Before the 2012 election, before the 47%, the binders of women, the hair jokes, the secret Mormon underwear jokes, Mitt Romney was a little known governor of Massachusetts. That’s when director Greg Whiteley met him.
On Christmas Eve 2006, Whiteley met the Romney family as they discussed the pros and cons of the patriarch running for president of the United States. It was the first thing he filmed and it’s the first scene in his new documentary Mitt that just premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
The film predictably sparked a lot of pre-Sundance buzz among Beltway buffs and has garnered strong reviews for introducing us to a version of Romney his presidential election campaign was unable to. Namely, a pretty decent, normal guy. The focus isn’t on the politics at play, but instead on how a man and his family deal with the rigors of the game. Gone is the stench of the 1% and instead we see a Mitt who, immediately before his first nationally televised 2012 election debate, seems more stressed about picking up the garbage in the hotel room and making sure all the lights are off before he leaves to debate President Obama.
Whiteley first learned of Mitt Romney after the director’s 2005 film New York Doll, about converted Mormon and New York Dolls bassist, Arthur Kane, played in Boston. The box office reports weren’t all that encouraging—about six people per screening. "I was lamenting that a bit," says Whiteley. "But then I got this email from someone in Boston who said, ‘I saw your movie and thought it was great, and you’d be happy to know I saw the governor of Massachusetts sitting two rows in front of me.’"
That moved the director to find out just who the governor of Massachusetts was. As Romney’s name began to circulate as a potential presidential candidate for the 2008 election, Whiteley spotted an opportunity to catch a politician at a very interesting point in his professional life. Some luck, a lunch with Mitt’s son Tagg Romney and some assurances later, Whiteley was spending Christmas eve with the candidate.
The project took six years and spanned two runs at the White House, but beyond the challenges of time and scope, Whiteley had significant creative baggage to contend with. Like how do you create a compelling portrait of a man who has already been the subject of innumerable magazine, newspaper, and television profiles during the media frenzy of both the 2008 Republican primary and the 2012 presidential election? And what story is there to tell if everyone already knows how it all ends?
"It helps us to have an audience who is very familiar with the story arc, as well as significant moments within that story arc," says Whiteley. "As a result, we don’t have to spend a lot of time setting up these moments. We can work from the assumption that people knew what was happening. When you’re working within a 90-minute time frame, you want to cram in as many goodies as possible and you want your exposition to be as efficient as possible."
Viewers’ knowledge of the candidate and the elections allowed the filmmaker to jettison some of the usual doc film tricks—narration, musical montages—in favor of a stripped down, authentic, fly-on-the-wall view of a familiar situation from a different perspective. "The audience here is pretty much going to already understand where they are, so the fact that people are so familiar with the story isn’t a liability but a great asset," says Whiteley.
We all know Mitt as an expertly coiffed, slightly stiff and square-jawed former titan of business. The film shows us his doofus dad side—getting tackled by his son while sledding, shuffling about seemingly obsessed with picking up garbage and turning lights out. "I could make an entire film of Mitt turning lights off," says Whiteley, with a laugh. "I probably have 90 minutes of footage of that. I’m also convinced, over the years, that there is no one more concerned about garbage in a hotel room than Mitt Romney."
Given it was shot over such a long period of time, another big challenge for Whiteley was deciding what to keep and what to cut.
"There’s a lot of footage and great stories, especially of the Republican primary in 2012, that there just wasn’t time for," says Whiteley. "The story of Rick Santorum, Mitt constantly coming back from double-digit deficits in Midwestern states, the attempt to get traction in the South, how euphoric it was when he won Florida—there were so many moments we filmed but at the end of the day, the story was best served by getting through a lot of that because we’d been through it in ’08 and it would feel tedious. But there is a really great version of this movie that’s about four hours long, that I think only me and my family would watch."
Mitt premieres on Netflix on January 24th.