Interviews

Political Theatre: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine on Their Sundance Winner Boys State

Extraordinary film gets international premiere for Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema members

Steven Garza in Boys State, directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine


While reviewing Boys State back at the Sundance Film Festival, POV contributor Jason Gorber called the film, “nothing short of a triumph.” I couldn’t agree more. This masterful film by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine is a brilliant encapsulation of the polarization of American politics. The film, which won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and scored a headline-making distribution deal with Apple and A24, thrusts audiences into the dizzying frenzy of a weeklong political camp in Texas known as Boys State. The exercise is a mock political forum in which 1100 participating teenagers are divided into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, and tasked with forming a government from the ground up by debating key issues, developing platforms and policies, and eventually electing leaders with state governor being the highest calling.

Moss and McBaine, who previously collaborated on films like The Overnighters, The Bandit, and Speedo, and are also partners in life, focus on four boys—Robert, Steven, Ben, and René—to encapsulate the drama of the event, as well as the challenges the participants face while shaping their political paths in a divisive time. The drama becomes particularly heated as Steven, a Bernie Sanders-supporting idealist, emerges as the dark horse of the race only to come under fire for his activism that clashes with the topic du jour: gun control. Comparisons to Lord of the Flies are inevitable, but the micro and macro scale of Boys State’s political theatre more aptly evokes the spirit of docs like Barbara Kopple’s American Dream and last year’s Oscar winner American Factory. Its immersive yet intimate scope considers the state of the nation by observing perspectives from all facets of the political spectrum.

Boys State makes its international premiere this weekend with a virtual screening for members of Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. (It was also an official selection for Hot Docs.) POV spoke with Moss and McBaine ahead of the event to discuss the film’s remarkable ride between Sundance and COVID, the polarization of American politics, and the next generation of bright minds ready to repair a divided house.

POV: Pat Mullen
AM: Amanda McBaine
JM: Jesse Moss
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

POV: What first attracted you to the Boys State camp?

AM: Right after the [2016] election, Jesse and I were trying to figure out how we could channel our energy into making a film. Jesse ran into a Washington Post article about the 2017 Texas Boys State program where the boys voted to secede from the Union. That was an outrageous vote and it caused a lot of controversy within Texas, and received negative press coverage that made its way into the Washington Post. I didn’t go to Girls State; Jesse didn’t go to Boys State, so this was a new program to us. Watching how they were processing our current political situations was interesting. We called them up after reading that article and started a conversation with them in the fall of 2017, and then ended up shooting our film with the 2018 program.

JM: The project was really about trying to understand the polarization in our country and how divided we are politically. The 2016 election is a manifestation of that. It’s obviously persisted, if not widened that divide that we all feel. What struck us about this program was that clearly they were expressing what we were feeling in this act of secession, but this was a space in which young people of different political backgrounds were coming together to talk to each other. That is a rare space in America where people with different political beliefs actually engage with each other. It was a great way to focus these questions about how young people experience this polarization in both a serious way and a playful way. Texas is a great embodiment of the country in its divisions. It’s not a red state; it’s not a blue state. It’s kind of a purple state like we are as a country.


POV: How did you choose the four main characters from such a large class of participants? Was it a matter of shooting multiple characters and honing it in during the editing, or were you lucky that you had cameras on the people who advanced in the race?

AM: One of the biggest projects of the film was narrowing down whom we were going to follow. We knew we needed to find some, if not all, of the kids that we were going to follow before the event began. For three months, we searched for the folks we were going to follow out of 1,100 attendees. We had three months to talk to hundreds of people on the phone, and travel around Texas filming with as many people as we could in their homes. Eventually, we found Robert, Steven, and Ben before the program began. Robert was the first person that we met. The first frame of film we shot was at his home in Austin. We had to talk to another hundred people before we found the next boy. The process of whom you choose to follow is not totally rational, but it was lucky that they ended up going as far as they did in the program because once it starts, you don’t know who’s going to transcend.

JM: We were looking for diversity too. We wanted kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different political backgrounds. Of course, they couldn’t be completely representative of every point of view, but we wanted differences. We also wanted kids who were politically sophisticated, ambitious, smart, and complicated. It wasn’t a rational scientific process, as Amanda said. It’s intuitive. It helped to put people on camera at home and have a conversation with them, like when you meet Ben in his bedroom and see that he has a Ronald Reagan doll on bookshelf. You know right there that he is serious about politics. It’s worth pointing out that we did not follow many boys and cut them in the edit room. We really bet the farm on the boys we picked and got lucky.

AM: There were two that we did follow whom we ended up not following after the first day of the event. One of them was a science genius and we had high hopes for him, but it just didn’t [work]. Life happens and you have to follow the narrative.

POV: You seem especially fond of Steven. What attracted you to him in particular? He really takes the spotlight and carries much of the dramatic weight of the film.

