Viewpoint: Lessons from the road to the “Midterms”

As the political landscape shifts in the U.S., director AJ Schnack (pictured) outlines the lessons learned after making the leap from feature docs to series with Midterms, his recently wrapped, three-part campaign trail series for Al Jazeera America.
November 5, 2014

As the political landscape shifts in the U.S., director AJ Schnack (pictured) outlines the lessons learned after making the leap from feature docs to series with Midterms, his recently wrapped, three-part campaign trail series for Al Jazeera America. 

Just over a year ago, I sat down in a Camden, Maine coffee shop with Ashley Bloom Kenny, a producer in the newly-established documentary unit at the just-hatched Al Jazeera America (AJA).

I was already in conversation with AJA about acquiring my 2011 campaign trail documentary Caucus for their Al Jazeera America Presents slate, but Ashley and I were taking time away from the Camden International Film Festival to talk about a series idea that seemed both a natural follow-up to Caucus as well as an insane challenge.

As a bit of background: when Al Jazeera America launched, it was targeted by none other then Glenn Beck, who called upon his many followers to contact cable and satellite companies and demand that they stop carrying the network, which he labeled as “anti-American.” The charge spread throughout conservative America, without revealing Beck’s frustration that he’d been unsuccessful in getting many of those same networks to carry his new network, The Blaze. For months, AJA would have difficulty getting conservatives to appear on their network.

So here I was, just over one month after Beck’s crusade began, promising Kenny that I could deliver Republicans to the network. But that wasn’t all. I wanted to do a bipartisan look at four competitive midterm election races, a behind-the-scenes look at the candidates and the campaigns, and I wanted it to air before election day. It was, as I came to call it, “Caucus Plus.”  And I was confident that I could pull it off, until the network said “let’s go” and I realized the task I had set before me.

As we inched (and I mean inched) closer to a signed contract, I began to have conversations with some of the Republican political strategists I’d met while making and touring with Caucus. You could see the color drain out of their face when I mentioned that the project was for Al Jazeera America.

One told me straight out that while they’d normally encourage any of their candidates to work with me based on my work in Caucus, they’d advise against it if it involved AJA. Another said that if a rival candidate was cooperating with me he’d consider using it against them: i.e. “Why is Candidate X working with Al Jazeera?” It was a variation of “I hear she was a thespian in college;” don’t explain, and hope it comes off as a slur.

But a few things happened between that September coffee and our March commencement of photography. The first was that AJA had time to prove that it actually was what it said it was going to be: an unbiased, fact-based news organization. For those who chose to watch (and those numbers may still be too small to measure despite occasional spikes), they saw a network that reminded them of the news channels they used to watch before cable television got all ticker-tape and speculation and missing planes.

A number of well-connected conservatives spoke highly of friends who had gone to work for the network and I heard unanimous praise for AJA’s White House correspondent Mike Viquera. As the months ticked by, you started to see Republicans appearing on the network.

The second had nothing to do with AJA and everything to do with another documentary. The release of Greg Whiteley’s doc Mitt hit Netflix at exactly the moment we were reaching out vigorously to campaigns and among many Republicans, it became accepted gospel that the film should have come out during the 2012 election cycle. This point went against what had been ingrained conventional wisdom for anyone who wanted to do political vérité filmmaking: you’re only going to get access if you promise it won’t be seen until after the election.

A third was directly due to our previous experience making Caucus. While the film had a nice film festival run and a very small, very targeted theatrical run, it had hit a niche market that I hadn’t quite predicted when we made it and released it: it became a film that a lot of people in Washington DC had seen.

Links had been shared and DVDs passed around with such regularity that it seemed like a cult film success among campaign staffers and political reporters. When we came back to cover the midterms, there was an almost anticipatory vibe among the campaigns. On one flight into Des Moines, a man came up to me on the plane and asked if I was the guy who made Caucus. I doubt I will have many such fanboy moments in my lifetime.

As spring arrived and we’d fully started to ingrain ourselves into our four campaigns (the Iowa and North Carolina Senate races, and congressional races in Colorado and Iowa), a new realization crept in. Now that we had access to campaigns on both sides, we’d have to deliver the series and we would have to do it before election day.

Here, we also employed our “Caucus Plus” model as I was rejoined by my team from that film – producer Shirley Moyers, director of photography Nathan Truesdell, composer Mark Degli Antoni and graphic designers Juan Cardarelli and Eric M. Levy – to create what may be one of the tightest, most nimble units to produce a television series in some time.

We were joined by series producer John Mernit, previously of National Geographic Television, and filmmaker Jeff Malmberg, who made the terrific documentary Marwencol and who would lead our editing efforts.

After weeks of shooting, more than 140 flights, and hotel nights too numerous to count, October 19 arrived and with it the premiere of our first episode.  Nathan and I began that morning in Asheville, North Carolina at a biofuels plant with Senator Kay Hagan and we were in Des Moines, Iowa that afternoon for a rally between Senate hopeful Bruce Braley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The following weekend, as the second episode aired, we finished shooting the series with a pancake breakfast in Red Oak, Iowa, hometown of Senate candidate Joni Ernst and an office rally between Speaker of the House John Boehner and Republican candidate for the House David Young.

Leaving the campaigns just as they were about to launch into the final eight days of their campaign was one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had as a documentary filmmaker. It goes against everything instinct you have. The candidates looked at us as if to say, “What do you mean, you’re leaving?”

We had to, because we still needed to deliver the end of the series. With a staggered delivery, the final two acts of the third episode landed at the network on Thursday morning, and Shirley and I had pulled a series of all-nighters. The ending of the series (for now at least) is that all four of our races – races we selected back in the spring – are too close to predict, although we can see this morning (November 5) that Republicans have had a good night overall.

On election day yesterday, AJA re-aired the series in its entirety. The documentaries made for Al Jazeera America Presents have been some of the most successful programs on the network in terms of ratings and recognition. The Doc Unit there, which includes industry vet Cynthia Kane and is led by the terrific Shannon High, is taking chances and doing things that no one has tried to do in that space and I’m grateful to have been the beneficiary of their wildest ideas.

I have no idea how many people will have seen Midterms throughout its run, but I know that the brazen promise we made last September was fulfilled, thanks to my great team and all of the campaigns who were willing to take a chance on us, and on airing before the election, as well on AJA.

  • AJ Schnack is a documentary filmmaker based in LA. His feature films include Caucus and Kurt Cobain: About A Son, and he serves as the exec producer and director of Al Jazeera America Present’s Midterms.
  • Schnack is also the founding director of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, which will announce nominations for its 8th annual awards on November 12, at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen.
  • Check out a trailer for the third episode of Midterms below:

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