Have you ever wondered why political donors donate hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to political candidates? Maybe it’s the perks. But what are these perks? Do the billionaires of America really have the most powerful voice, thanks to the Almighty Dollar? Accomplished documentarian Alexandra Pelosi, creator of documentary Journeys With George and daughter of Nancy and Paul Pelosi, set out on a journey to answer these questions the best she could. But finding the answer was not a simple, or maybe not even a possible task. Meet The Donors: Does Money Talk airs tonight at 9 p.m., 8 p.m. Central, on HBO. Tune in to find out in what I assure you is a fascinating, compelling film. We spoke with Alexandra to learn about the process of creating this film, and all the drama that came with it.
When did you get the idea to create this documentary?
This is funny because I just came from the convention and was reminded; I don’t even know why I didn’t think of it. Joe Kennedy, the congressman—he was the one that told Ricard Plebler at HBO, you know what, you should make a documentary about money in politics. And so I basically got the assignment more than anything. They came to me. I always do election stuff, I was working on an angle about the election, but this one was all Joe Kennedy’s fault. I never even talked to him before in my life. He was just having a conversation and somehow it fell on my lap.
Coming into the beginning development of this film, what was your goal? What did you want to get out of this?
I just wanted to see how many people would let me in the door on that list of 100 families that fund our election. It was more just a science experiment. Documentaries are kind of kids, they don’t always turn out the way you wanted them. I looked at the list, I knew a lot of the names on the list, and I thought, let’s see if anyone would talk to me, and if they would, what would that say? And that was basically the premise.
Why do you think the people who agreed to talk agreed to talk? I think it was because I knew them or they knew of me or they had seen my work and knew I wasn’t a bomb thrower. I made nine HBO documentaries and most people asked to see them before they would agree to. You could also argue, I’m going to be charitable here, that nobody in the movie is really getting anything concrete. You can’t indict any of the people in my film for any laws that were written. You can’t trace the quid quo pro. You can smell it but you can’t nail it. I didn’t get the Koch brothers so maybe they would have had something different to say.
How was it different interviewing these billionaires compared to the average person?
Billionaires are not like you and me. First of all, they live in a bubble. They’re surrounded by people who make sure the world is in their likeness. They’re ensured that they’re comfortable and nothing disrupts their life. I’ve made nine HBO documentaries, no one’s asked to see one ahead of time before it aired and this one, I mean we don’t do advanced screenings. This is the first one we have not had a premiere party for. Normally we have premiere parties and invite all the guests but for this one, we couldn’t because the show would never make it to air because they’d all be wanting to re-edit themselves.
Would you say they came in protective of themselves and maybe more screened at what they were saying to you?
Probably. I mean, I don’t know if they’re trained. They live in a world of media, whereas when it’s something about homeless kids, homeless kids don’t have publicists. Homeless kids don’t have a wall of people around them protecting them from documentarians.
Many donors you spoke with claimed that they got nothing out of giving millions of dollars to politicians. Why do you think they do it?
There’s a very clear distinction between access and influence. If you have access, you can get Hillary Clinton in your living room. You may not have any influence. They may not be able to get a law passed because there are donors on both sides of an issue. There were Democrats that were for the Iraq War, there were Democrats that were against the Iraq War. I think what writing the check does, it gives you a hearing with the candidate. That doesn’t mean they’ll do what you say. If I wrote a check, I would be able to get a meeting with Hillary and I’d be able to get a meeting with Trump. It doesn’t mean they’ll do what I say, but at least they’ll listen to me. The missing link is: show me the quid quo pro, and you can’t and that’s why the WikiLeaks dump was so interesting to me. I went through the WikiLeaks and put in the names of people in my movie and what do you get? You get seating charts of: They got to sit next to this person at the Obama dinner. They got a law written for their company. When the WikiLeaks stuff first came out, it revealed something. It revealed how much access there was. Getting to sit next to the president at a party doesn’t mean he’s going to change the course of Western civilization because of something that he whispered in his ear that night.
What I got out of this documentary is basically, politically, America is for sale. If you don’t have the millions of dollars to shovel out, does your voice really matter?
I don’t think this is Venezuela yet, I don’t think this is Turkey yet. I do think that. I mean it’s not a secret, Bernie was the most recent to say it, rich people have undo influence on our democracy. Everybody knows that, but what I think is the more important point is they make citizens feel like their vote doesn’t matter. You can’t buy an election. Jeb Bush proved you can’t buy an election. With all the money in the world, you can’t make people take a product they don’t want. Votes still do matter. I think the biggest effect all of this money has on the election is that it makes people feel like, well I don’t have any say so why should I vote? When in fact if all those people that felt that showed up to vote, [they] would have a big say.
On a technical level, do you think the use of a handheld camera to interview, opposed to a large crew, had any effect on the information that was disclosed to you?
My very first interview I made with a handheld camera and I’ve never really gotten a better camera since then because it works. When it tastes good, you stick with it. I think that when you bring in the cameras and the lights, that’s when people start to act like they’re on TV. With a little handheld camera, I don’t think people behave like they’re on TV. From my perspective, I think it’s more real. I spent a decade as an NBC news producer, so I know how people behave when they’re being filmed. An experiment watched is an experiment changed. People act differently because the camera was in their face. With a small camera, you kind of change the dynamics to a little more casual.
How has making this film changed your perception of big donors? Honestly, I hate to tell you this, I think they’re wasting their money. I really do. I don’t know why anyone would write a $10 million check to Hillary Clinton. Until you prove to me there’s a real, concrete law they got for their money, then they’re wasting their
money. I just spent a week with these people, I spent a week in the skyboxes of the convention, and I tell you, I still don’t know what concrete results they get, so I don’t know, I think they’re all wasting their money. But I mean they like to go to party. If that’s your thing, then you’re not wasting your money. If you want to go to Camp David and hang out with Bill Clinton, you’re getting your money’s worth.
What has the aftermath of making this documentary been like for you?
The show is airing in 48 hours; you’d think it was like a nuclear bomb was gonna go off. I’m dealing with damage control. I’ve never done that with any documentary. I’ve had a million calls of like, I’m in full battleship mode. People saying you can’t air unless it’s approved. Like that’s why you invited me to your house and signed a release. I get it, I understand that you’re not happy. I just need to get the show in the air. I can’t have some rich guy call and get it off just because they called my boss’s boss’s boss. But you learned something about power in America. Now, there’s no grand victory to take on the networks, I mean they own the networks, they own the media. I’m not going after anybody, all I’m saying is that there’s a billion-dollar election, where is all that money going? It’s going into ads, and who’s getting that ad money? The networks. That’s not exactly bomb throwing, like WikiLeaks probing for people’s personal e-mail. Apparently, you’d think I was some sort of kamikaze suicide bomber. I just need it to air. And once it’s aired and in the public domain, I’ll be able to sleep at night, without billionaires coming after me and threatening me. Billionaires have their way. They get their way. The irony of this whole thing is it’s very light. It’s not very deep, I’m saying it myself. It’s not like I catch anybody on the microphone saying they murdered their wife in the bathroom. It’s not as if I got the goods. It’s not like we’re going on trial here. So you gave a lot of money and got your picture with Hillary Clinton, big deal. I feel like people are treating it as if I’m catching them. I wish they were more, but I have always believed that people are revealing, you just have to listen for it. So Bill Clinton gave me a job, I became ambassador. Okay, so ambassadorships are for sale in America. There are no great revelations, I get that. But I do think that you can get a little something. I think people reveal things when you hold up a mirror to them. Maybe not too deep, but something.
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