Although the shocking outcome and fallout from last year’s U.S. presidential elections are still fresh in everyone’s minds, Australian filmmaker Luke Walker wants to remind viewers of the lengthy Republican nomination process that led to such a point, and particularly the curious case of Dr. Ben Carson in his documentary PACmen, which makes its debut at Hot Docs in Toronto next week.
Dr. Ben Carson was (and, for many, still is) a respected and groundbreaking neurologist who rose up from an impoverished childhood to become one of the foremost authorities in his field. He’s also a staunch Christian and a black Republican; two traits that made many Republican backers see great possibility in him. After he famously took then President Barack Obama to task during a prayer breakfast, a groundswell of grassroots support led to Carson running for president.
Carson was an odd choice to some. Much like Trump, Carson was considered an outsider; a man with absolutely zero previous political experience and a heroic backstory that might not entirely be true. But before Donald Trump ran roughshod over his competitors, Carson was briefly number one in the polls.
Walker, who joined us a couple weeks ago via Skype from Australia to chat about PACmen before its world premiere at Hot Docs, travelled to the United States initially to document the inner workings of the Carson campaign. That approach changed, however, when Walker was granted access to the previously unseen world of Super-PACs, or fundraising organizations that raise large amounts of money for political campaigns by hitting up potentially wealthy financial donors. Walker followed the day-to-day dealings of two organizations attempting to raise money on behalf of the Carson campaign through the meteoric rise and spectacular collapse of the campaign for the Republican nomination.
Here now is our Hot Docs Q&A with PACmen director Luke Walker.
I’m sure that for someone outside the U.S., trying to comprehend what a Super-PAC is comes with a certain learning curve. What was it like trying to understand the function and purpose of a Super-PAC?
Luke Walker: Well, I’m an avid follower of American politics. I had a good understanding of Super-PACs before I came over to follow the story. I’ve always got CNN on the background in my house, all day, every day. I’m fascinated by American politics. I also studied it a lot in school.
When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself after I finished my last film, I looked ahead and saw that the American presidential election was happening in 2016, and there wasn’t going to be a story bigger than that. I loved The War Room, that documentary about the Clinton campaign by Pennebaker. That was a good, old fashioned, political observation film, and I always wanted to make a film like that. So I wondered if it was possible to get access to one of the campaigns. This was a bit of a dream for me.
I was pretty sure that Clinton had things sewn up on the Democratic side, and it never occurred to me that Bernie Sander would give her a run for her money. I thought then that the only drama was going to be on the Republican side. I looked down the list of the Republican candidates and wondered if I could get access to any of these guys.
I saw this name Ben Carson, and I thought, “Well, I’ve never heard of that guy.” So I had a bit of a Google session, and I looked him up. He had this fascinating backstory. Here you have this guy who had risen up out of poverty to become this incredible, pioneering brain surgeon. He was a black Republican, which is also very unusual. I thought that at the time, no one was talking about this guy, but that he could surprise a few people. I wondered if I could get access to him.
“It’s a very strange political landscape in America at the moment with the Super-PAC system. Anyone with a narrative that can raise money or already has money can just jump in and interfere with the political process.”
I looked up who his campaign manager was and his campaign manager’s details, and I managed to find a way to contact him, and I sent a nice letter saying that I loved observational political dramas, and I would love to document what they were doing because I thought there was going to be a surprise. I sent him a copy of my last film, Lasseter’s Bones, which was all about looking for gold in the desert and nothing to do with politics, but he must have liked it, and he must’ve believe what I said in the letter and thought it was a good idea. Within a week he sent a letter and said, “If you can be over here in a week and make it to Houston, we’ll talk.” I think he did it to test whether or not I was serious. (laughs) So I thought, “let’s do this.”
I flew over and met his campaign manager, Terry [Giles], in this enormous Texas mansion, and we sat at either side of a long table. We were served by the servants in his house, and we drank fine wines, told jokes, hung out, and about four bottles of wine later at the end of it all, he said “Let’s do it.” Before long, I found myself making a film about Ben Carson’s campaign, but then Terry left to go join the Super-PAC. By the time I got over here, he had left the campaign and had these big plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help out the Carson campaign. He said, “Look, I know you came over to film the campaign, but I’m with the Super-PAC now, and no one has made a film about them before. Why don’t you film that? I’ll let you see everything. I won’t hide anything from you. You can see me raise the money, spending the money, see what we’re spending the money on. I’ll let you see the whole lot of it.”
I thought, “I know I came here to film the campaign, but that’s never been done before and it’s gotta be a story worth filming.” That’s a very long answer to your question, I know. (laughs) But I had a pretty good understanding of them beforehand, but I just didn’t know at first that I would be filming one.
It’s a very strange political landscape in America at the moment with the Super-PAC system. Anyone with a narrative that can raise money or already has money can just jump in and interfere with the political process. It’s such a strange system, and at the time, everyone was talking about what a doomsday system it was all going to be, but what was so fascinating about this last election was how ineffective the Super-PACs actually were. I think there’s probably a great irony in how the Tea Party movement and the anti-establishment movement were whipped into a frenzy by Super-PACs, and yet, when the election came around, there was nothing the Super-PACs could spend their money on that would influence or impact the process. Nothing that they could spend their money on were a match for Trump’s mouth and Twitter thumbs. It really was an absolute circus, and everyone was taken by surprise, including Donald Trump, I think.
It’s so interesting that you were able to follow Ben Carson, who was next to Donald Trump, the biggest outsider in the Republican campaign. He wasn’t an old money, old school Republican, and something that your film speaks to is that Carson was an odd choice for anyone to back. He had absolutely no political experience, and at times it seems like he was pushed into doing this. I know you didn’t have a lot of interaction with Carson, but while you were making this film, did you have any sort of sympathy towards what he was being thrust into the middle of?
Luke Walker: Yeah, and I think that was Carson’s curse, really. He was continually this reluctant saviour. He was constantly being pushed into things that he didn’t covet in any way; that he didn’t particularly want to do, and there were these hundreds of thousands of people clamouring for him to do it. How can he turn that down? It all starts with that prayer breakfast speech that you see in the film, and that was made all the Tea Party people love him on the right because he was there giving Obama what-for, as far as they were concerned. They certainly saw what I saw: a guy with a remarkable backstory that happened to be a black republican who could mess with the demographics. He’s really smart. He has a great history. He represents the American dream, particularly the Republican ideal of it, which says that no matter what you’re born into, if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just try hard, then you can get wherever you want to get. They thought this guy could save them. At that point, there was talk of the Republicans never getting the White House back, and they were in disarray looking for any solutions.
John Philip Souza IV saw that, as well, and he started raising tens of millions of dollars for the Carson campaign by saying just that: “This guy could save America. This guy could save the Republican Party. This guy could deliver the White House to the Republicans. Who’s on board?” And the money that Souza was raising – and this was unusual for a Super-PAC – was in small amounts. He was raising tens of millions in small amounts. He used this money to create awareness, and he would hold these rallies so people could learn about Dr. Carson. He was sending Carson hundreds of thousands of signatures begging him to run for president. “We want you to save America!” So, Carson was kind of Shanghaied into it.
“While all of [Donald] Trump’s gaffes made it seem like he was somehow “giving it to the man,” [Ben] Carson’s gaffes made him look weak and confused.”
It was strange because Carson never seemed like he was particularly enjoying running for president. He never seemed to be particularly good at it. He kept talking about how only a few months before running that he was looking forward to retirement, and I think he genuinely was! I think he kept looking around and wondering, “I don’t want this. I don’t like this. How did I get here?” Then, of course, it finally all ends for him, and he gets out of it all, but he has all of these people telling him to keep going, and keep going, and keep going, so he kept up going longer than he should have. The press kept wondering why he was still running at a certain point, and the answer was that he just felt obligated to all these people who backed him and got behind him.
Finally, it’s all over for the campaign, but it starts all over again for him. “Will you be the housing minster?” His spokesman gives this strange statement where he says, basically, “Ben Carson would not take on a post that would cripple the government.” Weeks earlier he had been running for the biggest job in all of government! He wanted to run the whole thing! It’s such a strange statement to make, and then he gets offered the housing job, and he takes a huge amount of time to give an answer. I think it was as much as ten days or two weeks in the end, and I like to think that it was probably because he didn’t want to do that either, but he did it out of a sense of duty and providence, really. He’s ended up in a strange place where these paths keep opening up in front of him, and he doesn’t really want to follow them, but he ends up being compelled by the people down that path calling for him, and he has to walk down it.
Early on in the film and early in the campaign, it’s clear that Carson has always been someone keen at creating their own narrative. Some portions of his backstory have been inflated. Some of it has been fabricated. Then you place Dr. Carson alongside someone like Souza, who is trying to create his own narrative of what he thinks Carson should be for America, and you get an even stranger situation. Is that a hard thing as a filmmaker to keep straight and keep looking into? Between the two of them, it feels like there’s a lot you would have to look into and see if things are true or not.
Luke Walker: I mean, who knows how much of Ben Carson’s autobiography was exaggerated? I know CNN looked into it, and they couldn’t find this boy that was supposed to have stabbed him in his youth. They could never find anyone who particularly thought that he had a bad temper. There’s no real will to look any further into that, either, or at least not anymore. What I think I did as a filmmaker was to present all of the evidence that was out there in an observational capacity, and allow people the opportunity to form their own opinions as to what they make of it all.
But yes, Ben Carson was running on that narrative, and when it was started to be questioned he got flustered, but what damaged him more was not being able to give answers on quite simple foreign policy questions. When you’re running to be Commander-in-Chief of the largest Army in the world, that’s where it all starts to fall apart.
