For the new film “Mayor Pete” — which drops Friday on Amazon Prime — documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss spent an entire year following former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg around the country on his whirlwind bid for president of the United States.
Similarly, Moss’ previous films, “The Overnighters,” “The Bandit” and “Boys State,” brought him to a diversity of places like North Dakota, Hollywood and Washington D.C.
But the filmmaker has always called the Bay Area home, living with his family in the Inner Richmond and working from an office in the Presidio.
“I love it. It feels kinda magical over there. It’s like a studio lot, in the old fashioned way,” says Moss during a recent Zoom chat. “I work in a small office in one of the big buildings on the parade ground. It’s such a great open space. I’ve got coyotes running past. It’s the best.”
Perhaps Moss’ wide-ranging worldview comes from his upbringing with a father who loved movies. “We’d go to the Geneva drive-in and all these dingy movie palaces and see B horror films and all these strange art movies.”
Of course, Moss says he also grew up watching movies at the Castro Theatre. One of the highlights of his career thus far was showing “The Bandit” — about the team of stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds — at the glamorous movie palace in 2016 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
“Mayor Pete” also screens at the Castro, presented by Frameline at 7:45 p.m. Thursday.
Moss joined Buttigieg, the second openly gay presidential candidate, on the campaign trail in mid-2019. “When we started out, I thought it was going to be hard,” says Moss. “He is reserved, and it is hard to get to know someone when they’re running for president, because they’re pretty busy. I was chasing him around with a camera but I was prepared to be patient and persistent.”
The filmmaker found an ally in Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, who helped Moss understand his subject from a different perspective. “He unlocked the film, and Pete, to some degree,” he says. “I loved Chasten’s company, too. He was always great company.”
Moss credits the yearlong shoot with his ability to capture many small, intimate moments that make the film really breathe.
In one, Pete plunks down at a table, where Chasten is resting his head. He begins munching on a cinnamon roll, and the two partners gently touch their pinky fingers together.
“I’m so proud of that moment,” Moss says. “It doesn’t advance the plot. I don’t know why I’m shooting him eating a cinnamon roll, but suddenly there’s that little moment with their pinkies. It’s tender, it’s intimate. I hadn’t seen a film about a presidential candidate where we can be inside somebody’s life that way.”
Another aside is much darker. A man is seen loudly protesting Buttigieg’s candidacy based on his gender identity, as he preaches Sodom and Gomorrah and even stages a whipping!
“It’s so bizarre and abhorrent and offensive, but it really does reflect what is generally more concealed in this story: there’s a lot of intolerance and a lot of hatred,” Moss says.
The film’s biggest moment comes when Buttigieg, against all expectations, wins the Iowa caucus in February 2020, thereby becoming a serious front-runner in the race. Moss was able to film Chasten breaking the news to Buttigieg for the first time, and it’s amazing.
Moss theorizes that Buttigieg made it as far as he did for two reasons.
One is that “we live in a very polarized and divided time. And the message of belonging is powerful, whether you’re a member of the queer community, or if you’re just someone who feels like they need someone to speak up for them. Pete found a way to articulate that,” Moss says.
The other is what becomes one of the film’s most fascinating conundrums. It’s so central that Moss begins the film with a shot of himself, speaking with Chasten. Chasten urges Moss to ask Pete about whether he was able to be his authentic self during the campaign.
In many scenes, Pete struggles with just this, while preparing for public appearances, trying to find the balance between knowing what he wants to say, and the way in which he says it.
“We see Pete in different ways confronting that challenge,” says Moss. “What does it mean to stretch and grow to become a presidential candidate but also stay true to who you are, and what makes you special? He doesn’t want to do it in a way that’s false to him.”
“Mayor Pete” also works well, thanks to its supporting cast. There’s Chasten, who is Buttigieg’s warm, funny anchor. Then there are his senior staff members, Mike Schmuhl, who urges people to “be kind and listen” and Lis Smith, a no-nonsense strategist with a delightfully foul mouth.
In many scenes, Moss says, Buttigieg appears to be doing more listening to the people around him than talking himself.
Moss’ camera is even there when Buttigieg ultimately realizes that he’s lost and must drop out of the race. At home, Pete kicks off his shoes and puts on his slippers, and that’s it.
Moss admires Buttigieg for remaining true to the film, all the way to the end. “Most candidates probably would have kicked us out the moment their campaign took off,” he says. “When we started he had a staff of four, and when we finished he probably had 500 people working for him.”
But Moss knew he had a valuable film, based on the experiences of his last film, “Boys State.” As Moss says, the hero of that film, teen Steven Garza, loses his election.
“In defeat is something poignant sometimes,” he says. “It’s revealing to be around someone when the bottom’s falling out. And someone like Pete is going to go on.”
“Mayor Pete,” directed by Jesse Moss, features Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg, Lis Smith, Mike Schmuhl and Al Sharpton. Rated R, 96 minutes. It screens at 7:45 p.m. Thursday at the Castro, 429 Castro St., S.F.; visit frameline.org. It debuts Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime.