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Film & Politics: Convention

Reporters, protesters, politicians, oh, my! For the ensemble doc Convention, director AJ Schnack led a dream team of filmmakers through the logistical spiderweb of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.



For the enlightening documentary Convention—opening this weekend at the IFC Center—director AJ Schnack [Kurt Cobain About a Son, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)] rounded up a small army of filmmakers to descend on the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Told from the various viewpoints of reporters, organizers, politicians, and protesters, the result is is a multi-faceted, all-access look at how one of the most inspiring events of the new millennium came together.


In a fit of patriotism that coincided nicely with Memorial Day weekend, Tribeca talked with Schnack about his influences, the logistical hurdles, and the popularity of ensemble docs.


Team of Filmmakers What prompted the film?


AJ Schnack: I'd been wanting to make an ensemble film for a few years, obviously inspired by the work of Pennebaker, Maysles, Leacock and Drew on the Drew Associates films of the 1960s. Filmmakers often get opportunities to see one another at film festivals, but documentary work is somewhat solitary, so it's very rare that we really get to collaborate.


When I was the features editor for the school paper at the University of Missouri, I took a group of writers and photographers to Des Moines to cover the caucuses. Something about that experience really stayed with me. In fact, the initial idea for an ensemble film was to go back to Iowa to cover the caucuses in 2008, but… we couldn't pull the trigger in time. How did you round up all the participating filmmakers?


AJS: I'd been talking to other filmmakers about the Iowa project in the fall of 2007, so I had a sense of who might be game. I really wanted people who were director/photographers, because I knew that they needed to be talented cinematographers with the ability to make quick decisions. Laura Poitras, Paul Taylor, Steven Bognar, and Julia Reichert were all people I'd talked to about the caucus film, and once we shifted the idea to the 2008 DNC, I of course wanted to have Daniel Junge involved, because he's both such a talented filmmaker and based in Denver.


But we literally gave most of them four days’ notice before they were hopping on planes. It had a kind of Amazing Race quality to it. Like the convention itself, this film must have involved a spiderweb of logistics. How much planning went into preparing for the shoot?


AJS: It was incredibly complicated because we were dealing with a lot of unknown variables. Literally it was only days of planning, because we didn't know how many cameras we would have and how many teams until days before the convention opened.


We had 5 cameras following 5 different subjects, and we often had no idea where they'd be going and if they'd be traveling inside a secure area [requiring media passes]. In addition, we were shooting with P2 cards, so we had to get the cards from the field back to one of the places where the footage could be downloaded to a drive, [and we had to get] cards and fresh batteries back into the field. At one point in the midst of the Wednesday protest march that anchors the last third of the film, I was trying to avoid SWAT teams and find a hole in the fencing where I could pass cleared P2 cards and fresh batteries. All of this was the responsibility of my producer Nathan Truesdell, and I'm still amazed by it, particularly considering that he was also shooting footage—and because phone service was spotty at best.


Convention To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper [a character in the film], there must have been a lot of “we don’t know what we don’t know.” How did you plan for that?


AJS: We had no idea where the story would go, but we felt that we had good subjects and we were truly interested in how these Denver citizens—many of whom are 3rd and 4th generation Coloradans—would handle this huge, historic event. And there were a lot of conversations during the convention that helped us make our plan for the next day. How did you decide who would cover what aspects of the convention? Were there any storylines that didn’t end up being used?


AJS: I just sensed that Steven and Julia would love covering the political team at The Denver Post, so that seemed a natural choice. Daniel had expressed some interest in the local protest group, Recreate 68, so I put him on them—although he hated me by the end of the shoot because he ended up walking miles and miles and miles in the heat with the protesters all week.  


I had assigned Laura to shadow the president of the host committee, a larger-than-life former Denver city councilwoman who spearheaded the effort to bring the convention to town. But by the time the convention began, most of her work was finished—we ended up following her to several cocktail parties, which wasn't particularly compelling. So we moved Laura to Katherine Archuleta, who was the city's liaison to the convention. Through Katherine, Laura ended up embedding herself in the city's nerve center with the Deputy Mayor, which became very important toward the end of the film. That's the kind of decision-making I'm talking about that required filmmaker/photographers—Laura was by herself, and as far as I knew she was with Katherine, but then she met Bill Vidal (the Deputy Mayor), figured out what Bill was doing, and followed him. It was absolutely the right decision for the film. Did you have any issues gaining access?


AJS: In the spring of 2008, after the caucus project didn't happen, I called Britta Erickson, who became my partner/producer on the film. (She’s also the director of the Denver Film Festival.) Basically, I wondered if we could get the access we needed to proceed. Luckily, Britta had great contacts inside the Mayor's Office and at the Denver Post, some of whom she'd actually gone to high school with. We met everyone a month before the convention, so I think at that point they were all kind of overwhelmed and maybe said yes to us because they couldn't think of a reason to say no.


