“Mayor Pete” director on capturing authenticity: "The process of campaigning is dehumanizing"

"He was willing to show himself getting frankly the s**t kicked out of him," director Jesse Moss tells Salon

Published November 13, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Mayor Pete (Amazon)
Mayor Pete (Amazon)

If the end result of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary was ultimately predictable, concluding with Joe Biden as the nominee and Kamala Harris as his running mate, one thing few saw coming was the unlikely rise of South Bend, Indiana's Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The army vet and small-town political leader would become the first openly gay candidate to win the Iowa caucus at just 37 years old. He shattered fundraising records, often spoke vulnerably about his experience as a gay man who came out at age 33 and rose as a star of the Democratic Party.

In Amazon Prime's new documentary "Mayor Pete," director Jesse Moss takes audiences on an intimate journey through the inner workings of Buttigieg's campaign and his private life while on the campaign trail. As Moss tells Salon, the documentary explores "the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly" of campaign life, and what it takes to run for president, through never-before-seen footage and interviews with Buttigieg and his husband Chasten.

RELATED: Our political future is in millennial hands — even if it feels like boomers will never retire

Buttigieg may have broken new ground in many ways, but the documentary simultaneously recognizes the ways his campaign was also controversial. This was certainly true among the more left and progressive wings of the party, as Buttigieg had criticized universal health care and tuition-free public higher education. The documentary also revisits how he faced heated protest from Black voters and South Bend community members about police brutality in his city, as well questions about his low polling with Black voters and voters of color. Others confronted Buttigieg about the race-gendered double standards that allowed him to excel in the race with almost no political experience, while far more experienced women candidates and candidates of color were making little headway in the primary.

Love him or hate him, the South Bend mayor made a name for himself in the national conversation, and his recurring struggle to present an "authentic" version of himself on the campaign trail is emblematic of a greater human struggle, Moss tells Salon. "How do we choose who represents us?" he said. "What is the process that they go through, that we evaluate them through? And what does it do to them?"

Read the rest of Moss' interview, in which he talks about being behind-the-scenes of one of the most surprising presidential campaigns in recent history — including incidents like being kicked off the campaign bus by Buttigeig's firebrand communications director, Lis Smith, or an elevator breakdown moments before the first debate — and the many deeply human questions both posed and answered by the campaign.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Throughout the campaign trail, there was often criticism of Pete for talking in platitudes a lot (social media users created the "Mayor Pete Platitude Generator"), rather than policy. In creating the documentary, how did you try to cut beneath the surface of regurgitated campaign talking points?

As a journalist or a documentary storyteller, you need to sort of guard against what feels false, what feels regurgitated, what feels like a platitude. That's your job, to cut through the bulls**t. And I will tell you that probably in Pete's version of this telling, there's a lot more policy in this film. The campaign had a lot of policy positions, which they articulated. The Douglas Plan, for instance, with the African-American community around structural racism, and, you know, all the things that people talk a lot about during the campaign. 

But to me, where the story was really located was in Pete's struggle within himself. I found that as a human story to be most interesting, because obviously there's a big political story of how he positioned himself as a candidate and connected with voters and became a successful credible, top-tier candidate. But to me, that sort of human story at the center of the narrative is where I wanted to focus. You can focus on an infinite number of directions, and then you have to make some choices. And I just went into the project with this sort of central question of, what's it like to be a human being and run for president? It's kind of inhuman process. Who do you become, what does it force you to be? I think Chaston articulates that question really powerfully at the top of the film, which is, "Was Pete able to be his authentic self while running?" I'll leave that to the viewers to decide — was the Pete that they meet in this film able to be his authentic self? And what is that? 

I think it's a struggle for him. And I think you see it in the scenes that were most interesting to me, which were not a platitude stump speech in Iowa. That stuff I wasn't interested in. I tried not to film any more than I absolutely needed to. I loved to be in South Bend. I loved to see him be mayor, I loved to be home with him and Chasten. And I loved to film debate preparation, which were scenes that were almost more therapeutic than about policy. They're about locating within himself these emotions that he hasn't been able to express about his identity. That was very interesting.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

One big challenge for Mayor Pete's campaign was criticism from Black protesters over racial justice issues, which is shown in the documentary. Was there any consideration given to interviewing or giving a platform to these voices for the documentary?

