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A Conversation With AJ Schnack and Nate Truesdell (CONVENTION)

When the world converged on Denver, Colorado, in late August of 2008 for the Democratic National Convention, it was projected to be the most memorable and historic in American history. Seizing the moment, filmmaker AJ Schnack and his main collaborators Nathan Truesdell and David Wilson recruited an all-star lineup of nonfiction directors (Laura Poitras, Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, Daniel Junge, Paul Taylor, and Wayne Robbins) to help them document the convention from many different angles. However, rather than focusing on the more high profile out-of-towners who were breezing in and out of Denver for this momentous occasion, Schnack, Truesdell, and the Convention team took the novel—and less flashy—approach to instead turn their cameras on the local players who were about to enter a raging media tornado the likes of which their city had never seen. After a successful festival run, Convention is now playing theatrically in NYC at the IFC Center, and is more widely available for viewing through the  Sundance Selects VOD program (click on that link for more detailed information). *One final note before we begin: If this conversation sounds looser than most, that’s because much alcohol was consumed before, and during, the recording; we all agreed beforehand that this should be an official entry in the HAMMEREDToNail canon.*

Hammer to Nail: So, AJ, you have to do it. You have to give Hammer to Nail the scoop on your surreal flight from LA to NYC. This is the part of the talk show where I ‘throw it’ to you.

AJ Schnack: But you have to say something like, “So, AJ, you flew in from Los Angeles, was there anything interesting about that?”

H2N: So, AJ, you flew in from Los Angeles, was there anything interesting about that?

AS: It’s crazy you mention that.

Nate Truesdell: Wait, can I talk about my St. Louis to Minneapolis flight first?

AS: You should. You totally should.

NT: Because on my flight, there was a lady that had mutton chops. And they were thick. They were about two inches thick and also two inches wide. They were nice. I was impressed.

H2N: What was she wearing?

NT: I mean, she was just like a normal lady. She just had big-ass sideburns.

AS: I don’t think I can compete with that.

H2N: So, from mutton chops in the Midwest to your flight, AJ!

AS: It was kind of a crazy thing, because I’ve been on flights before that have had the random celebrity on them. And I have to say, I kinda feel a little weird telling this story, but it was just so bizarre that it transcends what I would normally deem tabloid-ish territory. I got to the airport today and I had a voucher for a first-class flight, which I was excited to cash in for this trip to New York for Convention’s opening. I thought, let’s have a memorable…

H2N: Live the dream!

AS: Live the dream. You know, as if IFC was paying for this first-class trip. So, super early this morning in Los Angeles, I’m sitting in the first class lounge, and I look up and I see this guy and I’m like, “That looks like Davis Guggenheim—Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim.” And that’s kind of ridiculous because, you know, I’m kind of obsessed with what happens in documentary and so I was pretty convinced that I had maybe gone off the deep end, that a random hipster looking guy suddenly was Davis Guggenheim to me. Also, another guy in the first-class lounge that was pretty confirmed in my head: Jonathan Caouette. But I don’t think it actually was. [laughter] Also, maybe Barbara Kopple was there? I’m not sure. So, I get on the plane and said guy who looks like Davis Guggenheim was sitting just in front of me, and in walks this guy and I’m like, I think I know that guy! It’s one of those situations where it’s somebody who’s been on reality television and you’re convinced it’s someone you maybe know but then you think, oh, no, he was on a reality TV show. It’s Chris Moore, who was on the early seasons of Project Greenlight, and works with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And he’s like, “Davis!” So I go, okay, that is Davis Guggenheim, and that’s Chris Moore. But Chris Moore quickly moves on to the woman who’s sitting behind Davis Guggenheim, and I look over and I realize, as they’re talking, that the beautiful woman behind Davis Guggenheim is Emily Blunt. And then, soon after this, I’m asked to move from my seat beside Emily Blunt, to another seat, so that two people can sit together, and I find out that’s because Russell Brand is coming on the plane with his friend and they are going to sit together. At which point Russell Brand comes up to me and says [in accent], “Thanks so much! You moved for us! That’s so sweet of you! You moved! That’s great!” And so that’s what I experienced today on one hour of sleep.

