Calling HBO's The Swamp an exciting, character-based portrait of three conservative whites may seem oxymoronic, but in the capable hands and open minds of co-directors Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme (Get Me Roger Stone), it's a perfectly accurate description. The Doc is an unexpected, close look at the daily life of a trio of members of the House for which few HBO subscribers would ever vote: extreme right-wing Matt Gaetz (R-FL, 1st District), Thomas Massie (R-KY 4th district) and Ken Buck (R-CO 4th district). In other words, it's exactly the cartoon busting film that progressives (like me) really need to see.
The filmmakers follow with astonishing access as these republican rebels fight – and don't usually manage – to "drain" the swamp through secular non-partisan laws that never, but should, do the 24/7 news cycle. Gaetz and Leftie Ro Khanna team up? Massie and liberal Barbara Lee? Yes, it happened when we were all caught up in the Trump Twitter feed. DiMauro and Pehme are flies on the restaurant wall when Gaetz sits down with his girlfriend Katie Hill, whom he later defended in a tweet, when their own democratic leadership forced them to leave the house in the scandal to get advice on whether they were on To waive PAC money. The duo even captures pro-coal massie charging their electric car! And all while the Fox News heroes are trying to keep their heads above water in a "swamp" that is the "whores" for dollars, impeachment against the cameras (ie for Trump) and worries about the slightest jerking of the MAGA includes line will lead to a primary challenge ordered by the President.
To damage the system or repair the broken system? That was the question for a long time. To shed light on this angry paradox and more, the filmmaker turned to the patient co-directors before the document's debut on August 4 on HBO.
Filmmakers: How did this document come about? Did you contact HBO or vice versa?
DiMauro and Pehme: Our producer Matt Whitworth found some conservative Republican members of Congress who were open to letting cameras into their DC offices so that the American people could see for themselves how dysfunctional and corrupt our system really is. To be honest, we didn't think they would really be able to get involved in our documentary because they had a lot more to lose if they whistled Congress's dirty secrets than they had to gain from the revelation – which in itself already posed potential dangers to their careers because they couldn't control what we recorded in the film.
But in honor of the members, they took the risk. And from the first day we filmed with them, we had a strong feeling that we were getting involved in something that would be valuable to the Americans. We have heard Congress members speak with an openness that you have never heard of them on cable news. It was as if our camera was a confessional, and members were anxious to take away all the outrage they face from the system's corruption. Fortunately, we were on board when we showed HBO the early footage to make the film.
Filmmakers: Neither of you is foreign to how our political system really works (or not) after co-leading Get Me Roger Stone in 2017, not to mention the slum lord millionaire episode of Gibney's Dirty Money series. How do you help or harm your – I suspect politically liberal – backgrounds if you have access to topics?
DiMauro and Pehme: We believe that the positive response that Get Me Roger Stone has received from viewers and critics from across the political spectrum has given us a high level of credibility to make it clear to members that despite our very different worldview, we are portrayed in their presentation would be fair of them.
Our desire as a documentary filmmaker is not to preach to the choir, but to make films that people with different perspectives are willing to deal with – and hopefully to open their minds to reflect on the merits of what we are trying to convey . Yes, we are liberals, but we have no partisan agenda that we are trying to commit. We believe that our responsibility is to defend the principles of good governance, call for corruption regardless of which party is behind it, and fight for our government to serve the interests of the American people fairly, not the special monetary interests she has perverted our system to her advantage.
Filmmakers: How did you choose your characters? Were there people you contacted and refused to attend?
DiMauro and Pehme: Any journalist who has ever reported on politics knows that the open discussions you have had with elected officials are worlds apart from how they speak when they know they are being recorded.
For our characters, we were looking for members of Congress who would be willing to speak on camera, just as they do privately. We also looked for whistleblowers who uncover the practices that everyone who works in Washington knows is corrupt but nobody speaks in public – either because they are afraid of the consequences for their careers or because they are they just accept how things work.
There were many other members that we interviewed for this film that didn't make the final cut, mostly because they insisted on vomiting a lot of spin that we knew wasn't true. The American people hear enough of this bullshit. We thought we would save them from having to endure more when they watch our film.
Filmmakers: How did you negotiate borders with your subjects? Matt Gaetz, who pretty much exists on social media, seems to have given almost unlimited access, while Ken Buck, the oldest of your three protagonists, appears much more calculated in front of the lens.
DiMauro and Pehme: We never agree to the requirements for our interview topics. Either you are ready to participate in the film on our terms or you are not there. As simple as that.
When it comes to pursuing Cinéma Vérité-style topics that we use in this film, it's up to you, of course, how closely our topics engage you in your life and to what extent they invite you behind closed doors. Throughout the year we've filmed our themes, we've worked hard to develop our relationships with them so that they give us ever better access. We believe that the last film reflects how deeply we could dig into their experience.
Filmmakers: Republican from Kentucky Thomas Massie features some of the most surprising scenes in the film. It's still hard for me to think of a pro-carbon skeptic for climate change who drives an electric car and lives on a solar powered farm. What has changed your own preconceived ideas the most?
DiMauro and Pehme: We hope that this entire film will turn people's preconceived ideas about how Congress works and the lines of struggle drawn up between the parties. From the start of our filming, we were surprised that all three Republican members we followed were determined to end the eternal wars that have done so much damage to America and the world since 2001. We had assumed that the warring paths of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney among conservatives were still orthodox, but we watched our members actually risk their political capital (and with Massie his career) to form coalitions, to try to end the wars. This is despite the violent setback of hawks such as Liz Cheney, the third-highest Republican in the House of Representatives, who also happens to be Dick's daughter.
What surprised us most, however, is how frustrated members on both sides of the aisle are from the stranglehold that major donors, lobbyists and special interests in Congress have – and how this fundamentally corrupt system overrides the institution's ability to to function as intended by the founders in the constitution. We are used to Democrats pointing fingers at Republicans and vice versa to blame the other party for why our country is so messed up. But if you speak openly to ordinary members, they don't complain about partiality – they complain about their impotence. In many ways, this film is a call for help from Congress members to the American people. They urge us to use the power of our voices and our voice to destroy a system that has been corrupted by money at every turn so that there is no way out of the labyrinth from within.
Filmmakers: How have your protagonists – and DC insiders in general – reacted to the film so far? Are you preparing for a backlash after the doc is broadcast nationwide?
DiMauro and Pehme: We're not going to speculate on how people will react, but we were happy to hear that people in the convention halls are buzzing about our film and that a number of powerful people seem to be preparing for its impact.
We wanted this film to question the leadership of both parties and the status quo they protect. That's because we believe so firmly in the basic message of our film: if we don't eradicate the corruption that has plagued Congress, it will never be able to take the courageous steps necessary to address the many massive, pressing challenges to deal with that our nation is facing. no matter which party is in the majority. We really hope that The Swamp is a call to all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – to band together to drain it because we are running out of time.