By Travis Merchant.
In today’s age of fake news, constant debates, and online videos that depict two sides arguing intensely, it is difficult to find something that everyone can agree on. One of those issues is the use of money within politics in campaign financing: this is the subject of the film Dark Money (2018), directed by Kimberly Reed. Dark Money follows the story of mysterious money that flows into campaign financing towards elected officials, specifically in the state of Montana. The money, which seems to come from an unknown source, makes it difficult for citizens to vote for their own pick because the corporations behind the financial contributions create vicious attack ads and large funding for officials they want elected. The film has a wide net and utilizes Montana as a case study for the rest of the country with campaign finance. It’s a stunning look at the flaws of the United States democracy and how campaigns can be funded. For Montana, Reed’s home state, historic politics have fought hard against money’s influence. The events of Dark Money begin in 2012, when the state of Montana challenged the Supreme Court over their ruling of Citizen’s United, which allowed corporations to contribute to campaigns and elections. Despite the heavy, dense information that surrounds questionable campaign financing, every American needs to see this film as they rush headfirst into the midterm elections.
The pacing of the film unfurls rapidly and fluidly as it focuses on a few key stories that highlight problematic political financing. There’s John Adams, an investigative reporter that goes through tumultuous times to get the best story. Ann Ravel resigns from her position at the Federal Elections Commission in protest of campaign financing and to send a message to the current President of the United States. Additionally, there’s the stories of the normal people of Montana, even including the politicians of the state. In an extended sequence opening the film, Reed and her editing partner Jay Arthur Sterrenberg display these people as humble and still working their normal jobs in addition to being an elected official. This introduction really shows the heart of the story and what the filmmakers seem to be arguing: elect normal, everyday Americans to be in office and work for all people, not just the few rich corporations. By showing these representatives as hard-working individuals with their own goals and lives, the film argues that money should not influence politics and that people should avoid working solely as a politician.
Dark Money is Reed’s second film following her 2008 documentary Prodigal Sons, a film that explored her experience as a transgender woman returning to Montana for a high school reunion. While these two films are radically different, the delivery feels the same: personal and loud. All of Money‘s messages are delivered through beautiful camera work that shows Montana, Washington D.C., the inside of court rooms, and the journey of John Adams as he investigates the problems that the film also ruminates on. The music continues to tighten the tension throughout, hinting that something a little larger is just barely looming over the citizens over the United States: corporations that are only interested in running the country’s political system for themselves. As the United States approaches midterm elections, this film seeks to unite Americans once again over the issues of contributions to campaigns. Reed discusses how the problem affects note just a few, but all Americans.
Over the course of the film, it takes place over all these years and you seem to cover a lot of the career of John Adams as he’s investigating all of this campaign financing that the film covers. How long did the shooting process take and how did it feel going through the process?
So, I started shooting in 2012. It actually began with the court case that you see portrayed in the film. Montana was just signing the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, and this was happening in 2012, a hundred years later. And that’s when I started filming because I thought that it would be a good way to galvanize these issues of money in politics. It took about six years until the film was done. We definitely shot really intensely for five of those years, and then started editing for approximately the last year due to a couple pick up shoots. How did it feel? I mean, you know, one of the tough things about documentary filmmaking is that you’re not sure if you’ll ever know when to stop, like when is the story going to be over. I think that I knew when all of the issues and the story that we were following in this film were all coming to a head in a court room trial. I figured that would be a very good way to culminate all of these issues in the film.
You mentioned going into the editing process, so I wanted to ask about your partnership with the editor of the film, Jay Arthur Sterrenburg. You both have writing credits, you both have director of photography credits, and then he’s the editor while you are the director. How was it working with another perspective on this documentary? Especially because of how long you shot and how you had to deliver that story that you were creating.
Documentaries are built in the editing room, and if you are lucky you have a really good editor, and I had a really good editor with Jay. He’s very talented. We did a couple of shoots together at the last minute to pick up some missing story elements, so that’s why he’s listed as the DP as well. But, the main part of the work I did with Jay was crafting this pretty complicated story, and I was lucky that he is so—He’s got a really big head and a really big heart. He’s got a big head in that he’s really smart and he could follow on track with these campaign finance issues. He then helped figure out how we unspool these stories so that we could deliver the necessary information so that the audience could process all the drama that was unfolding. He’s got a big heart, meaning he is just really good at story. He’s really good at drama and tracking a dramatic evolution from scene to scene and keeping things character based in a way that would allow us to tell this story without becoming too dry, too abstract, or too didactic.
Especially since there’s all of those evolving stories all happening at the same time, with John Adams, the representatives, and the people you interviewed. It had to have been a struggle to juggle all of these characters and stories going on.
I think the hardest thing to do when you’re making a documentary and you’re sitting in a dark room together for a year is that it is hard to forget. If you find someone who’s really smart, they really remember stuff, almost too well, and they don’t have the ability to forget the last screening they were at. Jay is very good at that. In addition to being smart, he’s pretending that he hasn’t seen the film before and he has a good sense for how the film plays.
Going back a little bit in your career to Prodigal Sons (2008), how did you feel that this story kind of differed from that? While Prodigal Sons is a really personal film, and there’s a little personality in this film, it is completely different personality because instead of coming from your experience or your family’s experience, it comes from the experiences of these people you interviewed for Dark Money.
