The Undefeated, Stephen K. Bannon’s upcoming documentary about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, is the introduction America never got to Palin in the hot political days of late August 2008 and the resignation speech that was never heard in July 2009. It tells the story of a caring, dogged public servant, focusing especially — in close yet compelling detail — on her time as chair of Alaska’s oil and gas regulatory commission and as governor, shaking up a previously corrupt and unaccountable relationship between energy companies and the state’s government. The Undefeated shows the substance behind the headlines, crass websites, and comedy routines about Palin, the mention of whose name always seems to elicit an impassioned reaction.
The Undefeated hits a reset button on the political career of Sarah Palin by bypassing the mainstream media — and even her own bus rides and Fox News spots — and going straight to local movie theaters throughout the country.
The Undefeated also puts controversial conservative media voices Andrew Breitbart and Mark Levin in full and fair view, giving context to their political impatience. In his fearless way, Breitbart’s closing comments will jar and even offend a Washington, D.C., audience.
But, along with introducing Palin, The Undefeated introduces the director himself. He is a conservative filmmaker who has produced documentaries on the Tea Party movement and the fall of the Soviet Union. He was approached by Sarah Palin’s political-action committee late last year to do short videos for the governor, but decided instead to finance an independent feature-length movie, which will premiere this summer in key primary and caucus states, and then be shown in theaters around the country. Here, he discusses his product, motivations, and intentions with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When exactly were you approached by Sarah Palin’s PAC?
STEPHEN K. BANNON: The weekend after the election, Conservatives4Palin held a conference in Chicago during which I screened my film Fire from the Heartland and introduced it with a short talk about Governor Palin. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by Rebecca Mansour from Governor Palin’s PAC to see if I would be interested in making a short film that could be cut up into YouTube videos regarding Palin’s record in office. I had less than zero interest in that project as I am a feature-film writer and director, and at 57 years old, I have neither time nor the energy to focus on projects that I’m not passionate about.
I discussed with my partners at Victory Film Group and, in particular, Glenn Bracken Evans, my producing partner, about going back to the Palin camp and telling them that we had a strong interest in doing a feature film where we would put up all the money, take all the risk, and have absolute editorial and creative control.
All I would need would be access to several key people in her administration and the political process at the time in order to tell the story. In particular, I needed to meet two key members of the group that was called “The Magnificent Seven”: Marty Rutherford and Tom Irwin. Shortly after we laid out these conditions, Rebecca Mansour and Tim Crawford from SarahPAC came back to me and said okay.
LOPEZ: Why were you keen on telling her story?
BANNON: This woman is one of the most covered individuals in our media-saturated “global village,” yet I felt that she was totally unknown. The real person was hiding in plain sight.
There were two books I read. One was Sarah from Alaska, written by CBS correspondent Scott Conroy and the Daily Beast’ s Shushannah Walshe — who certainly are neither ideologues nor “Palinistas,” yet who wrote a gripping story of her rise from obscurity. In addition to that, the first half of Going Rogue I found fascinating in that it detailed her struggles against the vested interests in Alaska.
The raw material for the story was there, but no one had bothered to put it on film. The risk my partners and I talked about was quite simply: Had the meme about “Caribou Barbie” already been set in stone in the nation’s mind and could we create something that people would at least give the benefit of the doubt to, to watch and consider? Glenn Evans and I argued about this a lot, and finally we decided that not just the American people but even the mainstream media were both fair and decent — that when presented with something that represented a completely different point of view they would be at least open to considering it. With that understanding amongst ourselves we got down to business.
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.
LOPEZ: 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.
LOPEZ: Why is it so important to tell the story of Palin’s Alaska career?
BANNON: To understand the meaning of Sarah Palin you must understand the stewardship of Governor Palin. If she is to be taken seriously as a potential leader of our country it is very important for people to know how she comes to make decisions and how she effects major change. In Alaska, as governor, you see the real Sarah Palin.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it, taken in whole, propaganda?
BANNON: Just the opposite. The film tells a story the American people never really got to hear, through the eyes, ears, and experiences of the people who lived it — including Governor Palin. And it’s a story that is still writing itself.
LOPEZ: Is this exactly the wrong way for conservatives in Hollywood to engage the culture? Don’t we want to be taking over the Saturday Night Live and Private Practices and big movie studios of the world?
BANNON: As they say in Los Angeles “Get in the business.” You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and run before you take on marathons. I strongly believe in Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “culture is upriver from politics,” and I do believe it is important to take over the big studios, and Saturday Night Live and Private Practices, but we have to be realistic. As I said when I was interviewed in a New York Times article in 2004 called “The Right Side of the Aisle,” conservatives need to have storytellers, i.e. writers and directors who can take our ideas and put them on film. That simply does not exist today. I am a nonfiction filmmaker. Why? Because I love the medium of film, and I think nonfiction is a deep vein to mine.
As conservatives we have a long, tough haul. Forget taking over the culture; we first have to have just a minor impact on the popular culture — something we have yet to achieve. I pride myself on the fact that we make commercially successful, critically acclaimed, cutting-edge films with my young filmmaking team, which is part of the next generation of conservative filmmakers.
