“Creative people end up leaving Amarillo,” Hayden Pedigo says at one point in “Kid Candidate,” a lament that actually suggests that by staying he’s required to have a little more imagination. The city in North Texas isn’t the easiest place to live, as local NAACP First Vice President David Lovejoy talks of how it’s becoming a food desert where fresh fruit can be difficult to come by and priorities for fixing up local amenities seem to be misplaced when a local pool that can serve the entire community can’t get funding approved for renovations while the scoreboard for the local minor league baseball team can. The frustration led Pedigo, a musician by trade, to film a bunch of faux campaign ads for City Council, pointing out all he’d fix in Amarillo if elected and shot in the style of Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers,” they became a viral hit that ended up on the front page of Reddit, inspiring Pedigo to believe he may have enough wind at his back to actually run for office.
Just as Pedigo didn’t know all that he was getting into by throwing his hat into the ring, director Jasmine Stodel could likely say the same when she was invited to follow Pedigo’s campaign, a ragtag operation with support coming in the form of Pedigo’s wife Hannah, his friend Grayson and a real established political operative in Jeff Blackburn, who at first is wildly skeptical of Pedigo’s chances but grows to see his appeal in the way Stodel allows for as well with her camera. Somewhat ambiguous in partisan terms, Pedigo is largely defined by more by what he isn’t rather than what he is in a community where evangelical Christians see their role in government firmly tied to practicing their faith and another religion in town plays a huge role with multinational banks setting up shop to take advantage of a lack of government oversight.
If nothing else, Pedigo’s run is successful in bringing along Stodel to shine a light on a place where bad actors have flourished flying under the radar, but the filmmaker prefers to use her lens in a more generous way to celebrate those with the determination to make a difference in their community when it appears nothing will change, offering a wildly entertaining fish-out-of-profile of Pedigo that ultimately reveals so much about the investment there is in keeping the status quo by dark money groups that protect their tax status at the expense of all other issues. Naturally, the massive crowdpleaser premiered earlier this year at the virtual edition of SXSW where it sadly was deprived of the applause it was sure to get in person, but it’s gradually made its way into the world, first in person at Oak Cliff Film Festival and this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama – though for those who can’t attend, it’s additionally on VOD. To mark the occasion, Stodel kindly took the time to talk about her Amarillo adventure and making a film about politics as unconventional and endearing as its star.
How did this come about?
I pitched a completely different show to Gunpowder and Sky and we were supposed to have a call about that project and the exec at Gunpowder said, “Hey, what do you think about this kid?” And I watched the video and I was like, well, there’s definitely something here and they were like, “Would you like to go there for a weekend and see what’s there?” And I was like, “Hell, yeah. So I went and we cut together a little sizzle for them, and I never imagined that anything like this would happen, but this was like a lightning in a bottle situation. It feels like it was meant to be.
We had discussed it possibly being a film, but we were also thinking it was maybe a series [where] Hayden would be one subject and then maybe we’d go to another place where there was another young person who was doing some kind of election, but Hayden was just so compelling that every time something was going on, I was like, “Hey guys, we’ve got to capture this.” After the second time I went to Amarillo, I was like we’ve either got to do this or we need to move on. And they greenlit the project.
Was it difficult to get interviews beyond Hayden’s circle when you were obviously close closely tied to filming him?
I wanted to get a real sense of what was happening in Amarillo and what Hayden was going up against and my background, even though I’ve worked in scripted and digital, I feel like I come from a more journalistic approach than pure filmmaker. I’m always seeking the truth and for me, I wanted to know what Amarillo was all about and I really made an effort to talk to as many people as I could and also give those who were his opponents the opportunity to speak about what they thought was important.
There was definitely something interesting, especially from Texas or the South that when an outsider comes in, that they’re there to make fun of them, which was not my goal at all. Also, Hayden’s video had started as a joke, so people I thought I was there to make some kind of “Borat”-style mockumentary — [even now] it’s uncomfortable for me to watch the movie [to see some people] react to Ginger and Eddie [the other city council members] because I feel like even though their interests are different, they really do feel like they’re doing God’s work or the right thing for their town because I wanted to give everybody there the opportunity to show that they’re a real person — not the enemy or the opposition. Obviously I was not, so it was very challenging. Not only was I not from there and I have this strange accent, so I look different to everybody in Amarillo, but I was close [to Hayden]. Ginger wasn’t his opponent and neither was Eddie — Hayden’s opponent was Elaine Hayes and she wouldn’t even reply to my e-mails or my phone calls. She was telling people in town that I was there to make fun of them. Hayden had put together an event where he’s talking at a place where there’s a lot of young people and about 50 percent of the people who said they’d show up didn’t because there was a rumor that this was a joke.
It was refreshing to me that this didn’t follow the natural structure of a film about a campaign where you’d see polling and keep tabs of who was up or down in the race, but was that even an option?
Well, first of all, there’s no polling in those elections. There are 250,000 people and it’s so small an amount of people that vote, it’s ridiculous. Those elections are very focused on a certain group of people voting. You don’t really know an election is even happening in a lot of the cities because they really don’t want you to know, but I wanted to show the struggles of Hayden as [someone who] wasn’t political but maybe that’s what we need in politics. There’s a deleted scene I’m putting on the DVD where Hayden ended up having a fight with Jeff that just didn’t fit in the movie, but basically Hannah says, “Maybe we need less cynical people in politics. Maybe we need people who have more heart and maybe not know exactly what they’re doing.”
As a filmmaker, I wanted people to see themselves in Hayden and understand that Hayden is all of us, whether we’re political or not. Hayden represents all of us who want something better for our community and I wanted to go the human route versus what we all see on television [where] there are caricatures, like “This is the villain, this is the good guy.” You see Hayden fuck up the whole time, you see him be vulnerable. He didn’t go to a public school, so he doesn’t know which hand to put over his heart for the pledge of allegiance, you know? [Laughs] That’s why I showed all the different forums because this election wasn’t supposed to be political. This was a local election. This is not about being a Republican or Democrat. This is about making your community better. But the local government is where you affect the most change and that’s the part of politics we understand the least.
You’re in the edit as the presidential election is going on – was the discourse around that shaping your ideas about this?
Yeah, it was an especially polarizing time and after my first cut, I got really depressed because what was happening around me was coming through in the movie. After George Floyd, I thought no one’s going to want to watch this movie. I’m not saying anything new anymore. But funnily enough, it put that in people’s minds and they watch it now and understand what the stakes are about voting. As a frame, I thought people wouldn’t embrace it because it was about politics because young people are so burned out on politics. You’re either fully in it or you just don’t want anything to do with it and I wanted those people who wanted nothing to do with it to watch this movie. and I really had to focus on Hayden, on who he was, so that’s why I was going in that direction — his personality and the fun parts of who he is and what he brought to the table. and what people like him who are not represented would relate to.
There are no young people on that council. There are very few young people in politics and there are reasons for that. You have to have a lot of money, especially in Amarillo, [since] you don’t get paid as a council member. You get a tiny little stipend. Elections are held at weird times during the year, so nobody knows when the elections are – that’s on purpose. The city council meetings are at strange times during the day, so you can’t go to city council meetings and in order to vote in Texas, you have to register 30 days before an actual election on a piece of paper. And it was such a difficult endeavor for [Hayden] because he’s an artist and a sensitive person and I think there are a lot more sensitive people that exist than not sensitive people. I think we just mask it, but I think a lot of people relate to that pressure of doing something important and the amount of work it takes and the toll it takes on you.
Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?
Jeff Blackburn totally blew my mind – Hayden blew my mind, but having Jeff in the movie really gave it the flavor and he and Hayden are so similar. They’re both very dry and witty and also extreme in their ways, so it’s funny that they ended up being very similar people [where] you have two opposing characters, very much on the same side — [Hayden] is fighting the establishment and Jeff is trying to help him — but very much at odds. And when I was making the movie, I would have these uncomfortable moments thinking, “Oh, I wish Hayden would’ve done it like this politician or would’ve done this…” but watching the movie in the end, he did it perfectly. He showed us it’s almost better not to be political in politics. You’ll just get so much more done. It definitely shifted my perspective because you’re so used to seeing people play the game and doing it the way you’re supposed to do it and Hayden did it the way you’re not supposed to do it, and not that it was the best or the worst way, but there were things about it that people really related to him. When he went to that South Sudanese Church and he said to them, “Well, I’m here to listen,” he wasn’t selling himself as a politician. He was genuinely coming into a community and being like, “Can you tell me what your issues are? Because maybe if I do get elected, I can help you.”
What was it like to finally have your physical premiere in Texas at Oak Cliff?
That festival is phenomenal. They have such great movies. They have an amazing shorts program and it was so great to show the film to a Texas audience in Texas after the pandemic in a real theater in a historic theater. We got a standing ovation. People really loved the movie and they got it and it was the first time I got to watch the film in person with Hayden. I sat next to him and with Hannah and I could see him cringing — there were certain moments where he couldn’t even watch himself. I can’t imagine, [when] for me, I was watching as a filmmaker seeing all the things that I’d want to change. But it’s special every time he sees that movie and in front of this audience, he was so great. People just acknowledged him and it let him know how much people were rooting for him. It made my heart full.