important. To have a vantage point on a presidential aspirant with this level of intimacy and to understand the human narrative of running for president, it’s an opportunity for reflection on a lot of our politics. The evergreen aspect of the film is the relationship and the love story at the center of it—two people holding onto each other tight in this stormy sea. That’s beautiful and honest and sometimes hard; I work with my creative partner, Amanda, we’ve been together for 20 years, and I think that’s the beauty of the emotional story that I found that I didn’t expect to find. I love that it’s there, and for people who maybe didn’t pay attention to Pete or people who want to think about 2024, there’s a lot here. It’s a rich text that I haven’t fully unpacked myself; I haven’t really talked about this film outside of my collaborators. I’m eager to hear from audiences—both Pete fans and hopefully others who don’t know his story.

I don’t think the Transportation Department has ever been more in the spotlight. When does the Secretary of Transportation ever go on Colbert’s show?

I think you’re right. The film isn’t a downpayment on Pete’s political future; history will take its own course, but I feel lucky to have been so close to them on this journey, and I hope that audiences connect with it.

Mayor Pete is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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