Following its opening night screening at NewFest’s New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival last month, Emmy and Sundance Grand Jury Award-winning director Jesse Moss’ feature documentary Mayor Pete will be released globally on Amazon Prime Video this Friday November 12th. In 2019, the Boys State filmmaker gained surprisingly intimate access to 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate hopeful Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten, resulting in a fascinatingly insightful glimpse into the demanding and precarious process of running for national office through the behind-the-scenes personal experience of the young couple.
Ahead of the film’s launch on Prime Video, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Jesse Moss about his own unique position on the campaign trail, establishing a rapport with Chasten and Pete, and the historical significance of Pete’s candidacy.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what was your initial reaction to making this film when you were approached with the idea and what convinced you to say yes?
Jesse Moss: “Well, I said, ‘No’ at first when my producers approached me with the idea. I said, ‘Not interested.’ I was finishing another political film called Boys State at the time, and thought, ‘I’ve had it with political documentaries’. But they said, ‘Pete may be willing to give us access’ and that was intriguing to me. Also, I went away and I looked at a TV appearance that Pete had made at that time. Like a lot of people, I had been tracking Pete. I pay attention to Democratic politics and I knew that he was an up and coming star, but I watched this town hall appearance and I was captivated. I thought, ‘man, this guy’s got something going on’. I think a lot of people saw that.”
“I loved the idea that we could get close to him on this journey. I didn’t expect it to go far, but thought if we can see what it’s like to be a human being and run for president, that seems like an interesting documentary. I had filmed boys running for pretend office in Texas, this was a guy running for president for real. Granted, he’s an outsider, an insurgent candidate, he’s the mayor of South Bend and it seems very improbable. On the other hand, this is a country that elected Donald Trump and before that Barack Obama, a one-term senator from Illinois. So anything is possible. Pete is a pretty serious guy and this was a serious undertaking. I thought, ‘let’s see what happens and let’s see if he really gives us the access that he seems to have promised’.”
So presumably before you agreed to do the film that level of access was agreed upon? Did that change much as you went along?
“The way it worked is that it was spelled out, there were ground rules, and his commitment was real, and the access was real. But it’s really access in theory, not access in fact, because—and this is true of every documentary I’ve ever made—a subject can commit to making a film, but you really have to negotiate it and renegotiate it every day, and define and find what the boundaries of that access are. Those things change, that doesn’t remain fixed. This is a living relationship with a person who’s got to trust you. You’re starting from zero, even though there’s a commitment.”
“In fact, it was hard at first. Pete is hard to get to know, he’s a bit remote, and I’m a little bit reserved myself, so that’s a tough combination. We had our first encounter and I was filming and we talked briefly and I felt, ‘uhoh, I don’t know if this is going to work. He’s busy running for President, I’m some guy, kind of gnat with a camera’. But one thing I’ve learned through my work is patience, persistence, and openness. I work by myself usually, which is really the only way to make intimate documentary work.”
“I met Chasten and it opened up the story. Chasten is really different to Pete and I immediately connected with Chasten and I thought, ‘well, okay, I’ll give my relationship with Pete a chance to develop, but maybe we can see Pete through Chasten’s eyes. He’s got less at stake, he’s not the candidate. He’s a really funny, interesting guy himself. They’re negotiating this as this out gay married millennial couple, that’s really interesting’. I had expected a political story and I found a love story. So suddenly, the film opened up for me and that was exciting.”
When it came to momentous moments during the campaign, like the Iowa caucus results, you show us something very personal – Pete is in the bathroom and Chasten is calling through the door to him with the news! Was that something that you were looking to do throughout the film, make those grand moments intimate?
“Yeah, that went back to the initial idea of what it’s like to be a person, not just a guy on stage or on the TV box who’s running for president, but let’s be up close and personal and see what it’s like to negotiate that as a human being. You see that really acute struggle for Pete to be his authentic self, but also to stretch, to grow, to be all things to all people, to be more emotional, as his advisors challenge him to be in those debate preparation scenes.”
“Pete is so young that I felt like we were watching a coming of age story in a way and watching a real relationship and a real marriage being tested; two people who love each other going through something really intense and hard, but exciting together while this national political story is unfolding around them and with them, that they’re a part of. So all of those dimensions suddenly made it more interesting to me. Finding a balance between them was hard. What to shoot, when to shoot, how to shoot, all these questions. Suddenly Pete’s got a staff of 400 and not the four that he had when we started the film. Their job is to keep me away from Pete, even though he’s committed to make the film. What’s challenging is that there’s the press corps that covers the candidate, and there’s the staff, and I’m kind of in between them in a strange way and that’s a great place to be, but a hard place to be.”
There is of course the element of them breaking ground with Pete being a gay candidate and at times there’s that slight tension there, like when Chasten questions, ‘should I be standing there next to you because everyone else has their spouses there?’ Perhaps because he’s worked with young people, Chasten seems particularly aware of the significance that Pete running could potentially have those who are maybe struggling with their sexuality.