H2N: Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about why you’re here. You’re not just here with yourselves. You’re here with a… HDCam tape?

AS: What? What kind of language was that? [laughter]

H2N: It’s 21st century lingo, baby.

AS: Oh, sweet. I’m still in the 1980s.

H2N: Okay, let me try putting it this way: What format are you guys exhibiting this movie on at IFC Center?

AS: It will exhibit at the IFC Center on Blu-ray disc.

NT: I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, my friend.

AS: It is a substantial upgrade from the Red-ray disc. But, I personally am holding out for Purple-ray disc.

H2N: Has Blu-ray become the new way to go these days?

AS: I had never seen anything of mine projected on Blu-ray before, but the Cleveland Film Festival in March projected a Blu-ray disc of Convention and I thought it was actually one of the best—not just the visuals but the audio seemed to be really top-notch.

NT: I just really like mini-DV, so…

H2N: But does this mean there’s going to be a sea change from HDCam to Blu-ray as far as festivals go? Or, more important question: What is the fiscal comparison in outputting your timeline to Blu-ray as opposed to HDCam?

AS: I think it’s a similar cost. I don’t know if it’s cheaper for festivals or for theaters to project from Blu-ray. Just having seen Convention projected from HDCam, from Digi-beta, and from Blu-ray, I actually think the Blu-ray projection was maybe the best that I saw. But I don’t know if that was the projection that Cleveland particularly had. We’ll see how the IFC Center version looks on Friday.

H2N: Ooh, that brings up something I want to talk about, which is your guys’ take on “tech checking” your film every new place that it screens.

NT: Can I comment on the Blu-ray versus HDCam?

H2N: Of course.

NT: It just depends on what’s the easiest thing for the theater to do. It really doesn’t matter. Like, Beta way back in the day was better than VHS, but the consumer chose VHS. So I’m sure one of those will beat out the other one and it won’t fuckin’ matter. Nobody’s gonna be able to tell the difference. Everything’s just gonna go to HD, in one form or another.

H2N: Which also ties into the question of tech checking, I think. I encounter so many filmmakers—mostly first-timers—who are obsessive about tech checking. I felt that way for, like, the first three times my film showed, but then you realize—or I realized—it’s so far out of your control and there are so many factors at work that it’s just so exhausting to worry about tech checking every single time. I have just taken the stance that these people are professionals and know what they’re doing better than I do, and even when things go wrong, which they will, it doesn’t matter. Things will always go wrong, so why kill yourself over it? What’s your guys’ take on tech checking?

AS: I like to check the first time something plays, which is usually the premiere. So, like, just checking to make sure there’s an image. I mean, you do a Q.C. at the lab…

NT: It’s always good to check the things you’re providing to the people that are gonna project them, and then trust the people that are projecting to do it correctly. I have no fuckin’ idea how to project anything!

AS: Yeah. But the first time around, I probably stood in the back of the theater and was like, “Oh, we need to make the blacks blacker, and the reds… redder.” Strangely enough, on my first film, Gigantic, maybe the 10th or 11th film festival that we played, it screened in this weird cabaret lounge in Provincetown. It was in this tiny little space, and we had all these lower thirds identifying the subjects who were talking, but because it was in a makeshift theatrical space, there was no slope to the audience—everyone was on the same head level. And so anytime any lower third came up, the entire audience was, like, standing up and trying to bob their heads back-and-forth to see who had been the A&R person at Elektra in 1991. [H2N laughs] Watching that and seeing everybody do that and yet still get into the film, kind of made me realize that it’s sort of pointless. It’s a weird sense of vanity—to me, at least—to spend the time [tech checking]. To me, it’s just like, put the thing out there. Everybody’s films are being seen in the same space. If you didn’t go to that festival, or you weren’t in that theater when the film played, you wouldn’t even know if it was too dark or too soft in terms of volume.

