R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor spent 22 months making A Perfect Candidate, 11 months shooting and 11 months editing. That’s a long time to spend on a documentary about a Senate campaign, even one as highly charged as the 1994 race between incumbent Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb and Iran-contra scamster Oliver North. But then they didn’t end up simply with a film. They ended up with hope for the future of the American system.
“It’s not a strategic analysis, or even a political analysis,” says Van Taylor, sitting in a Georgetown restaurant just up the street from the Key Theater, where the film is playing. “It’s about people trying to find something to believe in, in our cynical democracy.”
That’s not what the filmmakers originally had in mind, Van Taylor admits. “The thing that drew us down to Virginia was the outrageous notion of Oliver North running for the Senate,” he says. “It wasn’t ’til we’d been down there a while that the central characters began to emerge.”
Those characters are not North and Robb, though both candidates make vivid impressions in the film. Instead, A Perfect Candidate emphasizes North campaign strategist Mark Goodin and Washington Post reporter Don Baker. “They’re both very conflicted,” Van Taylor notes, and thus mirror the campaign itself, which pitted amiable demagogue North versus uptight conciliator Robb.
“The beauty of documentaries to me is that you allow yourself to be open to what you see,” argues Van Taylor. “If we hadn’t found Don and Mark, we could have made a very interesting social satire. What we found was less a satire than a tragedy.”
The filmmaker concedes that openness doesn’t always pay off. “You have to be crazy to make these films. First of all, there’s no money for them. And in leaving yourself open to something happening, you’re leaving yourself open to nothing happening.”
The duo’s approach is “not really trendy in documentary today. There’s much more of a trend toward pre-scripted documentaries. That’s not our process. Our process is much more like sculpture or something,” he says, telling the joke about a sculptor who chisels an elephant by chipping away “everything that isn’t elephant.”
“It’s precisely the struggle to figure out what is elephant and what is not elephant that makes it a creative process,” he argues.
This approach takes time, and it’s the filmmakers’ long-term commitment that also allows subjects to come to trust them. Time “is the critical element in trying to get the access we do,” Van Taylor says. “Most of the surprising access we got was in the last month. People come to trust you and it’s time that makes that happen.
“Basically everything in our culture argues against that now,” he notes. “Everything is supposed to happen faster and faster. We’re trying to buck that trend and be more thoughtful.”
Ultimately, he says, that’s why people cooperate with Cutler and him. “They understand that we’re operating on a different time frame. We were pointing our camera at things that mattered to history.”
Van Taylor cautions that such a focus doesn’t make films like A Perfect Candidate definitive. “Neither of us believes that there is such a thing as objectivity,” he notes, yet he rejects the notion (advanced most vehemently by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm) that reporting is merely a con game. “I’ve read Janet Malcolm’s book. I think it’s an impoverished view of human relations.
“Here’s the real secret. There’s a reciprocal thing going on. There’s a human give and take going on between you and the people in the film. They are opening themselves up to you and you are opening up to them. People have to want to reveal something.” He notes that both sides felt well-served by his first film, Dream Deceivers, a study of the case in which parents sued heavy-metalists Judas Priest for making music that allegedly encouraged their sons to commit suicide.
“I, a lifelong Democrat, got choked up when I was with Mark Goodin and we learned that Ollie North had lost,” Van Taylor says. “I thought that was heartbreaking. Not that I wanted North to win the election,” he explains, but because he thought the loss would heighten the cynical side of Goodin, who in the film expresses his feeling that ruthless campaigning is effective but also undermines the polity.
“Eleven months earlier,” he adds, “I never could have imagined that would be my reaction to this
Such empathy may explain why at least one North supporter assumed that the filmmakers were fellow conservatives. “The film is open-book enough that he could assume I was on his side,” says Van Taylor proudly.
Despite the filmmakers’ initial astonishment that North would be a serious candidate for public office, they certainly didn’t tilt A Perfect Candidate toward Robb, who looks awkward, foolish, and even deceitful. “The harder thing to believe, within the context of the film, is that Chuck Robb won the election,” admits Van Taylor. Yet he feels that “the film accurately represents him.”
“Chuck is just not the kind of guy who can go into a supermarket parking lot and connect with people,” explains the director, although he speculates that Robb’s style may have gotten even stiffer since the coverage of the senator’s alleged womanizing and partying with cocaine users. “Robb went through a great trauma in the media and with the media,” he notes. “I think in a lot of ways he was paralyzed by that.”
Though Van Taylor and virtually everyone else covering the campaign were convinced that North would win, “obviously our intention was not to convince Democrats to vote for Republicans.” Still, some found Candidate’s portrayal of North insufficiently demonic. “There’s even film festivals that didn’t show the film because they thought Ollie North was too seductive.”
The same interest in fair play may also explain the filmmakers’ affinity for Baker, an old-fashioned reporter determined to give North his due. “Don represents the hope for democracy in this film,” says Van Taylor. “Here’s a journalist and a resident of Virginia, struggling to figure it all out.”
“I think Don’s journalistic crime, if there is one, is that he let on that journalists are human beings,” he continues. “I don’t think the reason that people are alienated from journalists is that journalists reveal themselves too much as human beings.”
The filmmaker prefers Baker’s humanity to the extreme ideal of journalistic disinterest exemplified by the reporter’s boss, Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie. “Downie doesn’t vote,” Van Taylor marvels. “That’s outrageous!”
“I certainly hope the movie doesn’t impair [Baker’s] career in any way,” he adds. “But if it does, it’s not because he’d done anything wrong.”
Van Taylor is currently editing With God on Our Side, a six-week series on the religious right that PBS will broadcast in October and November. “It’s where the movement we see today came from.” He hopes the series will “allow people to express themselves fully and allow people to draw their own conclusions.”
Despite that careful formulation, the director is not averse to finding a moral in A Perfect Candidate. He and Cutler were careful to avoid “telling the audience what to think” in the film, but now he’s prepared to say what it all means—and it’s not a message likely to offend either Oliver North, Chuck Robb, or even Leonard Downie. Echoing one of the African-American ministers whose support turned the race around for Robb, he explains that “we have to persist and we have to hope and we have to look for something to believe in.”