Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Next Best Picture Podcast – Interview With “Girls State” Directors Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine

Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine struck gold with their 2020 film “Boys State,” winning both the Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and an Emmy award. Showcasing a long-running program in which teen boys create and run a state government, the film highlighted the future of political discourse in America in scary and inspiring ways. So the natural next question became, “What about Girls State?”

“It was daunting to follow up ‘Boys State,'” Moss admits about jumping into making “Girls State.” “We called the project a sibling, not a sequel.” Indeed, their new film is far from a repeat of “Boys State.” While the pieces are similar, like the compelling teenagers with a passion for politics, the filmmakers quickly discovered key differences between the Girls and Boys programs. In the Boys State program, the kids dive immediately into intense political discussions and maneuvering. In the Girls State program, it felt more like a camp than anything. McBaine explains, “I think I was actually surprised by the level of difference. And we felt, as filmmakers, a little frustrated, a little terrified.”

Girls State” directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine were kind enough to spend a few minutes speaking with about capturing the unique experience on film and how unbelievable real-world issues impacted the shoot. Please be sure to check out the film, which is now available to stream on Apple TV+. Thank you, and enjoy!

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You don’t see all that many sequels to documentaries, all things considered. Was your approach this time any different, with this being a follow-up to an earlier film?

Jesse Moss: It was daunting to follow up on “Boys State.” So much worked perfectly with that film, and so much you leave to chance, and cinema verité. We had lucked out with exceptional characters and a great story. (“Boys State“) Really, I think it touched a nerve with audiences, but we felt that even from the beginning of the project, Girls State was part of the conversation we wanted to have.

We actually we’re talking to Girls State programs in Texas before we made “Boys State.” So we always knew this wasn’t just about boys. It was about young people. And to leave girls out just didn’t seem right. Plus, we have two teenage daughters, so we think a lot about young women at this moment and how they’re coming of age politically. So, it was really a matter of when, where, and how to some extent, but not why.

We called the project a sibling, not a sequel. That was an important way for us to really distinguish the two. We weren’t trying to follow up “Boys State.” We were making a companion that could be evaluated on its own merits and would share DNA, share parents, but would really be different. So, that was the permission we needed to give ourselves to move forward.

What were the learnings that you took from “Boys State,” now that you had captured this experience before with the boys, that you took into “Girls State.”

Amanda McBaine: There were some key learnings, actually. One of the things we learned during “Boys State,” and certainly as part of the edit of that film, is how much it, yes, was about politics and political behavior, but was also about boyhood. Because these programs are old-fashioned and gender-segregated, there was, in fact, a really fascinating portrait of what it meant to be a leader as a boy. So we knew that going into “Girls State.”

There was an extra layer we knew with girls because representation in politics is not equal. It’s really kind of stuck at 25-28% in governorships, Congress, and obviously no female President. There was that added piece we knew would be there that certainly wasn’t there for boys. But this is also a study of girlhood and what it means to be coming of age as a girl in this particular moment in politics.

We also really learned how much time we needed to cast before the session got started. Because when it gets going, it is light-speed fast. We knew we needed to give ourselves as much time as possible to meet the kids we were going to really focus on. And we did. We had a healthy five months before June that year to find our people.

I want to hear more about that casting process, but also how you settled on Missouri this time around. It was in Texas with “Boys State.” Why Missouri?

Moss: That’s right. We had to cast the state before we cast the kids. And that was similar in that it was an audition process. Meeting a lot of state programs. There are Girls States in every state except Hawaii, which has a consolidated program. We were interested in the state of Missouri because they have a big, robust, vigorous program with a lot of girls. And democracy gets messier when you have more people involved. So that was appealing. They have a Supreme Court, which we loved. We didn’t have that in “Boys State.” And we know the power of the court in our lives. Many of the young women we began talking to in Missouri told us they were interested in serving on the Supreme Court at Girls State, which was intriguing to us.

Also, politically, Missouri is interesting because it’s not a battleground state, but it’s emblematic of the country and its contradictions in some ways. It has Josh Hawley on the far right, and it has Cori Bush on the left, and everything in between. It has Kansas City and Saint Louis, these big, vibrant cities, but also rural communities and suburbs. So it was interesting to us for those reasons. And we knew the program would be drawing from all corners.

