“I’m running because everyday Americans deserve to be represented by everyday Americans.” If you haven’t seen it yet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in the trailer for Knock Down The House.
In her new documentary, director Rachel Lears follows Amy Vilela from Nevada, Cori Bush from Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin from West Virginia and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York as they run for Congress. Lears follows as these inspiring women campaign, going from door to door engaging voters, talking to them and building their base. At the time of filming, Lears didn’t know if any of the women would win, but we know how history was made when Ocasio-Cortez won and became the youngest woman elected to Congress.
I had a catch up with Lears to talk about filming the inspiring and empowering documentary and editing in time for Sundance where it went on to win the Festival Favorite Award.
How did Knock Down The House happen?
In the Fall of 2016 after the election, I’d been making films about politics for a while and it felt like maybe I should continue doing that. I was in between projects at the time. I’d had a baby earlier in the year. He was eight-months-old in November of that year and I wanted to find a big story with a national scope to it. I wanted to find a story about people from different parts of this country and from different backgrounds coming together to form unexpected alliances to push the country forward in big ways.
I’d heard about this brand new plan with Justice Democrats to recruit ordinary people to run for Congress and create a pathway so that people who don’t usually get to Congress could get there.
That was really interesting to me as a broader political project, but also on a human level that I’m always looking for as a filmmaker. I thought it would be really interesting to watch these first-time candidates coming from these humble roots, going through that process of really transforming themselves into viable candidates and finding their voices. It started with that. I had to gain the trust of the organizers who were in the recruiting process. At that time, they didn’t have a slate of candidates when we started developing the project. I knew the types of folk that they were looking for. It wasn’t until Spring 2017 that we met a number of candidates. We actually met Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on one of our first shoots which was a meeting of potential candidates. That was before they finalized their decision to run. That’s the scene in the film where Alexandria is inspired by the group to go ahead and commit to it.
Because Alexandria was based in New York, we were able to start filming with her extensively. We had zero funding. We were just fitting it in between freelance gigs and other things. A few months later, we met Paula Jean Swearengin from West Virginia and Amy Vilela from West Virginia. They had strong personal stories. We didn’t have the resources to follow 30 candidates to see what would happen and choosing the best to make a film about. We had to choose people who would be worth watching win or lose. They had to be compelling, with strong personalities and on-screen presence, as well as strong stories about what was motivating them to run in the first place. That’s what drew us to these four candidates. They each brought something to the story that we felt was really essential, but together they span such a diverse swath of American geography and culture and political issue areas.
The original idea was not to focus politically on women, it was more political outsiders, but since the project was always about` representation as well as money and politics, once it became clear that there was this historical wave of women running, fairly early on in 2017, it felt like a natural fit to focus the film on that.
I think also for myself as a new mother, I was feeling a lot of solidarity with women and women’s stories.
When people see this, they are inspired to believe that change is possible. What is it like as a filmmaker watching that and to be in that energy?
That’s what drew me to them in the first place. I really wanted something to believe in. I felt I had a responsibility to my son and to everyone younger than myself to believe in something and to fight for it. I felt that it would be a hopeful story. I knew it would be inspiring to some degree even if none of them won the election.
We were also interested in following that story of challenging political machines and investigating how power works. There was this dark side to it no matter what. There was a lot of positive and inspiring energy, but there was also a ton of stress. Campaigns are very stressful. They’re really hard on everyone, especially as you get closer to the election itself.
The process of independent filmmaking mirrors a grassroots campaign in certain ways. In the beginning, you have to believe in yourself when no one else does. You have to convince other people that you’re the one to do this and to give you money. It was grueling. We did a Kickstarter campaign in order to cover the Primary season because we couldn’t go into any more debt.
I would also say, we were still on a shoestring budget. I was doing the majority of the shooting by myself as a one-person crew. We were traveling around the country trying to document this movement. I don’t know how you can work that hard if you’re not traveling with people who are giving motivational speeches. It was really helpful to be able to be filming those moments.
I remember a moment that isn’t in the film. I was going to have to be shooting every day for a month. Alexandria was giving a speech to her supporters saying, “We have 30 days to the elections. We have to be on those phones, knocking those doors and these are all the things we need to do for the next 30 days. You can do anything.” I remember thinking, “Yes, you can do anything. You can shoot for 30 days. You can do this.” Everyone around you is working so hard and that’s something that keeps you going on something like this.
I want to talk about the ending scene with Alexandria on the Capitol. There’s so much to it and such a poignant moment. How did that happen?
It was her first trip to D.C after winning the primary and I knew we had to be there. I got permission to shoot her at Meet The Press. I told her and the team that I needed half an hour between Meet The Press and the train back to New York. I wanted to take her to the Capitol and shoot her there. People always ask how did I get the steps empty. It was shoot in July in D.C and it was 96 degrees. It was very hot. I knew there would be an emotional response to that. The story that she told and the reaction that she had encapsulated all the themes of the film. We did try other endings, but we came back to that.
You edited it down to under 90 minutes. What was the challenge in getting your footage into that window?
It was a compressed timeline. We knew after Alexandria won her primary, there was a lot of industry interest in the film and we knew we needed to move quickly towards the edit. After the Missouri Primary, we had the outlines of what the story would be.
We continued shooting with her through the end of the year. A number of scenes were actually shot in Fall, even they don’t chronicle the story through that.
My husband was part of the project since the beginning and he’d started the editing during the production trips. There’s no way we could have finished this in time for Sundance in time without an editor on board at that level. We brought on David Teague as a consulting editor and he was helpful in strategizing how to streamline the editing process. I was on the majority of the shoots so I could say what day was more important than that day and let’s prioritize. We did a lot of triage. There were many things we tried.
I start with index cards on the table and that helped get our bearings around the story. It’s been a compressed timeline to get the story out and striking while the iron is hot, but it feels so worth it.
It was a challenge to balance the four stories. We had more material with Alexandria just because we were all New York based. We didn’t have the budget for a lot of travel for the other candidates, whereas, with Alexandria, we had more story beats. We knew she’d have more screentime. After she won, we felt we had a responsibility to history to give her more screentime and to reveal the story of her campaign. We never considered cutting Cori, Paula or Amy from the story. We wished we had more space for them, but we were limited. We wanted the film to not be tight and there’s some great stuff that didn’t make it, but you have to make sacrifices for the greater whole.
You talk about political outsiders and that’s similar to the story in The Hand That Feeds, what’s your attraction to that story? We’re heading to another election, are you fishing for a trilogy?
I’m a little nervous to take on another David and Goliath story. I don’t know if I can do it again. I definitely have been interested in verite filmmaking. I’m drawn to choosing topics and characters that are going to be going through something and people who are at the beginning of embarking on a journey that’s going to be intense in their lives. That’s the story I’m looking for. Like The Hands That Feed, I was looking for a story that would be deeply personal and human stories that would touch upon broader and complex political issues and themes and stories that would give the opportunity to create films that are really layered and could reach audiences from different walks of life. You’ve got this story that people can relate to, even if you don’t like politics. They happen to be stories of empowerment. Both films do include these historic victories. They were going to be stories of empowerment even if the stories didn’t succeed. I knew from our work in politics and organizing, that organizing transforms people. That was actually part of the process for Knock Down The House, having been through The Hand That Feeds, we knew the same thing of being transformed would have happened. Even if all four had lost, we still knew it would have been that transformative character-based story no matter what.
We’re also trying to create layered films with nuances and complexities for people who do follow politics on a closer level can appreciate and it can be food for thought. Hopefully, there are multiple entry points for multiple audiences.
Knock Down The House streams on Netflix and will be released in select theaters across the country on May 1