Documenting “Caucus” and Its Relevance Today

When it comes to the presidential election process, every American gets to cast their vote. As noted by the new documentary Caucus, however, their choices may be thinned out by the time they do. In 2011, filmmaker AJ Schnack chronicled the Republican hopefuls attempting to woo Iowans with dreams of winning the highly influential Iowa Caucus. State fairs, town hall meetings and fancy dinners were just a few of the stops candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and, the man who turns out to be the film’s semi-lead, Rick Santorum made in order to drive up local awareness and media attention. Some candidates, such as Tim Pawlenty, quickly dropped out due to lack of support, while others, such as Herman Cain, threw in the towel for more personally scandalous ones. The theatricality of politics and poignant (and intimate) moments of character are on full display throughout, as the documentary chronicles a horse race where the victor ultimately went on to lose on the grandest stage of them all. FilmLinc Daily recently spoke with AJ Schnack to discuss the origins of the film and the politics of his filmmaking.

"I went to school at the University of Missouri and I worked at the student newspaper," Schnack noted, explaining the origins of the project. "I went up to cover the caucus in 1988. It was an amazing experience for anyone who was interested in politics and media because the entire political media universe depends on Des Moines, you know?  I had never seen anything quite like it. It was always something that made a big impact, seeing it close-up. As a student of documentary and as a fan of vérité and certainly political vérité films—obviously a film like Primary is a huge influence—the opportunity to make a film called Caucus was always something I was very interested in. My wife tells me that I first mentioned it to her in 1996, so I guess it only takes about 15 or 16 years to make something happen."

Viewing the film, it becomes apparent that the filmmaker was granted what often feels like unlimited access to the candidates. "We went early to Iowa," Schnack admitted. "We were there in April of 2011, before some of the candidates had even declared. We met with as many people as we could on the grounds who were involved in Iowa politics, so that we could talk to them and tell them what we were interested in doing. So when the candidates came, we had a lot of people who were willing to vouch for us. We were there on many of the candidates’ first trips. It was clear that we weren’t just somebody who was diving in at the last minute. We there when they were just ramping up their campaigns. We were the only camera that was with Michele Bachmann on her first full day of campaigning in Iowa. I think that’s something that helps us out much later on. There were a number of times when we were the only cameras around for Senator Santorum."

If you’re wondering what Schnack’s own political beliefs are, it would be best to look elsewhere. Caucus is neither a polemic nor a piece of spruced up agitprop. "If we did our job well, if we did our job right, then we were making a film about these human beings who were running for office," Schnack admitted. "A lot of issues are discussed or mentioned in the film, but it’s not really a film about politics or what someone believes politically. It’s really about the challenge of running for president and the difficulty of it. When you’re backstage in a campaign—for a lot of them, it’s very early in their campaign life—they don’t quite realize that it’s very different to run for President in Iowa than it is to run for congresswoman in Minnesota or Governor of Texas or Senator from Pennsylvania. It’s a completely different animal. That is what I was interested in, in seeing those human moments of people who we’ve otherwise seen stereotyped as one thing or another."

Although the film covers the main candidates, some are given more screen time than others. "I think Santorum and Bachmann are the two sort of lead storylines," the director explained. "They both have very interesting trajectories, obviously. Michele Bachman landing in Iowa at the top of the polls, she’s a native daughter of the state, everything seems to be going well from her at the beginning, and then the wheels fall off. Santorum is, early on, very frustrated and then he sort of embraces this sort of dogged campaign, where he’s just going to slog it out through all the counties and he’ll talk to every voter no matter how challenging or difficult the question gets… We all, early on, saw Santorum as a very interesting character because he was doing the old-fashioned retail politics without having the money and it seemed like maybe you couldn’t do that anymore. It’s interesting to watch him through that process. And, of course, when it looks like he might have the chance to win, it becomes the Rocky Balboa underdog story and, for a narrative piece, that’s really great.”

"I think because I’m an editor, I need cutaways," Schnack explained when asked about the unique and intimate moments of character that shine through. "When I’m shooting, we’re thinking about what might we cut to. That starts us looking around the room, wondering ‘what are the interesting things that are happening here in the room?’ A lot of times in these events, the media would come in and there’d be a riser in the back of the room where they’d put their camera on a tripod, hit record, and they would go. Our thing was, we were never on a tripod and we were often off to the side.  We would always be standing in some other place, which allowed us to get reactions of the people. I think the fact that we were shooting it differently than the rest of the media covering it was important [and] lead to some of those moments that you hadn’t seen before."

The film has quite the eclectic group of supporting characters as well, most notably the candidates’ significant others (and perhaps one in particular). "The interesting thing with Marcus Bachmann is," Schnack started, "he was present on that very first day of campaigning. A person from the press went up to him and asked him a question. And he said, ‘oh, I’m not giving any interviews. I’m just here to support Michele.’ He did have his interactions with Iowans about the plants and at a farmer’s market they spoke with a woman about Danish baked goods and they had a long conversation with her. But he certainly wasn’t talking about anything politically. Then at the end, where she’s thinking, 'I’ve got this chance [to win] now,' [things changed]. That moment where he says, 'I’m going to be the First Gentleman,' that came out of nowhere. I think everyone that was there from the press thought, 'he’s never done this before.' That part became very interesting and I sort of refer to it as Marcus Unbound, as he was very public [from then on] as a part of the campaign. I think had he not made himself so public, which ends with a scene of him thumbwrestling [for votes], it may not have been included in the film.”

And on the decision to refrain from showing any images or footage of Barack Obama, the chief rival of the candidates documented here: "It was intentional but not something I overly thought about. The movie is not about him, it’s about the people who are hoping to challenge him. There was probably a thought at one point of including in the end credits that maybe we have Romney’s [Republican candidate] acceptance speech and then Obama’s acceptance speech, but I think it was nicer to keep him in this film as the villain you never see, the person they’re all talking about but who’s always off camera."

This week is a particularly relevant time to release Caucus. Not only was Election Day this past Tuesday, but Newt Gingrich (a subject of the film) released a new book, Breakout, as did Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whose Double Down, a sequel to the very popular Game Change, covers the 2012 election. "We definitely thought that election time would be a good time for it and wanted to get it out relatively soon and not get too far into next year when people start thinking about the midterms. I think we’re still at a point where people are kind of wrestling—obviously with Double Down coming out—people still want to wrestle and wonder what happened in that campaign. I didn’t know that their book was coming out this week, but it’s great timing!"

Caucus opens Friday, November 8 in the Film Center Amphitheater. Director AJ Schnack will be in person for Q&As on Friday and Saturday at 6:45pm along with Republican Strategist Hogan Gidley, Buzzfeed Political Editor McKay Coppins, and CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.

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