‘Can Mr. Smith Still Get to Washington?’

BY CATE MARQUIS, FILM CRITIC

Film director/cinematographer Frank Popper met political candidate Jeff Smith at a book signing. “Thirty seconds after meeting him, I knew I would make a movie about him,” said Popper in a recent interview.

Popper had been feeling disgusted with the Bush Administration, and his father had been urging him to make a film about it, when he bumped into Smith working the crowd downtown. “I saw all these young people, who were so passionate. I said to Jeff ‘I know who you are’ and he said ‘Yeah, you and 35 other people.’ I knew I wanted to make a film about him right away,” said Popper.

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The result of that chance meeting is a wonderful glimpse inside the political process, a documentary film about one grassroots political campaign, a documentary called Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? This past week, I spoke to director Frank Popper and producer Matt Coen about their award-winning film and to the documentary’s subject, Jeff Smith.

Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? won the Audience Choice award in the Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Film Festival in June this year. It is set to open here at the Tivoli Theatre on July 27.

“Things like that just don’t happen to a half-Jewish guy from Webster,” said Frank Popper, who directed, filmed and edited the documentary.

The film’s producer, Matt Coen, is an Internet and media entrepreneur whose work has been featured in local business journals. He is also President of the American Jewish Committee, St. Louis Chapter. However, this is his first experience as a filmmaker.

“I’m an entrepreneur with a tech company but before that I was involved in politics, worked on campaigns and as a consultant, so working on this film was a natural,” said Coen. “I was a Jeff Smith supporter but didn’t work on the campaign.”

“The film was Frank’s idea. He met Jeff Smith at a book signing and immediately wanted to make a film about him. At first, it didn’t look like it would happen. Jeff was leery about having a guy with a camera follow him around but his campaign manager persuaded him. I got involved (with the film) after the campaign,” said Matt Coen. “I was the first one to see the film. I thought there was something there, as we started shaping the footage with co-producer Mike Kime, telling the whole story of just how far Jeff had come.” The finished film was about more than this one campaign, Coen thought. “It conveys a message to not only St. Louis but the whole country about how the political system is distorted and even broken,” he said.

Yet the film is also entertaining to watch. It is funny, energetic and sometimes poignant. “We believe it is a movie that has something to say but when we watched it with an audience in D.C., people found it entertaining too. They laughed and they cried at the end of the film,” said producer Coen.

Candidate Jeff Smith was not so sure about the idea of having a filmmaker with a camera follow him around. After one day of filming, he was sure — that he didn’t want it to happen. “After the first day, I told my campaign manager to get rid of the guy. It felt like he was in the way and it was awkward,” said Jeff Smith in a phone interview.

“His manager convinced him to let me stay,” said director Popper about Smith’s reluctance. “To keep it low key, I worked without a crew, just me and the camera, and I tried to stay out of the way.” Popper’s approach worked. “After a few days, I forgot he was there,” said Smith.

Good thing, because the footage from that first day was great. “I was so glad he let me stay,” said Popper. “The footage was so good, it was the best material I’d seen and I knew it would be the best film I’d done.”

This film is all about the underdog campaign of political unknown with the unremarkable name of Smith as he runs for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress. There are ten candidates, several with name recognition, especially Russ Carnahan, and even another candidate with the last name Smith. Jeff Smith’s family’s reaction to his decision to run: “Are your nuts?”

The film opens with this reaction, from Jeff Smith’s family and friends. Besides the long shot of running for U.S. Congress, he has no money, is short, and he “looks like he’s twelve,” as one of his staff says in the film.

That same sharp-minded, off-the-cuff humor and sometimes “shoot from the lip” tendancy that characterized the director’s first encounter with the candidate is part of what makes this film so engrossing and so funny, once Jeff Smith forgot about Frank Popper and his camera. “I set out to make a ‘war room’ kind of film, an insider’s view of the campaign,” said Popper in describing the film’s fly-on-a-wall view of the candidate as he follows him around on his endless door-knocking, phone-calling days.

