The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Boys State.
This film feels very “of the moment.” Can you walk us through when you first learned of Boys State?
Jesse Moss: When we first started the film three years ago, we didn’t know what the moment would be when the film came out. It’s always a question you have. I hope it’s a good moment. I think the questions we’re trying to address in the film about political polarization and how young people are negotiating this current political moment are enduring questions. We were motivated to start the project after the election of 2016 and really wrestling with that notion of political division and how intractable this divide seems to be in our politics, our culture, and in our country. I think the spark was when we read about the Texas Boys State program in the Washington Post in the fall of 2017. We didn’t go through the program so we didn’t know much about it, but when we learned that boys in Texas had voted to secede from the union, that got our attention. It was a playful gesture, but also telling in a way. And we were struck by how unusual the space they created was— a space where they’d bring young people together who have different politics and then try to talk to each other. We liked the idea that this was actually happening and we wanted to further explore that space.
When was it clear that there was enough here to make a compelling feature?
Amanda McBaine: I love the word clarity; it’s not something you really have until you premiere your film and you hope people respond. We were intrigued by that article Jesse mentioned and it was sort of funny and profound at the same time. It has all of these things that you look for. Then we put the article on the table for a while and forgot about it, but it kept coming back and I think that at some point we realized there was something there. It wasn’t clear, but I thought it would be extraordinary not only as a place to explore ideas of democracy and hyper-polarization, but also questions about masculinity. I think that then you wonder if the organization would also think it would be interesting to have a documentary made about them. We called them up, totally expecting them not to be game, but to their credit we started a long conversation and I think even in that conversation I started to recognize there was something there. I think that was my first inkling that there might be more depth to this than I thought even after initially reading the article.
JM: We actually didn’t know what the experiment we were walking into was going to be like, and to your question, embarking on an unscripted film like this is there was a “plan A” and there was the abyss, and there was nothing in between! I guess it’s a high-stakes enterprise and I think that’s where the best storytelling and the biggest surprises happen. That’s what we love about the form; we don’t know where it will take us. I think we were both surprised beyond anything we could’ve written when we started the project.
Who we elect is as important as how we elect
One of the things I love about this film is the way it opens. It’s this extremely intellectual classroom setting, and such a surprise for the audience. It really signals that this is not the real-world politics style of Texas, you really have to sit up and pay attention. Was this always the focal opening point of the film?
AM: We love that scene and I think at some point during the edit, it was further into the film. I wasn’t in the room when that scene was shot, but I remember watching that in the dailies and feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Partly because my experience of that first couple hours of Boys State was kind of awful, actually, because it’s the moment where all of the counselors are downloading a ton of information to the kids attending and so you have PowerPoint presentations and I thought, we’re in trouble. If that’s what this week is about, we are never going to walk away with a film. But then they give the program over to the boys and you see what happens. Then I heard that Lucas [the counselor] during the week was a very smart guy and had been through the program and also had these interesting takes on how he feels American politics are existing today. So for him, it’s really important that the kids start the week this way with this understanding that not only who we elect matters, but also how we elect matters. That kind of frame for him as a counselor then reframed how I watched the dailies going forward.
JM: And for that reason it’s really important for the audience to be framed. But hopefully not in too heavy-handed a way. This is contest of ideas and ideologies, that there is a reflection of a bigger world that hopefully we should bring to this story. It’s a very hermetic world; you can dismiss it as a summer camp or an inconsequential gathering of teenage boys in Texas, but I think that scene has a lot on its mind. You want to signal that to the audience but find a way that feels organic to the story you’re telling. The George Washington quote is a nod in that direction, and that classroom scene frames the stakes that elections really do matter, and who we elect is as important as how we elect. Then we can get it out of the way and into the maelstrom.
What about Girls State? Have they thought about combining these two events?
AM: We definitely want to make Girls State once the programs come back in real life, hopefully next summer. Whether or not they will join the programs in Texas is hard to say, but I feel like that has to be coming.
JM: We’d like to see that and Steven Garza would like to see that. He says in the film “What about People’s State?”. It seems sort of obvious that at this point in time, they should bring the programs together. They are trying to bring it into the Twenty-First Century by ensuring that there are different voices that reflect Texas, and they actually said to us that if a girl applied to Boys State and she were qualified, they’d let her in. And I think that would be a film unto itself, but I do think things are moving in that direction.