An interview with Peter Zerzan | ELECTION NIGHT | VMA21 BEST SCREENWRITER/SHORT | April Edition | By Silvia Nittoli
As a young Democrat who’s been working behind the scene of political campaigns, Peter Zerzan knows that if you work hard at something, good things will happen. That’s the main message that the Bay Area native wanted to convey with the short movie, Election Night, that he wrote and directed.
Started as a story with a lot of characters, sets, and interactions in its first draft, Election Night became a simple yet intense story about two organizers, one a veteran, the other a rookie, at a campaign office in 2018. In fact, what really matters is what they say. As they wait for the results, they confront each other about their ideas, their hopes, and their fears. We can clearly feel why they are so invested in what they do: change the lives of people for the better.
• Peter, congratulations on winning as Best Screenwriter/Short - Award of Prestige at VMA. How did you get the inspiration to write this short movie?
I felt the best way to go about my first project was to write about what I knew. I have organized a variety of campaigns since I graduated from college. My first real job was organizing the Obama campaign in 2008. While I grew up in the Bay Area, organizing brought me to work in places like Cleveland, Geary, Allentown, and Flint. The last campaign I organized was a House race in Bakersfield in 2018. So, I started my story from there. I wanted to make the location of the district as vague as possible so it could feel like any competitive election in the US. However, I wanted to capture the universal emotions you will see in a campaign office in Las Vegas or Houston or Columbus, all places I have worked.
• What did you put from your personal experience in politics into this movie?
I put from my personal experiences the type of people who work on campaigns. Both Barbara and Mahoney are fictional people. They are not based on any single person. However, I did put into both of them certain memories of people I have met while organizing as well as my own personal experience. There are people who just organize for a little bit when they get out of college. It does build connections and it does give you some people to reference before you go to law school if you want to get ahead in politics and government. Also, there are those who stay with organizing for their entire career. Most do not make it big and have a hard time either starting a family or staying in a relationship. So, I wanted to capture both of their stories.
Putting together a team is essential. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. This was the first thing I ever directed and I reached out to people who knew what they were doing.
• What was the message you wanted to convey?
I wanted to convey a message of hope. I know plenty of people who always talk about doom and gloom when it comes to politics. However, that attitude means nothing will ever change. You have to have hope. And you have to remember why you are organizing: to make the lives of people better. I realize that sounds naively idealistic to some. However, you cannot be a pessimist if you hope to change things for the better.
• What is your best memory of an actual Election Night?
2008. No competition. I was working in Cleveland at the time. We had prepared for massively long lines on Election Day, as there had been in all of Ohio in 2004. However, there were no lines that day. Everyone was freaking out. Obama needed massive turnout in Cleveland to win Ohio. Bush won reelection because he won Ohio so everyone was worried it was going to be a bad night for us. However, what we did not realize is our hard work had paid off. We had pushed early voting in the lead-up to the election. So, the voters in Cleveland had already done their civic duty and voted.
Ohio wasn’t called till after midnight in 2004. So, we were expecting a long night. It took over 90 minutes till the polls had closed for the Ohio Secretary of State’s office to start posting the vote counts. Us organizers and volunteers were waiting at the campaign office to see how the turnout was. Then, I think it was just a little after 10 pm, somebody said they heard Ohio had been called. In 2008, social media was still in its infancy and most people didn’t have smartphones. So, we largely dismissed it. Then, another person heard something. So, I decided to start live-streaming MSNBC on my laptop. It took a while for it to load. However, after the pinwheel went away, they called Ohio for Obama. The room erupted in joy. Everyone started cheering and hugging each other. We then headed over to the official Cuyahoga County victory party. We had to wait till 11 pm when they would call California after the polls had closed, for us to officially celebrate Obama’s victory. All in all, it was an exciting night. There is nothing quite like your first win.
• What was the most challenging thing in shooting this short movie?
My major in college is politics, not film. While I insisted on directing the short I wrote, I knew I could not produce, much less photograph and edit it. So, that is where my producer Michael Payton came to it. Michael was introduced to me by our mutual friend Obai. He is a miracle worker. Without him, there would be no movie. He put me in touch with David and Paulie, our DP and Production Designer respectively, who were able to create the look of the film. He also got us Sarah, our casting director. She got us Sam, Brennan, and Karen, all great actors who were perfect in their roles. However, none of this would be possible without Michael. I had so many misses finding a producer in the beginning. Getting Michael was truly a godsend.
Also, David Santamaria, our editor and post-production supervisor, helped me out from the beginning. I had taken some editing classes from David and got in contact with him early on. He introduced me to Rebecca, who drew some storyboards for our production, and Eric, who did our sound design. Also, it was through a friend of his we were able to get our set, which looked almost exactly like a campaign office.
Putting together a team is essential. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. This was the first thing I ever directed and I reached out to people who knew what they were doing. A lot of people try to micromanage. It’s true in both politics and filmmaking. The problem with micromanagers is they miss the big picture by getting obsessed about minor, and often unimportant, things. Getting the right team in place was the biggest challenge. After that, it was smooth sailing.
