Local News Matters Arts & Entertainment newsletter
End your week with a bit of culture to unwind and refresh. Sign up for our surprising and inspiring options in our weekly newsletter, delivered on Thursdays with news about Bay Area arts and entertainment.
Early on while shadowing 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, San Francisco documentary maker Jesse Moss came to the realization that he had not one but two primary stories he wanted to relate for his Amazon Prime documentary, “Mayor Pete.”
His yearlong sprint with the politician drops Friday on the streamer and is also screening Thursday as part of the Frameline Fall Showcase at the Castro in San Francisco.
One focus was obvious, relating the whirlwind campaign that the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — also a war veteran and gay married man — experienced as he and his team saw his star shine early in the primaries.
The other thread was more personal, spotlighting the intimate bond between two husbands, the more reticent Pete and the more open Chasten.
Subscribe to our weekly arts & culture newsletter
The decision to go beyond typical fodder of the politics-focused doc and tell a love story got sealed once Moss filmed Buttigieg as he addressed the pain he had experienced while remaining closeted. It was during a speech at a 2019 LGBTQ Victory Fund event.
His comments bristle with candor, and also are part of one of the most moving portions of “Mayor Pete.” But it is in the behind-the-scenes exchange when the emotionality of it all hits you, with Chasten checking in on his husband. Moss felt it, too.
“It was a really personal moment, and I was able to film that,” said the director, whose fly-on-the-wall designs have been used to award-winning effect, including in another politically themed documentary, “Boys State,” released in 2020.
“They let me be there for that,” Moss said. “And that’s when I realized how significant their relationship could be as part of the story I was telling. The film really opened up for me at that moment.”
The more difficult hurdle was getting the reserved Pete Buttigieg to be more forthcoming — a quality that vexed his campaign manager Lis Smith (featured prominently in the documentary), who challenged him to come across as more emotive but still remain true to his own character.
Moss enjoyed the experience of making “Mayor Pete,” but didn’t leap onboard immediately. He said “no” at first. Moss came around after hearing Buttigieg speak intelligently and rationally on a swath of topics at a town hall forum. Even then, he knew what he wanted to avoid turning his film into a rah-rah documentary.
“I didn’t sign up for the film as a Pete supporter,” he said. “The film is not a promotional film for Pete.”
What also persuaded Moss to jump aboard was witnessing how Buttigieg was able to appeal to more than just urban voters.
“What struck me about Pete and what is so interesting to me and why I wanted to make the film is that he seemed to be somebody who could cut across all these lines in American life,” he said. “He stands for many things. He’s a Rust Belt mayor. He’s a gay man. He’s a Navy veteran.”
Unfortunately, Moss’s first meeting with the now-U.S. Secretary of Transportation — and the first openly gay Cabinet official — fizzled rather than popped.
“It was like the opposite of the meet-cute. It was like the meet-awkward,” he said.
Moss introduced himself on a train bound to D.C. after Buttigieg had an appearance in New York City.
“I went over to him, and he was with his campaign staff, and I said: ‘Hello, I’m a documentary filmmaker.’ He said ‘hello’ and turned back to his work,” Moss explained. “I stood there awkwardly waiting for the small talk to begin, which it didn’t.”
Undaunted, he persisted.
“I was just prepared to be patient,” Moss said.
The situation improved soon after chatting with Chasten.
“I love that Chasten is so different from Pete,” Moss said. “I felt like Chasten could be the way that we really see Pete. They have this really strong relationship, and if we could see Pete through Chasten’s eyes, that could help, and it could help me connect.”
Moss invited Chasten to participate in one interview, and soon after, Chasten became a welcome presence throughout “Mayor Pete.” He’s also featured in some of Moss’ favorite moments, including scenes of the couple in their South Bend home.
The Palo Alto-born director thrives on being a part of the unscripted filmmaking community — where the unexpected happens. In “Mayor Pete,” that happened when Buttigieg returned to South Bend in the angry aftermath of the June 2020 officer-involved shooting death of an African American man.
“I like to tell stories that are being written in front of the camera,” Moss said. “It’s painful (at times), but that’s documentary filmmaking, where something unexpected happens. Your subject is tested, and everything you sort of imagined was the trajectory is thrown into turmoil.”
The element of the unexpected was also an elemental part of “Boys State,” which he co-directed with his filmmaking partner and wife, Amanda McBaine. It followed a group of male teens participating in an annual program wherein they create a mock government in Texas.
Moss sees “Boys State” and “Mayor Pete” complementing each other with “Boys State” asking questions about how we can move forward in a polarized and fractured nation.
“‘Boys State’ was a way of having a conversation through the eyes of teenage boys in Texas,” he said. “But for me, Pete’s candidacy was also about that conversation …
“I like that Pete was trying to bring people together and embody this sort of what we hope a successful political leader can be. Someone who unifies and doesn’t divide.”
Jesse Moss will be on hand for a Q&A after the 7:45 p.m. Thursday screening of “Mayor Pete” at Castro Theatre. For tickets, and to see a full schedule of the two-day Frameline Fall Showcase, visit frameline.org.