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Q&A Conversation on BOYS STATE – A Galvanizing Political Coming-of-Age Story Premiering at Sundance 2020

BOYS STATE – Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine’s (THE OVERNIGHTERS) Galvanizing Political Coming-of-Age story


What is Boys State and is there a Girls State?
Boys State and Girls State are programs that teach participants the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society, as well as the mechanics of the political and election processes through a hands-on, “learn by doing” simulation. The program was started in 1935 by the American Legion. Participants have typically completed their junior year of high school. The program is offered in every state in the country except Hawaii. There are separate programs for boys and girls. In Texas, the two programs are held at different times during the summer, and in different places.

An earlier Boys State in Texas had made a controversial vote. What happened and how did this pique your intrigue to film this particular year?
In June 2017, in the wake of the divisive 2016 election, the Boys in Texas voted to secede from the United States. The vote in the Boys State legislature was in part an expression of political discontent, and in part a youthful prank. Much to the dismay and embarrassment of the American Legion Texas Boys State staff it succeeded in getting a lot of attention, and was covered by The Washington Post as well as a number of other local and national news organizations.

We immediately recognized that Texas Boys State could be a perfect prism to explore the health of our Democracy and the political discontent dividing our country. Like many, we were seeking to understand the depth and consequences of our national political polarization, and Texas was the perfect place to look. It is a state perched between Blue and Red, emblematic of the country as a whole in its wealth, poverty, diversity, and so many other factors. “As goes Texas, so goes the nation,” is an often repeated quote.

In 2018, we went to Austin curious to find out if a new group of boys, representing all political stripes, would seek to restore the fragile bonds that were breached in 2017, or if that breach would only widen. We wondered if Boys State would devolve into a kind of “Lord of the Flies” anarchy, or if the boys would rise to the moment and summon the spirit of the founding fathers and their better selves.

How did you gain access to film Boys State?
After reading the negative press coverage of the 2017 Texas Boys State, we were worried they would not want more attention in 2018. Much to their credit, they took our phone call, and in January, 2018 we started a series of conversations with the Chairman of the American Legion Department of Texas, Legionnaire Paul Barker.

His love and pride for the program was infectious. He had been a participant 55 years earlier, and had been chairman of Texas Boys State for many years. We came to agree that it felt like the perfect time to be telling a story about civil discourse, and he connected us with their PR team and we went from there. Over the next few months, we spoke with most of the Texas Boys State leadership, which is — appropriately — very big. They all watched our previous films –The Overnighters, The Bandit, Full Battle Rattle — and once they felt comfortable enough with our skills and sensibility, they agreed. It was a leap of faith. We’ve done our best to return the trust they offered us by making a compassionate, truthful and hopefully lasting film.

Your ‘star’ Boys State breakouts, Steven, Rene, Robert and Ben were particularly formidable characters in this story. What were you looking for when finding your main subjects, and what were your initial impressions of them?

Casting was arduous but critical. We were intent on following a handful of boys, of diverse viewpoints and backgrounds, through Boys State. A central component of each Boys State are campaigns for office, complete with party leaders, speeches and much of the familiar political intrigue found in state elections around the country. We planned to focus on the campaign for Governor. Because the event is so compressed, and moves so quickly, it was essential to meet and get to know and build trust with our subjects in advance.

Over three months, in the Spring of 2018, we contacted hundreds of parents, boys and counselors across Texas, seeking to narrow our pool. Our criteria was flexible but with an eye on diverse backgrounds and points of view. We quickly found ourselves drawn to boys who demonstrated a high level of political sophistication and ambition, but also displayed an intangible charisma that translated on screen.

Robert McDougall was the first person we met on our first day of filming our casting reel. We arrived at his family’s elegant house in Austin. His mother toured us around their lovely home, starting with their butterfly garden and their backyard pool, and ending at Robert’s hidden bedroom, which featured a large, painstakingly rendered Lego village of a US military base in Afghanistan. When we met Robert it was like he had just walked off the set of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. He seemed like a stereotype on the surface – handsome, privileged, athletic – but he surprised us with his intelligence, passion and sophistication, and we loved him immediately.

