POV: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
Paul Stekler: I think the biggest challenge in making this film was trying to figure out which race would be the best metaphor for what we were trying to do. It’s not that it’s easy to make a film about a specific event. We ended up filming 200 hours. You have to follow the candidates [and ask yourself] do they give you access, are they any good, will the election turn out to be a close election, but the hard part is to be able to get something which is a fabulous election with two good candidates that goes down to the wire that actually means something beyond who wins and who loses. And so you’re taking chances going across the entire state of Texas, which is pretty big— a thousand miles across and two time zones — looking for a really good race.
And does that race actually have legs in terms of telling us something about the future of Texas? We were looking for races that we thought would be instructive in that way. I thought the most obvious races were the ones we should cover: The ones that involve this multicultural Democratic team versus the incumbent Republican party left behind by George W. Bush. There was a problem, though. Those elections weren’t, in the end, that interesting.
Tony Sanchez, the Mexican-American Democratic candidate for governor was just not a very good candidate. Ron Kirk, the very charismatic former mayor of of Dallas, did not run a very good campaign, and really just didn’t give anybody any access, and the Republican candidates for major offices just weren’t that interesting. Nowhere near as interesting as say George W. Bush was when he ran for governor, so you’ve got these very flat races with candidates that either are not that interesting or not giving you that much access and are not running very interesting campaigns on a statewide level. What do you do?
Well, in our case, we were very lucky in that we were able to find a small state representative race with two fabulous candidates who were fighting it out in a very historically interesting place, the hometown of Lyndon Baines Johnson. If Democrats can’t win L.B.J.’s hometown, what can they win? So whoever could win that race might tell us a little bit about the dynamics of contemporary politics and at the same time we could use those statewide races for contextual background.
POV: And you were lucky that those candidates gave you extraordinary access.
Stekler: One of the ways that documentary filmmakers do their craft is by selling themselves, and I think that no matter if the subject thinks you happen to be specifically on [their] side or not, what you’re selling is essentially the opportunity for them to tell their story. And I think for almost everybody that we ever film, they understand that we’re not there selling an agenda. We’re there to understand them, so for both Rick Green and Patrick Rose, we’re willing to spend the time, give them voice, but also just be there and make that commitment to be able to present portraits of who these people are, not only as political symbols, not only as symbols of the kind of politics they represent but also as a human being.
What I would hope for my films is that they present politics not only as symbol and ideology but more importantly as a human struggle, because these elections are between human beings. And these elections have an impact on the day-to-day lives of people and without that human element — why are we doing these films?
I think the loss of covering politics in terms of a human struggle, in terms of actual people, may be one of the reasons why a lot of people are turned off by politics, so if Last Man Standing helps people to understand politics in that way and understand how it’s relevant to their own lives, then we’ve been successful.
POV: Do you think people are turned off by politics because of the way the media covers politics?
Stekler: I don’t like the way the mainstream media covers politics. It’s not very substantive. I don’t think it has any of the color impelling this sort of surrealness of campaigns. On the other hand, I don’t really like the way independent documentary filmmakers cover American politics [either], because I find it very biased and very heavy-handed. How do you walk a middle line? Because I don’t really believe there’s any such thing as objectivity.
How can you be objective? I’m a filmmaker. I have a political point of view. I’d like to think that what I do differently and what the people that I work with do differently is that no matter how we feel about a candidate’s issues, ideology, how we feel about what they would be like in office, [we are honest about how we portray that person]. If you don’t understand that person, then why are you making the film? The only way to be able to understand them is to film them and to portray them the way they actually are, not the way they happen to be in your head.
POV: Do you feel like the vérité style you worked with helped in that regard? It’s a departure from the other films you’ve done in the past.
Stekler: I wouldn’t say that Last Man Standing is a shift in the kind of style that I’ve done because I’ve moved back and forth between historical pieces and more cinema verité slash essay pieces. I actually like doing the action stuff a lot better. The historical things are nice, but they’re more portraits, big portraits, big metaphors. It’s more challenging to be able to actually go out after candidates and film as much as we did. We filmed 200 hours over six months to be able to make an hour and a half film. I was looking for something that spoke to the politics of right now. As opposed to something that was historical and something that I thought was not only a good story — and this is a real good story, I had no idea that this state representative race that we were covering for L.B.J.’s old home district was going to go down literally to the last precinct — but it’s also something that I think is instructive in trying to understand where our politics, not only in Texas but in the whole country are going.
POV: What advice would you give to a first-time filmmaker?
Stekler: If I had one piece of advice for a first time filmmaker, it would be that it’s so hard to be able to make these things — do fundraising, getting access for just sweat equity — that you shouldn’t be figuring out what you can do that will actually get you funding or be able to get you an audience. You should be doing something you actually want to do. Because you know the reality is to begin with, you’re probably not going to get very much funding. You’re probably not going to get that venue that you want and so you ought to be making the film that you actually want to make, because I think, or at least I’d like to think, that the passion that people have for filmmaking is what people see on the screen. And in that way if you figure out how to be able to portray what you actually care about on film, then you can do all sorts of things later on, but to start off [with a topic] that has that energy. Do something that you actually want to do. That’s the most important thing.