Jesse Moss talks Mayor Pete

Mayor Pete. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Jesse Moss spoke with Solzy at the Movies last month in Chicago ahead of the world premiere of Mayor Pete in October.

While this film takes an intimate look into Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for president, it is not recommended for children. The film is rated R. When you watch the film, you’ll understand why it has this rating. But anyway, there is an intimacy level with now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that you’ve never seen in any other campaign documentary. This is what makes the film stand out from similar documentaries.

Jesse Moss
Jesse Moss

How quickly did it take for Pete Buttigieg to come on board?

Jesse Moss: He came on board pretty quickly. It was really—before he officially announced his campaign, he was testing the waters. He had a campaign staff of five. I’m not sure even he thought he was going to get that far in the race. We connected to him through some mutual friends and he was open to the idea. He’s really committed to transparency and I think that he looked was aware of our past work and was open to the idea. Really, the surprise to me was not that he committed but that he lived up to the bargain and was willing to let us continue to film for the whole year of the campaign.

One of the things I liked about the film was how many intimate moments and the access like the debate prep and everything I’m sitting there thinking when’s the last time I’ve seen a political documentary with this kind of access?!?

Jesse Moss: Yeah, I don’t think I ever have—debate prep in particular and certainly at the level of a presidential campaign. That felt unprecedented to be in the room where it was happening—political strategy, debate prep. Just being able to go home with them and spend some time with him and Chasten. The intimacy is, I think, that kind of access is the currency of documentary. I think Pete’s willingness to let me in because it wasn’t a crew—it’s really just me. That’s how I like to work as a cinéma-vérité filmmaker. It takes time to build a relationship, especially with someone like Pete, who’s got a lot going on. I think at first, all I could do was just kind of be there and be respectful, present, and let him see how I like to work and who I was. We built a relationship.

When one thinks of campaign documentaries, it’s hard not to think of The War Room. How much of your approach to Mayor Pete was influenced by the film?

Jesse Moss: I love The War Room. It’s actually the film that propelled me into documentary. I saw it in 1994, right around the time it came out in theaters. I saw it in the movie theater—for one, which was incredible. I was like, a documentary on a big screen played like cinema, was cinema. I was politically involved at that time, too, so I kind of connected with the political narrative. I love that the filmmaking—of course, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are masters of the form. Pennebaker’s work stretching back to the early 1960s. He was involved in the Robert Drew film, Primary, along with Albert Maysles. I mean, that was another formative film but The War Room showed that you could film a presidential campaign from the inside. Of course, that’s not about the candidate. It’s about George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.

Here was an opportunity to have that kind of access but with the candidate himself and that felt unprecedented. Of course, when we started, we didn’t think Pete would ascend to the top tier of candidates. However, I knew it was clear to anybody who was paying attention based on his CNN Town Hall appearance, his background that he has political gifts, and that the norms of presidential politics with Trump, with Obama. They had shattered them. Who can be a credible presidential candidate? What we expect is not what we might have thought 20 years ago, right? For those reasons, it was very exciting to see Pete really break out and to be along for this kind of rocket ship ride, which happened very quickly after we started filming. Within that three month period, he was leading the field nearly in fundraising. His message was resonating in Iowa, an early state and other early states. He was building this campaign staff on the fly from five people when we started the film to eventually 500 people. You can imagine scaling up that quickly—very exciting to be in the middle of that, Challenging, too.

I think one of the things you can’t appreciate in The War Room, I think, and I can really appreciate now I’m sure it’s the case with the filmmakers in that film and any political film is access. You might have access in theory but access in practice is hard and especially when you’re dealing with campaign staff. Their job is to protect the candidate and not really sure what to make of you, this filmmaker. You sort of don’t belong in the traditional political press category—but you’re not campaign staff—because I’m very much an independent journalist. I had this relationship and willingness on Pete’s part to let me in—that was challenging.

When it came to editing, were you all editing the film as you went along or did you wait until after he withdrew from the presidential race?

Jesse Moss: I think it’s really important with this kind of storytelling to start to edit as soon as you can, as you’re shooting, I think, to get feedback from your creative partners, which I do from my wife, Amanda, and my editor, Jeff Gilbert. It helps inform my directorial choices, where I put my time and my emphasis, things that I’m missing or things that I’ve overlooked or misunderstood. We were cutting scenes. It still took a year to edit the film after we wrapped production. We wrapped when Pete dropped out and endorsed Biden. This was about a year of production and then a year of editing. It’s funny because you know the story, you know the beginning, you know the middle and you know the end. But putting all the pieces together, I found there’s no shortcut in a documentary and especially when you have a lot of material.

