The Vérité Teamwork on 'Boys State'
Shooting Scenarios is a new column that takes a single scene and breaks it down cinematographically, looking at the shooting logistics, creative challenges, and camera gear deployed.
When shooting vérité, Jesse Moss is typically a one-man-band. But his latest film—codirected with his wife, Amanda McBaine—demanded a full orchestra. Boys State required 28 crew members, to be exact, including an octet of cinematographers.
Their mission was to chronicle Boys State at the University of Texas in Austin, a program where a thousand high school seniors come together to build a state government in six days. The boys are arbitrarily assigned a party—Federalist or Nationalist—then create party platforms and elect officials, with governor being the highest office. Sponsored by the American Legion in multiple states since 1935, the program’s alums include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker and even Mark Wahlberg. (High school girls have separate Girls States.)
The filmmakers’ idea was to create something character-driven, shadowing four to six boys for 14 hours a day. A big challenge was to have their ensemble of cinematographers act as one, capturing footage that looked like an organic whole. Key to their success was this: While you can’t standardize personal shooting styles, you can hire a set of peers who share an aesthetic. And you can standardize your camera gear in a way that promotes a cohesive look.
The directors’ first step was to recruit Thorsten Thielow, a Brooklyn-based cinematographer who’d previously shot two Netflix projects with Moss. Thielow’s job was to organize the camera team, choose the gear, and help set the look.
When picking camera operators, Thielow didn’t have to start from scratch. Years earlier, he’d cofounded the Kamera Kollektiv, a small agency of like-minded cinematographers specializing in social-issue documentaries that use handheld camerawork. Many in this tight-knit group had shot together before.
“When Thorsten suggested this could be a way forward, it was like a gift,” says Moss. “To otherwise build a team of five or six DPs who hadn’t worked together could have been a recipe for real frustration.”
Four Kamera Kollektiv members signed on. In addition to Thielow, there was Wolfgang Held, Martina Radwan and Claudia Raschke. In addition, Daniel Carter, a cinematographer who’d come up the ranks working for many of them, joined the core team. Director Jesse Moss picked up the camera when needed. Rounding out the camera team were two Texas-based cinematographers, Patrick Bresnan and Ivy Chiu.
Each cinematographer used the same camera body, the same prime lens, even the same f stop. Thielow chose Canon’s C300 Mark II because it’s small, lightweight, not too power-hungry, and shoots true 4K. Plus, most of the cinematographers already owned one.
“We wanted a single-person unit that could potentially function for an entire long day,” Thielow explains.
“A fanny pack with two batteries, a second lens, and two radio mics was all we wanted to wear on the body.” (For the film’s sit-down interviews, they switched to two Arri Amiras, which remained parked in a dedicated room with an HMI lighting set-up.)
Ninety percent of the film was shot with one prime lens: a medium-wide 35mm.
(The balance was on an 85mm, called upon when cross-shooting.) “The 35mm has a beautiful intimacy because it’s really honest,” says Thielow. “In order to get a close-up, you have to be really close.”
Wolfgang Held echoes the sentiment: “I feel like a zoom is not an honest perspective. The person you’re filming hasn’t invited you in their space. You’re observing, maybe sneaking,” he says. “When you shoot a 35mm close-up—and there are a lot in this film—you’re really close to the people, meaning they let you in, but you also see the space. But it’s not so wide-angle that they look grotesque or the room is distorted.”
Thielow selected a Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/2 both for its light weight and its two-step method of changing the f stop, to avoid bumping and changing it accidentally.
This was important, because keeping the iris wide open at f/2 was key to the look. “I knew we’d be in these institutional settings, and I didn’t want to shoot with everything in focus,” says Moss. “I wanted to isolate our subjects and let the background of these classrooms fall off. It’s a more cinematic look.”
University of Texas’ less-than-photogenic lecture halls also motivated Thielow to push for widescreen framing. He knew the 2.39:1 aspect ratio would cut off the ugly white ceilings and institutional lighting, and draw attention to faces. “What we like about the format is you can get an intimate two-shot, so you don’t have to cut back and forth,” Held says. “It’s the only format where you can really get that.”
The director adds about widescreen: “You got a sharper, stronger sense of boys in dialog with each other. This was the driving force of the film to begin with. We wanted to see boys of different political beliefs in dialog with each other.”
“I knew from day one that this was going to be an incredible film, because we were able to get those intimate moments,” says Daniel Carter. “I think the singles are beautiful too. The 2.39 cropped it in a way where you’re really in their world, in their head.”
The advantages of getting up-close and personal are borne out during the Nationalists Run-Off Debates. Occurring mid-way through the film, the scene is a decisive turning point for one of the gubernatorial candidates. The opponents are a study in contrasts: Steven Garza is a quiet but confident child of Mexican immigrants who was inspired by Bernie Sanders, yet has managed to win over many rowdy Texan teens with his heartfelt speeches. Robert MacDougall is a charismatic bro with classic good looks, a loyal posse, and a political code that’s pure expediency.
