The eye-opening entertainment of “Boys State” concerns a microcosm of the American political system: put a bunch of political science buffs in the same summer camp, and let them create their own government for a week, including electing all of their own officials. What bills would they want to pass? What tactics would they use in their campaigns for roles like governor? How much would their actions be inspired by what they see in Washington, D.C. every day? Filmed in Texas’ version of the popular program (which has alumni like Dick Cheney, Garth Brooks, and Roger Ebert), the series follows charismatic kids like Robert, Steven, Rene, and Ben, all who have different goals for this week of summer camp. Their individual journeys, like mini political coming-of-age stories, play out in fascinating, and often very funny ways.
In the scope of verité documentary filmmaking, this is a blockbuster endeavor from co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who are used to “one-man-band” productions like the 2014 doc “The Overnighters.” “Boys State” made possible by the organization of multiple cinematographers, who film different lives through each part of the campaign, while collectively capturing the ambiance of it. The movie is as much about being a teenage boy as much as it is about confrontations in politics, and a sense of decorum or lack thereof that can have adults in Congress acting like kids.
RogerEbert.com spoke with McBaine and Moss about the making of the film, casting the right people, the hope they felt from their week at Boys State, and more.
Given that you had cameras follow around certain boys more than others, was there any worry from the Boys State people about having the presence of cameras influencing the campaigns?
AMANDA MCBAINE: They were worried about a number of things. I don’t think that’s one they specifically mentioned. I think as always, making a film like this can be a leap of faith. Let me put it this way: when we showed a rough cut of the film to city organization or the group of guys who were our leadership there, they loved it. Afterwards one of the directors, Gary, said, “I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs before I saw this rough cut.” You never know, you have to trust that we’re going to tell an accurate story, and that we’re not coming into it with any kind of agenda, and I think that’s something that had happened for them in the past, because they’ve been covered in the news in negative press about the program, but also they’ve never worked with documentary filmmakers before.
JESSE MOSS: If you’re asking abut the influence we had on the process, of course we always think about that as documentary filmmakers. I never remove myself from the equation, in fact that relationship of subject to camera, subject to filmmaker is sort of at the heart of documentary. It’s not objective either, we’re subjective, we make subjective decisions, we have politics. All of that influences the choices we make and also the choices of the subject, and it has an effect on events. It’s hard to parse what that effect is.
But what Steven has to say, is that first of all there’s a lot going on, and [the boys] were more concerned with the electoral process and the thousand boys around them in the chaos of the environment. They sort of quickly forgot about us. Steven says that the camera’s presence didn’t really help him get signatures or get on the ballot. He still had to struggle, and Robert, of course, had no trouble.
A boy named Eddy enters the story later, and you get a playful sense that you guys had the right impulse on a few kids, but maybe you missed Eddy. How do you know who to focus on in that regard? Were you surprised Eddy took over?
JM: We actually interviewed Eddy once it was clear that he was an ascendant candidate. And we thought a lot about this–we always felt like Eddy was more of an extension of Ben as a character. And so I think, our attention was in the right place. Ben was, as you can see, the master strategist of the Federalist Party’s victory. And Eddy was, he’s talented and the boys liked him, but we were less drawn to him as a character in this story. I think he plays the right role, I love what Ben says about him: “He knows his facts, or at least he presents like he knows his facts.”
AM: He’s not as emotionally accessible as you might need a film character to be. He’s a great candidate, he presented his facts and his confidence, and he’s a very smart, very genuine kid. But there was something missing for us in terms of what we wanted from a film character.
When looking for that emotional accessibility, how do you cast that?
AM: I don’t know if it’s totally rational.
It can’t be, right?
AM: Yeah, I think casting a verité film is always a big challenge.
JM: It’s about finding them infinitely interested and complicated; charismatic. In this case, they were all smart, passionate and ambitious. That was a necessary prerequisite for us. Diverse in their backgrounds, socioeconomically and politically. But I think they have a kind of intangible x-factor. We’ve been making verité films for over 20 years, “The Overnighters,” “Pastor Jim.” You’re looking for people … like Robert, you sense they have a kind of inner turmoil that isn’t always clear to you and it became clear to Robert and to of course the narrative. With Steven, his heart and his old soul-ness touched us. We didn’t know he was an exceptional candidate, we just knew that he was wise beyond his years. It’s hard, we’ve struggled to answer that question of casting this film, because the answer eludes us, even. It’s just, you know it when you see it.
In the process of making it, how much can you rely on a day-by-day plan? How much of it is truly chasing it moment by moment?
AM : This film was a very different animal than other films we’ve made, because usually it’s Jesse as a one-man-band, following one or a small group of people over a long period of time. This is the opposite; we had a crew of 28 people and we needed to capture a movie within a week. There was a lot of preproduction leading up to that, a lot of like a fiction film. We cast most of the film, we found after a long time, Robert, Ben, and Steven, so we knew we would have our main characters and we were going to follow them through every second of their experience. And then we needed that very solid crew so we put together what we felt was going to be the people who could help us through it. But with all of that, the amount of chaos we faced was unlike a fiction film set, in the sense that it’s not … there’s three or four set pieces happening at any given time, and we do not know how long, or who is going to be there, or what is going to happen.
JM: I think there might be a tendency to imagine that the camera had more of an influence because we did get very fundamentally lucky with the choices we made with the characters with the intersection of their trajectories. That’s verité filmmaking and why it’s so hard to finance, because you don’t know where it’s going to go, and you push all your chips onto the table. Usually with verité there’s no chips because no one will give you any to play with. But this is an unusual moment in documentary, where Concordia was willing to take that plunge with us, and to allow us to scale-up a 28-person crew and bring on six or seven DPs, plus me. That allows you to take a bigger swing, and that’s exciting. I think we swung and we got lucky. There’s skill too, I won’t divorce that, but it’s hard to disentangle.
