'Mayor Pete' Director Jesse Moss on Riding the Buttigieg Wave

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 1, 2021
Originally published on November 30, 2021

Documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss has an interest in socio-political subjects, having made films that include "Dirty Money" (an examination of corruption in the global economy), "The Overnighters" (which takes an unflinching look at the social impact on a small town caught in a boom economy that draws droves of job seekers from near and far), and, together with co-director Amanda McBaine, last year's critically-acclaimed "Boys State," in which teens learnt the fundamentals of representational government.

Now Moss presents "Mayor Pete," an inside view of Pete Buttigieg's historic campaign to win the democratic nomination in last year's presidential election. Buttigieg was open about being gay, and even brought his husband, Chasten, along on the campaign trail, making their loving, supportive relationship a feature of his campaign rather than trying to hide it away. At the same time, for Buttigieg the fact he's a gay man wasn't a campaign platform; it was simply something he shouldn't have to gloss over or apologize for. A smart, articulate policy wonk, Buttigieg displayed a fluent grasp of government. More to the point, he showed himself always willing to listen to the people he hoped to represent — even when they included hecklers determined to put the focus on Buttigieg's personal life rather than his professional qualifications.

Buttigieg rose to the top three in a crowded 2020 electoral field, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, which in itself was historic simply for Buttigieg never having been a member of Congress of a state governor; he cut his teeth in politics as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and he was still in that job (having handily won re-election as an out gay man) when the prospect of the White House came calling.

Now the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration, Buttigieg continues to make headlines for his political service as well as his family life (he and Chasten are now fathers). Whatever his political fortunes may hold, "Mayor Pete" feels like a prologue to future history. EDGE had the good fortune to chat with Jess Moss and hear what it was like to be on the thrill ride that was the Buttigieg campaign.

EDGE: At what point you might have said to yourself, "Look at this guy. He's openly gay, and he's running for president — I should make a film out of this!"?

Jesse Moss: I knew that Pete was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Even though he was then just mayor of South Bend, he was slowly building a national profile; he'd run for chair of the Democratic Party and lost. And I knew that he was gently dipping his toe into presidential campaign waters. I didn't think much of his chances, but my producers and I were talking about his candidacy, and we were just struck by his potential — that he could be this insurgent outside-the-box candidate, and we've seen with Trump's election — and Obama's election before that — that anything's possible in American presidential politics.

A mayor becoming President seems like a Frank Capra film, but we approached Pete, and to our surprise he was open to the idea of access. I was not expecting him to go far, but we could still get an intimate vantage point on a presidential campaign, as this young, Millennial, gay mayor from the Rust Belt. I thought would be an interesting conversation, and we would get a glimpse into presidential politics that we haven't seen before from the candidate's point of view.

EDGE: I remember being thrilled with his campaign, not only because it was great to see a gay politician and not apologizing for it, but also because it was such a relief to hear someone calm, smart, and rational. I guess there's a moment or two where people actually say that to you; was that overall the sense you were getting from people attending his rallies?

Jesse Moss: Yeah that's right. He really was a kind of antidote to Trump and everything that Trump stood for and stands for, and I certainly responded to that. I think a lot of people were connecting with that in Pete — his integrity, his authenticity, his politics, his identity. All of those things made up a really interesting character. I think that he is like Trump, though, in that [he is] really poised, publicly as a speaker; he's fast on his feet. He doesn't feel like a reality show star, though. He just feels like a policy wonk who's really good at talking about what's going on in America, and I think that that was compelling.

For us as documentary storytellers, though, we were interested in more sort of what was behind that and [how] he was an out gay candidate occupying a new place in American political life. As his campaign became more credible, as the stakes got higher, it became much more interesting to see him negotiate that both politically and personally in his relationship with Chasten. That really opened out the story for me. I went in expecting a political story, but really discovered a more personal story, and I think you see that play out for Pete in his struggle to be his authentic self — to kind of tap into his emotion, but also to go through this journey with Chaston. It was the love story that emerged that I didn't expect, necessarily, when we started.

EDGE: Was it part of your agreement from the start, that your access would include those domestic moments?

Jesse Moss: No, it wasn't, and it wasn't until I met Chasten on a shoot [that he became part of the film]. Chasten is just really different than Pete. He's really emotionally demonstrative; he's funny — I mean, Pete can be funny too, but in a different way — and Chasten has a different energy. I connected with Chasten immediately.

I like that we could see Pete from Chasten's point of view. Pete's a bit remote, and I wanted to find a way to get close to Pete, to understand him, and I thought, "Chasten really understands him; if we can let Chasten into this story, I think we could we could really do something different and exciting.