And the partnership is so important. Inviting a 30-person crew into your program is a lot to ask. And we had great buy-in (from the Missouri program). They loved “Boys State.” They saw the potential of this film. Not everybody did. And they took that leap of faith with us. And then we got down to work, as Amanda was saying, with casting the film and searching across the state. Frankly, we were intimidated by the success we had at “Boys State” and thought, “Can we meet young women who surprise us as much, who we really love as much as those young men?” But of course, as we started to get to know them, we found them.

Tell me about discovering some of these incredible girls and how difficult that process was.

McBaine: It’s a long process. The program was helpful in sort of reaching out to everybody that was headed to the session. And then, of that group, who were the folks who were interested in talking to us? They connected with the program, and then we reached out to them. We spoke over Zoom. Zoom was available to us this time.

We spoke to hundreds and hundreds of kids. That in and of itself is really interesting work. Even if the kids aren’t going to be part of the film, just to be connected to that age group at this time and talk about what’s on their minds and who they are politically. It’s really fascinating to see how much they are not interested in being part of the two-party dynamic, the binary. And they haven’t voted yet. They’re 17, so they haven’t been forced to check a box. Their politics are very a la carte. A lot of these kids actually had different politics from their parents, which was very cool to me. I don’t know how that happens. Like, where do you get your politics, and why?

So we had a lot of conversations. The minute my Zoom box opened, and Emily just started talking, it was like a firehose of information. She was so excited, and so smart, and so passionate. Literally, the first thing she says is: “I’m going to run for president.” I mean, she has a website with the ticker going down to the day that she’s going to be old enough to run for president. So, you stand up and take notice of those kids. They sort of cast themselves immediately. But of course, we were looking for a whole range. We needed people with different life experiences, coming from different places, politically and regionally. So we did our work until we found everybody and felt that the cast was there.

You mentioned the inequities of women in politics in America, and of course, we know that going in. But what was so surprising about the film was the inequities in Girls’ and Boys’ States, which I just didn’t expect. Did you know how wildly different these programs are, or did you discover that along the way?

Moss: Well, it’s actually interesting that you mentioned that we know about the inequities in the adult state, and I’m not sure we do. We do, but I’m not sure we really think about them. We just sort of accept them. And I think we accept gradual change as inevitable. I speak for myself because I think the experience of making this film is confronting what is almost invisible and making it visible,

It was actually startling to research the photographs in the film of these women, political officials, in rooms full of men, and you’d expect to find them 100 years ago. But what’s alarming is you find them today. To look at them in sort of collection with one another is to be reminded that there is a positive change, but it’s pretty damn slow.

We were very interested in the fact that Girls State was running concurrently with Boys State for the first time in its 80-year history on the same campus. In Texas, they’re very separate. And in Missouri, they were going to try this out. We love the idea that this is going to be a new experiment for them, and we were also a little concerned that the boys’ presence might kind of overshadow our desire to really put the focus on the girls. We wanted to make sure this was a conversation about young women. There was a kind of cautious curiosity about what would unfold. The great discovery of the story is that the girls begin to interrogate the boys’ program, how they’re treated differently, and how they’re funded differently. We begin to see that this is a structural inequality that is mirrored in our adult state and accounts for why young women don’t have the same representation and the same opportunities.

So, I say as a man, and a man who thinks of himself as enlightened, and married to a strong woman, partner, and has two daughters, it’s kind of shocking to discover that Boys State has more money to run their program than Girls. Why is that fair? Well, I know why it is historically, I just don’t know why it should be fair.

McBaine: I think I was actually surprised by the level of difference. Every program is run a little bit differently in every state, so I’m sure there are Boys State programs that are smaller than the one that we got to experience with Texas. That being said, though, what struck me was that even the minute we rolled in our cars, the counselors were greeting these girls in a very camp counselor, optimistic, energy way. They had pompoms and, like, bedazzlement.

I was like, “Whoa, where are we? What does this have to do with politics?” It’s fun, and it sure feels welcoming. But it felt different, of course, than the Texas Boys State. Also, the sort of softball programming, at least for the first 3 or 4 days, was slow to get going. That was unexpected.

And we felt, as filmmakers, a little frustrated, a little terrified. Like, “Oh no. Maybe this is the whole program, and we’re not going to have a film because they’re never actually going to talk politics.” But they eventually get there. Our frustration, which I think I feel in the film, is certainly the kids’ frustration because they came in chomping at the bit, ready to get into the meat and potato issues. That’s why they came. So, it was surprising, but also, like, not surprising. Like, oh, of course, right. The expectations are lower. That is a familiar and disappointing feeling as a woman.

