Although AJ Schnack had long thought about making a film about the Iowa Caucus, he couldn’t possibly know what he would be in for when he finally made the trip to cover last year’s Republican race, especially when he was approached by an older gentleman at a Michelle Bachmann rally in Marshalltown.
“I had this sense we’re in a smaller town and these are probably staunch Republicans [who] have a feeling the media is out to get them,” says Schnack, recalling one of the first visits to the state that became his home away from home in the nine months leading up to the January 3rd election. “What’s this guy going to say to me? And he comes up and says, “If you’d like to stand on the roof of my car to get a better shot, just let me know.'”
Even without the generosity of the fine folks in the Hawkeye State, “Caucus,” which is currently raising funds on Kickstarter before an August 24th deadline, was always bound to offer audiences the best seat in the house to make sense of one of the wildest political seasons of recent memory. Having previously organized a dream team of documentarians to cover the 2008 Democratic National Convention for his last project “Convention,” Schnack didn’t need much to be convinced of what his next project should be after he was asked by a former McCain/Palin operative whether he’d consider doing something similar about the Republican side. In fact, after once making an election year trek to Des Moines when he was a journalist for the University of Missouri’s student newspaper The Maneater, he knew exactly what he might focus on.
“There was something about the way you were able to get close to the candidates and the fact that they were having to look the people of Iowa in the eye and convince them that they were the right candidate,” says Schnack.
In spite of an intense 24-hour news cycle that’s developed in the years since he first visited Iowa during an election cycle, Schnack found not much has changed, allowing him and a small crew including frequent collaborators Nathan Truesdell and Shirley Moyers to get up close and personal with the eight candidates who went into the state with hopes of winning the first contest for the Republican presidential nomination. From the hay bales set up by the Des Moines Register at the coinciding Iowa State Fair to small town ice cream parlors where candidates would make impromptu stump speeches, Schnack and his team followed the campaigns of eventual nominee Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.
But it was the latter two candidates whom Schnack says take center stage in “Caucus,” their narrative arcs a study in contrasts as Bachmann sees her star rise quickly before peaking too quickly while Santorum went from being left for dead in August to a frontrunner in January. Covering both long before they were on the radar of most major news outlets, the “Caucus” team had the inside track on the fascinating rise and fall of their political fortunes and would often use two cameras, usually to the confusion to reporters embedded in the state on behalf of outlets such as CNN and NBC, that might clarify certain defining moments of the campaign.
“We have some angles on situations that you saw in the news, but because we had two cameras, we have an alternate angle that you haven’t seen, which actually in some cases changes the context of what you’re seeing,” says Schnack. “Some folks who have covered the campaign have seen the film and noted, ‘Oh wow, seeing it from that angle actually changes the entire feeling of what happened there.'”
While “Caucus” will provide a fresh perspective on this year’s Republican race, it’s equally notable that the project is doing the same for its Kickstarter campaign which will go to the film’s mounting post-production expenses such as music rights and color and sound mixing. Like many other films on the crowd sourcing site, the filmmakers are offering the film as a digital download at one of the lower pledge levels. However, the campaign is also serving in some ways as a way for for audiences to access more of the film than what will eventually be released, taking a note out of Schnack’s playbook for his first film “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns” when he would post early clips of his doc about the band They Might Be Giants onto a Yahoo Groups site to engage fans.
“We wanted [the campaign] to be really Iowa-centric because we had such a good time there and as in some of my other films, the place is a character in itself,” says Schnack, noting such incentives as the 99 Counties Package consisting of state-related knickknacks and The On-A-Stick Package featuring something deep fried and on a stick. “[We also saw it] as a way to get some information that isn’t even going to make it in the film out that people might think has some value or interest, not just personally, but maybe even in the news cycle.”
As a result, Kickstarter contributors will be the first to see exclusive clips in the coming weeks such as this one of Michele Bachmann pressing the flesh in Cedar Rapids, but also have the opportunity to get their hands on footage that won’t be in the film, whether it’s a digital download of three deleted scenes in the Party Line package or the Single Issue Voter Package where Schnack will tailor a short film to a contributor’s personal interest in a specific issue or candidate.
Regardless, Schnack hopes to whet the appetite of audiences for “Caucus,” which should the Kickstarter campaign be successful, he’d like to see debut as soon as possible. Though that might require some marathon editing sessions, the filmmaker has already proved he’ll go to great lengths to deliver an incredible movie, already surviving the consumption of a fried stick of butter at the State Fair.
“I think that in itself deserves a contribution,” jokes Schnack, who can be trusted to finish a film that deserves one.