Running With Beto: Director David Modigliani on Being the Fly on the Wall During Beto O’Rourke’s Senate Run

700-plus hours filmed, 254 Texas counties visited, and an ungodly amount of Whataburger consumed.

In 2018, Democrat congressman Beto O’Rourke went from virtual obscurity to political superstar in his longshot bid to unseat the Republican incumbent senator Ted Cruz, and director David Modigliani was there to capture it all in his new film Running With Beto (which won the audience award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and is now available on HBO). From the humble beginnings of no-show rallies to being thrust into the center of a media whirlwind that came with a highly-publicized midterm race, Modigliani manages to present a personal, intimate portrait of O’Rourke and his family as they work to build a DIY grassroots campaign that went on to energize not only Texas, but a nation desperate for a less-divisive political approach.
MovieMaker spoke with David after the world premiere at SXSW on why he chose O’Rourke as a subject, how he used his own DIY tactics to maneuver his crew as the campaign grew, and the quick turnaround time it took to make this film happen.

Courtesy of HBO

Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’m excited to talk about a lot of the technical aspects of the film. How big was your crew day-to-day?

David Modigliani (DM): We usually had a four-person crew, which was me, producer, audio, and camera. I have had the privilege of working with some great DPs in for most of my career and literally have never used a camera, but it became clear that being in such small spaces – green rooms, elevators, cars, and, and more importantly like in just fragile environments – sometimes it being just me alone was going to be beneficial. Maybe allow us to capture moments that otherwise they wouldn’t allow us to. Especially for cinema verite filmmaking, there’s the Heisenberg principle that’s like “by observing something, do you change it? The smaller the footprint, the less you change it. So we got me a Sony A7s camera and I basically had like crash course in the van with our actual DP while we were driving across Texas. By the end I got like pretty confident with it; I was afraid my stuff was gonna be unusable and our editors were like “No, this is good!” Our editor, Penny, said “You feel the intimacy of it and the casual visual language, and a moment’s a moment. And if you don’t have the color balance quite right, like that’s okay.”

MM: When did you decide this would be your next film? When did you get Beto’s blessing, and when did you start bringing the camera into the process and become that fly on the wall for his senate campaign?

DM: I met Beto in a sandlot baseball game; I’m a founding member of the Texas Playboys Baseball Club named after Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys from here in Austin, and we will have friends in other cities that form teams, and we’ll go play them or they’ll come play us. Some friends formed a team in El Paso called Los Diablitos de El Paso, and when they came to play us in Austin in April 2017 their center fielder was this lanky guy with a funny name that happened to be a US congressman. 

MM: So he had been running for Senate for about six weeks?

DM: Yeah. He spoke during the seventh inning stretch to the small crowd that was there. I had been feeling during the 2016 election just how much we dehumanize each other through politics and how much that, I think, causes people to tune out and drop out of the political process or not want to get involved to begin with. I’ve made other films that are around kind of the intersection of the personal and the political and I love that idea of how do you tell stories around the human experience of politics, and when he talked about the kind of campaign that he was going to run – to kind of test the theory of like, “what if this was just about human beings connecting and I’m only going to take money from individuals and no PACs, and I’m going to every county and showing up in person and having those conversations”, sounded like a really exciting odyssey. Then of course, he was running up against sort of like the classic archetypal villain…

MM: We can say demagogue if we have to.

DM: [Laughs] Well just in a sense of he was such a clear contrast; it felt like Beto represented politics as it could be and Cruz represented what people hate about politics from both sides of the aisle, republicans included. And so that was such a clear contrast. I felt inspired then, like this would be amazing film. A couple months later I had breakfast with him at 6:45 AM – not the best time to try to pitch somebody you want to follow them and their family with a camera for a year, by the way. I talked to him about Crawford, my first film, where I had gone into this small town as a kid that grew up in Boston with some real preconceived notions about small town Texas and totally fell in love with people in that town across the political spectrum. I think that resonated with him and he trusted my intentions. 

Shortly after that I went out with a camera and it was literally just him and Cynthia Cano, his right-hand-woman. They let me drive the car a little bit (laughs) you know, I just tried to pitch in, be helpful, and ease my way in. I think early November 2017 was when we really started rolling, so we shot for almost exactly 12 months. 

Photograph by Patrick Rusk

MM: There’s a scene early in the film where there’s maybe like 30 people at a rally, and it’s amazing that even then you were like “let’s see what happens”, and then obviously there ends up being this media explosion around his campaign. There’s a couple things I want to touch on, but first going back to crew: as a director, what is your role in coordinating when you have multiple shooters, and telling your crew what you need or what they should be focusing on at any given time? Especially when what you’re capturing is this campaign that can’t always make your needs as a filmmaker a priority.