NT: The real thing people take away from a film is the story. It doesn’t really matter if the blues are a bit off. If people understand the story, then who gives a shit?

H2N: It’s tough, though, I guess. You shoot your movie a certain way, you prepare it to look a certain way, and you have that ideal of how it should look every time out, but I just don’t know if it’s reasonable—or healthy—to, like, “demand it to be perfect” every time.

AS: But that’s maybe like that whole conversation that we’re having in a larger sense, about where the film gets really seen. Whether it’s your film or my film or someone else’s film and it screens on Sundance Channel or HBO or wherever, I don’t know any filmmaker who has said, “I made sure to go to HBO and be there with their technical people so that when my film played, it was exactly the way I wanted to see it. And yet, if your film is on HBO, that’s where it’s gonna be seen by the most people. So, we’re worrying about whether it’s gonna seen properly by 100 people in Cleveland or St. Louis or Denver or Seattle—at some point you have to let go.

NT: Especially if it’s on TV. You can’t go to everybody’s house and be like, “Oh my God, you have your tint turned all the way up!” [H2N laughs] “Oh my God, what the fuck are you doing with the reds turned all the way up?! This isn’t what I wanted! This isn’t even HD, you bastards!” You’re selling a story to someone, and people watch TV or watch movies to see a story.

H2N: Okay, let’s try this again and talk about your movie. This is what alcohol does to the brain. So, the kernel of this idea is… there’s another competing—well, not competing—but there’s another election movie from this particularly historic presidential election. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this guy, he’s sort of the Sam Peckinpah of documentarians. His name is Jeff Deutchman.

AS: Deutchman’s film!

H2N: That question of how your idea was born just triggered Jeff for me and how his idea really gelled just two or three weeks before election day. How long before the Democratic National Convention did your idea come to practical life?

AS: I’ve been wanting to do an ensemble piece for a little while, and I had actually tried to gear up for the caucuses in Iowa in 2008, based on the fact that I had taken a bunch of people to the caucuses in Des Moines. When I was in college at the University of Missouri, I took a bunch of photographers and writers, and that was a really great experience. It always stayed with me. Everybody covering different elements of that particular story, and I’m kind of a politics junkie. We couldn’t get the caucus idea to go, for a lot of reasons, but I think we had imagined it in the wrong way. We had thought we’d send everyone off on their own—everybody would have their own mini crews.

Not long after that, David Wilson and I started making this film in Branson, Missouri. We were shooting with this Panasonic P2 camera, and we were creating some really beautiful images. And I could see what the three of us [Truesdell being the third] were able to do together in a very compact space. And that made me think that maybe we wouldn’t have to have the same budget level that I had imagined for Caucus. Even before we’d gone down to Branson I’d called my friend Britta Erickson, who’s the head of the Denver Film Festival and had said, “Look, if we wanted to do this in Denver, do you think we could get the access that we needed?” Luckily, the people in our film are like 4th and 5th generation Coloradans. Britta went to high school with a bunch of them. So it was a quick call for her to find out whether we could get into the mayor’s office and Denver Post. And the two main protesters in our film, Mark [Cohen] and Barbara [Cohen], had been volunteers at the Denver Film Festival. So it was the kind of thing where we knew going in, when Nate and I flew to Denver in July, about a month before the convention, that was our chance to find out if we could get the access that we needed to actually make the film. And we spent about a week there, and met the folks who would ultimately be our subjects and figured that it could actually work. So, a month out is the answer to your question.

H2N: That’s its own tiny miracle, simply getting access. But that brings up another mountain, which is deciding to make this a collaborative effort by getting as many well respected and admired documentarians to sign on. How does that happen?