JM: Amanda says he’s an old soul. He’s not the loudest kid in the room, but he’s very smart, perceptive, and serious and we responded to that. He’s a bit of an underdog and we were rooting for him. When we met Steven, he was in an orientation amongst a bunch of other boys. We were drawn to him in a quiet way, but we certainly did not know that he could give a speech like that until he turned it on at Boys State. Before that, when you see him gathering signatures, he’s very modest.

AM: We were worried for Steven on day one. He’s good at retail politics one-on-one, but we didn’t know what he was capable of doing to a crowd. When he stood up and gave a speech that day, it was exciting. For us and, I think, everybody in the room and hopefully [watching] the film, you feel that too. “There you are. There’s your boy.” It was exciting.

POV: You really feel him hit his stride at the podium. That scene’s a highlight of the film.

JM: But also politically, he was a Bernie supporter. He’s always coming up with progressive politics and entering a world that is predominantly conservative. It was fascinating to watch him navigate that political world and see his ability to summon the rabble. We thought he couldn’t tame the beast, but it gave us hope. We had heard that Boys State was a transformative event, but we weren’t sure what to expect because the experience is so brief. It’s only a week. However, the crucible, the intensity of it, the challenge of it, and the emotional highs and lows put these young men through the ringer. Not only did we find strong characters, but also ones who were transformed by this experience in ways we see on camera. They surprised us: Robert’s confession, Ben’s turnabout and his tactics, and René coming from nowhere like Steven as an unlikely character who is able to capture the imagination of his party.

POV: What were some of the freedoms and challenges of such an immense shoot compared to a comparably more modest production like The Overnighters – both in terms of the number of hands you had in the production, as well as the number of characters you were filming?

AM: The challenges were real. We had to be very quick about setting up a crew that we felt would do it with us. We were fortunate that the people who worked with us at Camera Collective were available and game.

JM: Camera Collective is a group of cinematographers that we know in New York. They all believe in the art of cinema verité. I had worked with Thorsten [Thielow], one of the members, on previous projects and we set the look. Then we brought in this team, which was not the way we made The Overnighters — very different, of course. [Moss shot The Overnighters himself.] It’s a wonderful way to work: to build a team like that and to empower them to bring their best selves to the process. We paired them up with the characters because Amanda and I couldn’t be in every place at once as co-directors. At one point, we had seven cinematographers deployed through this vast event trying to be at every place at one time. The scale of production was like a fiction film. It took a year to edit.

AM: There were set pieces happening simultaneously like a drama, but with documentary, you can’t preplan the way you would with a fiction film. The challenge beyond the number of people was the short period of time—you either get it or you don’t. With The Overnighters, time was on our side: you can keep filming until you feel like you have your story. It is sometimes a problem [to know] when to stop filming because life continues to happen. While putting a film together, the angle of time helps you feel movement and, with this film, we had one week to grab something significant. That was scary because it’s like grabbing lightning.

Harlan Country, USA


POV: You mentioned verité, Jesse, and I know you worked with Barbara Kopple early in your career. She’s one of the great verité masters and Boys State evokes the best of her work. What did you learn from her?

JM: I think a lot about my experience working under Barbara because it was my film school. I didn’t go to film school. I was inspired by Harlan County, USA, one of her masterpieces. Barbara has a rare combination of toughness and compassion. Those are requisite skills for this kind of filmmaking. Verité in particular calls for stubborn perseverance and openness in your heart and spirit to your subjects as different as they may be from you. Barbara was willing to go to this community in Kentucky that was far from where she was coming from, but where there was a remarkable story in Harlan County. Barbara threw me into stuff and taught me that crazy things can happen in documentary and to be prepared for then, but to keep your head and persist. She’s indefatigable in the edit room and I watched her make sure that she had a vision and that she would fight for it. As an independent filmmaker, that was the lesson for me.

POV: Who are some of the filmmakers and producers who’ve influenced your career, Amanda?

AM: Like Jesse, I didn’t go to film school. I started as an intern in a company with David Van Taylor, whose work I admired. I’d seen Dream Deceivers and A Perfect Candidate. I learned a lot from him and that company for exactly the same reasons: we just started doing it. You recognize that you [might] go into making a documentary with eight questions, like, in this case, “Do we still believe in this Union?” Then, in the process of making the film, just like in real life, you learn all kinds of things and you’re open to that project. I hope that people surprise me and that something surprises me every time I make a film. To me, that is one of the core aspects of nonfiction filmmaking.

POV: Are there ways you see their influences on Boys State?