Ben Feinstein came to us highly recommended by the legionnaire who’d interviewed him during his application to go to Boys State. When we met him,​ Ben’s magnetism, brainpower and great sense of humor were immediately apparent — he is a force of personality. We knew we’d found someone with wit and grit — enough to go all the way. Ben is also a double-amputee – the result of bacterial meningitis contracted when he was a toddler. He is open and honest about his disability. As a people person, he’d most certainly thrive socially in Boys State, but we knew he had the ammunition as well. At the time we met him, months before Boys State, he’d already grilled a friend who was an alumnus of the program about strategies and tactics.

How did you focus on a cross-section of voices and experiences in your casting?
We needed to find kids of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities and worked hard to source public schools as well as private schools. Half-way into casting, we were also still absent a liberal voice, so Steven Garza was a gift when we met him at a Boys State orientation session in Houston. Steven is the son of Mexican immigrants, who comes from what he describes as “modest” family circumstances. He was on track to be the first in his family to graduate from high school, and hopefully attend college.

In a crowd of 300 we almost missed him. Through his self-deprecation and quieter words, there is a depth and maturity there that is profound and struck a chord. That said, we did not know how far he would get or how his journey would play out. We thought Steven was a real long-shot for office at Boys State, given his left-leaning political views, and low-key political strategy.

Rene Otero was the only boy we cast during the event. We were filming when he delivered his campaign speech to lead the Nationalist party, and were immediately transfixed by his political talents, and his message of party unity built around an airplane metaphor (“a left wing and right wing”). As we learned more about his personal journey, and saw the challenges he faced within his party, we knew we had been blessed by the documentary gods with a truly extraordinary subject – equal to Ben, Steven and Robert.

How did your impressions of Rene, Ben, Steven and Robert evolve over the course of Boys State?
All the boys surprised us and probably even surprised themselves. Boys State is so intense and moves so quickly, that what you see is the raw version of who they are. The day starts with breakfast at 6:30am and the night quad assembly does not end until 10:30pm. The kids will then hang out in their dorms until 2am, sometimes even 3 or 4 am. They are away from home, operating on no sleep, constantly competing, putting out massive amounts of energy, writing speeches and legislation, and walking an average of 11 miles a day going from meeting to meeting. (Ben shared his step count with us one day and it was 26,000 steps – all in the Texas summer heat).

Robert surprised us with his crass speech and surprised us again with his mature self- reflection about what he had learned afterwards. Similarly, we were surprised by Steven’s Governor speech. We knew he could canvas and talk to people one-on-one, but we had no idea he could give such a powerful speech to a crowd of doubters. Ben shocked us as well. On Day One, he seemed to flounder during the first challenge – getting signatures to get on the ballot for Governor. But the strength we knew he possessed returned and he was back to being himself by Day Two. From there his strength only grew, until his strategic masterstroke on Day Six.

We really only got to know Rene through filming during the event itself and afterwards, so everything he did was a surprise of some kind. He was someone who started so guarded, and from such a position of strength and confidence, it was surprising to see him waver at the end, and to see his very real vulnerability.

Also, our impression of the Boys State program as a whole evolved over the course of the program. We had expected a Texas-based political exercise to be ultra-conservative, militaristic, and possibly too one-sided but the kids form deep bonds with each other, and with kids whom they never would have connected were it not for this program. They are changed by one another. This great big heart at the center of the Boys State community revised our first impression of the entire experience and all the people in it, as something more whole and human.

Hot button issues like abortion and gun control raise the temperature at Boys State just like in the U.S. at large. How did the participants use cues from the political establishment both in Texas and nationally in strategizing their quest for power?

We expected certain issues to be front and center, but could not have anticipated quite how they would emerge as pivotal in the political contest. A school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas just weeks before the event (and only months after Parkland) clearly seizes the Boys’ attention, displacing other issues perhaps, like immigration, which we expected to play a larger role in the proceedings. While we were aware broadly of Steven’s own relationship to the issue of gun violence, we didn’t anticipate how it would influence his campaign. Although abortion was invoked on several occasions, the boys were somewhat cautious in fully debating the issue.