AS: I’d already talked to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert and Laura Poitras about the Iowa caucus project, and I think also Paul Taylor. And then, obviously, David [Wilson]. I didn’t know Nate when the caucus idea was around, but David and Nate came on board. And Daniel Junge lives in Denver and has a great talent for getting into a story and that he’s somehow able to get access to both sides of that story. Which made him a natural to cover the Recreate 68 guys. It all kind of fell together, even though we didn’t know until a week before the convention. It was just Nate and I in Denver, and we thought it might just be us shooting the whole film, and maybe it would be a short. We didn’t know what could possibly happen. On the Friday before the convention—three days before the convention started—I called Laura and Paul and Steven and Julia and said, “We’re buying your airplane tickets. You’re getting on a plane. We found cameras for you.”

H2N: How about direction? Is there direction? Or is direction in this case simply assigning a subject to a filmmaker?

AS: Yeah. When everyone arrived, we said, “This is who you’re covering.”

H2N: So you did the assigning. You didn’t let them have any say in that?

AS: We assigned them, but I expected everyone to make decisions. I mean, there was a huge protest that happened on Wednesday. Steven and Julia decide to leave the people we told them to follow, and they leave those people and go out with another reporter from the Denver Post, who’s not in the film up to that point. They go out with him, and they follow him out into the protest. It’s absolutely the right decision.

We assigned Laura Poitras to follow Katherine Archuleta, who’s the main city liaison for the convention. Laura spends the morning with her. She meets Bill Vidal, who’s Denver’s deputy mayor and who oversees the entire traffic control room where he oversees cameras from all over the city. Laura finds out what Bill does and goes with him. There’s no way to contact me or Nate or anyone else, because the phone service is disastrous, whether you have AT&T or not. You’d be in some spots where there would be no phone service whatsoever. So, yeah, we’d be in situations where we needed to exchange fresh batteries, we needed to grab P2 cards that were filled up with data that had to be downloaded and replaced with clean cards. The technical aspect of it, which Nate was in charge of and which I still can’t quite comprehend how he did it, because he was also shooting. That was going on at the same time as us trying to give instructions. But then, at the end of the night, we would be completely surprised. We’d be like, “Okay Steven and Julia, okay Laura, okay Daniel, okay Paul, okay David, what did you capture today?” And we’d find stuff that we hadn’t anticipated. I mean, that was the reason that it had to be them. Not to disparage great cinematographers, but we had to have people who were great directors, because they had to make creative choices, and decide, “I’m gonna leave behind the people who I’ve been told to follow, and follow somebody else, because I think that’s where the story is.” Every time that they did that, they were right.

NT: It wasn’t even only at the end of the day. It was in the edit. Whenever we saw all of the footage, we hadn’t seen all of it [before then]. People shot all day long, and we didn’t see this footage until weeks and weeks after the convention and it was just like, “Holy shit, all of these things tie into each other.” I would sit back and think, “We were here, we were here.” It was incredible.

H2N: Did you make a conscious effort to take a breather after the shoot so you could look at the footage with as much remove as possible, or did you try to dive into it with as much emotion as possible having just been there?

AS: We tried to dive in really quick, but we weren’t sure, necessarily, what we were going to find, because although we had heard everyone’s reports, we didn’t know how the footage would play. And that was interesting, because we actually found that there was a sense of farce to what happened. There were a lot of cases in which all of our subjects fell down and made some errors and things went wrong. There were some moments that were great, too. I think there are some things that are very inspirational in the film. What we loved about everyone, whether they were the protesters or the reporters or the people who worked for the city, they were all real. They were like your next-door neighbors. They weren’t, like, weird bureaucrats or automaton reporters. They were people with flaws and they were just doing their best. They were trying really hard, to do well by themselves, well by their city, and what we found watching the footage is that it didn’t always go according to plan. But I find that endearing about all of them. That was what we liked about Denver in the first place. You don’t expect that Denver—which is not a large city, it’s kind of like a big town—that that’s the place where this huge historic event is going to happen. And it was a real challenge for them to pull it off without it falling apart.

