Every year, the American Legion sponsors high school boys as they’re given a crash course on American politics. In 2017, Boys State (as it is known) made national news when Texas voted to secede from the union — shining a spotlight on the event.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) read an article in The Washington Post and was soon on a plane with fellow filmmaker Amanda McBaine, following Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall and René Otero as they participated in the mock election.
“Boys State,” now streaming on Apple TV Plus provides an insight into the minds of these four teenage boys – some jaded, some optimistic — who hope to pursue a career in politics. Moss, McBaine and editor Jeff Gilbert spoke to Variety about “Boys State.”
Boy’s State is commonly known as offering a better perspective of the practical operation of government — where did the idea for this begin?
Jesse Moss: We were trying to make sense of the Trump election. It was 2017. And our country was ripped by this political division, which has only gotten worse.
We had read an article about the Texan Boy State and they had voted to secede from the union. It was kind of funny, but also telling of that moment and how teenagers were internalizing our politics and our political divisions.
This program intrigued us and there was this was space in which young people with very different politics were getting together face to face to try to talk to each other. And we loved that whole idea.
How did you get the wheels in motion to follow the boys and go down there?
Amanda McBaine: That was one of the major challenges of making this movie. We needed to find some folks we were going to immerse ourselves with before the program got going.
We filmed in people’s living rooms, we met all kinds of interesting kids. I think that finding Robert, Ben and Steven, it’s a little bit it’s irrational how you make these decisions, like why you, but I will say all of them had that special something that just kept keeping us interested in everything they said. And I think that continued through the edit.
They did have a complication to them that was intriguing to us, all of them are super smart about politics, they’re all ambitious and they’re formidable enough in their beliefs.
There was a missing fourth wheel, and when Rene stood up on day two, that was a special moment that was the finalization of our kind of ensemble.
There is a lot of energy and excitement with the boys. How did you capture and reflect that in the edit?
Gilbert: It was the boys who dictated the film and we just followed their lead through their enthusiasm.
Moss: It was about finding the rhythms of each story and how they could interlock together. It took a year to cut. There were some wrong turns and blind alleys. We had to establish the rules of the world, the complicated space and the modern government. But we needed to show the complexities of the environment. The boys were giving speeches – some good and some bad, so we had to look at how to present that, and it was a lot of experimenting to get right.
The creation of the interview space allowed a moment for the audience to breathe and for the characters to breathe and hear their interior questioning – and having no words became critical because you needed a reset.
The one thing that kept us centered in this process was the emotional memory of going through it with these young men and the feelings that we felt so deeply invested particularly in Steven’s journey, and working towards that emotional heart in the experience that we were trying to create in the editing room — wanting the audience to feel those emotions of elation and utter defeat and the redemption again at the end.
Steven’s journey was so great to follow, particularly in the basketball court scene where he’s realized he made the ballot, but what were some of the challenging scenes to shoot?
McBaine: The final debate, where we have Eddie and Ben and Steven and Rene all in one room together comes to mind. That was logistically challenging because a lot is going on, there’s a lot of drama, but it was such a small room. We had three cinematographers trying not to get each other in each other’s shots. Fortunately, all these people are incredible at what they do and have worked together and they can kind of feel each other out organically.