LOPEZ: Why were you already such a student of Palin’s career in Alaska?
BANNON: I made two films, Generation Zero and Fire from the Heartland, which explored both the U.S. financial collapse and the rise of the Tea Party. During my year and a half of following the Tea Party from its inception, I noticed that Governor Palin was an [energizing] force in what ultimately became a populist revolt, principally led by women, that culminated in a historic political victory in November 2010.
In Fire from the Heartland I featured women such as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Jenny Beth Martin, Dana Loesch, S. E. Cupp, Sonnie Johnson, and Jamie Radtke; yet I noticed that a special energy and drive would come to these big rallies when Sarah Palin arrived. From a distance I observed her and was amazed both at her consistent political philosophy from her speeches and the concurrent attacks that were coming at her for being a lightweight. So I began to study her in detail and that’s when I found an amazing story that had not been told.
But you’re not working for her? And she did not have input on the film?
BANNON: Not only did she not have any input on the film, but if the PAC had come back and said that a condition would be that she would have to be interviewed, I would have said “I’m not interested.” I had a very specific vision of how I wanted to tell the story.
My total contact with Governor Palin up to the time she saw the rough final cut of the film on May 18 in Phoenix was shaking the governor’s hand and saying hello for a total of about two minutes. In fact, not only am I not working for her, she actually mispronounced my name in her first interview with Greta Van Susteren in which she said the film “blew her away.” I am not an adviser; I am not a consultant; I am an independent filmmaker.
LOPEZ: Why do you compare Undefeated to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Is that both presumptuous and preposterous — not to mention corny?
BANNON: It is not any of the three. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra presents an idealist, a common man who comes across a corrupt political class in Washington, D.C. In fact, The Undefeated is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but with much higher stakes — a person who comes from total obscurity without a rich father or a rich husband, without any political contacts, without an Ivy League education or any of the things people usually have before they jump into politics. What she faced as governor was far tougher than what Jimmy Stewart faced in the movie; she faced pure “smashmouth” tactics from Big Oil, guys who play for keeps in the toughest neighborhoods in the world.
LOPEZ: Does it really need to be two hours? Will people sit through two hours of pro-Palin-ness?
BANNON: First off, this is not all “pro-Palin-ness.” We have shown the film to highly respected media institutions — including your own — that no one would accuse of being house organs for the Palinistas. Yet all have given the film not just serious consideration, but good reviews. The reason is that it presents a dramatically different portrait from the caricature that has been put before the American people.
All of my previous documentaries are about 80 minutes long. There is a reason for that. A feature documentary to be shown in theaters is about the same length usually as an animated movie — 80 minutes — because that’s about how long it can keep an audience’s attention. But we went to two hours with this project because of the level of detail that needed to be laid out — particularly about her time as governor. The reason that it works from a dramatic point of view is that in order to have the catharsis of her convention speech and the once-in-a-lifetime run she went on at those early rallies, you have to understand her struggle that led to that. Yes, it is two hours long, but we’ve had very few complaints that it doesn’t move at a rapid pace, and most people say it actually feels much shorter. One last thing: I pride myself on films that are complicated and try to raise the bar to make an audience stretch and work while they are viewing the film. And I think we have done that in spades in The Undefeated.