H2N: I’m pretty sure I was honest with you about my reaction when I finally saw the film. It’s a weird one and I’ve thought about it a lot but it still eludes me somehow. It wasn’t a gung ho reaction, and it wasn’t a purely negative one either. But I keep coming back to one moment, which is seeing the protesters drinking Jamba Juice and just mellowly gearing up for ‘the big protest.’ I feel like I read somewhere that they aren’t too jazzed about their portrayal, whereas everyone else is in support—though I don’t know. But I don’t think the portrayal, and this scene in particular, is a slight on them personally. It’s just that with their name—Recreate 68—this convention’s protesting seems especially tame in contrast to that one. I don’t know. Maybe it was the chill Denver vibe. Maybe it was Jamba Juice. Maybe it’s simply the early 21st century. So, in a perhaps unexpected way, I think the movie is a really sharp document of a kind of bland moment in time. Big history is being made, obviously, and we build to that moment, but ultimately I was left feeling confirmed in my worries about the blandness that has overtaken our lives in so many ways. I just had a weird tug in my reaction to it that I’m pretty sure wasn’t exactly what you guys were going for.

NT: I think I know what you’re saying, that it seems like it should be this epic thing but it’s kind of blah.

H2N: It was just the feeling that the motions everyone was going through… how can I say this? To me, Convention plays more like a statement on early 21st century American life than, like, ‘a stirring document of a historic political convention.’

NT: That’s what it is. It’s a portrait of a time and place.

AS: To me, the film is the end of something. In every case. Will we ever see conventions like we saw in 2008 again? Look at what the Republicans did after Denver. They had a huge video wall behind their speakers. Now that Obama won, will everything be in a stadium? Will we have four-day conventions? I have no idea. I feel like it’s gonna change.

H2N: Everything is changing.

AS: Yeah. Will newspapers exist? We had two newspapers in Denver when we made the film. Now there’s one. When we went in and shot the first scene at the Denver Post—which is not in the film—they’re all talking about Twitter. And they’re talking about Twitter as if it’s the most alien concept in the world.

NT: We actually shot this whole meeting of them talking about that. People were asking questions like, “How is my Twitter account not gonna get hijacked?” It’s just like a sign of the times. No one knew what Twitter was!

AS: “Well, what should you tweet being at the Denver Post?” So now reporting is totally different. And protesting? Completely different. To me, what was most interesting, the question that is open for debate, is if street protests are how you get things done right now, or is it something you do online? Do you do something that doesn’t require you to take to the streets, and is that how you make your voice heard? Because obviously in the ‘60s, you had to go to the streets. You couldn’t get into newspapers. That’s why there was alternative press. You had to get your views out somehow. Now, getting your views out there has been democratized so much that you can get Betty White on Saturday Night Live. There are crazy things that you can organize campaigns around. Why take to the streets?

We haven’t really talked about the Jamba Juice scene. What we loved about the Jamba Juice scene and why we used it is because in that scene, where the protesters are taking a break, the Jamba Juice is brought to them by the city’s protester liaison and by Barbara Cohen, who’s one of the main leaders of Recreate 68. That, to us, was very much like the old Looney Toons cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf checking in at the end of the day. They had their roles when the protests were going on, but when they were done, they would go get juice together! That was something that was kind of crazy. I’d never seen anything like that. And whether you wanna credit Recreate and the protesters for engaging the city in that way, or credit the city for engaging the protesters that way, that was how that went down. And maybe that signifies the end of something. Maybe that means that protesting has reached a point where that doesn’t make sense anymore. The rules have now been laid out so stringently for protesters by cities, by courts, by whoever, and they have to engage someone like Kevin from the city to be able to march. Maybe that means street protests are passé. Or will be.

H2N: Or maybe that has been happening all along and we’ve just never seen it presented in a film.

AS: In documentary, the activist traditionally is heroic. And anything that stands in their way is pure evil. But what we found in going to Denver is that the people who were working for the city, they had been activists when they were in college. Katherine, Bill, Chantal, they marched. Katherine was in the Mexican Student Association. They protested Vietnam. They stood up for immigration…

NT: They were all for the same cause and they went in different directions. Some went into city government to try to make changes and some of them didn’t. So there was this difference of opinion that was like the same opinion.