The most difficult part for us—and as you see in the film, surprisingly, for our subjects—was getting inside the Pepsi Center. The morning of the first day of the convention I was pretty convinced that we may not get in, [but] we finally got the media credentials a couple of hours before the convention opened, [with the help of] the 2nd in command at the DNCC.


ConventionConvention Chantal [from the mayor’s office] and Allison [from the Denver Post] were terrifically likable—and so was the permits guy. How did you select your “characters”?


AJS: After Britta made contact with everyone, Nathan and I went to Denver a month before to meet them. Another of our producers, Jenny Chikes, found out that there was a community meeting going on and pretty much everyone from the city—Chantal Unfug, Katherine—was at that meeting. Afterwards, we did short interviews with everyone, and while some people were clearly giving talking points, Chantal was refreshingly honest and real—just like you see her in the film. She was like your best friend or your next door neighbor, but she was tasked with this huge job. And Nate and I were just convinced that we wanted to have her as one of our main characters.


Then the next day we sat in on an assignment meeting at the Denver Post that Curtis Hubbard, the political editor, had arranged. In the midst of that meeting, Allison Sherry was making all these wisecracks and I just thought, “Here's this woman who is smart, funny and yet completely thrown into the political world, which she'd never covered before.” And she was on the Hillary Clinton beat, which in July 2008 seemed like it could be the big story that week in Denver, so I had a strong gut instinct about Allison. What were you expecting from the protest groups? It had a nice arc, with a payoff at the end, but were you anticipating a bigger story, a la 1968 Chicago?


AJS: Recreate 68 was the main local protest group, and they had been making a ton of waves in Denver prior to the convention: they'd sued the city over access to the Pepsi Center, they'd intimated that there would be tens of thousands of people coming from all over America, and they'd used some fairly incendiary language. As Curtis says in the film, the very name "Recreate 68" recalled the riots of Chicago. And the secondary local protest group decided to call itself Tent State University, which, again, didn't dispel the idea that these protests could get violent. And months earlier, Rush Limbaugh had gone on his radio show and sung, "I'm dreaming of riots in Denver," so there was clearly a sense that something could happen.


But I don't think I expected anything more than some minor scuffles and arrests—although certainly anything could happen, and it could have ended up being more violent, like the protests a week later in Minneapolis. What was more interesting to me in the long run was what the protests hoped to accomplish and whether—in the age of the Internet—street protests were as viable a way to get a message across as a viral messaging campaign. And in the end, the protesters have successes and failures. I found it interesting to see them in action without a hagiographic lens, particularly when much of documentary has a fairly knee-jerk love for the activist.


Convention Once you had all the footage together, was editing a team effort, or did everyone hand over the footage to one central editor?


AJS: I edited the film with Nathan, and it was a huge challenge because neither of us had ever tackled something with so many characters and storylines. And while we wanted it to feel like we had cameras everywhere, we didn't want it to seem like it was made by committee. We wanted a film that felt coherent, where you wouldn't be able to tell where one filmmaker's work ended and another's began. I was particularly inspired by Robert Altman films and the ways in which he intercut character and storyline using both natural sound and silence in a dramatic way. All in all, the film has a cinema verite feel, but unlike, say, Frederick Wiseman, you did use titles and also a great deal of music. Who made those decisions?


AJS: Those decisions were made during the editing process, with a lot of input from my longtime producer, Shirley Moyers. Nate and Shirley had found these old 1908 songs that were written and performed for that year's DNC, which was also held in Denver. And that music led us to a lot of our other choices—the Gilbert and Sullivan overtures, in particular.


I always felt the titles were important because there were so many people in the film and I felt we had to make sure that the audience began the week of the convention by knowing who everybody was. But Wiseman, like the Drew team, was obviously an inspiration. We were certainly interested in how the thing worked. There are a number of omnibus pictures being made these days—the Paris, je’Taime series, Freakonomics, etc.—what do you think is behind this trend?


AJS: I think we've always been interested in the concept of what happens when a talented team of people get together to tackle a single creative project. It was kind of funny that Magnolia announced it had acquired Freakonomics on the same day that IFC announced it was taking Convention. It felt like all-star documentary projects were all the rage for about 12 hours.


I'm excited to see Freakonomics—that sounds like a terrific idea. Our caucus idea had a similar omnibus structure, in that we planned to send everyone off to shoot a section of the film and then cut it together and send it to us. But I'm really glad that Convention ended up being an ensemble piece, where everybody was working with everybody else. One minute I might be shooting 2nd unit for Steven and Julia, or Laura and David Boone Wilson might be running to meet a subject at a hotel, and then we'd all end up back at our production offices at the end of the day boasting about who had "won the day" with the best footage. And then we'd go drink together. I can't wait to do it again.


Convention: AJ SchnackConvention opens Friday, June 4, at the IFC Center in NYC.
Find it on demand via IFC Films and Sundance Selects.


Watch the trailer!


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