May 30, 2006 e-mail interview with Joel Viertel, producer of CONVENTIONEERS

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Was there a specific inspiration for the film?  The press kit mentions that it is "Romeo & Juliet-esque."  Was the director influenced by any films or books?  Did the film evolve in significant ways from the initial concept to the finished film?

JOEL VIERTEL: The idea for CONVENTIONEERS came up when Mora Stephens, who directed the film, was in Manhattan having drinks with an NYU classmate of hers named Adam Feinstein.  Mora and I (we're married) were in the process of putting together a 24p-miniDV production company called Hyphenate Films, and Adam suggested that we should shoot something against the backdrop of the impending Republican National Convention, in the vein of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool.  Mora and I had never seen Medium Cool but we thought the idea was fantastic, and I had been a huge fan of HBO's K Street.  We had also been actively involved in the presidential campaign for about a year at that point, so we were fairly familiar with what grass-roots political activism looks like.  We watched Medium Cool for reference, and I showed Mora K Street as well.  In general, Steven Soderbergh's style was a big influence.

Mora came up with the central story-line idea, and we wrote a treatment together as fast as possible, as the convention was only a few weeks away.  We brought the treatment to the actors we'd had in mind, got them on board, developed the treatment with them through rehearsals, and shot the film using whatever resources we could throw together in such short time.  I'd say one of the more surprising outcomes, looking back, is how closely the finished film resembles the initial treatment.  It really didn't change that much.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: The blending of actual ongoing events into the film must be challenging on a number of different levels.

JOEL VIERTEL:  It was, but it was also kind of fun, actually.  There's an electricity to shooting in real events that sometimes shows up in the finished product, and you can feel it while you're there.  Staged political events in Hollywood movies almost always look absurd to me.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: For example, did you have some scenes planned that you weren't able to  make happen when you actually saw the state of affairs on the ground (for ex. security or...)?

JOEL VIERTEL:  We built the story-line to be flexible, in case things came up we hadn't anticipated, but we were very careful not to rely on anything spectacular happening on the ground.  If protests were scheduled, we assumed they'd happen without exploding into mass violence or anything.  We assumed the convention itself would go off pretty much as planned.  So we tried to be prepared in case things came up, but not expect them to.

In terms of things not matching what we'd had in mind or security issues, I'd say we got very lucky.  There were a couple of events we went to that weren't all that exciting, but those were the exceptions.  Pretty much every time we put our actors in the midst of real events, it worked out quite well.  Also, we'd gotten involved with some of the organizing groups in the weeks leading up to the convention, so we knew about almost all of the events that were being planned, and we had a pretty good sense of what would be interesting to put in a film and what wouldn't be.

Also, there were so many cameras in New York during the convention that security pretty much ignored them.  I don't think most people even realized we were making a narrative and not a documentary.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Or alternatively, did important new story elements arise?

JOEL VIERTEL:  Surprisingly, no.  The finished film is very close to the original outline.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Did you go through the process of obtaining actual credentials to cover the convention so you could move around and shoot inside?

JOEL VIERTEL: No.  I should mention that I wasn't there, nor was Mora.  We worked it out in other ways, mainly by contacting people who did have credentials and having them get the shots we needed.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: A clarifying question: When you say you and Mora weren't there, you mean you weren't in the Convention Hall, but were out on the streets doing that part of things?

JOEL VIERTEL: We were outside filming during the protests, yes, but that was all over by the time Bush gave his speech.  The only time we filmed inside Madison Square Garden was on Thursday, September 2nd, which was the last night of the convention when Bush was there.  At that point, there was really nothing going on on the streets outside that I know of, plus it was like 11pm anyway so if we'd filmed it it wouldn't have looked like much.  In the film, we mixed up the timeline to make it look like there's a protest going on outside while Bush is talking, but needless to say that's not what happened at all.  Strangely, there's another film that shot during the convention called The F Word that mixed up the timeline in almost exactly the same way.

By the time Bush hit the stage, I was on a couch uptown, recovering from two days in jail.  We watched the speech on television like everyone else, and had footage of it delivered to us later.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: What was the most difficult part of producing this film as compared to the other work you've done?

JOEL VIERTEL:  Post-production.  We shot on a lot of formats, and getting them all into a computer in workable order was incredibly complicated.  I won't bore you with the details, but try to imagine editing a film when you've shot footage on 8mm, 16mm, 35mm and Imax.  This would be kind of like the digital equivalent of that.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Are there any amusing anecdotes you can relate about the production of this film?

JOEL VIERTEL:  Well, there was that time we all got arrested during the NYPD sweep arrests and I spent 40 hours in jail along with 1800 other people, but I'm not sure that qualifies as "amusing".  There were lots of stories -- we filmed during the massive UFPJ march the day before the convention, where we had actors playing out scenes in the middle of hundreds of thousands of protesters.  We also had actors and cameras into the convention itself, of course.  But I think the most interesting part was where life and art crossed paths -- a lot of the people in the film are playing themselves, or variations of themselves, because we didn't want to put words in people's mouths too much, politically speaking.  In the film, there's a protest group called 1000 Coffins, and the people you see there are a mixture of actors and activists, including one actor who ended up joining the group after we wrapped and working with them for a year.  Very few people in the film are playing something other than their actual political beliefs.  I've worked on a lot of films in one way or another, and very rarely do the filmmakers and  the subject matter intertwine quite that way.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Wasn't there a class action suit about all those arrests; did they ever pay you anything or issue an apology?
JOEL VIERTEL: Yes.  So far I've received like $250, though there's more suits pending.  No apology that I'm aware of.