Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine have a unique niche among documentarians: their work, together or apart, often involves liberal people in conservative spaces. Moss produced last year’s Gay Chorus Deep South, about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus embarking on a musical tour below the Mason-Dixon line, and both worked on The Overnighters, the story of a Lutheran pastor who opens his church doors to homeless workers who are seeking oil jobs in his North Dakota town. Moss and McBaine return with Boys State, the story of four boys creating a representative government from the ground up at a simulation in Texas.
When first hearing about the Sundance Grand Jury Prize documentary winner about teen boys in Texas politics, one might recall Lord of the Flies. Instead, Boys State demonstrates the complex inner life of those featured in competition. McBaine notes their most conservative character reveals “surprising [self] reflection,” even though he is the easiest to write off as a younger, cocky George W. Bush-type. Boys State continues overturning expectations when two of the most liberal boys, Steven and René, experience unexpected success.
We spoke with Moss and McBaine about Boys State’s alumni roll, including men as drastically different as Cory Booker and Rush Limbaugh. The co-directors also talked about their luck in casting four incredible boys to follow at Texas Boys State, dispelling myths about the alleged shallowness of Zoomers, and finding surprising hope in all the wrong people.
The Film Stage: Some talk around Boys State calls it a portrait of toxic masculinity in America. But like when I look at the variety of men it’s produced, you get Bill Clinton and James Gandolfini. Neil Armstrong and Tim Cook. Cory Booker and Rush Limbaugh. I don’t find that narrative is a fair assessment of what takes place in the movie.
Amanda McBaine: We were inspired to make this film because of an article in The Washington Post a long time ago, talking about the secession vote that Texas Boys State 2017 had done. So we went there hoping to explore all those ideas and what they would do the following year. But I think what we didn’t really think through beforehand was what an incredible window we would have on boyhood. I don’t think our intention was to make a film about masculinity so much, but once we got there, how could it not be one of the explorations? There’s a certain degree of that we were witness to; a lot of machismo, performative or not, playing out in the electoral. I think some of that’s pretty interesting and pretty uncomfortable and exists. And as a woman going into that space, I was very outside of it. Some of it met my expectations in that Lord of the Flies sense, but what I think the film represents, which is true and mirrors my experience and Jesse’s to some degree, is that there were a lot of surprises that I did not expect to see. Like deep empathy, listening, and vulnerability.
Jesse Moss: Call it healthy masculinity. I think the film shows two competing masculinities. And I think that’s true to who we are and not just men and boys, but the country. I think if all that you see is toxic masculinity, I don’t think you’ve seen the film. I mean, I think Steven Garza is so clearly an embodiment of what I think of as a kind of healthy and empathic, strong young man of integrity, and the moral virtue. We could have come in as filmmakers and just made that film and I don’t think we did. So I think the film is a mirror for people to some degree, and they see what they want to see or choose to see. Some people only see that because, I don’t know, maybe that’s the only thing that interests them. But I think that does a disservice to the complexity of the film and the story that we told and the young men who are represented. Yes, they are young men proclaiming that their masculinity will not be infringed. But as you know well from watching the film, there’s a lot more on display. It’s more nuanced, and very different than that.
Boys State follows four boys and I’m wondering if you were following a bunch of guys but chose these four later?
Moss: Three of the four boys in the movie were cast before production started. There were two other boys who we were interested in who we followed the first day, so that would have been five total, but who quickly fizzled out, they weren’t really up to it, and they didn’t advance, and we lost interest in them as film subjects. So we pivoted quickly. René Otero presented himself on day two, and he’s such a remarkable young man, you meet him that we met him giving that incredible speech to the Nationalist Party running for state party chair and we cast him on the spot. And so that’s it. There’s not a long list of people who are on the cutting room floor. We really bet the farm on the boys we met and like. We trusted our instincts and intuition and got lucky.
I would love to talk about your casting process.
Moss: We have an algorithm that we developed in our production system where we just feed in a lot of data. And in this case the data from 1,000 boys, and it spits out a very precise list of who should be in the movie.
McBaine: It’s a bad joke.
Moss: We really struggled to answer this question. It’s such a good one. And we can’t even answer it for ourselves. I think there was a very rational approach to casting, looking for some things that we knew were interested in.
McBaine: We had a shortlist of criteria. We needed them to be diverse. We needed them to have a range of political views. We need them to be super ambitious because we wanted them to be politically savvy and be formidable enough in their belief that we could stay interested in them but also that they might do well in the program. Outside of that, it’s a know it when you see it kind of thing, and whittling down 1,100 people to a team of four, we knew was going to be a challenge––it’s always a challenge to find the person you want to film on that level. But this one, we needed four of them and we had a very short period of time to seal the deal.
Moss: It’s odd in a way to make a movie when your casting process, which we were filming, is actually three times longer than principal photography. We spent 20 days in production in Texas meeting all these boys and going to their houses and meeting them at school and American Legion halls and the film was shot in six days, but that’s just what it took. I also think you would have cast them too. The moment you met Ben Feinstein and he shows you his talking Ronald Reagan doll, you’re like, well, you’re not like the others. You’re smart, you’re savvy.