LOPEZ: You described Sarah Palin as “not a self-promoter.” I could almost hear the laughter already. How can you say that when she’s had this bus tour/family vacation going on, she can be seen on Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV, having pizza with the Donald?
BANNON: It is very simple. All those things you mentioned, she very rarely talks about herself or her accomplishments. She was raised by parents who, like most working-class or middle-class people, taught her not to talk or brag about herself. In none of the instances that you mention is she really talking about herself or her accomplishments.
LOPEZ: When I saw your rough cut, you talked about prospective premieres in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada? How is that not working for a Palin campaign?
BANNON: It is completely and totally unrelated. First, she does not have a campaign; she is not a declared candidate. She does not have a campaign organization; she has a small PAC. I am an independent filmmaker. My distributor is not going to be Warner Brothers or Paramount or any of the majors. In typical independent fashion, we need to draft off “earned media” by creating interest in the film, and one way to do that is to go to states where culture and politics are engaged: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
LOPEZ: Do you want her to run for president?
BANNON: She will obviously come to her own decision in her own time, but I think that her voice, perspective, values, and energy are absolutely necessary to get into this current Republican primary. It would be good for the Republican party and the conservative movement and the country. We need now more than ever a primary like the one in 1976: Reagan vs. the Establishment.
LOPEZ: Do you worry at all that some of the commentary in Undefeated will insult just some of the people who might be her natural allies?
BANNON: My film is not intended to either bring her allies or make her enemies. It’s to tell her story. The coda in the film is called “The Children of the Revolution,” and it is obviously a very controversial part of the film that features Mark Levin, Andrew Breitbart, and Tammy Bruce, who create quite a combustible mix. I did this to “pull the camera back” and set the arc of Governor Palin’s story into a historical context. And I admit it has been every bit as controversial as I thought it would be.
LOPEZ: Sarah Palin is no idiot. But is there something to the critique that she’s not as up on issues as she should be? Granted, she’s got energy covered.
BANNON: People are going to have to come to their own conclusion about that, but I suspect that if someone goes to her Facebook page and looks at her postings over the last year and a half, one will see some fairly detailed postings and the outline of a real political philosophy. To wit, I don’t know any elected politicians who called out “QE2” as early and as vehemently as Governor Palin. I think if people did a modicum of due diligence they would see a very serious political leader.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the Tea Party — that you’ve made more than one film about them now?
BANNON: Besides the fact that the Tea Party saved the country from an overreaching progressive movement that had taken over all three branches of government, nothing’s that special. If it weren’t for the Tea Party, the Republican party would be even more irrelevant than it currently is. The Tea Party absolutely stopped the Obama administration in its tracks in November 2010 with very little help from the Republican-party establishment. The Republican party should be on bended knee every night thanking God that the little relevancy it has is because of the muscle and energy of the Tea Party movement.
LOPEZ: What’s your approach to filmmaking? Is it directly related to your politics?
BANNON: My filmmaking definitely reflects values that I was raised on and believe in. All my films are imbued with the conservative populist values I was raised on in Richmond, Va.
LOPEZ: What does a Navy guy turned banker turned movie guy know about politics?
BANNON: Simple: “Politics” has to expand beyond the petri dish that is inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C. Our country is in jeopardy, and we have a political class that is detached from reality.
LOPEZ: Why did you go from Goldman Sachs to making movies about the Tea Party?
BANNON: I have had a fairly good run as a banker and as an entrepreneur, and it is now time to move on to another phase of my life and I want to focus on writing and directing feature films. I just found this populist revolt called the Tea Party an amazingly interesting story.
LOPEZ: Is Washington doing enough for the Tea Party? Is the current crop of candidates enough?
BANNON: Washington is doing zero for the Tea Party. After the great victory the Tea Party delivered in November 2010, the Republican establishment didn’t even have the common decency to give people like Congresswoman Bachmann, who had put their heart and soul into that victory, any kind of role in leadership. This insult has been articulated by Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler of Tea Party Patriots among others. The political class has less than zero interest in having any involvement with the Tea Party, and we’ll just have to see how this plays out over the next couple of years.
LOPEZ: Do you see the Tea Party as the anti-Republican party? An Undefeated viewer might think so. But can they live together? Don’t they need one another electorally?
BANNON: The Tea Party movement is a grassroots-conservative populist revolt. And I think, as Mark Levin says in the film, it is in a direct lineage to the Reagan Revolution. I think that ultimately the Tea Party movement will bring about a dramatic restructuring of power back to the states that will become the central organizing principle of a new Republican party.
LOPEZ: Be honest. “Undefeated.” The title itself is meant to keep MSNBC in operation for months if not years to come.
BANNON: Like Generation Zero, The Undefeated’s title has several meanings. It reflects not simply Governor Palin the person, but also the values that Sarah Palin manifests — those values of working-class America, middle-class America, those values that build our communities, run our civic organizations, fight our wars. Those values are and will remain undefeated.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.