A Gadfly Senator’s Last Hurrah: A Conversation with Filmmaker Skye Wallin
by Katy Yocom
For over a decade, Skye Wallin has been immersed in the worlds of documentary filmmaking, journalism, and activism. While receiving his BA from Denison University, Skye studied film at FAMU, the prestigious film academy in Prague, and later received his MFA in Screenwriting at Spalding University. He spent several years filming with scientists and activists at more than twenty water-related disasters across the United States—including the tar sands oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas; the coal ash spill in North Carolina’s Dan River; and the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Skye worked closely with Mark Ruffalo on this project, leading video and short documentary production for his organization Water Defense for three years. Skye’s work helped to expose multiple water pollution scandals, including EXXON’s poisoning of Lake Conway in Arkansas and the contamination of millions of organic crops with oil-tainted water sold to farmers by Chevron, the latter of which resulted in front-page coverage in the Los Angeles Times.
American Gadfly, Skye’s first feature film, pivots from environmental issues while remaining solidly in the world of progressive activism. This time, the issues are peace, capitalism, and direct democracy. The documentary focuses on retired Senator Mike Gravel, an anti-war Vietnam-era politician who made his mark in 1971 by reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. The story picks up when Gravel, long retired at age 88, finds himself recruited by a cadre of teenagers to run for president in 2020. It’s an underdog story rife with feel-good moments, humor, high stakes, a pure heart, and brainy but flawed heroes. In a word, it feels like fiction.
Skye came to the story early on, capturing footage from nearly the first moments of this unlikely real-life narrative.
KATY YOCOM: In American Gadfly, you chronicled a quixotic 2020 presidential run by former Senator Mike Gravel, an idea brought to him by a group of super-smart teenaged boys who know their way around social media. It’s clear you discovered this story in its very early days. Tell us the story of how you came to make this film.
SKYE WALLIN: I sort of had a jump on the story because I was a “Gravel Teen” way before it was cool. In 2007, when I was 17-18, I became fervently anti-war as I witnessed the tragedy of the Iraq War—hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, millions displaced, thousands of American troops killed, and many, many more wounded (mentally and physically). All for a bipartisan, neo-conservative lie—and probably the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. When I saw Mike Gravel in the 2007 Democratic primary debates, he was the only person voicing my anger in such an incredible way. Standing up to career, complicit politicians who wouldn’t stop the war. It was insane, frankly. Mike was so far ahead of the rest of the Democratic Party—calling out our obsession with nuclear warfare and how the military industry controls both political parties.
Not only that, Mike was also so far ahead on so many progressive issues that have only recently become popular. He was talking about the Green New Deal, gay marriage, abolishing the drug war, and direct democracy way early on. After seeing him in the debates, I learned that Mike had a rich and incredible legacy. As a senator, he filibustered the Vietnam draft into oblivion, he was the only politician to help Daniel Ellsberg and put the Pentagon Papers into the public record. Indeed, it is the fiftieth anniversary of his reading of the Pentagon Papers, under threat of prosecution and expulsion from the Senate.
I followed “Mike” news in the years to come. He predicted pretty much the entire unfolding of the Obama years, which I thought was incredible. I somehow got his cell phone number from a former staffer and called him for an interview in 2015. It was mostly an excuse just to meet him. At the time, he was sort of in political oblivion. While an incredible honor and such a thrill to meet the legend, it was also a bit sad to see Mike fading away without the kind of popularity or recognition that he so deserved.
Jump to 2019, and I read in the Rolling Stone that teenagers had taken control of Mike’s Twitter account! The tweets were radical. They were sharp. They reflected Mike’s views, but in a contemporary, funny, youthful, and un-PC manner. They announced Mike’s intention to run for president again. By this time, I was 29 years old and had become a filmmaker—and at the time, looking for a project. I needed to document what I knew would be Mike’s last hurrah. So, I called Mike and the rest is history. I was able to film almost the entire campaign—starting even before the kids met Mike in person.
KY: This story seems absolutely made for film: Plucky young people team up with a wise and lovable old man on a quest to bring power to the people and stop an oppressive regime. (Throw in a kidnapped princess and a couple of droids and I could be talking about Star Wars: A New Hope.) What was it like for you creatively to know you’d stumbled onto what seems the perfect project for you?
SW: So true! Creatively, I couldn’t be luckier. My interest in politics and film already had me hunting for a campaign documentary. God—I was even contemplating a “Mayor Pete” campaign film—a prospect that filled me with dread, and indeed would have led to creative despair. I’m eternally thankful that film never materialized. I was, frankly, desperate to figure out what my first feature film would be, and suddenly Mike Gravel and his young rebels fell into my lap. A movie about people I’m passionate about is a gift that I thank the creativity gods every day for.
In retrospect, if the Mayor Pete documentary had gone forth, it actually may have become a really interesting story about how these cookie-cutter, corporate-fueled politicians get humiliated by the Gravel teens. This is why directors must always try to demand final cut powers. You don’t want Pete staffers controlling your vision. Yikes! My affinity for Gravel would have taken over the filmmaking process and I certainly would’ve been booted from the “Pete” bus. I’m no bootlicker.
KY: Watching the film, it’s clear that you were on site with cameras rolling at a number of very dramatic moments. Other pivotal moments happened off-camera, yet you found ways to bring the viewer into the experience that felt vivid and immediate. Walk us through your process in bringing those moments to the screen without resorting to reenactments.