Humor pops up in unexpected ways, as well as heartbreak. Smith and his crew have a lot of fun with the idea that Russ Carnahan’s mother is doing fund-raising and think it would be cute to have Jeff’s mother do fundraising calls too. No way, Jeff’s mother smilingly tells them, refusing do it, on camera. “I went to a conference call they were having and something awkward came up (in the call) and they looked at me askance,” said Popper about his early days shooting the campaign. As time wore on, they all stopped thinking about the camera’s unblinking eye.

As the days passed and the campaign picked up speed, it was a challenge for the filmmaker to decide what to film and who to follow. Popper was able to capture some poignant footage, like when the St. Louis American newspaper hinted that they would endorse him but then decided against it. “If we had not caught that, the film would not have been the same,” said Popper.

Candidate Jeff Smith and his campaign are more conflicted about all this less-than-flattering footage. “It is an unvarnished film about a gritty, grassroots campaign,” said Smith. “Some parts, taken out of context, could hurt me politically but I feel it is an accurate portrayal.”

Although Smith has mixed feelings about the film, he went to see it at the Silverdocs film festival in D.C. “When I saw it in Washington, I laughed and cried, and re-lived the experience. That first campaign was an overwhelming experience.”

When Smith was in Washington, several people mentioned that the film made them think about running for office or getting involved in political campaigns. But Smith had a caution. “Not all campaigns are like that one, and I have worked on a lot,” said Jeff Smith. “The creativity, the people, I have never seen things come together like that.” However, Smith added “I hope it inspires people to run for office or help with a campaign.”

“I view (this film) as an optimistic tragedy,” said producer Coen. “It reinforced what I saw in Missouri politics, where Clay replaces Clay, Blunt is helped by Blunt. I had been concerned about name ID and nepotism. In some ways the film reinforces this but in some ways, you see how Jeff goes from zero in the polls to nearly winning, by going out and campaigning with ideas and volunteers. You see it can work.”

Lack of cooperation and coverage from the press, which wanted to focus on the candidates with name recognition until the last few weeks of the campaign, was one of the frustrations that the camera captured in this film.

This is the first documentary film Frank Popper directed but he has over twenty years experience as a cinematographer and filmmaker, mostly in corporate films. When Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? won the Audience Choice award at June’s Silverdocs film festival in Washington, D.C., Popper was amazed. Popper’s father is Jewish, and their name “was originally Poppowksi but it was changed at Ellis Island,” said Popper. Popper says he’s not a verbal person but his father was a great storyteller. “Because of him, I know a good story when I find one,” he said.

And Jeff Smith’s campaign was a good story. “It was an emotional roller coaster ride,” said Popper. “I’m not a journalist but you kind of have to become one to cover politics.”

Although the film won the audience choice award, it almost did not make it into the festival at all. “It would not have gotten into Silverdocs except for Sarah Jo Marks,” said Popper. “It was thirty days before the festival and they had not even looked at it. She watched it, I didn’t even think she liked it because all she said was ‘it was good.’ But she called her friend Skye Sitney. Then she called me back. They took it and it won the Audience Award.”

I asked producer Matt Coen about what message his film offered to the Jewish community. “The Jewish community has served itself well by being politically active. They should look hard at the message of this film (about political dynasties) and think about aligning itself with the established powers and about being open to new ideas and new people. When you always side with the established power, they can use your strength, your grassroots techniques for goals that may not benefit you.”

“I never made a film before but really enjoyed the process,” said Coen. “Frank is an enormous talent and a joy to work with.”

The film is expected to open in Boston and other U.S. cities but members of the audience at the Washington screening felt that it was an important film for people in Europe to see and encouraged Coen to try to distribute it there. “They told me it would help them to better understand how politics work in this country, to see democracy in action,” said Coen. Besides helping people in Europe to see U.S. politics as more diverse, Coen feels that the film has a message for people in the U.S. as well. “I want people in this country to realize democracy is precious, if you don’t participate, you get the status quo and people from the same families. If people are not happy with how things are, it is incumbent on them to get more involved,” said Coen.