AS: So we didn’t approach it trying to find ‘heroes.’ You couldn’t go into this and be like, “We’re gonna set up Recreate as these heroic figures and the city is just trying to stand in their way,” because we talked to the city, and we knew where they were coming from and what their point-of-view was, and they actually wanted dissent and debate to be heard. The question is: Can debate in the future, under the rules that courts have now allowed, in which protests have been quarantined into specific areas and courts have allowed this, is that the best way to get your point across? Or is the best way to get your point across to be on the ground in Iowa, eleven months earlier, fighting for the person—Republican or Democrat—who appeals to your purest view?

Say what you will about the Tea Party, but what we’ve seen in Utah and Kentucky and elsewhere, that is a movement that was not about—I mean, I know they’ve had rallies—but that’s not about them marching. That’s about them organizing, and a lot of that organizing has been done online.

NT: It’s a movement.

AS: It’s a movement. I mean, that’s what happened with Howard Dean, that’s what happened with…

H2N: That’s what happened with our president.

AS: …Obama. Exactly.

NT: You don’t see those days where the Tea Party people have a little Jamba Juice with the other people.

H2N: I still feel like that might have always been happening. Think of the prosecuting attorney and the D.A. meeting for drinks. Or is that some TV fantasy? But in this context, for me the movie played more like a kind of painful reminder of how hard it is to get anything done now. I watched Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders the other morning, and it made me feel like there’s nothing you can actually physically take a stance on anymore. Maybe the gay couple who got sentenced to 14 years in prison in Malawi. That got dropped, but I thought, “Maybe I should go there with a guy and hold hands and just stand there!” I don’t know, it just feels really hard to take concrete, physical stances anymore, especially with regards to the idea of ‘protesting.’

NT: So are you saying that it feels like the protesters were doing a pointless thing? That they weren’t actually making a change in Denver? Did the protesters make you feel like it was hopeless?

H2N: I mean, at no point did I get a sense that you guys—as directors, as editors, as cinematographers—were ever making any judgments about these people within their own personal narratives. My reaction to everything was more that we’re simply living in a more watered-down world now. And that’s not a criticism of the film or the filmmaking. It’s just a reminder of how hard it is to speak with force and take a powerful stance. Because there are, like, 87 douche bags writing whiny diatribes in the comment section of a post every second of the day. I’m not making any sense now.

AS: I’ll try to address what you just said by saying something else, if that makes sense.

H2N: That makes perfect sense!

AS: I try not to think that I’m cynical. But I think I was pretty cynical, both about politics as well as about journalism.

H2N: You were.

AS: I was. But I think one of the things we found in this, and when you talk about these things it sounds somewhat hokey. As much as it was interesting and fascinating to be a part of this very historic moment, and it was a very big moment—I hope the film conveys what it was like to be inside Invesco Field after Obama gave his speech, to see 80,000 people, American flags and confetti and fireworks and music, and people crying and happy and waving, and feeling that something maybe was gonna be different. I hope we conveyed that. But, to me, what was important about making the film was that I actually had the chance to see city bureaucrats and small town reporters at work, and find out that if they made mistakes, the mistakes were not malicious.

NT: It’s like you growing up and being like, “This is bullshit! The cops are tryin’ to bring me down! The fuckin’ man!” And you actually see the man and you’re like, these are all really great people and they’re actually trying to help and protect you. It was really eye opening for me to see that.

AS: You log in to Politico, or you click on Washington Post or whatever, and you read about politics and you see all these process stories and, like, the mistakes that people have made, and the conspiracies that someone’s alleging. Our experience of making the film, from the journalists’ side, as well as the city’s side, it actually made me less cynical. It just made me realize that people are human. Mistakes will be made and sometimes the mistakes will be big. But not everything is a conspiracy. That’s a part of the film, showing that all these people—the protesters, the press, the city—in Denver they’re your next-door neighbors. Everybody in the film makes a mistake. They all fall down. The protesters maybe a little bit more than the others, but Alison at the Post has a huge moment of falling down, and she doesn’t feel she’s been badly portrayed. I actually don’t think Mark and Barbara feel they’ve been badly portrayed.