We found the most interesting philosophical split one the boys defined as “facts vs. feelings” – in which cold facts (law and order, strength, and an “Originalist” interpretation of the Constitution) trump warm feelings (empathy and a “Living” interpretation of the Constitution).

During the course of Boys State, Robert grapples with a political miscalculation that nevertheless embodies this divide. He underestimates the electorate, appealing to base instincts rather than higher purpose. Ben’s brilliance, meanwhile, is to seize a page from the Trump playbook and masterfully turn it to his political advantage..

So Boys State is another manifestation of America’s political polarization…
In Boys State we witnessed both an exaggerated form of our larger national polarization along with a ray of hope. This was evident not just in the virtuous actions of our main characters and surprising outcomes, but also in the choices made by the boys as a whole who elect leaders who didn’t fit the narrow definitions of who we first imagined might succeed at Boys State. Our initial expectations were that the stereotypical Texas strongmen would succeed – the alpha male. But our expectations were subverted, the electorate was more unpredictable.

Then there were signs that this next group of leaders might be able to bridge the political divide?
In the shadow of increasingly frequent mass school shootings and the existential threat of climate change, Generation Z has quickly discovered its moral voice and political power. Their willingness to accept LGBTQ rights or compromise on immigration reform, is greater than older generations might give them credit for. They struck us as less orthodox in their political views, and didn’t fall narrowly on the left/right party axis. Perhaps most hopefully, on that most divisive and intractable national issue – guns – the Boys State Legislature passed a meaningful background check law, “The Gun Safety Background Check Act.” This outcome, and the success of candidates like Steven and Rene, give us hope.

As you mentioned, Rene is catapulted to party chief after a rousing speech at the beginning of Boys State and then faces a continual insurrection from some within his party seeking to topple him as party leader. How much did you believe underlying racism/or other biases may have played with that if at all, and were there other incidences over the course of Boys State?

Rene is, proudly, an outsider in this conservative world. He’s a fierce competitor, and, at times, confrontational, so his challenges were partly of his own making. However, the racism that Rene faces as the anonymous “Impeach Rene” Instagram account surfaces along with the overtly racist meme which circulated proves that, as in the U.S. as a whole, racism is sadly ever-present. It undoubtedly weakened Rene politically and it’s this weakness that was cannily exploited by Rene’s opponents in the Federalist party.

What made the issue of racism particularly noteworthy here is that race is one of the only features of identity not smoothed over in the Boys State simulation. By dressing everyone in an identical t-shirt uniform and limiting the community to one gender and one age, you mitigate the impact of class, gender and age bias. But you cannot eliminate skin color.

Talk about how you came to the decision to divide the directors role in filming Boys State…
There was no other way to make the film. Our past vérité films, SPEEDO and THE OVERNIGHTERS, pivoted around a single main character and were told over long periods of time allowing Jesse to work as a one-man-band in the field. On FULL BATTLE RATTLE, in which several characters shared the screen, Jesse teamed up with co-director Tony Gerber to divide the coverage. BOYS STATE, with four main characters, and six roving camera teams, over a week-long, intensive shoot, required a similar divide-and-conquer approach.

How did you delineate your duties?
We developed the story, worked on access to the organization, raised the funds and cast the film together. Once principal photography began​, it was all hands on deck, but our roles varied slightly. We both rotated working with our six units around the massive University of Texas campus. But Jesse conducted all the sit-down interviews while Amanda directed the 25-person crew choosing what scenes we’d film.

With 4 main characters, a host of secondary characters, 1,200 extras often six separate scenes happening at once, even with two of us, we were stretched. We enlisted the talents of an incredible group of cinematographers, led by Director of Cinematography Thorsten Thielow, with whom we had recently worked with on two Netflix projects, DIRTY MONEY (PAYDAY) and THE FAMILY.

