‘Boys State’: How ‘Son of Saul’ Influenced the Documentary’s Up-Close Subjectivity — Toolkit Podcast

Co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss break down how their film's cinematic style captured election intensity.
"Boys State"
"Boys State"
Apple TV+

Since 1935, the American Legion has hosted Boys State, a week-long program in which high school juniors learn about civics by building their own state government. Teenage boys forming a mock government might sound like the definition of low-stakes drama, but the race for Boys State Texas governor, as captured in Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ documentary, is every bit as intense and bare-knuckled as the real-life elections we just witnessed.

On IndieWire’s Toolkit Podcast, the “Boys State” co-directors talked about how they created a cinematic style to match that intensity.

“I’ve covered political campaigns as a filmmaker before,” said Moss. “And usually, you’re in the back of the room on a press raiser on a telephoto lens, and it feels very distant.”

That is decidedly not the case in “Boys State.” As you can see in the video essay below, even when McBaine and Moss’ star subject, Steven Garza, gives a rousing political speech, the camera is just inches from his face.

“Aesthetically, Thorsten Thielow, who is the DP, and I looked at a movie called ‘Son of Saul,’ which is a dramatic film shot in very close subjective way with real intentionality,” Moss explained. “We shot our film entirely on a 35mm prime lens and we shot it all at a consistent f-stop, f2, which gives it, in these institutional settings, a little bit of separation.”

“Son of Saul,” which won the 2016 Oscar for Best International Film, director László Nemes’ shallow-focused camera is glued to Saul (Géza Röhrig), a prisoner walking through a concentration camp. What’s remarkable about “Boys State” is how the co-directors and their six camera operators pulled off this type of up-close subjectivity, but in a cinema verité film that follows young men who are in constant and unchoreographed movement.

“Shooting on f2, widescreen cinema verité, when people are moving around, to the degree these kids are moving around, in these conventions and meetings is insane,” said McBaine. “We are so in awe of these camera folks. People are going in and out of focus every five seconds and you know with the widescreen you see the shake, and there’s no zoom lens, so you have to really run up and be really close to people. It’s really just an epic challenge that we offered them, and they accepted the challenge and delivered beyond our wildest dreams.”

To see how “Boys State” created its strong protagonist-driven narrative, watch the video above. To hear the full conversation, subscribe to the podcast below:

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, OvercastStitcher, and  SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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