The scene begins with a tense standoff between Nationalist party chairman René Otero—one of the few Blacks there and a former Chicagoan to boot—and an insurrectionist faction that’s determined to impeach him. After René deftly fends them off, the run-off speeches begin.
As we listen to a candidate for Supreme Court Justice rail against “liberal snowflakes who want to take away our guns,” we see Robert intently staring at his phone. A cutaway reveals a viral image that could sink his opponent: an Instagram post of Steven leading a March for Our Lives rally, held on the heels of a recent school shooting in Santa Fe. Robert senses an opportunity, knowing most of the crowd is staunchly pro-gun. But he gives Steven fair warning. Drawing him aside for a whispered tête-à-tête, Robert asks, “Do you support the 2nd Amendment? Some guys are talking about it.” Steven replies, “I know.”
Steven then proceeds to throw out his prepared remarks and gives a powerful impromptu speech about guns, meeting the negative campaign head-on. His emotional honesty turns the room, as does his argument for finding common ground on background checks. “The voice of reason,” one Texan tells him afterwards, shaking his hand. Robert’s speech follows, full of platitudes about the need for guns, with some pandering anti-abortion rhetoric thrown in for good measure (which we know from an earlier interview that Robert does not personally believe).
“The only candidate with a moral compass is Steven, which is why he’s such a great counterpoint to Robert,” Held observes.
“If a reality show had done this,” Held notes, “they would have walked our characters to the door, then had five fixed cameras in the room.” Instead, the team covered the run-off debate with just two handheld cameras: Wolfgang Held following Robert, and Daniel Carter following Steven.
Here, as elsewhere in the film, the cameramen remained in their characters’ space, sticking close—very close. Close-ups with a 35mm prime brought them within inches of a face. “It’s mind-blowing how fast people adjust to that,” Thielow notes.
They needed a game plan beyond staying out of each other’s shot. “We thought at first that one person should just stay on stage and cover whoever was on stage, and the other person would cover the crowd,” Carter says. “But we realized pretty quickly that there would be a lot of movement with these characters, so we just stayed with them.”
“We made these ground rules: whoever follows the dominant character gets the right-of-way,” Held adds.
Carter elaborates: “If Robert was on stage speaking, I’d be covering Steven, but also getting crowd shots. And vice versa.”
Another ground rule for the entire team: Switch off overhead fluorescents and use the windows’ natural light whenever possible.
This particular lecture hall had plate-glass windows on both sides and behind the podium, so Carter arrived early to open curtains. Held notes, “Even though it’s not the best lighting because the speakers are a little backlit, it makes it more moody and interesting.”
The cinematographers’ comportment towards their subjects was also key. That enabled Held to get the cutaway of Robert’s phone, which proved to be a turning point in the scene. Held had been kneeling on the stage in front of Robert, who was seated in the audience, and sensed that Robert’s scrolling was more than routine. “It was just instinct to get the insert. I would just ask the buddy to his left, ‘Do you mind if I sit down on your chair for a second?’ I do that a lot; I actually move people around. I do very intrusive vérité filming, which comes from this [35mm] lens. But I do it in a way where people feel included. I wouldn’t do this thing where I make sure I don’t touch anybody. I’m not this fly on the wall; I’m part of their group.”
After realizing the fraught nature of that Instagram post, Held followed Robert up to Steven for their private conversation. As Thielow notes, “That’s what was so intriguing about this film. In real politics, you’d never get those behind-the-scenes moments.”
When Steven stepped to the podium, “I could see the tension on his face. He was really, really nervous,” Carter attests, who was tight on him. “It was pretty quiet when he got up, and it definitely felt like he was done. He was going to drown and he wasn’t coming back from that. But then it changed. In that room, it felt…I mean, I had chills. He just pulled it together and changed the whole dynamic of the room.”
The director adds, “Steven could move the audience and appeal to their common convictions. That is his gift.”
The election goes on to a raucous conclusion that shows our better angels aren’t alone on the shoulder of our youth. The ghost of Lee Atwater is there too, inciting negative smear campaigns and Machiavellian stratagems.
But for its part, the film went on to a happy ending, winning a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2020 and a hefty acquisition deal with Apple TV+ and A24.
Cinematographically, Thielow and his team managed to pull off their goal. “The film was a massive group effort, and everybody gave their best,” he says. Held concurs: “To do a film like this, you have to have super-cohesive camera language that feels like it’s not random.” In the end, he believes, “It really feels very organic.”
Boys State premieres August 14 on Apple TV+.
Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and a contributing writer for American Cinematographer.