JM: One thing that I took from Barbara’s work, and I think Amanda probably took from David’s work, is that these are films engage with political questions and important issues of our time, but they find very intimate character-driven narratives. Barbara’s films operate in both an epic and an intimate scale. That is the kind of work that we aspire to make it. This film is deeply informed by our political engagement and belief in our democracy and in making it work and making it healthy. Through these young men and through this program, we found a prism to refract those bigger questions while remembering that there’s an audience that we’re bringing along on this journey to see if 17-year-old boys in Texas can tell us something about what’s at stake in our democracy. They can horrify us, but maybe inspire us.

POV: The role of social media in the film is fascinating. How has social media influenced documentary filmmaking in terms of capturing that shift in communication, as well as the fact that we have a generation of people who have essentially grown up with being on camera as part of their daily lives?

AM: There are so many layers to that [element] in this particular film. Boys State is a simulation. They’re teenagers. They’re Generation Z, so they’ve grown up being filmed and filming each other. One challenge for us was trying to follow their language and their conversations on their phones, which is almost impossible to represent filmically, but it also happens so quickly. There’s a layer to this event that I feel we only got the tip of the iceberg of, although enough to understand what was going on. Just like with my own teenage kid, I feel like there’s a lot going on on the phone that I don’t know about.

In terms of self-consciousness on film, I do feel like we gravitated towards the kids who clearly were comfortable with whatever “naturalism” could exist in front of a camera. I didn’t feel that weird echo chamber of filming somebody who is aware that you’re filming them, and then you start feeling weird because you get self-conscious filming them.

JM: Boys State also has an analog component: they’re face to face. They’re making speeches and shaking hands and in each other’s business in a way that was well suited for us to document. That matters, as it does in presidential politics today because you have to shake a lot of hands in Iowa. You can’t just have good memes and a good PBS ad campaign. We could film both candidates and see the process from both sides of the aisle as they go up against each other. Often in political films, you’re limited to the point of view of your candidates. They can’t see what the other candidate is doing. That [aspect] made it so interesting because the boys in the film could see it at the Sundance premiere. They didn’t have the benefit of seeing what the other party was doing, but we did.

POV: It’s interesting to see the polarization develop between the Federalists and the Nationalists in the film, especially since I wasn’t sure if or how the mock parties aligned with Democrats or Republicans. Do you think a two-party system is almost inevitably destined to polarise?

AM: It’s an interesting question for the Boys State program to ask themselves because setting up two parties does invite that sports-level face-off. Every year, the Federalist and Nationalist parties are built from the ground up and take on different personalities. Some years, one party is very left and one party is very right. Both parties can be very right in some years. In some years, the big debate is not guns, but the speed limit in Texas— thank god that didn’t happen for us! It depends on what is going on in the world for the group of boys in that particular year. I think it’s an interesting question for Boys State, because what would happen if they allowed a third party to form?

JM: Boys State does a pretty damn good job of mirroring our larger political system, but they have to draw some boundaries too. There is news media, which is interesting. We filmed a little bit of a news network in Boys State and they do play a role by shining a light on the candidates. There are no lobbyists, so it’s not a perfect simulation. The great virtue of the program is that the counsellors step back and let the boys run the show, which is why it went off the rails in 2017. We’d done that just before as a country. We’re actually off the rails right now. To what extent is that a function of a two party system?

We start the film with the George Washington quote. [Washington’s farewell address.] One might argue that what’s derailed us currently is that somebody seized control of a particular party whose interests take advantage of the system. George Washington warned against it. Are you better served to have multiple parties and factions? There is an ebb and a flow in our national politics of party control, the presidency, and the legislature in Congress.

POV: How has the ride been with the film since Sundance with COVID breaking out? Has it made you look at the film any differently?

JM: We’re just adapting to it along with everybody else for the moment. We’re constantly thinking about what the film has to say in relation to what’s happening politically beyond COVID whether it’s the protests that have been gripping us around racism and police brutality. It’s been exciting that we can pivot to virtual screenings and still present the film and our subjects to audiences and have conversations. I remember going to Hot Docs with The Overnighters and having an amazing screening and conversation. There was a real sadness that we might lose some of those opportunities to travel and bring the boys together because they’ve grown up since the film was shot and have perspectives on those events and the choices they made.

POV: How did making this film leave you feeling about the future of politics?

AM: One of my takeaways from making this movie that I will hold onto forever was feeling the level of engagement of the boys that we followed. That was encouraging and hopeful to me on every level. Watching these high-school-age kids doing so much—there’s a synergy where we’re seeing this generation full of passion and action. They’re equipped to engage. I think about that while remembering our film and watching these events now in real time.

JM: We have teenage daughters, too. These kids are inheriting the world and the political system, for better or for worse, that we built. They have to address those problems and they’re not waiting. They’re equipped to take them on. These young men in our film are all passionate, sophisticated, and sensitive. Steven and the other boys make us hopeful.

Boys State streams for Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema members at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 21 with a live Q&A with directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss following the film. Boys State will be released on Apple+ later this year.