In January 2019, Pete Buttigieg, a young, gay mayor from South Bend, Indiana, announced that he was exploring a bid for president of the United States. Producers Dan Cogan and Jon Bardin of the production company Story Syndicate immediately took notice and contacted Buttigieg about possibly documenting his campaign journey. The midwestern mayor eventually agreed to be filmed, which prompted Cogan and Bardin to contact documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss about directing the project. But Moss, who at the time was working on “Boys State,” about a mock-government conference for Texas teens, turned down the offer. Then he saw Buttigieg’s March 2019 town hall for CNN and decided to cover Buttigieg’s 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. The result is Amazon Studios’ “Mayor Pete.” The 96-minute documentary captures Buttigieg on the campaign trail and at home in Indiana with his husband, Chasten Buttigieg.
Moss spoke to Variety about making “Mayor Pete,” which is being released worldwide on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 12.
The documentary opens with you speaking to Buttigieg’s husband Chasten about topics to discuss in an interview with the then-Mayor. I’ve never seen you appear on-camera in your past docus. Why did you decide to put yourself in this film?
I’m not comfortable in front of the camera and I feel like it’s like a bit of a trope at the moment to open a documentary with the slate or at the makeup (chair) or with the boom in the shot. So, I was guarding against that, but what I loved in that scene is that Chasten articulates the question that is central to the narrative of the film, which is this question of authenticity: Was Pete able to be his authentic self while running for President?
Was Chasten helpful with interview questions throughout filming?
It was maybe two or three months into production, and I was getting ready to do the first (sit-down) interview with Pete. We were at Pete’s house in South Bend with Chasten, and I just decided to invite Chasten to be part of the interview process, which I’ve never done before. I essentially invited him to interview Pete in front of us because Pete was so used to talking to the press and he would shift into this press mode with me, so I thought, ‘Well maybe if Chasten asks some questions, we’ll get something else,’ which we did. That was interesting to me and so I thought, I’m going to spend some time with Chasten, too. It was like a two-hander. It was like a love story.
Chasten is very open while Pete is much more guarded. Would there have been a film without Chasten?
No. I don’t think so. I met Pete and we had a very awkward sort of first date, and I thought, ‘Oh man.’ He’s the underdog but he’s not a traditionally great documentary subject.’ He is very controlled. Then I met Chasten and he’s totally different from Pete. He’s emotionally demonstrative and really funny and he’s got this deep connection with Pete, obviously. One of the first scenes I shot was after Pete gives a speech about what it was like to be closeted growing up in South Bend. Chasten is talking to him about it and he questions how personal (the speech) was. They let me film that conversation. No one else was in the room and I thought, ‘Oh wow. This is really intimate.’ Here is this gay couple negotiating these personal and political questions about their identities. That unlocked something for me. If nothing else, this (film would be) a portrait of a marriage and a relationship that’s kind of old fashioned, but also really new.
Why did you initially turn down this project?
Part of it was that I was in the edit with “Boys State” and up to my eyeballs in politics and the campaign narrative, so I didn’t think I had the bandwidth. Also covering real politics and not pretend politics, is hard because everything’s so stage managed and there’s no access. I didn’t want to do that. But then I watched Pete’s (2019) Town Hall and I saw his gifts on display. Also there seemed to be access to him. So, I just thought maybe we can get in and get something interesting.
So the access is what inspired you to make the film?
One of the main ideas that drew me in was the potential of reasonable discourse in American politics, and whether you can bring people together, rather than drive them apart as a political strategy. He seemed to be someone who could cut across these sharp lines in American political life. I thought maybe I wanted to continue exploring this idea.
Did it surprise you that he did let you in?
I didn’t expect that he would have the ability to let me in. With all that he was confronting and dealing with in this campaign, and all the people that he had to answer to and satisfy in different ways, that he would have the bandwidth for this project, and I think that I really expected that to be much more difficult. He was pretty patient with our process, and open, and Chasten, too. We expect our politicians to be extremely guarded. Pete is guarded and I think there are parts of himself that he needs to protect. But Pete wasn’t playing to the camera, I never felt that. I felt this was a radical transparency.
Like “Boys State,” this is a campaign film with a built in beginning, middle and end. Is that built-in storyline a relief as a director?
You would think it would be easier to edit, but we got so lost. Campaign narratives are useful: you win, or you lose — there is never a draw. That is helpful but it can also be a trap because in a campaign narrative you get so focused on the politics. We eventually located more of a story where it deserved to be, which is in the relationship. So, a lot of the campaign narrative, which is important and drives the story, got pushed a little further back and some of it got taken away. We cut for a year because we just needed the perspective of getting through the 2020 election, to see what mattered.