I think that you meet those voices the way Pete meets them. It's subjective storytelling that interests me as a documentary filmmaker. Getting up close to Pete and Chasten was what I wanted to do. This project is not largely film interviews. I mean, I love to make cinema verite, that's been the work I've made for 20 years. And it's subjective work. What I do is probably different than what you do if you write for a newspaper about politics. 

I wanted to get close to Pete and Chasten and to see this story from their ground level point of view. And I think you see it uncomfortably when when Pete encounters the rage, the anger, the frustration of the African-American community in South Bend, they let him have it. You see it when he meets with faith leaders in Dallas in that church and someone, an African-American man, says to him, why should we vote for you? Why should they vote for a white candidate? You see Pete struggle, frankly, to answer those questions. Those are the scenes that are interesting to me dramatically. You consider all options, as a storyteller, and then you sort of rule them out. I wanted to interview people who loved Pete who were in that community, and hated Pete, but then that's just not the approach that I felt was aligned with how I wanted to tell this story. 

I think what we see Pete face is a thread that any white candidate has to confront, if they're going to represent the interests of the African-American community or any community that's not them. That is the challenge of the Democratic Party to some degree now. Who will lead the party? How will they represent the fractured constituencies of the party? You see Pete negotiate that, and ultimately, the referendum in South Carolina shows he didn't get that support. That was the end of his campaign. So I think that you do see surface powerfully. It's not the only story of his campaign, though. There were others, and I wanted to make room for them as well.

Were you in the elevator with the team when it stopped before the first debate? There was a lot of panic and also comedy in that moment. What was it like?

It's kind of like you feel like you're living a moment from "Veep" or something. We just showed the film to an audience in New York, and there were a lot of laughs, and I'm just really glad because there were funny moments. That's kind of a terrifying moment, yet I love how composed Pete is, and Liz is freaking out, and everybody else is like, sure we're gonna fall, we're gonna plummet to our deaths. 

I was like, "Well, if I go down, I'm going to keep rolling. Because what the f**k else am I gonna do? It just ended up turning into a very amusing scene, and I loved it. It was right before the first debate. It's just the kind of happy accidents of documentary-making, and in hindsight, you look back and we all thought it was going to fall down and kill us all. But I think at the moment, it seemed like, what are you going to do except keep rolling?

The phone calls between Buttigieg and President Obama as well as Biden were widely discussed and speculated about, around the time that Buttigieg dropped from the race last year. What was it like to be present for those moments? Did you consider including more detail or shining more light on those calls?

I was really happy that in a moment of utter disappointment that Pete didn't push me away, like probably a lot of people would have when he was withdrawing from the race. He actually pulled me closer, and I was able to be with him, then to go home with him that night and to see him receive those condolence calls, which are the natural things that any candidate mounts or a credible campaign would receive from those people. You hear the sentiment that matters probably to Pete, from Biden, and I think you see them connect briefly earlier in the film. There seems to be some chemistry between them which is genuine. I think that Biden said when Pete endorsed him that Pete reminded him of his sons — he had two, one of whom passed away. I think he respects Pete, and if he didn't, he wouldn't have appointed him to the Cabinet. I think respects the campaign that he ran. 

Was there more to those phone conversations? I think there are certainly conversations I wasn't privy to, but I'm actually really happy with the access I got to his campaign. I got to see the good and bad, the pretty and ugly, and it was all on display. I think it's a testament to Pete's trust, his leap of faith, that he was willing to show himself getting, frankly, the s**t kicked out of him in debate prep, for example.

There are a lot of scenes, especially between Buttigieg and Smith, that show him struggling to present an authentic image of himself for audiences. Was it ever a struggle for you to get him to be authentic for the documentary?

That's the work of this kind of documentary storytelling — you can have trust in theory or access in theory, but access in fact has to be earned and re-earned every day with a subject and the advantages of longitudinal documentary work is you have time, you know, and patience to get to know them. You're not there to serve their interests. I'm an independent journalist. The ground rules of this were very clear and established upfront that he had no editorial control over the story that I was telling. I would never give that up to anybody. But you're still asking somebody to invite you in and be vulnerable. As a journalist you ask of your subjects what they ask of you, honesty, compassion, truthfulness, integrity. 

