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How to Film Politicians: A Guide to Gaining Access from the Filmmakers of ‘Caucus’

How to Film Politicians: A Guide to Gaining Access from the Filmmakers of 'Caucus'

AJ Schnack and Nathan Truesdell are well known in the documentary community; they work with Esther Robinson and others to stage the Cinema Eye Honors every year. They’re also filmmakers in their own right. Both filmmakers had two films at this year’s Hot Docs. Schnack co-directed, with True/False co-director David Wilson, the Branson, Missouri doc “We Always Lie to Strangers.” Truesdell produced the short “Dear Valued Guests,” directed by Jarred Alterman and Paul Sturtz (the other co-director of True/False).  They both worked together on the Iowa Republican Caucus film “Caucus,” which had its world premiere at Hot Docs. Schnack is the film’s director; Truesdell produced the film.

The film takes us back to the winter of 2011/2012, when a hearty handful of Republican hopefuls were vying for the presidential nomination. These were the days when Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s popularity surged and then plummeted, pizzaman Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry both had a brief spike, and former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum eked out a win over Mitt Romney.

When one watches vérité films about electoral politics like Robert Drew’s “Primary” or D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedges’ “The War Room” (which screened as a 20th anniversary screening at the festival), one is astounded at how much access the filmmakers are given and at the vulnerable moments the filmmakers have captured. These moments surely couldn’t be captured today, with 24/7 handlers and carefully curated public appearances and statements…could they?

Schanck and Truesdell proved they could. Here’s how:

Start Making Connections Early

Schnack: When I first went to Iowa, I had some meetings with campaign managers who were starting to pair up with campaigns. With Bachmann, we went to her state chair before we ever showed up on her campaign. We wanted them to have a sense of who we were. They’re doing they’re job. They ask questions: “Who are these people with cameras? Where’s this footage gonna show up?” 

We needed access to those special moments. What I always loved about “Primary” was you’d have these rallies and these meet-and greet-moments. But that moment just before — like John and Jackie’s moment backstage. The goal was to always find the moment people knew — the public moment — and the private moment that was just before or just after. 

Know What You’re There For

Schnack: I had experience with the caucus from when I was at a student at Mizzou. I covered it for the newspaper then. People running for President were running were walking on the above-ground catwalks over the streets of Des Moines. And you’d run into everybody and they’d say “Do you want to talk to the candidate?” I’d always wanted to do something about the caucuses. 

The early caucus and primary states are a very specific thing. I follow politics pretty closely. There are a lot of things about the way things happen in Iowa that were surprising to see close up. Some of it makes it seem more circus-like. There’s this weirdly handcrafted part of this process that seems from afar to be one mess of a process that’s infiltrated with money, media, sometimes bad intentions. When you’re there happening in a small space with a lot of regular Iowans who have decided to take an hour out of their day to see a potential candidate it doesn’t feel slick it doesn’t feel perfect it feels like a hometown kind of thing.

It’s a very public thing that they’re doing, and it’s a little more loose than we’d imagine. They’re working their asses off and — when that happens — your real personality’s gonna come out. We had an ambitious agenda. I don’t think a film has been made like this – “Primary” is about two campaigns. We spent time with 8 and spent some really serious time with four. For a two man crew, we’re pretty excited of what we could find and that we could make a vérité film in 2012.

Follow The Politicians to Unexpected Places

Schnack: We went along with Michele Bachmann’s first day of campaigning in Iowa, she went to a fair. We were the only people around her with cameras. We followed her around with cameras for an hour. I remember saying to Nate “Oh, we could actually do this. Somehow these people are letting us be two feet away and not saying anything to us.”

Truesdell: I never knew politics worked like that. I never knew presidential candidates would be standing in a coffee shop just hanging out.

Be Prepared to Defend Your Intentions

Truesdell: We would tell them, “We’re liberal, but we’re not gonna attack you.”

Schnack: They’d be wondering, “Are you democratic trackers? Are you somebody who just wants to make fun or get that gotcha moment? We had a track record, we had some Republicans in Washington, DC who vouched for us. We were honest about what we wanted to do.

As Much as You Plan, It’s Really All Luck

Schnack: You don’t want to admit how much of it is luck. Had the story been all about Mitt Romney, he was already operating in general election mode. There was no way in with him. There were awkward interactions with him, but it wouldn’t have been more than that. We had the good fortune and luck that Bachmann won the straw poll. We had some time to spend a lot of time in a lot of situations with their campaigns, telling the story of those divergent campaigns. That’s never something we could’ve guessed when we went to Iowa. We worked really hard but there was good luck and good fortune.

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