The day after Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Rachel Lears set out to make her next film, “Knock Down The House.” Linking forces with Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, two organizations that recruit ordinary working Americans to run for office, Lears found four female candidates with personal narratives of battling injustice who could represent a movement of women finding their political voices to fight Trump.
One of Lears’ subjects was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary upset of Representative Joe Crowley sent shockwaves through the political establishment and skyrocketed the 28-year old Bronx native to the national stage.
“People are connecting Alexandria’s personal story and saw the person I did when I was first filming her a year ago working in a bar,” said Lears, who started filming Ocasio-Cortez in March 2017 when she was still working double shifts to stave off foreclosure on her family’s home. “Across the country this year, there’s dozens of candidates you’d never expect to run for Congress — just ordinary working Americans with great stories.”
According to democratic political consultant Cayce McCabe, these unexpected candidates are vital to countering the narrative that led Trump to victory.
“You have to remember Trump won connecting with voters about a system that doesn’t listen to them,” said McCabe. “We can wring our hands about the irony of some billionaire in a gold tower with his policies being their champion, but the only way we’ll take it back is helping tell the story of authentic candidates who the voters believe will actually fight to change the system.”
McCabe is the writer and director of “Doors,” the Martin Scorsese-esque three-minute campaign video for Texas congressional candidate M.J. Hegar that went viral with close to 4.5 million views on Facebook and YouTube in one week. He works for Putnam Partners, a political consultancy that has been at the forefront of helping candidates effectively turn their narratives into visual stories.
While the concept of politicians honing their narratives is as old as elections, political ad makers tell IndieWire the circumstances are different in 2018. People are watching less live TV, and hence TV ads, so the emphasis has shifted toward content people want to watch, and more importantly share, online. This is especially true for reaching millennial voters on whom the party depends for 2018 to be a “wave” election.
“If the content is fun to watch and pulls you through, where it’s all connected with a beginning, middle and end, people will watch it,” said McCabe. “Conventional wisdom was voters’ attention span for a political ad maxes out around 30 seconds, but political ads don’t need to be boring and straightforward. They can be creative, cinematic and tell a story people want to watch.”
McCabe said the key principles are those of good movies and television: Filmmakers make you care by using character, sound and visuals to inject emotion into the storytelling. With Hegar, McCabe faced the challenge of a familiar biographical story: As she’d already presented in a TED talk and an autobiography, Hegar served three tours in Afghanistan and, after her helicopter was shot down, she filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Defense over a policy that excluded women from combat positions. Looking for a new way to tell Hegar’s story, he approached the challenge not unlike a screenwriter.
“MJ’s talk and book are great, but they are fairly straightforward and I didn’t want to just make an ad with a ton of military footage and list all the things she’s done. I was trying to find a creative hook that felt authentic to her as a person,” said McCabe. “The more I watched and talked to her, there was the fact that she still had this door from the helicopter that crashed hanging in her dining room. Her first memory is her father throwing her mother through a plate-glass door. There’s the fact she talks about going to Congress and lobbying and all these doors being slammed in her face. Looking at the totality of it, [doors] just became a word that was repeated and we could turn it into a metaphor for the whole thing to fit together.”
To make all the events part of a connected whole, McCabe decided to shoot the piece — using a steadicam, whip pans, and transitions — like it was one long shot. He studied “Birdman” to see how director Alejandro González Iñárritu masked transitions to maintain fluidity, but when he started combining the voiceover with the steadicam he quickly realized the ad was more Scorsese than Iñárritu. The goal was to make the story punchy and fun to match Hegar’s personality, so he embraced the “Goodfellas” aspect and dialed it up by adding a knock-off instrumental version the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
“I wanted MJ to break the fourth wall and look to camera early and connect immediately with people — show that she’s fun and doesn’t take things too seriously,” said McCabe. “The fact is she’s a total badass. She’s this woman whose been shot at while she’s got bullet fragments in her, escaping from a helicopter returning fire on the Taliban. She’s got a tattoo sleeve down her arm. I wanted all that to come across. They say this about men candidates all the time, but when you meet MJ you want to get a beer with her.”
Because Lears’ documentary is being funded by 501c3 foundations, she can’t shoot or provide footage for campaign materials (although that doesn’t stop people from asking). However, she sees how candidates like Ocasio-Cortez are using nonfiction cinematic techniques similar to a verité documentary like her own.
“Anything that feels like it is cookie-cutter and poll-tested by a political consultant is damaging to these candidates,” said Lears. “I think their candidacies are very much about putting forward an authentic person who is not a career politician, someone with integrity, strong history in the community, and I think the documentary style lends itself to that story for ads.”
Lears said the early photography and video footage of Ocasio-Cortez created an image with a distinct “visual tone.” When it came time to make her two-to-three-minute video introducing the candidate’s bio, the campaign built on that and brought in videographers in from Detroit rather than relying on a D.C. political shop.
“On Alexandria’s Facebook page is a post from when she first launched her campaign over a year ago, which was in a way the first draft of that script — the same story of how she came to run,” said Lears. “It was a very personal and from-the-heart message. What her and her team saw over the past year was that really resonated, and they sensed a doc approach would be effective form that added and made it more effective.”
Ocasio was the unknown challenger in a district where there hadn’t been a primary in 14 years. However, 300,000 people watched her video within 24 hours of its publication.
McCabe said Democrats overwhelmed by a seemingly endless string of outrageous Trump stories want to share these messages of ordinary people fighting back. He and other consultants point the video successes of Wisconsin ironworker, labor activist, and Congressional candidate Randy Bryce and fighter pilot-turned-Kentucky congressional candidate Amy McGrath.
“We’re at a point in time where the same place you would encounter a video like this — YouTube, Facebook or Twitter feeds — is where you are getting all things Trump,” said McCabe. “If you are on the left side of the political spectrum, or even just a moderate, it’s just tough to read everything right now. With the family separation issue, it’s sad, it hurts you to the core. A triumphant story about [someone who] has overcome barriers, and kicked down doors, is just what people need.”
Lears said her documentary is capturing what it actually means to be an anti-establishment candidate – Ocasio-Cortez and Hegar have refused corporate donations – and having a campaign powered by volunteer labor and small donations is a force and message unto itself. (In Ocasio-Cortez’s video, she says “It’s about people versus money – we’ve got people, they’ve got money” as the piece cresendos.) However, the energy and time it takes to build those kinds of grassroots is monumental.
“These videos can be the catalyst with those efforts,” said McCabe, who told IndieWire that Hegar raised $500,000 in small donations when the video went viral, and he expects it’ll be significantly more in the weeks to come. “The people that are sharing these are the grassroots volunteers, the people going to protests, knocking on doors, and creating a wave.”
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While talking to IndieWire — the morning after filming Ocasio-Cortez for 18 hours on the day of her primary victory – Lears was headed to grab a quick lunch at Flats Fix in the Flatiron district, where she filmed Ocasio-Cortez working when she wasn’t bartending. “Oh my god,” said Lears, interrupting herself. “This is just an aside, but there’s camera crews lined up outside shooting the restaurant where Alexandria used to work.”
The populist image of bartending-waitress taking on the corporate politician has quickly gone national and its one of many the Democrats hope will make the President look more like a reality TV star than real.