AM: I think it’s lucky to have found not just one but four people who really just constantly fascinated us. You could follow any one of them through the program and I think it still would have been interesting, but to have four in the range of everything they represent and feel, is one of the magical things about the movie. And then they come to head-to-head, that’s the second piece of storytelling magic.
How many kids are mic’d at one time?
JM: We only really mic’d our main characters. And in the climactic confrontation there might have been four lavalier mics in a room. It was a nightmare, so I’ll say that. We had to learn the hard way that we had not done as much thinking and planning with audio as we had with camera. We had assumed that the DPs, who were pretty much one-man-band style, would just lav their subjects. But we actually realized that we needed sound recordists, because the room dynamics were challenging. We were hiring on the fly in Austin, like if you were a body who had ever held a boom, we probably hired you. We brought in Mark Roy who is exceptional as a verité sound guy, and there’s not many of them, like Mark Petersen in Austin. But we needed more, and then we had to act. The post-production on the film was very complicated with the multi-camera. We had soundboard feeds, and we had lavs, and we had booms.
AM: I did sound at some point, that was part of the chaos on the ground. That was one of the fires we had to put out.
Even with all of your experience, this sounds like a blockbuster in comparison in terms of size crew. How do you keep your composure as creatives? How do you find that clarity to work in the high stakes shoot?
AM: It’s a fugue state. This is not the first film we’ve ever made, and I’m glad it wasn’t because I think it was hard to stay in the zone. But on the other hand … we always want to be scared of what we’re working on to keep us moving forward creatively. I think this was one of those moments.
JM: I think it’s important, for me particularly, to surrender my ego a little bit. We brought in this team of cinematographers who were brilliant in their own right. And I’m used to verité where I shoot every frame in the film. On “The Overnighters,” there was never a crew, I shot 100% of that movie. And we couldn’t make this movie that way, and to surrender to Torsten Thielow and Wolfgang Held and Claudia Raschke and Martina Radwan and Patrick Bresnan and Ivy Chiu, was a little bit of surrendering of ego, and a trust. We set the parameters for them, we said, “This is the camera, this is the lens, this is the f-stop, but then it’s really up to you, and your relationship with the subject. We’re only two people, we have four main characters, and we can’t be all places at once.” I don’t think we ever like, outside a fiction set I don’t think we’ve ever orchestrated something like this, and I think it’s wonderful when you have a team and the people you trust.
That sense of these different perspectives and relationships, would that influence how you put it all together?
AM: I don’t think so.
JM: Part of hiring these people is that they’ve done so much of it that they’re so good at it, and they have instincts. But there’s a little armchair quarterbacking.
AM: I think in the one instance, we had our friend Patrick Bresnan who is a film director in Austin. I think the footage he shot had real resonance to it.
JM: He wasn’t assigned a character, but he’s a still photographer. Brilliant eye for people. And we just empowered him to go find the corners and pockets of this experience, the wider tapestry of the event. The pageantry, this bizarreness.
AM: The talent show, he really went deep in that rabbit hole. He was also assigned the House and the Senate, so it’s really interesting to watch him follow bills as they got written and who he chose in that mass of people. There are directorial choices that are very Bresnan-ish in those spaces. I’d say that’s probably the most distinctive that footage got.
JM: Usually when you have these omnibus films where one director does a ten-minute piece and they assemble a feature out of it, they never work for me. So it’s really kind of a terrifying prospect to do what we were doing, and as a director you fight so hard for control. And then you give it up. I think that’s what does excite us at this point in our careers, is pushing into a space that feels riskier.
Do you feel a certain kind of control with “Boys State” going to wider audience immediately, via AppleTV?
JM: I think introducing a film about politics into a very charged political moment gives one pause. It’s why we made the film. We wanted to engage with our country’s political paralysis in a way that felt fresh to us, and we hope that an audience would come to it and see the experience of teenage boys in Texas and their politics, something to be reflected back on our national politics. I think people are looking for a kind of ideological certainty and reassurance, and yet we know we’re at a threshold moment where we need to kind of break open the paradigm, it’s breaking open in front of us in some very unhealthy ways but also hopefully some positive ways.
If it’s only an experience, an opportunity for parents and their teenage children to watch a movie … speaking for myself, there’s a lot to the national political conversation that I simply can’t engage with. I have to choose very carefully, yet I still want to engage and understand and think about where we’re at. I hope that the film can find that sweet spot.
This was one of the first documentaries I’ve seen where you get to see teenagers talk about gun violence and its effect on them, all within this context of them trying to create this next generation of legislation. I thought that was really powerful, and important.
AM: Going into the week, we knew that guns were going to be one of the big debate topics. Every year there is one. The year before it was secession, but we knew it was going to be the topic. Parkland had happened two and a half months before, and Santa Fe happened two weeks before that. And it’s Texas. So we knew that debate was going to be vivid, and we were excited for that. I think we didn’t know to the degree that Steven had been such a muckity-muck in the March For Our Lives, we didn’t know his past that well, so that was really interesting that his past played out. Again, the House and Senate, they did debate this and pass a Universal Background Check bill. I think that takeaway for us was powerful, that in Texas, with this group of kids, with the conversation that we don’t get into in the film. But we did watch very smart, very layered, very sophisticated conversation that resulted …
JM: In compromise. People ask, ‘Does the film make you hopeful?’ And the film engenders complicated feelings in most people. But for us, [its] mostly hopeful, in that these kids throw themselves into the process, and present themselves as great examples of leadership or integrity. That this group of kind of crazy, anarchic, Lord of the Flies teenage boys could also be smart, and come together and agree on significant issues, is very important to all of us. That was hopeful.
Available on August 14 on AppleTV+.