Thorsten is one of America’s great cinema vérité shooters, and we settled on a visual strategy that would be almost entirely handheld, shot on the Canon C300 Mark II, in 4K, on primarily a Zeiss Milvus 35mm prime lens at a shallow f2, with a wide-screen 2:39:1 aspect ratio. The horizontal array of faces in dialogue (and disagreement) lent itself to a wider frame with more horizontal and less vertical head-room. Joining Thorsten were an incredible team of acclaimed cinematographers including Wolfgang Held (THE 4TH ESTATE), Claudia Raschke (RBG), Martina Radwan (THE EAGLE HUNTRESS), Patrick Bresnan (PAHOKEE), Daniel Carter (​The Case Against Adnan Syed)​ , as well as Ivy Chiu. And there were a number of times when Jesse had to pick up a camera and Amanda a boom pole and act as the seventh unit.

During post, Amanda watched all the dailies and made selects. We then worked together with our editing team, longtime editor/collaborator Jeff Gilbert, to write the film – as we have done on past films. We share sensibility 97% of the time, so often our reactions to scenes, rough cut, etc would be the same. Things get interesting the other 3% of the time. It’s crucial to have great – and longtime — collaborators whom we trust to be that third point in the triangle. While principal photography was completed in just a week, editing took over a year, due to the amount of material and the complexity of the interlocking stories.

Was financing in place before shooting began?
Once access was secured, Concordia Studio came aboard to fund casting, and then in a lightning fast three-week period, based on a casting reel we submitted, agreed to fully finance production. They moved extraordinarily quickly to fully support first development, then production, and finally post-production of the film. We read about Texas Boys State in December, 2017, were funded for development by February 2018, fully funded by May 2018 and the principal week of photography was June 2018. Concordia was a dream partner, both in their gutsy move forward with this vérité film, and responsiveness in getting behind the production under time constraints, but also in their subsequent patience, over fourteen months, as we edited the film.

What were some of your creative reference points for the film?
Our references were as diverse, and varied as Texas itself. Any film about Texas teenagers lives in the shadow of Richard Linklater’s Austin-set masterpiece DAZED AND CONFUSED. Alexander Payne’s ELECTION was another reference, in locating – in a seemingly low-stakes high school student body election – a minor masterpiece of political ambition and corruption, and a study of the frailty of the human condition. We read journalist Lawrence Wright’s recent book “God Loves Texas” and the recent phantasmagoric Texas football/war novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain.

Our earlier film, FULL BATTLE RATTLE, a story of an Iraq War simulation conducted by the U.S. Army in the California desert, helped us realize the potential for using a large-scale theatrical exercise to examine and confront seemingly intractable and overwhelming political issues in American life. That film, like this one, reduces an enormous issue to an intimately scaled human drama, one that retains complexity but tells a relatable dramatic story.

What were some of your other broad take-aways/observations from your time at Boys State?
“Do we still believe in this union?” is a question we were all asking ourselves and one that played out in the 2018 Texas Boys State in playful and reactionary ways – i.e. should Texas secede. It also played in serious and proactive ways like their very heartfelt debates around divisive issues. We seem to live in two Americas, both online and geographically. It was eye-opening and energizing for us to witness right and left wing America meet face to face to hash it out. Perhaps more so because they are all so young, still flexible to change, and still hopeful.

After the 2016 election, we’d heard stories of many a fraught Thanksgiving from friends with family in red states. By November, 2017, many of those same friends skipped going “home” for the holidays completely and were no longer on speaking terms with their family. Partisan identification had become the single-biggest wedge between people.

Without blood relations forcing people to talk across partisan lines, were there any other spaces where people from opposing political views could talk — or listen – to one another?
We found that space at Texas Boys State, and can only imagine that all Boys and Girls States around the country are similarly committed to discourse. Organizers relish the opportunity to get engaged young citizens together to talk it out. They told us, “The more extreme the better, especially if the kids come in with talking points they received from news channels or from their parents.” We were fascinated by where their political convictions came from.

In this learn-by-doing environment, the endgame is to inspire kids to think for themselves. And just in time, at 17, they are poised to leave home after high school and to vote. Overall our experience watching kids grow and learn about government at Boys State made us more hopeful.