McBaine: He’s brilliant and he’s also hilarious. And fearless, really. So there was a lot to dig in there.
Moss: One thing you can’t test but you can if you’re casting a scripted film, you can put your cast together and see if there’s bad chemistry, right? You can test your leads. This is an ensemble film, but they were never together until it started and of course, we didn’t know that they would ever even be together in the same room.
Were you filming interviews with the boys in real-time?
Moss: Very much real-time, in the moment. This is an intentional strategy. We knew that the project was vérité, that’s the work that we love to do and to capture the dramatic moments as they happen in surprising ways. It’s used very judiciously but it’s such a critical tool in the artist’s palette to go inside your protagonist’s thought process. So we built a set, which was this interview set on campus, and it was up the whole week and whenever we could get them we put them in and which is hard. We sat them down on this couch, which over the week became almost more of a therapy couch. They relaxed a little bit and began to share more. We got a surprising reflection––I mean, Robert’s confession, we didn’t know that was what he was going to say until he just shared it. I think it came from creating a space where he could decompress and kind of process what was happening and what he was doing.
McBaine: To have that kind of dimension on the character like him, who reads a certain way on the surface, that was critical I think to our film but also particularly him as a character.
Moss: There were no interviews shot after the event concluded, no pick-ups, which is unusual, actually.
You had your principal characters, but how do you keep hundreds of boys from mugging at the camera?
McBaine: There’s a lot of conversation about Generation Z and how much time on camera and on devices is a part of their life. I think what’s hard to explain is how visceral and fast-moving and vivid and intense this simulation was. There’s so many people talking, there’s so much movement happening, there’s so much drama. These kids at Boys State do not have a lot of time for mugging and selfies. It was kind of analog honestly. For a good couple days I don’t think I even saw anybody’s phones, which even just to create that kind of space is for that age group very extraordinary and kudos to Boys State for that too. I think that was part of the enjoyment, the kind of face to faceness of it all. There were certainly kids who are more self-conscious than other kids. That’s true of adults as well. They see a camera and they think it’s, I guess, time to wave or make a lewd face or whatever it is, but not really. They were so immersed. This program is hard and fast and it’s demanding.
I watched Boys State and then I watched The Overnighters and Gay Chorus Deep South, and each in their own way are about the tensions of liberal people in conservative environments. It’s an emerging theme in some of your work.
Moss: That is one of our projects or the major project. I think that’s our kind of documentary work. First of all, I think that’s kind of who we are, where we are. I sort of feel like… why don’t more people do that when there’s obviously a healthy marketplace for films. I think there’s the project for me of crossing that line and understanding those communities are the intersection of them. Gay Chorus Deep South I didn’t direct, but you’re right, it is about a gay chorus traveling through the south and engaging with the church. This is the fault line of American life and I think that it merits investigation. I’ve always been interested, even before I went into film, when I was in college, I remember being interested in doing academic work around the right wing in the McCarthy period, and particularly its impact in Hollywood. I grew up in a very left wing home and I worked in democratic politics as a young person in my 20s. I come squarely from that place, but I think the great privilege, the opportunity of documentary work is that the camera is the ticket to take you someplace different. What I’ve actually appreciated is as different as Pastor Jay was to me as a conservative Lutheran pastor in The Overnighters, I found that we had much more in common than what separated us. That kind of discovery for me was deeply moving and surprising. In Boys State, I don’t agree with Ben’s politics, I don’t revere Ronald Reagan, and would never put a Reagan doll on my bookshelf. But I really like Ben as a person and I love talking to him about politics and talking about everything with him. That’s just like how I want to move through the world. I think that that’s where our documentary work has led us.
We started the conversation talking about discomfort and I think it’s not that we seek to make people uncomfortable, but sometimes the project does. But I think that’s also respect for complexity. You know, Pastor Jay is a very complex character, as are the boys in this film. We can hold contradictory views, feelings, and impulses and still be in the same room. Robert embodies these contradictions, which is why he’s such an interesting character. Pastor Jay did too. I mean, he was like a closeted gay man, who denounced homosexuality as a conservative Lutheran pastor. I think human nature doesn’t reduce to simple strokes.
The only negative review of Boys State I read said it makes you work hard to find something hopeful in it. I don’t share that opinion because when you take in the entire movie, you watch the boy strategize, you see them win and fail, and you see them forgive and reconcile. And while those last two things are missing at the national level, here they’re signs of hope and a healthy democracy.
McBaine: I think the film’s a little bit of a Rorschach test. I do think like all our films, there’s a reflexivity to the storytelling where you are going to bring the mood of where you are that day, you’re going to bring your politics, your preconceptions about masculinity, whatever it is, and hopefully interact with a somewhat open-minded film. My personal takeaway is the experience of the film is a reflection of my experience. Watching René and Steven, not only navigate a majority white and conservative state, but also transcend it; to accrue the amount of power that they did, because they really were able to speak to and inspire the sort of better selves of all of this majority conservative group. I found that to be wildly hopeful, actually, that Steven got as far as he did in space that I really didn’t expect to. Even in his defeat, either on day one or day six, he does not give up, and that ultimately is always the lesson of hope. You have to defy defeat as he says in the film.
Boys State arrives on Apple TV + on Friday, August 14.