politics

Filmmaker Aims to "Humanize" Politics in New HBO Documentary

By Julia Caulfield

David Modigliani (Photo courtesy of HBO)

David Modigliani (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The 2018 Midterm elections brought many lesser known politicians to the national stage. In his new documentary, Running with Beto, director David Modigliani chronicles then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, and become the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas in 25 years. K-O-T-O’s Julia Caulfield spoke with Modigliani about the film.

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Julia Caulfield (JC): Hi David, thanks for chatting with me today.

David Modigliani (DM): Thanks so much for having me.

JC: Your film follows Beto from the beginning of his campaign for Senate in 2018, before most people knew who he was, but there were so many new candidates who were running that year. Why did you choose Beto as the subject of your documentary?

DM: Like many great things in life, it comes back to baseball. I play on a sandlot baseball team in Austin, Texas, and in the spring of 2018 the De Amuletos de El Paso showed up, and they had a center fielder with a name I hadn’t heard before, who happened to be a U.S. Congressman. I was playing first base and he hit a single, and he told me he was running for Senate. I had been looking for – really since the 2016 elections, feeling the way we dehumanize each other through politics, and how much that causes us to, kind of, tune out – and I was looking for a story that might re-humanize it, or make it feel accessible in some way. So, when Beto spoke to the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch, in his dirty uniform, and brushed his sweaty locks aside, he certainly looked like somebody who could hold the camera and be the star of a movie, but it was really when he talked about the idea that he was going to go to every single county, even the most conservative that Democrats had long written off, that he was going to run without any PAC money, that kind of experiment in democracy was really exciting to me, and felt like a story that would be worth following and that would be an exciting thing to capture and then put out in the run-up to the 2020 cycle, certainly long before we would have imagined that he would be a candidate for the presidency.

JC: Campaigns are obviously fast moving, they can be a bit of whirlwind, especially getting towards the end. But it was really clear that you wanted to catch some of those moments of calm, with his family, playing basketball, why was that an important aspect for you to show in the film?

DM: I think it’s so much of what we don’t see. You know, it’s not life and death like it is in the military, but there is some similarity in the sense that when someone serves the public, the whole family serves, the whole family sacrifices in some way. Beto was home about two days a month for about two years. So their family sort of navigated that experience. It felt relevant to me in terms of showing what it’s really like to run for office. It was also exciting to me to show people who were new to politics, and no one is newer to politics than kids! I think seeing the democratic process through eyes sort of takes us back to that first blush, first experience with this whole process, and maybe allows an audience to view it in a different way.

JC: As a historical spoiler alert, Beto lost his race in 2018.

DM: It’s true! Spoiler!

JC: I assume that as you’re filming, you’re starting to think through the process of what the story is going to be, what the narrative arc is going to look like. Did that change once the election happened and you found out he had lost? Or were you playing in a way that you were able to easily change between a win or a lose for the arc of the film?

DM: You know, Plan A for this film was really, that he was likely to lose. We knew that Ted Cruz had won the 2012 Senate race by 16% and that a Democrat had not won statewide in Texas for 25 years, so there was a real sense that this was a long-shot; and then he went and made it close, went and made it really close. But we were always prepared to tell a story in which the candidate was going to lose.

JC: There have always been movies, and documentaries, and TV series about politics and politicians, but right now it really feels like we’re living in a moment where following politics is almost a national pastime. Do you think your film adds into a narrative that almost treats politics as entertainment?

DM: It certainly does feel like politics is more central to our conversation, and I think that a lot of it has become controversy driven, click-bait entertainment, infotainment, and I think there’s also a way in which the news covers politics by treating the rest of the country and the viewing audience as pundits. You know, “what are people saying about this or that,” that’s a big part of what drove me to make this film; to get back to the real human experience of politics, and getting beyond that click-bait, surface level. As opposed to the real work of knocking on doors, the real conversations that are had between people, and the real emotional experience of volunteering or being a grassroots activist, of allowing yourself to believe in something larger than yourself; making yourself emotionally vulnerable and really seeking change in this country.

JC: Well, David, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

DM: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.

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That was David Modigliani talking with K-O-TO’s Julia Caulfield about his new documentary, Running with Beto. The film is available now on HBO.