One of the first scenes I shot was that really intimate conversation that they have after Pete gives that speech about coming out, and that kind of painful realization that if he could have done anything to not be gay he would have, and it took him a while to sort of accepted himself. Chasten really challenges Pete a bit about some of the things he says [in that speech], and how he says them, and I thought, "Wow, I'm in the room filming these two guys, this married couple having this intense conversation about something that's very personal, and also something that's very political." And I just thought, "This film can live in a totally different space than I imagined."

EDGE: It's great to see Chasten in his role as Pete whisperer.

Jesse Moss: Yeah, I think Chasten is the secret weapon to the campaign. We all know Pete superpower is he speaks seven languages and all that stuff, but Chasten has a real ability to connect with people and be himself, too. You see that when he visits that camp for gay kids in Iowa and they just love him. But I also have to walk a line — and Chasten articulates this [in the film] — Pete wasn't running to be the president of gay America [but rather to be president for all America]. To some people, their identities as gay men meant everything; to other people, that's just a minor detail. I think having to negotiate that navigate that is the journey of this film, and really interesting to watch.

EDGE: So much of the media coverage we got, though, was about Pete Buttigieg being gay in one way or another; when he'd get heckled by homophobic protesters, for instance. That seemed to be the story up until the officer-involved shooting happened back in South Bend.

Jesse Moss: Right, but there's a lot more going on. I mean, you see that some of those moments — you see the hecklers, that sort of manifestations of Trumpism or religious intolerance or whatever they represent, the forces against which they're pushing as gay, out people. And I think that's important, because they're out there, and yet in the democratic primary process, the nominating process, those were not the only forces he was pushing up against. In another version of this film that Pete might prefer, there's a lot more policy, frankly, but I did find that the campaign message of belonging, which really comes out of Pete's lived experience, really resonated with people. We saw that quickly. In places like Iowa you wouldn't expect Pete to poll well, but I think his ability to define his candidacy, and what it was about, in those core terms was a powerful political message that a lot of people wanted to hear ... probably still want to hear, because of the divisions in American life right now.

EDGE: For a while, Buttigieg's campaign really did seem to be igniting in a way that was surprising, and it seemed like maybe he could pull it off and win the Democratic nomination. What was that for you to be embedded in all that?

Jesse Moss: I think the word I would use is vertiginous — it's a kind of vertigo, like, wow, it's a rocket ship, and the bounds of gravity have been left behind, and we're in a new realm. That's really exciting. It's really challenging as a filmmaker to sort of stay tethered to this rocket ship, to continue to have the access that had been promised, but it's hard to earn every day, and to have to re-earn it every day, and be patient, be present, be persistent. It was exciting to see Pete emerge as a top-tier candidate. The stakes get really high, and you see this sort of interior monologue that you have to go through as a candidate. You might be an outsider an insurgent candidate, but you have to believe you can win, or you will never undertake the amount of work and effort required to do it. You see some of the exhaustion in their faces.

But I chose my moments carefully. Sometimes I made mistakes, but I really liked the time in South Bend, when they could kind of decompress, or when he was in the campaign office or in debate preparation. As a documentary storyteller you're looking for the small moments that reveal something larger, that are not performative. And that's just [a matter of] luck and patience. I was really glad that when the campaign ended, Pete pulled us close instead of pushing us away. I think that's a real testament to his commitment to this project, and, I'd like to think, to my integrity as a storyteller that he felt like he could trust me when things were going poorly, not just well.

EDGE: As a storyteller, did you find sometimes that it was hard to maintain journalistic distance and objectivity?

Jesse Moss: I think it's always hard in this kind of documentary work, because you get close to people, and you go through intense experiences together. I didn't go in as a Pete supporter, wanting to make a promotional film for him. I don't think this film is that. I think that that's always a question the subject has: "Can I trust this person? Do they have my best interests [at heart]? What are their interests?" My interests are to make a film that has integrity, it's honest, hopefully, a good story, it's true to what happened — all of those things.

I think that there is ultimately a leap of faith [that a documentary film subject has to take], that doesn't get proven out until the final work is completed. I like to share my work, as a work in progress, with my subjects. I think you owe it to them, when they give you that much of their lives and themselves. That doesn't mean they have control — they don't — but it means that they get to see it and talk about it with you. That's been important for me, to share the film and talk about it with Pete and Chasten. I'm sure the version of the campaign story that Pete will tell — and he will tell it I'm sure; he's a writer — will be different than the version I've told. The moments that he'll choose to talk about will be different. But I hope that he respects my version.

"Mayor Pete" is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. For more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.