SW: Upon seeing the film for the first time, Henry Williams, one the “Gravel Teens,” remarked that because the campaign was so small, I was able to really accurately show how a campaign works. Whereas filming something like an Obama campaign would have been such a behemoth that you’d only be able to portray a small slice of it. We started filming with the “teens” even before they met Gravel. That said, we missed the early phone calls they shared with Mike, which I felt were important to include in some manner. The boys were gracious enough to recount the phone calls to me in interviews, which we were able to animate. We were also given access to their text messages from that period of time, which we recreated as motion graphics that pop up in the first act of the film. Using fun animations and graphics have the added element of keeping the film dynamic and visual ADHD, which works perfectly for the story. It was a frenetic campaign that deserves a (tastefully) frenetic film.
KY: You were following the story as it developed, so you didn’t know what the narrative arc would end up looking like. Was there ever a moment when you thought it was all coming apart? Or, conversely, when you knew you had the arc?
SW: I certainly had some crises and dark nights of soul. From the beginning, I was worried that if Mike didn’t make it onto the presidential debate stage, it could destroy the film. On the flip side, if Mike actually made it up there, the film would skyrocket to another level. It turns out that Mike, via technicality, was barred from the stage, which was crushing, but predictable. Mike knew this above all—from the beginning. That said, I was able to find the “debate-less” climax and, without spoiling too much, my editors and I figured out how to make it exciting and work on an emotional level. It is sort of a Rocky victory. The idea of “winning without winning” is, in a way, more human and more powerful. Even beyond that, I realized that the film was never about Mike Gravel making it onto the debate stage at all. All along, it was a beautiful story about young people who take an old man who they love on one last grand adventure. It’s a coming-of-age tale that becomes an ode to Mike by the end.
KY: What were the biggest challenges you encountered in making this film—logistically or otherwise?
SW: Getting teenagers to answer my phone calls and texts. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
KY: Our audience at Good River Review includes a lot of writers. Talk about how creating a documentary compares to writing a feature film screenplay. Where are the parallels? Did you put to use lessons you learned in the Spalding MFA program?
SW: I found that in the editing process, I was able to apply many of my screenwriting lessons. The one thing that is backwards is the text (in this case a few hundred hours of footage) comes to you in the form of a mountain. My job, with the editors, is to sift through this mass of visual story text and structure in a way that is cinematic and disciplined. We use the 8-Sequence approach to help us make contained cinematic chapters—because ultimately, we are making a movie that is supposed to be entertaining. So, for me, the rules of narrative fiction still apply.
KY: Some technical questions: Could you sketch out a brief timeline of making the film, from discovering the story through pre-production, production and post-production, film festivals, distribution.
SW: As I said, I discovered the story through the Rolling Stone, but, yeah, there was some pre-production for sure. With a narrative fiction, you start with a script and break down what scenes you will shoot in what order. In documentary, at least one like American Gadfly (where the story is unfolding before your eyes in real time), the only order to shoot is as it happens. It felt sort of like storm-chasers, following the kids across the country. That said, I had to raise some money, so I put together (within a matter of a few days) an outline of how the film COULD go (a three-act structure with potential story beats and themes), as well as a deck with pictures, description of the crew, plan for distribution, etc. From there we got the seed capital we needed, and I immediately set off to film with the teens in New York, just days before they went to California to meet Mike Gravel.
Filming took place over the next 8 months or so—through the end of the primary campaign and a little beyond that into the Bernie Sanders rise. Our last shoot was with Bernie and Mike together just before the Super Tuesday debacle. Indeed, just days before the pandemic lockdowns began. We were extremely lucky to have finished shooting (at a massive Bernie rally in San Jose, no less) just before the world closed and changed everything. I mean, the film would have been screwed had the pandemic started six months earlier. Who knows? I may have leaned into it and the documentary could have taken some wild new post-apocalyptic form.
Throughout the pandemic, we could just edit. Now we are on the festival circuit and navigating distribution offers. Reception has been awesome. We have some exciting screenings coming up and my hope is that by the fall, people can watch American Gadfly on the major screening platforms. Since Mike recently passed away (Gravel died at age 91 on June 26, 2021.—Ed.), each upcoming screening will also be a celebration of life. We will be able to celebrate him at over a dozen events this year, which is incredibly awesome. I still haven’t seen the film since he died . . . . I’m sure I will get really worked up.
KY: American Gadfly is your first feature documentary. Where does it fit into your life as a creative? I’m curious about your other projects—film or otherwise.
SW: This is a great, difficult question. I have just been so focused on making this film work, and now making sure I stick the landing, that it has been so difficult to know what happens next. A lot depends on if I can make the investment back. I continue to develop my fiction scripts, ones I have been shaping for a decade. Those projects are my dreams. That said, I enjoy documentary so much. My producer buddy was saying I need to focus and choose. I need to brand myself as fiction guy or doc guy. He may be right, but I am interested in both! Look at Herzog. Look at Paul Greengrass. There is overlap. I have a lot of stories in me, so I will continue to go with my gut and pursue the projects I am most passionate about. If my “brand” can’t be simply labelled, so be it. All I care about is doing incredible work.
Katy Yocom is the author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, Phillip H. McMath Book Award, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Newsweek, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. The recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship Award for artistic excellence, she serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of the low-residency programs of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.