Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss are a nonfiction filmmaking team whose previous work together includes The Overnighters (2014) and the Netflix series The Family (2019). Their latest feature-length film (and the first on which they’re credited as co-directors) is Boys State (2020), which is available on the Apple TV+ service beginning August 14.
Filmed in Texas during the 2018 iteration of the titular event, Boys State documents four young men—one very ambitious Republican true-believer (Ben), two charismatic gentlemen that lean further left (Rene and Steven), and one vaguely Kennedy-esque rich kid (Robert)—as they participate in the week-long program, which prompts high school-age students to form their own political groups and campaign on their behalf.
McBaine and Moss spoke with me by phone on July 30. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There’s both a Boys State and a Girls State program in operation, so what was it about the Boys State for you—did that seem more artistically potent than a film on Girls State, or was it more a matter of what you had access to?
MOSS: Oh no, not [access]: I think we’d very much like to make Girls State as a sequel or sibling to this film.
The reason we ended up at Boys State is because we read about the Texas program voting to secede from the Union in 2017—that was the decision the boys made that year, which became something of a scandal, and caught the attention of the news media. So we read about that, and were curious what the boys would do the following year: Would it be civil war, or would they come back together and reconcile? That’s what first drew our attention to the program—Boys State and Girls State—which we didn’t know about [previously], having not done them growing up.
I think had the girls in Texas or anywhere else voted to secede from the union, we’d have ended up making that film. So I think of this as a project that starts with Boys State and we’ll see where it ends up.
A key subject in the film is abortion rights, which comes up often in speeches and conversations… When you’ve got 17-year-old boys talking about the legal right to abortion for a camera—what was your perspective on the authenticity of it? Did you feel that they were play-acting, or that they were expressing genuinely-held beliefs? Could you even make a judgment on that?
McBAINE: I think [because] they’re 17-year-olds there’s a certain amount of flexibility to everybody’s politics. Which is part of what drew us to this, versus making a film about 50-year-olds. And I’d say the biggest debate of the year was actually guns…
MOSS: What’s interesting about what we observed is that to a large extent the boys were not comfortable talking about abortion. I don’t think they wanted the debate to live there. And we sensed it had to do with a kind of understanding that there were no women there, and that they didn’t have the status to be debating that [subject]. It did come up, but there was a collective unease—and that might’ve been different 20 years ago, when you might’ve found a full-throated willingness to take on that subject in debate. So our perception was that they got through it as quickly as possible. You do hear it invoked by a few conservatives, but…
McBAINE: When Robert brings it up, he thinks that’s what politics is: A hot-button thing that’s thrown out there like hot potatoes to get you elected. When in fact the story of our movie is that that doesn’t actually work, particularly in the faceoff between Robert and Steven. It’s the out of many, one approach—which is authentic to who Steven is—that pushed all these people towards their better selves. To me those were the more interesting lessons of the day, and not the [examples of] okay, we’re going to bring up a topic because we think that’s what politics is.
On that note, what Robert says [regarding abortion politics] leads me to something else I was thinking about during the movie. When you’re making a film about teenagers, and they’re being identified by name, and in some cases they’re saying genuinely despicable things… how fraught is that for you? I’m not even asking in terms of ethics, but on a more experiential level: Does not wanting to make fun of your subjects impact the production and editing of the film?
MOSS: Absolutely. The question of ethics, and the obligations you have to your human subjects in making a film, are ones that you wrestle with. I think every filmmaker writes and rewrites those boundaries for themselves as they navigate a film and the relationships that [come with it].
With things that make us uncomfortable, you have to ask yourself: Are they in the film for the right reasons? And what are your obligations? Particularly when you’re working with minors. In working out an arrangement with the organization that sponsors the event, they demanded that we owe a certain level of responsibility [to the participants]. We also owe a responsibility to be truthful storytellers, honest and compassionate—and those parameters are harder to define.
With our main subjects, you have a deeper relationship that you forge over time. We had a chance to meet them in their homes, get to meet their families in some cases, and really build that relationship to [a place of] trust and intimacy. So that when Robert decides to share something that is very personal, and vulnerable, he’s comfortable doing so. And that ultimately, when we turned around and shared the film with him, he understands why that’s in the film.
Some kids do say kind of outrageous things… and the film does take us into an uncomfortable space. We felt it was important that an audience see what we saw, good bad and ugly. But also to see the surprising things that Amanda talked about—that for all the turbulence of [their] machismo, and the Lord of the Flies mentality, [there’s also] intimacy, compromise, and vulnerability. I think you have to look for those things too, because if it’s just one or the other you might feel like you didn’t get the whole picture.