NT: At some point it does become gung ho where everybody is working together. All the people from the city are trying to protect the protesters. The protesters think that they’re being wronged, but in reality they’re fenced in for a reason. They’re fenced in because the FBI said, “Yeah, you can’t get this close to the Pepsi Center. It’s not because you’re a protester, it’s because you just can’t do that.”

AS: And then that’s raised the question of whether street protesting works anymore.

NT: Right.

H2N: So, does street protesting work anymore?

AS: I don’t know. Does it? I mean, I hate to keep going back to the Betty White on Saturday Night Live thing, but, like, if 100 people, or 500 people, had stood outside of NBC one afternoon and said, “We want Betty White to host Saturday Night Live!” We’re seeing it now with the Spider-Man thing.

H2N: [laughs] What is the Spider-Man thing?

AS: Donald Glover, who’s on Community, and he was in Mystery Team. He basically said, “I want to be Spider-Man.” And they launched an internet campaign. So now, there are all these serious articles being written about whether a black actor could play Spider-Man. And this is all because basically he started tweeting, and then other people started re-tweeting that he wanted to be Spider-Man…

NT: So the revolution will be televised.

AS: The revolution will be televised.

H2N: It will at least be tweeted.

NT: It’ll be on YouTube.

AS: So the question is: If 1,000 people went out one afternoon and everyone was like, “Donald Glover should be Spider-Man!” Or, “Betty White should be on Saturday Night Live!” These are trivial things, ultimately, but are people gonna pay attention to that? If it’s a sustained internet campaign, or like people signing up—there is no question that Obama won because of what Howard Dean did in 2004. I don’t think anyone would deny that. Howard Dean’s campaign was entirely based on what he was able to do on the internet. It wasn’t about people showing up and rallying. It was an internet campaign.

NT: Democracy works in weird ways these days.

AS: Whether it makes sense… The big protest on Wednesday in our film, it’s interesting in our film primarily because it was not covered by the media. I think there was a Democracy Now report about that march, and the Denver Post wrote about it, and maybe a couple other outlets, but other than that it doesn’t exist! If that march goes badly, which it almost did, it completely changes how that convention is seen. But it’s barely covered.

H2N: Would you do an ensemble piece like this one again?

AS: Fuck yeah.

H2N: And would there be things you’d be able to implement that you learned from this—I’m talking about in a practical production sense?

NT: I think that if we did it again, in any situation it would be so much easier.

AS: Because we learned a lot, and also we would use a lot of the same people. I mean, everybody wants to do it again.

NT: And we’d have so many more resources, and we’d have the experience of how to do it. It was fucking insane. Once you push it to that limit, then coming back from that is so much easier.

AS: They all felt like they were on a game show, in a weird way. If I’m gonna give us any credit, I think that we made really strong choices—and by ‘we’ I mean Nate and I as well as Shirley [Moyers] and Jenny Chikes and Britta—we made really strong choices about who the subjects were gonna be. So we’d identified the people and we had shot with a lot of them. And so we knew who we wanted [each person to cover].

NT: And we prepped those people and told them, “Next week, it’s not gonna be us, there’s gonna be some new people coming in.” And suddenly they get a phone call and they’re like, “Hey, we’re from this documentary crew,” and they just show up and start shooting.

H2N: Which raises the stakes on the issue of how do you get your subjects to ignore the camera as soon as possible.

AS: Well, in this case it was because they were all so fuckin’ busy. They didn’t have time to pay attention to us. At the time, Steven and Daniel weren’t Oscar-nominated filmmakers. Julia and Laura already were, so we could say, “We are bumpkins, but Laura Poitras? She’s been nominated for an Oscar, and she’s gonna be shooting you!” “Julia Reichert? She’s the godmother of the American documentary community, and she’s gonna be shooting you! You’re in great hands! You’re so lucky you’re not with us anymore.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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