We had to live through the election of 2020, which was intense for all of us, very traumatic. I think we had to get to the other side of that election to be able to make better sense of what we had and the story that we wanted to tell and for me to understand that so much of the kind of emotional center of this film was the relationship between Pete and Chasten. In some respects, very old fashioned and their love for each other, in other ways, utterly revolutionary, a gay married couple on the biggest stage of American politics and public life. To watch them navigate that, both as sort of individuals and as a couple felt historic and part of what made this film to me just resonate and I hope will be part of its enduring value.

What was the biggest challenge that came with the film during the pandemic?

Jesse Moss: In some ways, we were fortunate in the timing. Of course, I would have loved for Pete to have advanced further in the in the campaign. He got pretty damn far. But we wrapped right as COVID hit. In a kind of practical way, we were spared the challenges of logistically of shooting in COVID, which were very difficult at that point. They’ve become a little bit easier now. I think really the big challenge, which I referred to, is just sort of the world changed. What was important to us is the world changed as we dealt with COVID and again, the trauma of the final throes of that Trump regime. That was hard. In many respects, we were fortunate. We went right into the edit room. I could work remotely with my editor in Los Angeles. Amanda and I live in San Francisco so we sort of were able to navigate COVID in a fairly fortunate way, compared to so many people. Amazon stepped up to partner with us on a film so we had a great home for the film. We were able to really focus on the misery of kind of getting the story to work. That’s always painful but we got through it.

Last January saw the premiere of Boys State during Sundance. What were the challenges that came with working on that film and Mayor Pete at the same time?

Jesse Moss: Part of it initially for me was I was editing Boys State when the opportunity to make this film came around. I wasn’t sure. I worked in politics in my early 20s but the films I made when I went into documentary are not overtly political. They’re politically engaged. I don’t know if you know my other work but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take this on because Boys State’s a full meal in itself and I love that film. I feel like this film is a really important continuation of that conversation, which is about political polarization and division in our country and sort of finding the people who are the voices, the leaders who are helping us find a way forward. I love the message of Pete’s campaign that he was making room for so many people on reaching out and connecting with people who maybe felt like they didn’t have a voice or a home in politics or in government and our country.

Particularly, in the four years of the Trump administration, that message really resonated with me and I could feel like a real through line—I don’t know if you’ve seen Boys State—from the message of Steven Garza, that wonderfully inspiring young man in Boys State to Pete. Now really, trying to heal, to knit the wounds of our country that are profound are deep. I felt like this is a conversation I want to continue to have in film as a filmmaker. It’s what we’re all dealing with and the way I process it is through my camera, I did feel like it’s also kind of fun to go from boys running for fake office to the real deal and with real stakes. That comes with complications, but in some respects, kind of similar, right? But in other respects, a totally different animal. That was kind of a goof but  also, I think very real in wanting to have a conversation about the political future of our country and of the Democratic Party.

How honored are you to be premiering Mayor Pete during the Chicago International Film Festival?

Jesse Moss: Well, we did a lot of work here in the Midwest. Of course, coming through Chicago and filming in South Bend, it feels like a great place to premiere the film. Anthony Kaufman, who I know programs the festival, is an old champion of documentary—I’ve known him for 20 years and it’s a great city to premiere the film. Hopefully, we’ll get an audience of documentary lovers, of which there are many here and some of our financial supporters are in Chicago so that’s great. They get to see that film that they helped support. I think it’ll be just exciting for me to be in a room, a theater. with people to share the film.

What a difference a year makes.

Jesse Moss: Yeah. Very excited to have that opportunity.

What do you hope people take away from watching the film?

Jesse Moss: I think the film is a wonderfully intimate and beautiful story about this relationship between Pete and Chasten. I think it’s a window into presidential politics and campaigning, and how we choose and who we choose as our leaders that is as exciting as any political film that I’ve seen. If you don’t know anything about Pete, it’ll introduce you to him in a very exciting way. If you know a lot about Pete, you’ll still get to see a lot that you probably never saw during the campaign and get to know him in a totally different way. I think if you’ve asked yourself, what’s it like to be a human being and run for president? I think this film sort of confronts that central question. We see Pete navigate that. How do you be your authentic self and satisfy all of these demands, from your voters, from the press, from who your staff wants you to be? That’s a kind of universal question or story that the film presents, which think you’ll find interesting wherever you come from on the political spectrum.

Amazon will release Mayor Pete globally on Prime Video and in theaters at the Laemmle Noho 7 Los Angeles on November 12, 2021.

Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.