I find with subjects you're writing and rewriting the rules of access and negotiating them. Pete committed to the project and he committed to letting me in, both at home and at work on the campaign trail. I think the relationship story with Chasten kind of emerged as a surprise to me and was, in the end, the key to understanding more about Pete, who is a bit of a remote person. Seeing him from Chasten's point of view, who's unguarded in ways that Pete's very guarded,  felt like it unlocked a dimension to their personal story that was really illuminating, and I don't think he had planned on that. 

RELATED: From the desk of Pete Buttigieg (corrected)

But you know, the other thing that's hard is that campaign staff's job is to keep you away from the candidate. So, they don't trust you really, which, why should they? That's hard. You know, I got kicked off the bus by Lis Smith in Iowa, which is hard. But it just goes with the territory. And you know, there were times when they needed a moment, they asked me to turn the camera off, and you do it. There were moments I was asked to leave not because it was politically sensitive, and there were also just things I didn't have access to.

Speaking of Lis Smith, she herself became a pretty big personality on the campaign trail. As you started to see her star grow in the political sphere amid the campaign, was there consideration about giving her more focus in the documentary?

What's interesting about Lis is she's the opposite of Pete in many ways, but I think it was interesting that he's invited her into that role to challenge him. He needs it, you know, he articulates that in the film — it's sort of Lis' job is to help him walk that line. What is authentic? What's inauthentic? I mean, authentic people can be inauthentic sometimes too, and the process of campaigning is kind of dehumanizing and presents challenges to any journalist who covers it. How are you covering the campaign? If you're just writing about a stump speech and you don't have any access, you're writing about what they say — did it measure up against what they do? Anyway, Lis is a powerful, very talented lady who let Pete have it. And that was interesting to watch.

There's been conversation lately about the possible harms of making politics about celebrity, rather than focusing on policy. Was the concept of the celebrity politician something that came up in discussions about making the documentary?

I don't know that I think about it in those terms — I think the questions to me are, we live in a representative democracy, so how do we choose who represents us? What is the process that they go through, that we evaluate them through? And what does it do to them? These are kind of intellectual questions, but we know from Trump's election, and before that Obama's, that the norms of presidential politics have been shattered. Insurgent, outsider candidates can be competitive and successful. So, why not a mayor from South Bend who's 37 years old? 

RELATED: Mayor Pete is a mirage — but the road ahead looks murky for Democrats

Does a platform to communicate on television mean celebrity? One of the things we talked about with Pete and if you're any candidate like Andrew Yang and become to some degree successful, you'll become famous, right? And what does it mean to become famous? There's a process that involves media exposure, where you become a well-known person. And how does that destabilize you? That's an interesting question. I think that is played out to some degree, as Pete struggled to be himself, and also satisfy the demands of a political process, the voters and the media and what they want and need from you, and what you need from them in order to be successful. 

In creating this documentary and spending this time with Mayor Pete, did you get a sense of what may be next for him? What's next for you in terms of future projects?

Well, for Pete, I guess he's got his hands full as Secretary of Transportation, and he's got two newborn twins that he's fathering. So that's a lot of work. Obviously, a big portfolio in the Department of Transportation and a significant place in the Democratic Party given his profile. I don't know what his political future is. I can't say, I'm not good at prognostications. I sense that Pete might do well in a future campaign, and I like Pete's response to that question of whether he'll be president someday, at the end of the film, that "Time is on my side." I don't know if he'll be president, but he's still quite young, so it'll be interesting to watch. I think Chasten will have a role in public life. He's uniquely talented, in different ways. 

For me, I'm tempted to say no political films any time soon, having just made two back-to-back very different films about American politics. But I think it's also kind of a reflection of the moment, you know, that our democracy feels like it's in peril. Our country's intensely polarized, and every choice I make is political on the work I do. I want it to matter and hopefully put some good in the world.

"Mayor Pete" is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Watch the trailer for it below via YouTube. 

More stories like this:

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Prime Documentary Interview Jesse Moss Mayor Pete Pete Buttigieg