If Jesse Moss ever wondered what it was like to be a politician, all he would have to do is think about his experience as a documentarian, having to distill the complexities he aimed to tackle into a marketable pitch that would remove any barriers to investing in his success. Still, Moss was faced with having to unravel all of that with Pete Buttigieg, the wunderkind from South Bend, Indiana who became, for a time, a frontrunner in the field of Democrats competing for the presidency in the 2020 elections due in no small part to his Midwestern charm and and his ability to break down issues in a way any voter could understand, though as willing as he was to speak at length on any topic, he’d often demur when the subject was himself. Already the first openly gay major party candidate, this reluctance didn’t seem born out of having anything to hide, but rather an introverted personal nature that was at odds with the public spotlight he’d have to occupy when campaigning for office and while his authenticity was being sold as a chief virtue, Moss came to notice that there was something more complex going on there in accompanying him on the trail.
“The thing that was really helpful was to forge a relationship with Chasten,” Moss said, of getting to know Buttigieg through his husband. “I think Chasten recognizing who I was and having a bit more bandwidth to get to know me helped me access them together in their relationship and [do things like] go on a date with them to Dairy Queen.”
It’s over sundaes that “Mayor Pete” illuminates what drives Buttigieg, from the small detail of asking whether if it’s okay to have dessert first before digging into the chicken they’ve ordered at the roadside stand in Iowa or Chasten raising larger questions around his campaign as dinner table conversation. When Buttigieg’s fate as a candidate is already known, Moss, who previously cracked extraordinary insight into the motivations of enigmatic characters ranging from his 2003 doc “Con Man” about the imposter James Hogue to his 2014 landmark “The Overnighters” which followed the Reverend Jay Reinke as he took in desperate boarders into his South Dakota church to his own detriment, is able to turn the campaign doc into a compelling portrait of a politician who has spent his life appealing to reason over emotion and faces the greatest test of his career when voters seem to need the opposite.
A year removed from his triumphant “Boys State,” co-directed by Amanda McBaine, Moss has again found the human side of political machinery that can feel so removed from everyday reality and before the film hits Amazon Prime after a fall festival run that began at the Chicago Film Fest, he spoke about how he kept his own cool under pressure when filming the ascendant Democratic Party hopeful, what sold him on following Buttigieg in the midst of the arduous process of editing “Boys State,” and realizing he was telling the story of a great romance.
Coming off of “Boys State,” I know politics has come up again and again in your career, but what’s it like going into a shoot like this after “Boys State”?
We were cutting “Boys State” when I started this project, and I was definitely thinking I do not want to make another political film. I was up to my eyeballs in “Boys State” and in a bit of a tough patch figuring that movie out. We didn’t have distribution for the film, so there was all of that uncertainty, and when I heard from Dan Cogan, my producer, and Jon Barden, was I paying attention to Mayor Pete, I was like, “Well, yeah, I knew who Pete is. I read some articles about him and I’d heard that he was running for president, which seems kind of outrageous.” And they said, “Well, we think we might be able to secure access to Pete. It’s early days in the campaign. He’s only got four people working for him. He seems open to the idea, and I said, “Well, I’m not interested.” Then they said, “Well, okay, we understand, but check out this town hall he just did on CNN.”
I watched the town hall, which was really impressive – there’s a little bit of it in the movie and I was like, “Ah, okay, I see there’s a lot more going on here.” and I called them back and said, “Alright, I still don’t think it’s going to work out, but let’s do some shooting. We’ll call it development and we’ll see what happens,” fully expecting I was going to flame out in a matter of weeks. And I met him in New York, took a train ride to DC with him, introduced myself and it was the first time we officially met and he had agreed to provide really intimate access, although that was really in theory. We had to figure out what that meant in fact. We had a very awkward first date, I would say it was not a meet cute, it was a meet awkward. [laughs] I was like, “Okay, I’ll be patient” and I met Chasten too on that first trip and that was really helpful to me because the film opened up in a way. I filmed a really intimate scene between the two of them, talking about that really powerful speech that Pete makes to the Victory Fund and I was like “Wow, one of those moments as a documentary filmmaker where you’re like I’m in the room filming this moment.” That’s really intense and I thought regardless of what happens politically here when I don’t think he’s going to be successful, maybe there’s a really interesting story in their relationship, so that really opened up the film for me.
You actually start the film there, and it came as a surprise to me that you and Chasten were the first people you see in a movie called “Mayor Pete.” How did that scene set the table for you?
I had discovered it was really helpful to involve Chasten in my interviews with Pete, just to let them talk to each other because Pete was so conditioned to talking to journalists on the campaign trail, it was hard to get past…I won’t say the superficial, but it wasn’t getting us very far. I quickly invited Chasten in and that opened up an understanding of Pete that was really important and what you see in that opening scene is Chasten giving me some questions to ask Pete and one of them is a question that’s central to the theme of the film, which is is Pete able to be his authentic self as a candidate? It really frames the film in a way that I found very effective and I’m not super into the self-reflexive opening to documentaries that’s very much in fashion today of “let’s see the slate, let’s see the boom, let’s see the apparatus of production.” It feels a bit like a cliche, but what justified this for me is that Chasten is really asking a question of me about Pete and letting it play like a scene rather than let’s see the makeup get put on the guy’s nose. It’s one of those things we experimented with in the edit room, and I’m always reluctant to do it in what is more of a verite film because I feel the strength of the film are the moments that are not interview, but are unscripted, bigger, small moments.
You couldn’t get one of those that speaks more to his character than what happens when that elevator stops before the debate and he’s cool and collected. How’d you have the presence of mind to keep rolling?
There’s a moment in “The Overnighters,” where I’m with Jay [Reinke, the disgraced pastor] and he’s in some godforsaken place and a woman comes out with a gun and she threatens to shoot Jay. I kept filming and she attacked me on camera and it’s one of those moments where I was like, “Well, whatever happens, what business do I have making documentaries if I don’t keep rolling?” Like if this elevator plummets me to my death, at least I’m going to be rolling in this moment. [laughs] It’s like a moment from “Veep,” where it’s comedy and a lovely glimpse into Pete’s composure and calmness, which is one of his superpowers. You’re looking at him like, “Well, maybe that’s the guy I want as commander in chief,” like a guy who when he’s in it, he’s not going to lose his shit. And Lis [Smith, his director of communications] is breaking down on the floor and everyone, including me, is pretty much freaking out. You’ve just got to keep rolling, man. It’s what you do.
You’ve said elsewhere that Pete actually got less protective as the campaign started going downhill – did it open things up for you?
I lived in fear of two outcomes – one was that he’d become the nominee and [he’d] really push me away because the stakes would get infinitely higher or two, that when things derailed as they do, that out of self-protection or self-preservation he would also push me away. It’s to Pete’s credit that he actually brought me closer as the campaign came to an end and hopefully it’s because we earned our place a year in, and he recognized we were in for the long haul. It resulted in some beautiful, poignant moments, particularly going home for him — that was a scene I envisioned before we even shot it. No matter what happens, I thought I need to go home with him when this is over and he gets to finally catch his breath because it’s been this breathless sprint. In Pete’s memoir, which is called “The Shortest Way Home,” which is a quote from Joyce – “the longest way around is the shortest way home,” and I felt like that homecoming scene would be poignant and powerful and I wanted to be there for it. I hoped he would allow me to and there was no campaign staff, no campaign photographer, nobody but his mother, his family and me and I love it. He’s got his slippers on and Chasten’s on the floor hugging this dog and then first Obama calls and then Biden calls and it’s just a great capstone to the journey that we’ve been on.
You’re either hyper-conscious of the larger media narrative around his campaign or oblivious to it when you’re focused so much on telling your own story, but once you get out of it and start putting this together in the editing room, does a consciousness about what’s already out there enter your thinking?
Yeah, there definitely were narratives being written and rewritten in the media about the campaign and rarely were they based on access that I didn’t have or coveted. It was the other way around. I think journalists were wondering who is this guy with the camera who is not part of the campaign staff that seems to be with Pete, and definitely trying to make sense of the political narrative and what was important and not important to us was really hard because it’s coming at you like a firehose. You’re up, you’re down, and there were so many debates, so out of all of this, we really had to get through the election – Trump’s defeat, Biden’s election — deep into the edit to try to make sense of what was important in this film. It is in part a story of this campaign, which is past us now, but it is also the story of Pete coming of age in a way and coming onto the national stage in a way that endures beyond the election. And the campaign is a kind of crucible which he has to prove himself, so the result of having perspective was that some of the political narrative got pushed back and some of the personal relationship story came forward. It took a while to get there — about a year of editing — and I’m not sure we got it right. It’s a never-ending journey, but it became more of a love story and less of a campaign thriller or whatever else it was trying to be.