“I love the moment where they’ve got the Iowa caucus results and Chasten says to Pete, ‘In your speech, are you going to say to that kid who’s struggling to feel like they belong or to come out, if you believe in America there’s a place for you here?’ I love that scene, for me it’s one of the strongest. It’s a quiet scene, but it’s a powerful scene. Then you see Pete give the speech where he gets emotional, which he rarely does, and I think you actually sense what the victory means to him and probably to a lot of people.”
“I love that there’s the high wire walk that they have to do, which is they are out and proud and public in their identities, they’re also old fashioned in their love for each other, they go to Dairy Queen for dates, but they’re a queer couple in 21st century America and they’re on the biggest stage imaginable. Chasten says at some point, ‘Pete’s not running to be the president of gay America, he’s running to be president of for all Americans.’ Pete says, ‘To some people, our identity was everything as gay men, to others it was a minor detail.’ We watch how they walk that line in the film and we continue to watch as they’re now parenting two children as this political couple in Washington, DC. We’re watching them live history in a really interesting and hopefully an inspiring way.”
It does feel like an LGBTQ history documentary in some ways, in that perhaps in the future we will put it alongside films like The Lavender Scare and all sorts of other films about the LGBTQ experience. As a veteran, Pete references ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ during one of the debates and it is pretty incredible to have seen him first of all getting a second term as mayor as a publicly identifying gay man and then quite how far he got in the primaries. In terms of that LGBTQ history, again as a filmmaker were you focused on the idea of people living it, rather than putting it in some grand context?
“It seems presumptuous for me to present it as history. I’ll let history decide if it deserves to be put on par with other stories that deserve to be told and retold and have value. I think Pete will be around, as he says in the film himself, time is on his side. He’s earned his place in the political firmament and he’ll continue to be there I’m sure in ways that will surprise us still. To me, it felt monumental filming it. I know he didn’t win the nomination, he’s not president, but he got pretty damn far and he connected with a lot of people who we wouldn’t have imagined he would connect with. That theme of belonging is so powerful.”
“He’s not perfect, he’d be the first to say that. I wanted to make a kind of raw, unvarnished real portrait of them; foibles and strengths all apparent. I hope the film deserves its place in the conversation based on the honesty and authenticity of the story. I’m really interested in engaging with the LGBTQ community about the film and the story of what they represent. I’m proud of the film and I like Pete and Chasten. It was hard to make, but I really do respect them both and Pete took a tremendous leap of faith, both of them did, to let me come into their lives on this incredible journey that they were on.”
When it came to posing questions to Pete, we see that you asked Chasten for some suggestions, and during some of the interviews we hear that it’s actually Chasten asking some of the questions. What was your thinking behind that approach?
“I’ve not done that before, but it felt like a useful strategy in that I was interested in the both of them and their connection to each other. I wanted to invite Chasten into the conversation and I knew that because Pete is a little bit reserved and hard to access that Chaston certainly can access him in ways that I never could. I love that we get to see them talk to each other in what is an interview, but that’s because we’ve invited Chasten in and the results really did demonstrate that that was a way to understand Pete in a new way. You see him articulate some things that I don’t think he would have expressed to me.”
“As you see, we talked to Pete after the campaign was over and that’s the interview that opens the film in which Chasten says, ‘You should ask Pete if he was able to be his authentic self’. I think that really defines the central question of our story and I’ll leave it to viewers to decide what the answer to that is. It’s not for me to say. I think you see the struggle that he goes through, but I love that Chasten gets to define that for us. Chasten gave me a list of questions. As documentary storytellers we’re always looking for new approaches, there are no rules, I love that about documentary, we write our own rules. So to invite Chasten into this conversation seemed entirely appropriate and was a way to understand what they were going through together in a valuable way.”
You mentioned the struggle that Pete goes through in striking a balance between playing the game, but being his authentic self and we really see that acutely in the debate prep scenes, which are really fascinating. How surprised were you that you got that access and how insightful did you find those sessions?
“Anytime I was in debate prep I couldn’t believe that I was there. They let me film all of it and there was a lot of it; a lot of debates, a lot of preparation. A lot of it was frankly a little bit dry, and useful for Pete, but less so for me as a documentary storyteller. Those moments that were more therapeutic—where Lis Smith is challenging Pete not to be someone he’s not, but to reveal part of himself that he hasn’t been able to—were fascinating and powerful and tough. She’s really calling him out and it’s not easy for Pete and he articulates that. I found that to be the crux of one dimension of the story that we were telling, of the human struggle, of him coming of age and stretching himself. Frankly, I kept waiting to get thrown out from debate prep, but Pete lived up to his commitment to allow us to be in the room where it happens, as they would say in Hamilton, and there were some fascinating moments. I could make a whole film about debate prep.”
By James Kleinmann
Amazon Studios will release Mayor Pete globally on Amazon Prime Video on November 12th 2021.
Watch the full interview here: