Filmmaker Frank Popper talks about how the political system is broken and ways to fix it, filming on the campaign trail, and keeping up with Jeff Smith.
What led you to make CAN MR. SMITH GET TO WASHINGTON ANYMORE?
I was profoundly disturbed by the direction in which the Bush administration was taking the country, particularly with respect to the war in Iraq. I often shared my frustrations with my father, who on one occasion suggested that I vent my anger by making a political documentary.
Over a year I entertained a number of possible political subjects when I had a chance encounter with Jeff Smith at a book-signing event. He was working the crowd when he came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Jeff Smith. I’m running for Congress.” I told him that I had heard about him and he said, “Yeah, you and 35 other people.”
Our encounter didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but I found him to be a compelling presence—smart, articulate, charismatic. I sat down and said to the woman sitting next to me, “I think I’m going to make a documentary about that guy.”
What was it like filming on the campaign trail?
Invigorating yet exhausting, like a roller coaster ride with dramatic ups and downs that became increasingly so as the campaign approached Election Day.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Knowing where to be with the camera. There were four main subjects to photograph when covering the campaign: Jeff Smith; Clay, his campaign manager; Artie, his communications director; and the volunteer staff. With so much going on in so many different places I had to keep guessing whom I should follow to get the most interesting material. Since Jeff was the center of gravity of the campaign, I spent most of my time with him. But he could spend hours on the phone trying to get votes or raise money, which doesn’t make for very interesting footage. And often when shooting the others, there wouldn’t be much going on. I was always jumping back and forth, just hoping that I would be at a good place at the right time.
Keeping up with Jeff. Jeff works harder, moves faster and has more stamina than anyone I’d ever filmed before. It’s a good thing I stay in good shape. But he also gets by on very little sleep, and oftentimes when I’d show up the next morning at campaign headquarters he would break my heart by saying, “You really missed it last night.”
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
Shots that I missed, just to name a few: Late night, at a local restaurant when Jeff got the word that he didn’t get the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jeff and his close advisors watching the votes come in just after the polls closed, but before the victory party. Both I had heard afterward were full of dramatic material.
What has the audience response been so far?
Overwhelmingly positive. People come out of screenings with passionate praise thanking us for making the film.
Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Yes, they’ve seen it. Almost unanimously they are pleased.
Jeff thinks the film is an honest and accurate portrayal of the campaign. However, there are moments in the film he wishes were not included, but he understands the price to be paid for agreeing to be in a documentary. He doesn’t care for those moments in which he interacts or talks about his family. He would prefer that I had not included some use of profane language. But other than that, he is pleased with the film.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Once I discovered filmmaking I knew that I had found my passion. From the very beginning it has been an uphill struggle, but I love it too much. I can’t help myself—I love making films.
Why did you choose to present you film on public television?
PBS is the perfect venue for a film like ours where the message, we hope at least, is to stimulate a debate about how our democracy works. PBS holds the most potential for a documentary to be seen by the largest audience.
What are your three favorite films?
My list of favorite films is always shifting, but off the top of my head I’d say Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?
I’d be a photographer, which is what I did before I became a filmmaker.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Start shooting and editing immediately. Don’t wait for film school—you may not even need it.
What sparks your creativity?
A dynamic, unpredictable person. And great music.
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