After making the documentary “Boys State,” about a Texas program wherein adolescent males practice what it might be like to experience a real electoral campaign, filmmaker Jesse Moss turned his attention to a man running for real. For several months he and his crew followed then-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his ultimately unsuccessful bid to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
“It’s really hard to make a ‘longitudinal verite’” documentary, Moss said recently, citing his previous work on “The Overnighters.” “It’s just hard on you, and of course you don’t know what the story is going to be. On the other hand, it’s amazing because you don’t know what the story is going to be, and I love that risk.”
The result of Moss’s hard work is “Mayor Pete,” debuting on Amazon Prime today. Moss follows the up-and-coming politician from his home in Indiana, which he shares with husband Chasten, and on to campaign events in the important state of Iowa. Meanwhile, a black man is shot by police in South Bend, requiring Buttigieg to navigate difficult waters on both the campaign trail and at home as he faces an angry electorate.
“What was hard to say no to was the opportunity to have access to Pete, which I’ve so rarely seen in an American documentary,” Moss told me. “I loved that he was this insurgent outsider candidate: young, probably not likely to go far, but a really interesting up-and-coming voice in the party.
“I thought if he is willing to let us in…if we can really see from an intimate human perspective what it’s like to run a presidential campaign, to mount a campaign, this will be great.”
Fortuitously, producer John Bardin had attended Harvard with mutual friends of Buttigieg, which helped open the door for Moss and his crew to the candidate’s inner circle. Moss describes his initial meeting with the mayor as an “awkward first date” as he tried to convince Buttigieg, at that time facing seemingly impossible odds to the nomination, to say yes to the cameras.
“The relationship is everything in this kind of work,” said Moss. “And there’s so many people around him, needing things from him [that I had] to kind of navigate around those forces—and also forge a relationship with him where he could trust me and understand that I needed to be in the room.”
Moss also had to earn the trust of Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten. However, Chasten was not only open to interviews but has stayed in touch with the filmmaker since production wrapped.
“I love that I began to see that there was a story I hadn’t anticipated: that we could see Pete through Chasten’s perspective,” Moss said. “We could see this perspective behind the political narrative that was both very old-fashioned and radically new. I love that duality that was emerging.”
Moss also discovered that the footage he took of the Buttigieg household was often more compelling than watching the mayor and his team out on the campaign trail. Buttigieg, a self-described introvert, came alive when out in public and making speeches, but at home with Chasten, he was far more drawn inwardly.
“That’s where I could understand not just the internal political structure that he was engaged in to be a candidate, but the private personal struggle that he was engaged in to be more emotional,” Moss said. “I much preferred being in South Bend, not because it was ‘static’ but because it was a chance to see him being mayor, which I found really interesting. I love those moments at home with Chasten and seeing glimpses into his life” such as going to Dairy Queen together.
Moss says he shared with the mayor and his husband footage of the film as he was editing it, but that Buttigieg ultimately had no editorial say in the final product. And even though Buttigieg soon conceded in the race that was ultimately won by Joe Biden, Buttigieg now works in Biden’s administration as transportation secretary.
“Making a film with anybody is an intense process [and] I’m glad my relationship with them survived the intensity of the campaign, and that I could have this film to show for it,” said Moss. “Starting out, it was sort of this ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ This everyman from a small town. There’s this Capra-esque quality to his journey, and I think [the film’s] coda is wonderful in that they get to D.C. in a very surprising way.
“It may not be the position that Pete anticipated [but] it’s just a beautiful gracenote.”
Mayor Pete is available on Amazon Prime starting today