A week before Bernie Sanders came within a sliver of beating Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, he was in Mason City, Iowa, along with one of the campaign’s more outspoken celebrity surrogates, Susan Sarandon.
As the crowd at the venue, Music Man Square (named for the town’s famous native Meredith Willson), began to chant “Bernie! Bernie!,” the candidate, backstage starts his own playful chant. “Susan! Susan!”
“Don’t get nervous when you go out and talk to people, Susan. I know this is…” Sanders tells her.
“No. I don’t like talking to people as myself,” Sarandon responds.
Then Sanders makes her aware of a camera capturing their conversation, pointing to it and quipping. “Just look into the camera, and you’ll be fine.”
The camera on this candid moment was from the new Showtime series “The Circus,” a non-scripted, non-fiction series which is taking each week out of this year’s presidential campaign and crafting them into half-hour narratives. The idea behind the show was to capture the dramatic feel and elements of a behind-the-scenes campaign documentary, ala “Primary” and “The War Room,” but to do it for the age of Twitter, meaning as close as possible to real time.
The three stars of the show — guides who take viewers through the process — are Mark McKinnon, the political strategist, and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the co-authors of “Game Change” and “Double Down” who host Bloomberg TV’s daily “With All Due Respect” and are regulars on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“Much of the coverage out on the campaign trail is run and gun,” Halperin says. “It is embeds with tiny cameras, or pool crews who stand and shoot from the riser head on. So one of the founding theories of this is to put great, really skilled documentarians out in the field, put us out there as people who know the story and know the people, and take viewers inside rooms, on the ground, where the campaign is actually happening.”
As much as campaigns want to humanize their candidates, they also are on guard, especially for the embarrassing moments that become viral sensations. Access is an issue.
Among other things, “The Circus” has featured an interview with Jane Sanders, Sanders’ wife who is just now gaining prominence on the campaign trail; been on the campaign bus with Ted Cruz, relishing in a tweet he sent of Fonzie “jumping the shark,” a dig at Donald Trump; and spent time with Jeb Bush, doing prep for an interview with Hugh Hewitt.
These unscripted moments may not have been so candid as to immediately alter the trajectory of a campaign, but it is a start. The show is still framing the race, like the relationships between the candidates, their families and their staffs. The focus may be widened in future episodes, to spotlight donors, the media, even voters.
“We have been pretty happy with the access we have gotten so far, and yeah, we hope to [have even better access] by the time we get even deeper into the nomination fight and into the general election,” Heilemann says. “You send these crews out and they spend time with these candidates all day long. They get to know them. They get comfortable with them. They start to know the cameramen by name. It just makes people more comfortable going on.”
Halperin says, “Here is how revealing we think this can be. I learned stuff about Jane and Bernie Sanders myself. I learned stuff about Donald Trump in doing this show. I learned stuff about all the candidates, because there is no substitute to documenting what they are like in this environment. So the challenge is to show the sides of people you don’t normally see, and I think we are doing pretty well.”
According to Showtime, “The Circus” averaged about one million viewers across platforms on premiere week.
The idea for the show came from McKinnon, who has advised candidates such as George W. Bush and Ann Richards, who said that he had for years wanted to produce a documentary about a political campaign. “But I also thought that the key to success would be to roll it up in real time, so that viewers are literally seeing the campaign unfold as it happens,” he says.
He says that the production challenge is “monumental.”
“Networks usually have weeks to see and approve content, but in this case only have hours, which just terrified most television executives,” McKinnon says. “But not [Showtime chief] David Nevins. He got it immediately and went all in.”
As footage is shot throughout the week from the campaign trail, the files are transmitted to editors in New York. The editors review and cut clips throughout the week, assembling the episode and tying it in to the week’s general outline and theme.
The show’s uniqueness may be in the goal of creating an entertaining storyline week-to-week, without the gimmick of fictional characters interacting with real ones, ala “Tanner ’88,” or the mock campaign of Showtime’s 2004 reality show “American Candidate.” The most recent episode was called “Tension City,” the name that George H.W. Bush gave to Des Moines in the buildup to the caucuses.
Final edits are typically done on Saturday, and completed episodes are shipped off by noon on Sunday for airing later that evening. They do cut it close: “Tension City” featured footage of the results of the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll being announced on Saturday night, for inclusion in the final edit.
Some of the best behind-the-scenes campaign documentaries, like Robert Drew’s “Primary” (1960) and Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “The War Room” (1993) had deeper, fly-on-the-wall access to candidates and the inner sanctum of campaign strategists, but also the benefit of time. They were released after the risk to a campaign had dissipated.
Heilemann said that they see as precedent the case of “Mitt,” the 2014 documentary about the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who granted extensive access to filmmaker Greg Whiteley, but with conditions on when footage could be used. There was an internal debate within the Romney campaign on whether to allow the movie to be released before the election, Heilemann notes, but Romney said it should wait even though he was comfortable with the filmmaker.
“Then the movie came out after Romney lost, and many people, even Democrats, would come up and say, ‘If I had seen that version of Mitt Romney. I like that guy a lot more. He’s more human. He seems more approachable, more natural. I might have voted for the guy if I had seen that version of Mitt Romney,” Heilemann says.
“Romney himself, I believe, has publicly said that they had put the movie out earlier… I think for a lot of campaigns, having seen ‘Mitt’ and having seen that dynamic, they look at this and say, ‘Oh, I understand that, and why it may be a value to be able to present a more approachable human image of our candidate or the candidate’s spouse and other people around them to the public in real time, as the campaign is going on.'”
Some candidates will be less guarded than others. Sanders has done interviews, but Heilemann says that he’s been told that the campaign has turned down requests for cinema verite feature documentaries.
The most recent episode of “The Circus” featured some comments from Hillary Clinton, who answered questions from a rope line as she was shaking hands and taking selfies, as well as from her husband Bill, who shouted answers from afar as he was walking out of an event.
“She is always going to be a little more guarded,” Halperin says. “She has Secret Service protection, so that adds another layer…. We are respectful of the fact that she is a different kind of candidate, but we will be just fine.”
The show also intersperses footage from Halperin and Heilemann’s nightly show, “With All Due Respect.” They also are managing editors of Bloomberg Politics.
That vantage point raises the prospect of an interesting twist for “The Circus.” What if Michael Bloomberg, said to be weighing an independent presidential bid, were to enter the race?
“He will be a character in the show,” Halperin says. “But our analysis, irrespective of who our employer is, is that it is pretty unlikely. He will only run if he thinks he can win and if he can get in in time, and our sense is that it will be hard to look like he can win 270 electoral votes in time to run. If he runs, just like in our other job, we will cover him like the other candidates.”
Photo: John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon and Mark Halperin.