DM: Given our subjects for this film, there was no pausing. The action of everything that was going to unfold was going to happen once. I’m not averse in doc filmmaking in general to just ask the subject like “we missed you coming in that door. Would you mind doing that again?” But we were never really going to be able to do that when this case. So to me, like the role of the documentary cinematographer is the most important in making a film.Doc cinematographers have to have the cojones to be like “You get one chance to give the editor the coverage, so you have to like come off the action to get all the cutaways to get the wide shot and the hands reaction shots (etc)”, enough to give the editor to cut a scene that feels real and alive.

So to me it is all about talking story with the cinematographer. You’re not telling them like, “I know I’m going to need like a shot of this person, a shot of this to show these hands…”, more like “I trust your judgement”. On some of the bigger days in the campaign we had a teradeck (a wireless monitor) that is sending a feed directly from the cameras to that monitors so I could be in the room next door and seeing what the cinematographer is shooting, and with my IFB feed from the audio, it can also hear what’s going on, so I could be on a walkie with the DP and I can literally see what they’re shooting and talk to them. But we would just be going into any situation like “What do we expect to unfold? What’s the most important aspect of that? What’s the point of view?” I think you have to empower the cinematographer and trust their storytelling, and the work is about getting on the same page.

MM: And as Beto and this race started to rise on a national level and continuously go viral and this race is unfolding sometimes minute-by-minute, did you feel required to constantly be watching the news and see how Beto was being covered, or did you try to distance yourself and stay away from that side of the race?

DM: I got on Twitter for the purposes of this project! It was important to see how he was being covered but also just for information, because the campaign did their best – even when things got crazy – to try to give us the heads up about their upcoming schedule and was going on, but often we would find out things where their campaign was/was going, and also keep tabs on the Cruz campaign too. We had to follow coverage because we knew it was something the people in the campaign were dealing with. We also had a subscription to something called “TV Eyes” so we could always be getting an archive of anytime he was on anything from Ellen or a local news show or whatever.

MM: A storytelling choice I really liked that you made was taking these like drone shots of different parts of Texas and having polls, graphics and news footage play seamlessly over the landscape. I followed the election pretty close so none of the story beats really came as a surprise to me, but that just really helps put the context of this story in place at different moments of the film – and also to just see Texas while this stuff is happening. Where did that choice come from?

DM: I think of this film as an ‘intimate epic’ that’s made up of these intimate cinema verite moments behind the scenes, but at the same time it is this epic journey to 254 counties to pull off this insanely ambitious campaign. And so it was great to physically get up to 30,000 feet at the same time that you are metaphorically doing that; let’s step out of the moment-to-moment of this race to both physically see and remember the size and scope and geographic diversity of Texas, and also have a palate cleanser to sort of take stock of where we’re at in the film. We would refer to them as ‘timestamps’. 

MM: It’s still amazing to me that this film done and in SXSW barely two months after the election ended. Let’s talk about the editing process, because obviously your two editors must’ve been working simultaneously as you guys were shooting – maybe even since you started in November, 2017? Like how are you threading this film together as the story is still unfolding? 

DM: I was actually saying to someone yesterday, like, I was grateful that this project came to me when I have a couple of films under my belt already because I knew I had a feel for the structure of the production that we were going to need to be able to turn the film around quickly. So how could we do that? We started full time editing with an editor in May of 2018 – so about six months before the election –  and then our second editor came on in August, and that allowed us to not only keep pace with the volume of footage, but It also allowed us to get a feel for what are we doing right and what could we be doing better. And then as we came to September, October, we have a feel for what do we need as opposed to just being reactive and shooting every last second of every day. And so we had a super rough but working cut of what was ostensibly the first two thirds of the film around October 1st, and that allowed us then on the week after the election – because election night was unsurprisingly was the biggest source footage dump on the editors – to be able to ingest all that and also keep up & finish. We picture locked January 27, and I think we managed to pull this off at a very accelerated pace without sacrificing quality, which is a testament to the whole team. 

MM: What advice you would give to someone who’s trying to make their first documentary? 

DM: Start shooting! I learned by doing, and I think one of the magical advantages of doc filmmaking as opposed to narrative filmmaking is that you can start to roll the snowball forward without waiting for a finished script, without waiting for someone to greenlight, you know, build this whole thing. You can go get some footage, cut together a little teaser that would help people see your vision and allow you to raise money, give you a feel for how the story is beginning to look on camera. Just start shooting. MM

Running With Beto premiered on HBO May 28, 2019. All images courtesy of HBO.

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