SXSW 2019
First Look

Director of SXSW's most-hyped documentary dishes on Running with Beto

Director of SXSW's most-hyped documentary dishes on Running with Beto

Running with Beto documentary
Running with Beto will screen three times during SXSW before heading to HBO this spring. Photo by Charlie Gross/HBO

From livestreaming his laundry to visiting all 254 counties in Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 senatorial race was anything but ordinary. Though many watched the lanky El Paso native in real-time thanks to his near-constant Facebook Live streams, one local filmmaker got an even closer look at the former Democratic congressman's unorthodox campaign.

David Modigliani, the director of Crawford, which premiered at SXSW back in 2008, followed O’Rourke through all 12 months of his campaign, beginning six weeks after he announced his candidacy until his crushingly close defeat this past November. With his new documentary, Running with Beto, premiering March 9 at SXSW, Modigliani share his behind-the-scenes look at this uniquely Texan story.

CultureMap: How did you first meet Beto?

David Modigliani: I first met him through a sandlot baseball team game at first base. I'm [a founding member] of the Texas Playboys, which ... started in 2006, and we play other teams in other cities. When we went to El Paso for a border barnstorm, the people there formed their own team, El Diablitos, and had a center fielder who happened to be a U.S. congressman. When they came back [to Austin] and played us in April of 2017, it was about six weeks after Beto announced his candidacy. During the seventh inning stretch, he jumped up on a hay bale and talked to the small crowd that was there. It was clear to me that he was a generational talent. I was really intrigued by the risky, unorthodox campaign he said he was going to run — like going to all 254 counties in the state with no PAC money, no pollsters, and without changing his policies. I felt like living in Texas, the national conversation was going to run right through this race.

CM: What inspired you to start this project?

Modigliani: I've always been interested in the human experience of politics. After the 2016 election, I felt more than ever how little we understand each other on particular sides of the political spectrum, how disconnected we are, and how we dehumanize each other. It turns people off, and it causes them not to be involved in the political process. I was looking for a story I could tell that would humanize politics.

CM: What was the day-to-day like while shooting this film?

Modigliani: Our crew traveled 47,000 miles over 12 months and captured 700 hours of footage. Beto had an amazing ability to find a lot of joy [during] a very demanding campaign, blasting the Ramones in the van, prank calling staffers from the road, while simultaneously never being fully satisfied and always wanting more people, better organization, and more diversity. He also had an amazing ability to be in a total hurry and completely present at the same time. We’d be racing to the next town, scarfing down tacos while driving, but when he got to the town and was talking to the people, he would make them feel like he had all afternoon to talk to them.

CM: What were some of your favorite memories from this process?

Modigliani: Some of the favorite memories were at rallies, whether they were nine-person or 2,000-person rallies or ones in small towns in East Texas. In those small towns, seeing how many people came out and how surprised those people were at how many of their neighbors were there was amazing. I saw people feeling hopeful and engaged and inspired in the political process very early on in very conservative areas, which was very eye-opening as well. We also shot a morning run that he did in Austin. He would do these running town halls and he would have people come out there and run with him and answer questions.

CM: What was shooting in El Paso, Beto’s hometown, like?

Modigliani: We first started shooting in El Paso the day he delivered the petition to officially put himself on the ballot. I totally fell in love with the city, and the people are incredible. [El Paso] is at an altitude of 3,500 feet in the Chihuahuan Desert. When you look down from the Franklin Mountains, you see that the city is connected to Ciudad Juarez and somewhere there's this little border. You get the sense that there's this one community that lives there in the valley. Where he’s from informs his approach to policies and immigration.

CM: How does Beto’s family play a role in the film?

Modigliani: I think that for the story that we were telling, the story of his family was very important. He has a wife, Amy, and three kids, Henry, Molly, and Ulysses. That was a big inspiration for him, but also a challenge, because he was only home two or three days a month for almost two years. He had his day job in D.C. as a congressman and was campaigning in Texas every weekend. I think seeing him navigate that with his family and introducing the kids to various aspects of politics and getting them out on the trail themselves just shows a real, young family who is trying to serve. You hear a lot in the military that the whole family sacrifices. This is obviously different, not life or death, but it opened my eyes to the idea that when one member of the family is in public service, the whole family serves.

CM: What do you want the audience to take away from this story?

Modigliani: I think that in any film you want the audience to be moved by characters that go through dramatic changes in their lives. In the case of this film, by trying to show through very real, authentic, and flawed characters, it shows that you don’t have to be an expert to get involved in politics, and you don't have to be perfect to run for office. I hope that the audience takes it as an invitation to get involved in the democratic process.