The media scrum surrounding Pete Buttigieg during his 2020 presidential campaign typically included upward of a dozen cameras at any given time. No fewer than six cable- and network-embedded reporters tracked the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s every move ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
But the man behind one specific camera got better and more intimate access than anyone else: Jesse Moss.
He saw the trailblazing candidate and his husband, Chasten, bicker over home-improvement projects, go on a date together at Dairy Queen, and have a tense conversation about whether Chasten should accompany him onstage as Buttigieg claimed victory in Iowa in February 2020.
Now, much of Moss’ footage is about to be available to anyone with an Amazon subscription. His latest documentary — “Mayor Pete” — is a 96-minute trip down memory lane that chronicles the rise of Buttigieg from local government in northern Indiana to his job as a Biden administration Cabinet secretary. It debuts November 12.
Ahead of the film’s release, I talked to Moss in a recent
interview. We chatted about Chasten and Pete Buttigieg’s relationship, whether the transportation secretary had seen the film, and Buttigieg’s future in presidential politics. Our interview has been edited for clarity.
What do you make of the reaction to the documentary so far?
I’ve been taking in some of the critical and sort of popular responses in the Twittersphere and elsewhere. Just to see the movie mentioned on Breitbart, it’s inevitable that it might sort of be seized upon as a political instrument. That goes with the territory — not quite sure how I feel about that.
Have the Buttigiegs seen the film yet?
I’ve shared it with Pete and Chasten. They’ve seen the film, and Pete and I have been messaging and trying to find a time to talk. He’s pretty busy right now.
We were trying to connect, and hopefully, we’ll connect soon. I think, ultimately, they respected when they both signed up to this that this is going to be my telling of that campaign story as I observed it, and that is different than their versions. I mean, Pete’s a writer. Chasten’s a writer. I think they’ll probably tell their own versions.
How did you stay on top of the campaign as someone putting together the definitive documentary on what is, in many ways, the coming-of-age story of this American political figure?
When we started this story, Pete was really an outsider candidate not expected to do well. He had a staff of four in a pretty dingy office, and I’m not sure he had much money at that point, either.
But pretty quickly, it caught fire. You remember, and I think it became really exciting. I thought that we would get pushed out. They were bringing on staff, exponentially growing in size. Pete had committed to the access, but I thought, “There’s no way it’s going to survive this meteoric rise.” I think that it did. I think it helped that we got in early and we were really committed and pretty unobtrusive. I wouldn’t say invisible.
How did you think about objectivity and your own perception of Buttigieg as you created this film?
I work under different conditions and rules than other members of the news media, in that I’m a documentary storyteller. I’m interested in subjectivity. I didn’t go in with a single-minded purpose to make one kind of film or say one thing about Pete. I didn’t go in as a Pete supporter, either. Actually, the week before I started the project, I had gone to an event for Cory Booker to see what he was all about. And so I was just kind of curious.
As someone who had also worked in Democratic politics in my early life, I was intrigued by what a presidential campaign looks like from the inside. “The War Room” had fascinated me when it came out, and then before, and propelled me into documentary, and this was a chance to kind of go back into that space, but with this kind of insurgent, outsider candidate.
When I located Chasten’s role in the story and kind of connected with Chasten, I saw a way to also to understand Pete, who was proving to be elusive in his remoteness, and Chasten helped me kind of in very pragmatic ways. And he was an advocate for the film. He also functioned sometimes as the interviewer. You see it in the movie. He would ask Pete questions, and I felt like the camera could see them talking to each other as a couple.
Did Buttigieg win you over as a voter?
I’d like to preserve my ballot-box privacy, but I’ll say that in my house, there was a split ticket.
I saw that wink. I noticed that two campaign workers — Gina Reis and Becca Davila — are listed as providing editing help. What was that arrangement with the campaign?
The campaign had its own video team, and I was often in a contentious relationship with because of access and position relative to Pete. But when the campaign shut down, there were events that I hadn’t filmed that I thought might be important to include in the movie. So, of course, the campaign shot yards of material, and I hired two people who were intimately familiar with that material to help comb through it to look for some things that we knew were missing in the story that we were telling.
‘This is like a nightmare scenario’
What criticisms leveled at Buttigieg did you find held most water based on your understanding of the man?
Watching him not trying to be someone he wasn’t but to try to tap into himself in ways that he maybe hadn’t before and hadn’t needed to be a candidate on the national stage and to connect with people through television, which you see Lis Smith trying to do.
I didn’t expect debate prep to be so therapeutic. I thought it would be a lot of, like, rehearsal scripted lines. And it was. It was a lot of very pragmatic stuff. But that therapeutic dimension was really interesting. And I don’t think Lis is the only person to serve that function. I think you see Chasten also kind of tried to help Pete grow. He’s never going to be Bill Clinton. He’d be the first to admit it. But he’s charismatic in an interesting way.
In hindsight, we started this project before the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The shooting in South Bend anticipates that conversation, which is not just about African Americans’ treatment on the part of police around the country but racial injustice, but how the fractious Democratic Party is going to kind of stay together. That challenge is not just Pete’s challenge. It’s the challenge of any white candidate in the party to appeal to African American voters or other constituencies.
In the summer of 2019, when a white South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old Black man, did you think the campaign was over?
Absolutely. I thought it was the end of the campaign. We were getting ready to go to Miami for debate prep when the shooting happened, and we got there.
This is like a nightmare scenario. I thought that there’s no way we’re going to get any access to film this. But Pete did let us in, and you see it from his point of view, and you see him survive it. And I don’t think any of us anticipated how charged and intense that that would be.
Somewhere, presumably, there exists on the cutting-room floor a lot of footage that wasn’t used, and that could become newsworthy one day if Buttigieg runs again for president. Who owns that footage, and can you leak it to me in, like, 2028?
There are some great outtakes. I’ll say, my favorite scene on the cutting-room floor is probably not what you imagine, Adam, in which Chasten and Pete talked about home renovations and got into a little bit of an argument about it. So I just loved it. I love this portrait that emerges of their relationship and their marriage. And that was just like one of the personal moments that, like, didn’t drive the plot forward. It wasn’t about, you know, who was going to win or lose in Iowa? It was about what it’s like to be married and negotiate that.
When was your last day of shooting?
The last day we shot with Pete was March 10. We filmed him and Chasten walking their dogs and visiting the National Mall. That provided the final shot in the film in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
You ended your documentary with a question about whether he thinks he might be president today. Do you think he’ll run again?
I mean, no question, Pete’s got a bright future. He’s uniquely gifted. And I think the Biden administration has found ways to use him very effectively.
I think he’ll be around. Time is on his side, as Pete says in the film. When people are trying to learn more about where Pete came from in 20 years, they can look back at this movie and see the snapshot of history.
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