But your question really was about narratives and how that becomes difficult to follow and see what’s true, but all I can do is present the narratives and allow people to try to figure out for themselves what they think is true.
But Souza, in particular, always gave off this feeling in the film that he wants to maybe run for president himself someday.
Luke Walker: Yeah, maybe. He definitely has political ambitions. This isn’t his first rodeo. He supported [Arizona Sheriff] Joe Arpaio before. I think he saw another opportunity to do the same. For whatever reason, he won’t run, himself, or at least I don’t know if he exactly has the ambitions to even do that in the future. But he does see this as a way to influence the political process in a way that he believes in.
“By the end of the film, the guys we had started following around and filming had also come around and decided they were going to support a guy that only a few weeks prior they were calling hideously unqualified, wildly unhinged, and had a temperament that was beneath the office of the President.”
Again, it’s a strange situation with the Super-PAC system where you can weave a narrative like the one we were just talking about, and you could run on that if you want to. That’s what they were doing, and that’s what you can do now. Is that an extension of democracy, or is that something that warps it? That’s up to the viewer to decide if it enhances or warps the process, really.
As someone who follows American politics, were you surprised by that the rise and fall of the Ben Carson campaign was as fast as it was?
Luke Walker: (laughs) I thought he would surprise some people going in, but I was blown away the most when he shot up to number one in the polls. I thought, “How did I manage to do this? My god, I’m some sort of accidental genius here.” (laughs) Of course, the problem with that was that it brought all sorts of extra scrutiny, and Ben Carson wasn’t used to that kind of scrutiny, and he simply wasn’t prepared.
Terry had actually been wanting to brief Ben on foreign policy for some time, and he had done extensive research on it, and Terry and Ben are old friends. Terry had done six months of research, and he showed me the document. It was like a brick, all of the things he wanted to brief him on. By the time it came to briefing him, Ben Carson was at the top of the polls, and he thought providence was taking him all the way to the White House, and that he didn’t have to do more outside of just turning up. When the time came for him to do his homework, he didn’t do it! He started making these appalling gaffs on foreign policy that made it clear that he didn’t understand any of the nuances of geopolitical military matters, and he became incredibly stuck in a rut very quickly.
While all of Trump’s gaffes made it seem like he was somehow “giving it to the man,” Carson’s gaffes made him look weak and confused. He started to fall as quickly as he risen, and at the time, as a filmmaker, that was disappointing to me at the time, but it all ended up becoming a big part of the story. It was a surprise, though. It shows how in modern politics how quick these things can rise and fall.
A lot of these people involved with the campaign don’t seem angry as the poll numbers go down for Ben Carson, but more saddened. They seem to get more open to talking emotionally about how they feel as things go on. Did you notice that as a filmmaker?
Luke Walker: I had spent a lot of time with many of these people, and they were usually always quite open about how they were feeling about things, but the more people get used to the camera, and the more they get used to you being there, the more they started talking like that.
“[Ben Carson] ended up in a strange place where these paths keep opening up in front of him, and he doesn’t really want to follow them, but he ends up being compelled by the people down that path calling for him, and he has to walk down it.”
There were always a lot of pious people in the Ben Carson campaign, and that was his appeal. They wanted a good, Christian man in the White House. There was always this feeling that their faith was being tested; this feeling that if it wasn’t going to go the way they planned it, then what was the point of it all? There’s a phone call towards the end of the film where they’re trying to make sense of why God would allow them to go on this journey if it was going to go this way. Right up to the very end, they thought there could be a miracle on the way that would possibly rectify things. But there was a lot of confusion and resignation at the end.
There are actually a lot of moments in the silences that say more than the words they’re speaking, really. They start to realize that Ben Carson is not a very good candidate, but they have to keep going anyways because the train has left the station, and it has become a suicide mission where they’re waiting for a miracle that won’t come. But you’re right, there’s definitely a sadness there.
There’s a scene towards the end, and I forget exactly how it goes, where someone says that America has turned down faith and integrity and gone for greed, instead. They saw Ben as a good man turned down in favour of this capricious man-child, and even they see him at that point as an ogre that’s going to be appalling for the country, and they can’t believe America has chosen him over their guy.
What’s interesting, and I didn’t see those guys again after the end of the movie, but I bet a lot of them came around and voted for Trump. By the end of the film, the guys we had started following around and filming had also come around and decided they were going to support a guy that only a few weeks prior they were calling hideously unqualified, wildly unhinged, and had a temperament that was beneath the office of the President. And yet, they, as did the majority of Republican voters, got behind him anyway.
Over the course of putting this film together and going to all of these Ben Carson rallies where they would show this, how many times do you think you had to watch Gifted Hands, the made for TV movie where Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Ben Carson?
Luke Walker: (laughs) Oh, God. I don’t know. Have you ever seen The Room? I saw it enough times that it took on that sort of quality after awhile. You can sort of enjoy the awfulness of it. But thank goodness the O.J. series came along to redeem [Cuba] because I think that really was a low point for him.