• What is the drive that all the people who are organizers have in common?
A belief that what they are doing is right and they are the best person for the job. Organizing is hard work. You have to go from one place to another. You will be in different time zones, sometimes over the course of one week. The hours are long and you often work weekends. The pay is not great, especially compared to other jobs that require a college degree. There are a lot of easier ways to make money. So, if you don’t believe what you’re doing is right and you do not believe in yourself, you’re not going to last long at the job.
• The scenario was very simple and the focus was quite entirely on the writing and the acting. Did this aspect make everything harder or more simple for you?
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “all the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones”. When I was getting interested in film in college in the 00s, I remember a lot of my friends being turned off by the length of such classics as Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia. Now, those epics seem brief compared to the 13-hour long movie format that a season of a Netflix show is designed to be or the nearly two dozen films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, in today’s era, there is definitely a pull towards bigger and longer stories.
When I was writing the initial script, I had a lot of characters and a lot of different sets. When I ran into a problem, my first impulse was to layer the story with another character and another setting. However, the best advice I got when talking about my story with others was to strip the screenplay down to focusing on Barbara. She was the heart of the story. So, stripping it down to three speaking roles was key.
Some stories don’t require a lot of locations and several elaborate set pieces. The best way to tell them is to keep it simple. Being able to do this is difficult but it is a necessary skill.
• Of the two main characters, the veteran and the rookie, who do you see yourself more similar to?
I initially approached the story with the idea Mahoney was me when I was young and Barbara was me as I got older. Mahoney is my great-grandmother’s maiden name and, in the script, his first name is Beck, my grandmother’s maiden name. Meanwhile, Barbara was my grandmother’s name and her last name, Kathan, was my other grandmother’s maiden name. At the beginning of my career, I defiantly had to be reminded to remain focused on the task at hand. When organizing in Cleveland, we young organizers would be talking about poll numbers coming out of Florida and Virginia and had to be reminded we had no control over what was going on in those states and to focus on our jobs in front of us. Sometimes the news can be inspiring. When I was organizing on the climate bill in 2009, reading an account that the congresswoman we were trying to get to support it, Mary Bono Mack, a Republican, was stressing out over all the calls she was receiving from her constituents, definitely helped inspire me to work harder (she ended up voting for the bill but, sadly, the bill died in the Senate). However, as the time when by, I had to be the one to remind people to stay focused and avoid the headlines.
As I began to change the story up, I did move the characters in different directions. As I stated earlier, they are not carbon copies of me at various points in my life. However, I did put some of myself into both of these characters. I would like to believe I’m as professional as Barbara and not as much of a deer in the headlights as Mahoney but, you’ll have to ask my friends and family if that is true.
Money, wealth, and thus power, are concentrated in the hands of the few. Organized labor provides a counterbalance to organized money. The story of common people, people without superpowers, people who cannot quickly solve a calculus equation, standing up for a better future for themselves and their kids, and then winning, is inspiring.
• Do you see yourself writing and directing a feature entirely dedicated to politics and its behind-the-scenes?
Making a movie about a political campaign would actually be quite boring. Following an organizer, as they call volunteers who signed up online or at an event to get them to volunteer would not be exciting. The truth is politics is rather dull. Managing various constituencies and obsessing about small details in regards to policy is extremely important but does not make good drama. It is why most fiction about the behind-the-scenes with politics exaggerates and embellishes. For example, I gave up on watching House of Cards because they were making inaccuracies I could easily discover with one Google search. Being good at governance often means you are quite boring. There is a reason cable news’s ratings have fallen during the Biden Presidency. Barack Obama is considered this exciting politician but that is because, compared to other politicians, he is downright explosive. Compared with actors or singers, he is quite boring. The fact a guy who gained such a public persona would make hosting a Dad Podcast with Bruce Springsteen a major project should tell you what you need to know about how exciting politicians really are.
However, there is one type of movie I would love to make about organizing. That would be labor organizing. People all across this country are beginning to realize that a lot of problems we have, whether it be death by treatable illnesses or child poverty, do not have to happen. The reason why they do is that money, wealth, and thus power, are concentrated in the hands of the few. Organized labor provides a counterbalance to organized money. The story of common people, people without superpowers, people who cannot quickly solve a calculus equation, standing up for a better future for themselves and their kids, and then winning, is inspiring. We need more stories like those. That is the type of organizing story that interests me.
• What projects are you working on at the moment?
That is the most important question, isn’t it? You are only as good as your next project.
I am currently working on a screenplay for a feature. It is not about politics or organizing. It is set in San Francisco. One of the things I hope to do is have a movie set in my hometown that actually looks like it was filmed here. Way too many films set here do not look like The City By The Bay and I would hope to change that.
I believe that, with the pandemic winding down, people will want to go to the movies again. I also think people will want to see films that are not just special effects-driven movie aimed at teens. I think there is a market for dramas that deal with serious issues people face. Maybe that is too hopeful. Then again, that is how I was able to do my last career.
- OFFICIAL TRAILER -