Steven Garza
Steven Garza comes from Houston, Texas. He is the child of Mexican immigrants and attends a public high school. As he says in the film, his mother was undocumented for a time. She is now a legal resident of the United States. Inspired by Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 (when he was fourteen), Steven volunteered on political campaigns in Texas, and became a leader of Texas Student Democrats. “Politics is my passion,” says Steven. His leadership role model is Napoleon Bonaparte. A student of Napoleon’s life and military campaigns, he invokes him frequently. An underdog challenger, whose background and political views, place him squarely outside the mainstream at Boys State, Steven rises brilliantly by calling the Boys to their highest ideals.

Robert Macdougall
Robert MacDougall is from Austin, Texas, where he attends a private school. The summer before Boys State, Robert was appointed by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to be aUSSenatePage. “TurnsoutSenatorsareaboutastallasIam;justregularpeople”he says. In the footsteps of his father, who is a very successful private equity executive, Robert trades Bitcoin and has made a substantial profit. He plays on his school football team and participates in competitive target shooting. It has been his dream since the sixth grade to attend West Point. Robert competes for the Nationalist Party nomination forGovernor. “Gobigorgohome,”hesays.Behindhisstrategyisadeceptionthatwill haunt him and his candidacy.

Ben Feinstein
Ben Feinstein is from San Antonio. He lives with his mom Karen, a doctor, and his step-dad. Ben is a double-amputee, the result of a bacterial meningitis infection contracted when he was two years old. “It’s my normal,” he says. A Ronald Reagan doll on his bookshelf is a testament to his political precocity and somewhat conservative views. Ben is a self-professed politics junkie,and experienced in debate and model UN. Ben’s disability prevents him from serving in the military so he has set his sights on intelligence work with the CIA or the FBI. His ambition extends to Boys State, where he arrives intending to run for Governor. Circumstances force him to question himself and quickly recalibrate his ambitions. Late in our story he makes a brilliant but controversial tactical decision that influences the outcome of the election.

Rene Otero
Rene Otero is an outsider, to Texas and to Boys State. A recent transplant from Chicago, he finds himself one of a handful of African American statesmen among a largely White and politically conservative group. Rene is a captivating orator who grabs the attention of the Nationalist Party with a galvanizing speech, but he must struggle to hold onto power by uniting a politically divided party and fending off an impeachment threat. “I’m gonna keep my job if it’s the last thing I do,” he declares. His success and alliance with underdog Steven Garza puts him and his party on a collision course with Ben Feinstein and the Federalist party.

Every summer, more than 1,000 of the best and brightest rising high school senior young men, from every corner of Texas, converge on the University of Texas at Austin campus for an intensive week-long program known as the American Legion Texas Boys State. Boys State is an educational and leadership program that places students – called “statesmen” – into randomly assigned fictional cities, counties, and districts, and assigns them to one of two fictional political parties. Within the first few hours of the week, a volunteer staff of more than 100 counselors give statesmen an explanation of how the real Texas political process works. Then statesmen launch into a flurry of impromptu speeches and grassroots campaigning to begin the work of electing mayors for their cities, organizing party delegations and leadership structures, and filing forms to run for elected office. The American Legion Texas Boys State program embraces a “learn by doing” motto, encouraging statesmen to figure out effective strategies for winning and performing the duties of various leadership positions on their own. By the end of the week, statesmen have built from scratch the same elaborate political and elective apparatus that occurs in real-life in Texas over an approximately two-year campaign and election period.

The hands-on approach to civics education is accompanied by many opportunities to hear from dozens of elected officials in the state of Texas, as well as keynote speeches on leadership from top leaders with distinguished public service careers. Recent speakers include a U.S. senator, the Texas governor and lieutenant governor, and top-ranking military leaders. The goal of the program is to teach about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society and how Texas government works, all while instilling an ethic of servant-leadership. Along the way, too, statesmen form bonds of friendship with their Texan peers from all walks of life. For most statesmen, the experience is transformative, and many of the already high-achieving students accelerate their post-Boys State careers with an eye toward volunteerism, political engagement, and public service.
Boys State and Girls State operate in nearly every U.S. state. The programs are nonpartisan and nonprofit and are programs of the American Legion, an organization serving war-time veterans.
– Courtesy of the American Legion Texas Boys State

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