For six years, filmmaker Greg Whiteley had unprecedented access to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his family, the product of which, Mitt, was released on Netflix Friday.
In an interview with TIME this week, Whiteley discussed why he decided to make the film, the challenges inherent in working around two presidential campaigns, and what didn’t make the final cut.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What drew you to this project?
I had just finished New York Doll, my first movie, and it was a documentary that premiered at Sundance and then had a nationwide theatrical release, which meant it played like 15 cities across the U.S. One of those cities was Boston. It played in a little art house theater there. I remember getting these reports and I would look at what amounted to gate receipts, and do the math in my head. There must have been like six people on average in attendance per screening in Boston. I got an email from somebody who was there who said, hey, I loved your movie and you might be interested to know that the governor of Massachusetts was sitting two rows in front of me.
It was just crazy among the six people seeing this movie about a cross-dressing proto punk rocker was the governor of Massachusetts. So I just started paying attention to him. Over the next couple of months he began to be mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. There was an article about him being Mormon and how his Mormon faith would impact the election. I just thought, “oh, that might be an interesting film.” It kind of took on a life of its own. I never would have dreamt I would be filming for six years. I thought two years. And in the end, Romney’s Mormonism was not a big part of the finished film.
How did you get them to say yes?
A producer came to me and asked, what do you want to do next? I said, what about following this guy – the governor of Massachusetts who might be running for president. This guy happened to know Tagg, and we went to lunch and I pitched Tagg on the idea of making a movie and he said it was a great idea. But when he took it back to his dad, Mitt said no. I thought, maybe that’s the end of it. A month later I read an article that Mitt and his family would be gathering in Park City during the Christmas break to discuss whether he should run. I emailed Tagg and said we should at least film this discussion. This is going to be important. Tagg got back to me and said, “My dad still says no, but my mom said yes, so come up to Park City and we’ll play it by ear.” I really was under the expectation that we would film for a day, but for the next six years they just never said no. There was no issue of whether I’d keep filming from there on out, at least from the family’s standpoint. The campaign didn’t like me around. They put up plenty of resistance. But the family was on board from the moment I met them.
Why was the campaign wary?
I think their argument was, “look, you’re walking around with a loaded gun. We don’t know what you’re filming.” And I think their concerns were perfectly valid and logical. It was kind of crazy I was allowed to film to begin with.
In the scene where Mitt is ironing his tux, were you trying to show us another side to him?
No, I just thought it was funny. Here’s a guy about to go on and deliver this speech at the Al Smith dinner and he’s ironing his tux while also wearing it. There wasn’t anything in the back of my head saying “this is going to make people like him.” That never occurred to me.
Will people see another side of Romney?
I think there is a formality to Mitt Romney that I think is somewhat generational. I wonder if it’s because he looks so young for his age that his mannerisms can strike some people as odd. There are moments when we are all different when we are around our family and our friends, so I think that accounts for the disparity between the Mitt Romney you would see in public and the Mitt you see in our footage. In the course of six years of it being largely just him and his family, you get these different moments. I think Mitt is still a fairly formal guy. I think even in my footage he’s still a fairly formal guy. I don’t think the film — it’s not an attempt on my part to set the record straight. That’s for sure.
At the same time, this is the side the campaign acknowledges they didn’t do the best job of getting out there.
If that’s true, then I would argue that’s probably true for two-thirds of people who ever run for public office, and it’s probably true for you and me, that we are one way when we are at work and there is a different side of us when we are around people who love us. And if it’s true of Mitt Romney, I don’t think it’s uniquely true of him.
Were there moments you couldn’t capture on film?
The campaign was resistant, so there were moments in which I would mostly hear about from the staff bantering back and forth on an issue and I would say “oh, that’d be great to have on camera.” But the campaign did not want to be filmed. In retrospect, I don’t wish I could have done that. I think what I ended up with is something that is the inverse of War Room, which I think is a very good film, and it’s an inverse of the Obama documentary, where you have a lot of footage of the campaign and no footage, or very little footage, of the candidate himself and the family. We’re the opposite. We have very little of the staff and a lot of the candidate and the family. And I think our film is better for it.
Should other candidates do this in the future?
I don’t know. I have a hard time seeing how you could do what I did with the idea of “we’re going to do this to get this guy elected”. If you’re doing it to make someone look good, you will probably conceal some of the very stuff that will make it interesting. Tagg, in particular felt strongly that, “if people could know my dad the way I know my dad, then he would get elected in a landslide.” Even if I were to release that exact same footage during an election, I think it would be really hard for people to see it without a degree of skepticism. Now that the election is over, I think those questions go away and I’m free to make the film I want to. In a perfect world, I think the process is somewhat flawed in that I just don’t think the relationship is an authentic one between the media and the candidate. You have this whole horde, this army, of media following the candidate. They sit on the back of the airplane. They are given not great access. Maybe the better way to do it is just government-funded documentary filmmakers, like you would assign Secret Service. And you tell the candidate you’ll be filming everything.
Why did you move away from the Mormon angle in 2012?
I’ve made three documentary films. It has not always been obvious to me how to begin the film, but it’s been obvious how to end them. With Mitt Romney, the end is when he’s up there in the hotel room and he learns that he’s lost. That’s the end. And I just work backwards from there, finding the scenes that I need to build to that end. I had a section where we talked to some Republicans, and they said they wouldn’t vote for Mitt because he was Mormon. And for a long time I found that to be really interesting and compelling and dramatic. But in building toward the end of the film in the way that we had it, it wasn’t. It felt like a diversion. It wasn’t the last thing we ended up trimming away. We started off with a four-hour film, we came down to 90 minutes. It just didn’t seem to serve the film.
Maybe it was a reflection of how Mormonism wasn’t such a story line in the 2012 campaign?
I think that’s right. If the film had ended in 2008, it probably would have a lot more to do with it, because for whatever reason it seemed like a much bigger part of the campaign in 2008.
What’s your favorite scene?
I don’t know that I have a favorite in the film. There’s a shot that didn’t make it. The family gathered for the Fourth of July holiday in 2007 at their lake house, and I weaseled my way in and filmed the day and a half in which Mitt was there. Mitt had been on the road campaigning for 45 straight days leading up to that day, and I believe they were celebrating on the fifth of July because Mitt had been at a parade on the fourth. Mitt took all of the kids and grandkids out on a boat ride. So he’s there and he seems really relaxed, and they had this very full day, and everyone is kind of falling asleep. I stood at the back of the boat and I just began walking, slowly panning from one face to another: his grandkids sleeping, the sons too tired to do anything, and Mitt is there driving this boat, and he had this very satisfied look on his face. You never want him to leave that boat. You just want him forever to stay right there. He just looks very content, and very happy, and safe. It’s a shot I just couldn’t find a place for in the film.