Prodigal Sons and Dark Money are very different films. I think if I were to find a similarity between the two of them, I think it might be that both films kind of contain more story and more dramatic development than should be allowed in a single film, or should fit in a single film. There’s something about taking on these massive stories with epic scopes and trying to distill and condense it to a story that takes about an hour and a half. For some reason, I’m drawn to that impression. I think that it gives it a potency and it gives it an intensity that is beneficial to the films in the end. The other thing I would say about that is that both of the films are set in Montana and I think that the personality that you are talking about comes from somebody who was raised there, loves Montana, and wants to hold it accountable. But, it also tries to celebrate what it does right. I think that’s a common thread between the two films.
When did you stumble across the story for Dark Money? Was it something that festered about in your head or did you stumble across this story?
I was just really convinced that campaign finance was a really fundamental issue, perhaps the most important issue. It’s a gateway issue, as someone says in the film. If you care about any political issue, whether you’re on the right or left, you can’t sort it out until you sort out the influence of money in the political issues. I knew it was absolutely crucial to a lot of people. So, in 2012 when I heard about that case going to the Supreme Court, I realized you can make a film about that. You can wrap it around that court case. The initial case in 2012 was reversed by the Supreme Court, which sent me back to Montana. By that time, I was hooked on that story and I had more questions than ever about how did we end up here. I think documentaries should come from questions, not from “Here’s the stories I want to tell everybody.” In asking those questions about how did we get here, I realized that the best case study for the whole country was actually taking place in my home state where I had great access. I knew I could tell the story to wherever it went and I could follow it for the long haul. I was shooting it at home, I had places to stay, and cars to drive. So, I just stuck with it.
Going off of that, how do you feel about this film coming out at the time it is being released? There’s the midterms coming and questions about campaign financing since the 2016 election. What do you see as this film’s place within the political climate we are in right now?
This is by design that our film would come out in an election year in the election season. Part of that is because I’ve been following this story since 2012. Time and time again, I see campaign financing kind of fall off voters’ list of priorities. Then, the campaign comes around and all of sudden everybody is talking about it and caring about it. They want to understand it. I think that our film can be a big part of that conversation. It could be a big part of showing how money makes its way into the political system when people are engaged in it and thinking about it. I think it’s a good time for our film to come out so that we can be a big part of that conversation. I didn’t anticipate any of the situations that happened in 2016 with foreign money coming into some campaigns. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated it or thought that it was plausible. What we can anticipate is saying, “Look. Here’s a perfect example of how foreign money could infiltrate our election and we should do something about it.” That was certainly one of the motivating factors to complete this film and release it in the middle of an election season.
Did you come across John Adams when doing the interviews or did you know him before you started filming? How closely were you following him throughout the filming?
So, as I said, I started in 2012, but I met John in 2013 because I was following his reporting and admiring it. There were a couple other folks, like Chuck Johnson and Mike Denison from Lee Newspapers, who were doing a lot of group reporting on the issues. Then, after we met, there was a period that we were commiserating and following the story from our own perspectives and angles. I’m kind of playing the long game and he was writing these stories. First time I interviewed him was in 2014, a couple of years into the film, because I realized that I needed to have a narrator of sorts to see the world of campaign financing as he was digging into these stories. It was clear by that time that we were going to have plenty of stories to dig into, and we dug into a big one. In many ways, we did it together. I also realized that to understand campaign finance, you need a strong watchdog press that is following it, digging into it, and writing these stories and putting them in newspapers so that we have an educated populace. As such, that was something I wanted to celebrate too because I think it’s a heroic thing.
Especially in the age of “fake news” or how people are attacking certain news organizations.
That’s how it looks now. At the time, I think what we ended up capturing—I didn’t know we were capturing it at the time—was the beginning steps toward those things. To be able to show how committed and self-sacrificing some reporters are was really important.
I wanted to talk about how this was picked up by PBS as a part of their POV documentaries. Over the film, it seems that many people have their points of view shared: John Adams’s views, representatives’ views, your view, and the editor’s view. There are so many people with voices in this film. How important do you think it is to capture all of these points of view so that it’s not just one person talking but multiple people coming together to try to answer your questions of the film?
I think that’s our job as reporters, as documentary filmmakers: to include as many of those points of views as possible, including those you don’t necessarily agree with. I hope that we have plenty of those in our film to cover the debate, not just spew answers.
In a lot of debates, it seems to be “my side vs. your side” without figuring out that middle ground.
With campaign finances issues, there’s a lot of agreement across the political spectrum. There are not a lot of issues where there is bipartisan agreement, but there certainly is on this one. So, for us to cover this issues and to try to craft a film that’s going to speak to a wide audience of bipartisan folks, I think it’s especially important to include that diversity of opinion.
This year, a lot of people are going to theaters to see documentaries. Do you see documentary as an art form that is necessary to tell a story and to investigate questions around us?
Yes, I do. I think that, in the same way that John Adams and I were working in tandem on the same story, it’s really necessary from here on out. There are a lot of gaps in news coverage these days. I think it is up to documentary films to tell those really big stories that have a broad scope and cover many years so that we can fill the gaps in storytelling that used to be covered by other aspects of our media.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International, an adjunct instructor at Wake Technical Community College, and a teaching assistant at NC State. Some of his writings have been published in Film Matters, and he presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference. He graduated from UNCW in 2016 with degrees in film studies and English, and he achieved honours with his film degree. Some of his interests in film and media studies are on science-fiction, sound design and music, and intertextuality between works.