I’m also fascinated by the timing. You said five months you had been casting this film for, but then, just weeks before filming, the (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) decision was leaked. You must have known how that would cast a shadow over the discussions throughout the film. Thinking about the film’s production, what was your reaction to how that might impact the film?

Moss: Well, what’s interesting about this project for us is that it explores this faultline that exists in American life and the question of whether people can reach across that line and find common ground. And one of the issues that embodies that faultline is abortion. And we found that in Texas with the boys. They talked about abortion, but they were uncomfortable doing so. Even those conservative boys realized that with no girls present, it wasn’t quite right. They were sort of mirroring the problem of the conversation in a way. And so we knew if we could get to Girls State and make this film, that this probably would be an issue that was central to the week. And, indeed, it became supercharged. 

We knew the Dobbs decision had been heard, but the opinion leaked just a matter of days before we got there. These environments are so interesting because they’re really charged up. They’re very sensitive instruments that receive all these signals in domestic life and concentrate them. So here was this question of abortion that we’re all grappling with. And suddenly, it’s focused. We thought, “Okay, this is why we do this. This is going to be really interesting.”

There was some tentativeness to the conversation at first. But then we began to see it suddenly become central to the conversation. And, ultimately, the Supreme Court that the girls form is going to hear an abortion case, which, as filmmakers who depend on a certain amount of luck and fortune, we were like, “Yes, okay, we’re going to have an all-female Supreme Court hear this important issue, and argue it for themselves. That is exactly what we want to see.”

McBaine: And in a state where there was a trigger law. Once Roe v Wade was officially overturned, it made abortion totally illegal in that state. There was a particular level of stakes that some kids were more aware of than others. I think that was also really interesting.

I’m not sure that all the kids were fully understanding what the decision meant. And also what the Roe v Wade case was really about legally, intellectually, constitutionally. That became part of what was interesting for our film, and certainly the Supreme Court case they argue. It’s a privacy case. It’s not a morality argument. And that starts to get really interesting when it’s an all-female conversation about law.

Moss: I think there are a lot of adults who didn’t understand what the implications of that decision would be, and I think we’re actually now wrestling with the consequences of that decision in ways even the court itself probably couldn’t imagine. It has kind of unleashed a Pandora’s box of complications. There’s a poignant moment where Nisha is talking to these girls next to her. They’re about to hear the case, and the girls are like, “Oh, it’s not going to matter.” And she’s like, “Well, I think it is.” It’s not going to matter in California, but it’s going to matter right here with these poor girls. You know, they just don’t realize it. But I think there are a lot of adults who didn’t realize that as well.

You filmed “Girls State” in May of 2022, but you also finished up “The Mission” last year, another documentary that I just loved. You were juggling multiple films at once. How challenging is that? I’m sure you’ve got multiple projects that you’re juggling right now. How do you keep each project straight, working on multiple films at once?

McBaine: Well, the beauty of those films, at least, is that they were so different. And they were in different phases of their lives. They weren’t both – well, they were both in edit at the same time. There were some moments, I’m not going to lie! Some of those moments were a little dicey.

Moss: You know, we have a restless curiosity. We also have gotten some opportunities post- “Boys State” that we want to capitalize on. We’ve been making films for a long time, and there were times when we couldn’t make movies. We couldn’t find support. I think it’s important for us now to choose meaningfully and intentionally about what we devote our time to. For those stories to really matter to us. We hope they matter to other people and to audiences because it’s so much effort, time, heartache, and struggle to make any film good.

So, yeah, last year was particularly intense. I don’t think we can sustain that level of productivity. Some directors seem to be able to. I don’t know how they do it. We’re not a big company. We’re just us. And we have partners. But it feels like an urgent time. I think those divisions that motivated “Boys State” are pronounced further, and we want to make work that matters in the conversation, that confronts these issues in surprising ways and tells compelling stories that also challenge us. We’re going to keep making movies.

Documentary is going through a weird transition, but, you know, we’ve been through some weird transitions before since we started out way back when. I won’t name the year because it’ll make us sound old, but we’re going to keep going. So, thanks, Daniel. Appreciate talking to you and your support.

Girls State” is now available to stream on Apple TV+

You can follow Daniel and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @howatdk

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howathttps://nextbestpicture.com
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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