Sometimes people want a bit more certainty in their documentaries. They want polarities, or for the rough edges to be sanded off. But that’s just not the kind of documentary work that we’re interested in.
Speaking of your other documentary work, this morning I watched your film Boca del Lobo (2019, released as a Op-Doc by the New York Times), which I thought was excellent, and which struck me as a true newsreel: The way it’s structured around what seems to be just a couple instances of on-the-ground reporting, with pre-existing footage cut in to complete the story.
For you, what are the differences in approach between something like that and something like Boys State? We could even just talk about the fact that Boys State is presented in a very wide aspect ratio—I was curious what led you to that choice.
MOSS: The opportunity here, on the stage that was set for us, the strength of the characters we met, the depth of the themes, and the resources we had to approach this particular story, allowed us to swing for the fences. To make a work of cinema—we hoped. A work of art, a profoundly political piece of storytelling, all of those things—and [to show] that they can co-exist. And they can in the documentary form. That’s the power of the form.
We thought very intentionally about the visual style of the film. We built the team that could achieve that [style]. We brought, I think, some of the world’s best documentary cinematographers into the artistic process. And we set the parameters technically—the camera, the lens, the f-stop, the aesthetics of the film—to bring ourselves and our audience inside this experience in a very exciting way. To deliver a story that was intellectual, but also emotional. We were at the mercy of fate, and what we found. But I think we were equipped to grab it—and we did. Then we spent a year to cut the film, to really deliver on what we felt while we were making it.
And I think it becomes cinema when you elevate it to a cinema screen. Boca del Lobo… I love that film, and think the power of that story could play on the big screen. It’s sort of arbitrary to some degree—it becomes cinema when you call it cinema. But on Boys State we really had the tools and the time and the story to elevate it.
McBAINE: I mean, listen: Everything we did on this was a risk. We hired the best people we could hire, and we found the four kids we found most fascinating, and then you go in and you get what you get and you go home and you work with it. The dance of control and chaos—true on any project—was particularly vivid on this one. And we did a lot of talking with the crew about how we wanted it to look. But in the end you really do have to hope they bring their own artistry and poetry to what you’re making. And then that it can be put together in a way that works, and makes sense.
MOSS: I also think the condition of great documentary work is that you have the lock of meeting your subjects at that transformative moment in their lives, or just before it. You share that with them, and they share it with you. I think [Boca del Lobo], the film about Mario Guevara—if we had more time, there could’ve been that transformation. Typically you rely on a long period of time to capture that in cinéma vérité filmmaking. Like with The Overnighters, it was a year-and-a-half.
But this [Boys State] experience was a kind of crucible. The intensity of it forced some transformation in these young men that we honestly weren’t sure would be realized. But it was, and that made it possible to elevate this story.
I know you “cast” Ben, Robert, and Steven before the event began, and then Rene became a focus point during the week itself. Going in, did you imagine the film was going to hone in closer on the three specific people selected beforehand—or did you perhaps imagine it would end up taking an even wider view than it eventually did?
McBAINE: By “wider view”, you mean…
To put it bluntly? Almost more of a [Frederick] Wiseman approach—one where you’re not dealing so closely with characters and names but just events and occurrences.
MOSS: One of the exercises that we go through, and that I think many other filmmakers go through, is to imagine all those other versions: The Wiseman version of the film [being one]. And I think you have to go through that process to arrive at the Jesse Moss/Amanda McBaine version. But that being said, it’s all on the table, both when you shoot and in the edit room—you’re continuing to ask those questions. What’s the best version of the film that we’ve shot, and that we want to make?
In a Wiseman version of the film… the focus for him is not character-driven storytelling and transformation. [His films] are institutional portraits. And those are really interesting, but we find ourselves more drawn to fully investigating the individual character experiences. That’s where the stories come to life for us. So to a degree that was baked into how we conceived and executed the project.
And we find it useful to bring in the language and grammar of narrative filmmaking, too, as much as other documentaries. What’s the Wes Anderson version of this film? What’s the Richard Linklater version of this film? We try to force ourselves through that creative exercise—[not just] what’s the work of nonfiction that can inspire this film, but also what’s the work of literature or photography that can inspire this film?
For The Overnighters, it was George Orwell. And for Boys State, it was documentaries [like] the works of Robert Drew—but we also talked about Linklater and Dazed and Confused (1993). I mean, you can’t make a movie in Texas and not think about that film. So that all gets thrown into the pot, and this comes out.
It astounds me to realize I hadn’t made that connection yet myself, because yes, Steven is a classic Linklater protagonist.
MOSS: [confused] Robert!
Oh no, I disagree—Robert would be like the b-character in a Linklater movie. Steven would be the soft-spoken protagonist.
MOSS: [laughing] That’s true. You’re right.