The documentary Boys State is among the dozen or so films on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Having come out of Sundance in 2020 with a Grand Jury award, the film follows (as the title suggests) a group of young men who are interested in politics as they participate in an informative and at times contentious mock government program connected to their Texas school.
The film by Directors Amanda McCaine and Jesse Moss follows a handful of participants across the political spectrum, as they navigate the challenges and complexities that come with thinking with creating a system for ordering society from the ground up. Filmed over the course of several months that included the pivotal mid-term elections in 2018, Boys State is a topical and highly relevant film about what exactly makes young men — who may one day come to dominate our political halls of power — tick.
So how exactly does one prepare to shoot scenes that involve rallies, large meetings, outdoor and indoor crowd, and a lot of talking? How does one follow this many subjects and come up with anything even remotely usable? Last week, Below the Line spoke with Boys State Cinematographer Thorsten Thielow about how he and his team prepared to follow their subject matters around to bring us this intriguing documentary.
Below the Line: How did the idea of Boys State come about, and what was your involvement?
Thorsten Thielow: Director Jesse [Moss] and I had been working on other projects together prior to this film, and we had sort of become a unit. I personally liked working with him and I think vice-versa. I enjoy his sensibility, especially for verité filmmaking, having a realistic point of view. It was his idea and he mentioned it when we were working on another project. And he had a little bit of access to this organization and then it all happened very fast. We went from shooting one project to getting on a plane and starting to crisscrossing Texas for this film.
BTL: What interest if any did you have in this subject matter?
Thielow: Anything political and especially current issues, I am always interested in. I think it’s great material for filmmaking. One of the questions I asked early on was “Why boys? Why not girls?” Remember this was right in the middle of #MeToo. We had a lot of conversations about this and discussed it at length but ultimately decided that boys made sense because we needed to show how boys think and why it needs to change. And it was also appealing because we had a lot of access, to get a shot behind a podium as someone gives a speech and then go into the back room with them for an interview. That part was amazing.
BTL: With this many characters and settings, how do you go about setting up to get what you and the director need?
Thielow: Immediately we realized there was no way for one person to shoot this. We decided we needed three main characters and flexibility to have other ones come up. So we decided we’d have six shooters, six cinematographers that could think like directors and had experience with documentary filmmaking, so that they could run as an independent unit. Jesse and Amanda could not be at every event or shooting, so we needed experienced people that could be independent.
We wanted each shooter developed a relationship with their subject. They would hang out from early in the morning and became a part of their lives. That is how we made sure they would be there and would have access. You also want the shooters to get to know their characters very well so that they can anticipate who is going to have what reactions, when, who is going to make eye contact, and all of that stuff so that you know who to shoot. It becomes complicated when two characters come together and there are two crews are filming. You have to both not be in each other’s way but also be smart enough to capture the right reactions.
Once we had all the cinematographers, we also all had conversations with each other in advance to discuss our approaches and make sure we were not in each other’s way as things progressed. We came up with boards and ideas together and discussed—this made it very collaborative so that shooters were willing to get out of the way when they realized someone else had a better shot for example.
BTL: Did all these different shooters have similar approaches? If not, how did you account for this?
Thielow: Not at all. We all had different sensibilities and approaches to filming. We thus knew we had to find a way to make this all visually coherent and tight, so it does not look like different shooters filming.
To handle this problem, Amanda, Jesse and I decided everyone would have to shoot single lens for the most part, 35mm prime film for everyone. We talked a lot of framing, positioning, and referencing to other films. We looked at Oscar-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul as a way to frame things close up–you feel like you are very close up in the perspective and they did a beautiful job there, so we wanted to replicate that a little bit. We wanted our viewer to experience what our boys, what our characters were experiencing.
There’s an honesty to that type of framing and lens. The camera is right there, it’s not like a long lens and the viewer senses that quickly–you are right there. Those are some of the main visual decisions we made–the lens, the widescreen, and the framing, knowing that the spaces were not that interesting as it was classrooms and conference rooms.
BTL: Tell us more about the equipment you used to achieve all of this?
Thielow: We paired one cinematographer with one character, so it was clear we needed intimacy and did not want a lot of people coming in and out. For that, we needed versatile, easy to use equipment that would run for 15 hours without needing more batteries. I’ve used every Canon camera that has ever existed, and I knew how easy those are to use–it was versatile, not heavy. We each had three batteries and a lot of media with use and a very lightweight Canon camera. It was perfect.
BTL: Do you feel like your efforts to make sure there was coherence worked out?
Thielow: Yes, and we were surprised at how well it turned out. We had fantastic conversations with the boys and the American Legion Program. We had conversations with them across the table and we found we could fit four or five of them in the shoot—it was beautiful how that could happen with that frame. One talks and you can see the others react, and that was very beautiful. The positioning of the cameras helped us there too.
BTL: What was a particularly hard scene to pull off from your perspective?
Thielow: When the big showdown between some of the characters, including Rene and Steven, happens, that was in one of the classrooms. Almost all of our characters are all of a sudden in one room. It was supposed to be like a campaign, going from classroom to classroom to give a final speech in the race for Governor.
All of a sudden there is a conflict. Each cinematographer was with each of their characters but suddenly the whole scene explodes on us. People from the audience are chiming in, there are conversations on the sideline, etc. That was hard—we didn’t want to lose those moments and we had the sound people there and everyone did their best to stay out of each other’s way. It took us about an hour later to reconstruct what had happened, by asking each other what they had heard to reconstruct the scene. In the middle of it, it felt very chaotic but of course it ended up well because we had so many people there so we didn’t miss anything.
BTL: What was your favorite scene and why?(Spoiler Warning if you haven’t seen the film yet.)
Thielow: When Steven didn’t get elected. I started meeting him weeks before filming started, when he was campaigning for Beto [O’Rourke]. So we had gotten to know him, but he was more guarded, had more privacy. We had not met his mom, and he did not want to talk too much about his family or other things about his private life. At the same time, he was so determined, and he really wanted to make a difference, for immigrants, etc.
So at that moment it was very sad and very powerful, and for him to let us into that moment was beautiful and powerful. It paid off that we built a relationship with him and he knew he could trust us and let us in. He knew he could finally trust us and did, and that was very special.
BTL: What kind of projects would you like to work on next?
Thielow: I want to take on a more editorial or directorial role. I like being a cinematographer, but I enjoy being involved, being hands on. But I would not give up on verité filmmaking, as I am very happy with that type of work environment. I like character-driven, intimate projects like that. Jesse and I had been following Pete Buttigieg and his presidential campaign for a year. That was a beautiful experience. I started out as an editor and I have experience with that, so now I do feel like for the first time I want to be involved in the directing process.
Boys State can now be seen streaming on Apple TV+. All photos courtesy of Thielow.