(WASHINGTON) — Filmmaker and director Greg Whiteley, who was given unprecedented access to the Mitt Romney campaign for his Netflix original documentary Mitt, says he didn’t do anything special to draw out the candid behind-the-scenes moments that shape the new film.
“I don’t think I have a special skill that allows people to relax around me,” says Whiteley, who first began following Romney six years ago before his first 2008 presidential run. “I liken it to nature photography. You’ve just got to hang out until the animals become… until they’re relaxed enough to mate around you and then you’ve got gold.”
The new documentary, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival last week and was released Friday on Netflix, attempts to introduce “the real Mitt” one year after Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid, with Whiteley capturing unique moments in the campaign — including the impact of Romney’s “47 percent” remarks that many believe derailed his chance of winning the White House.
“Knowing what I know about him and the great responsibility that he felt as a candidate…I think it must have killed him” when the 47% remark leaked, Whiteley told ABC’s Martha Raddatz in an interview at the film’s Sundance premiere. “He was constantly talking about the money that had been donated to him, entrusted to him in the campaign.”
The filmmaker, who has come under some fire for downplaying the negatives in his Romney campaign documentary, was not there when Romney made the 47 percent comment, but did get an insider’s view of the candidate in the aftermath.
“I remember never being in a room with him and Ann [Romney] where it felt like…he was marching to his death. I mean, it really felt like I was with an inmate on death row and his night’s up,” Whiteley says.
Romney was a perfectionist in all things according to Whiteley, and after the comment leaked out, the candidate was deeply disappointed that he had let his tongue slip.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody in my life who was so conscious of wanting to do a good job. If he has been given the task of doing dishes, he will meticulously do those dishes as best as he possibly can,” Whiteley explains.
The film also captures how the years of campaigning took their toll on Romney, especially in the difference between his two runs for the White House.
“When I look at the footage between 2008 and 2012… there was just a certain fire, I think, that it was – and I think it’s hard to sustain,” Whiteley says. “There seemed to be a spark in his eye that was missing.”
Whiteley shared other revealing details about the former governor, including being “surprised at how cheap [Romney] was.” “I could probably make a whole movie of him just turning off hotel lights and making sure the faucet is shut off and picking up garbage,” Whiteley jokes.
In one telling anecdote, Whiteley recalled that wherever the Romney went, he requested a glass of cold milk, which was diligently ordered over room service by a staffer at campaign stop hotels. But that stopped one day when Romney asked, “How much did this glass of milk cost?” The answer of $10 so horrified the wealthy former executive, who scolded his staff, “Do you know how many gallons of milk you could buy for eight to ten bucks?” and then announced he would “go out and buy [his] own milk” from then on, according to Whiteley.
The affection the earnest Whiteley felt for his subject comes through in the nuanced, even tender, portrait that emerges from the 92-minute documentary. And the filmmaker seemed taken aback by a question about whether the access granted to him by the Romney family had compromised the film’s journalistic integrity.
“I don’t understand. The movie is very apolitical. I think if I were attempting to use my access to persuade people to vote for Mitt Romney, I guess you could have some questions,” Whiteley responded. “This is a certain kind of film. I’m not a journalist by trade. I am a documentary filmmaker.”
Romney himself has received new notoriety from the launch of the film that bears his name, receiving a standing ovation while attending the film’s premiere at Sundance, as well as countless newspaper columns and blog posts marveling at what a sympathetic character he is in the film.
Whiteley, though, cautions against assuming that the film would have shifted the balance in the 2012 election against President Obama.
Addressing the speculation that the film “does what his campaign couldn’t,” humanizing the candidate in a way that might have tipped the election, Whiteley speculates that the Obama voters who now want to “give Mitt a hug” might not have been so open to the idea had they seen Whiteley’s footage in the heat of election season.
“I think we all become somewhat psychopathic during election season. If your guy that’s not wearing the right color jersey is shown in a positive light, you’re going to question that footage,” Whiteley says. “And I think you should.”
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