This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 SilverDocs Film Festival. “Convention” hits theaters this Friday.
Even for America’s largest city, a national convention by one of the nation’s two main political parties can cause massive upheavel at worst or simply an annoyance at the very least. When the Republicans came to town in New York City to re-nominate George W. Bush at Madison Square Garden, the city cracked down on protests near the main site leading to charges of false imprisonment and police harrassment. The city’s popular, and still current mayor, Michael Bloomberg was accused by many residents of the heavily Democratic city of purposely arresting activists and placing them in jail to keep dissent on the street to a minimum.
Never mind the political and historical ramifications of a political convention, the arrival of thousands of delegates, politicians, egos, media, protesters and massive security is inherently a huge logistic undertaking and one that is only repeated twice every four years. The impact of a national event of this size is the core of AJ Schnack’s latest, “Convention,” filmed primarily immediately before and during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado late last summer.
“Convention” is an ensemble collaboration orchestrated by documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack (“Kurt Cobain: About a Son”) with fellow veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (“A Lion in the House”), Laura Poitras (“My Country, My Country”), Paul Taylor (“We Are Together”), Daniel Junge (“They Killed Sister Dorothy”) as well as newcomers David Wilson and Nathan Truesdell. The drama on the convention floor in Denver’s Pepsi Center takes a sideline in the film, which explores the event’s impact on Colorado’s capital city, population 603,207.
Fans of classic docs such as “Primary” may see an homage to Drew Associates, the landmark doc collective that made the film about John F. Kennedy seeking the presidential nomination, among other collaborative projects at the dawn of Cinema Verite, working with future legends D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Ricky Leacock and others. It was something Schnack had in mind when conceiving the idea last year.
“I think what I liked about those films is that they have all these amazing and now legendary figures in documentary,” Schnack told indieWIRE by phone from the 2009 SilverDocs Film Festival. “In the case of ‘Primary’ between Kennedy and Humphrey – they’re like seamless films that capture the time, but needed all these [filmmakers] to pull off.”
In addition to the Cobain doc, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, Schnack directed “Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)” as a solo directorial effort. This is his first full scale multi-filmmaker project, though he did dabble in some collaborative efforts early on.
“I’ve been wanting to do an ensemble project for awhile. I had done some of this in college during the Caucuses in Des Moines, and I thought of doing something during the last Caucuses in Iowa, but it didn’t come together.”
Schnack then turned his attention to the Dems’ convention in the Mile High city where his friend Britta Erickson from the Denver Film Society and Festival, offered some good old fashioned connections with the local government and media. She is also a producer of the film.
After securing access, the next obstacle was funding. Originally, Schnack had approached ten fellow filmmakers about participating, but after obtaining the money only days before the convention began, it really came down to timing.
“Five days before the convention, I told them it was coming together, so it was really who was available to go,” said Schnack. “We did it with such a small amount of money and basically trying to find which cameras, and how many we could get at a cheap rate. If we hadn’t been able to get enough cameras, then it wouldn’t have mattered how many people were available to help shoot, but when we secured the equipment and found the money to pay for transportation, it really came down to who was able to jump on a plane.”
Prior to everyone’s arrival, Schnack and editor/producer Nate Truesdell spent some time filming in the city. In all, the 14 day shoot produced 90 hours of footage, which has been edited into a 95 minute feature. indieWIRE reported on the project while it was in production at the DNC last year.
“One of the things we wanted to do was focus on Denver. My charge to everyone was a rule – the characters we’re following must be from Denver. We didn’t want to place the focus on the campaign or the DNC. We wanted to find out what it takes for a city to pull off an historic event of this magnitude. Denver isn’t like New York or Los Angeles, it’s not used to an event of that size – it’s a real challenge.”
Along the way, the group found a diverse cadre of locals including people in city government, law enforcement and protesters that presents the local story behind the drama and glitz from the convention floor.
“I don’t think people in Denver like to be called ‘Midwestern,’ [but] there is a certain character about its people who have this ‘nice neighbor next door’ quality. The fact that they let us in during the biggest thing they’ll do – the hardest job they’ll have to tackle – says a lot about them. I’m happy finding the characters we did, and I’m proud of the editing Nathan and I did. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done two films about single-subject musicians, so having all these characters cutting back and forth was a challenge. It was exciting, and I’m glad how it all came together.”