Betting on the Long Shot in Politics and Storytelling

Filmmakers Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance discuss how their documentary 'Slay the Dragon' wound up with a very different ending than expected.

Katie Fahey Slay the Dragon
Magnolia Pictures

Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here:

When documenting a political story, especially one with an electoral decision, filmmakers hope they’re following a winner. The difference in the ending can mean they’ve got the next The War Room or the next Mitt. At least in terms of how popular the film will be. Even if the material is just as interesting either way, audiences are rarely drawn to a political documentary without a satisfying finish.

Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance were too drawn to Katie Fahey, her organization Voters Not Politicians, and their anti-gerrymandering movement to give up, though, despite the co-directors’ prediction that the story would end badly. Fortunately — spoiler alert — their gamble paid off, not just with a positive narrative outcome but also by winding up with such an alluring subject in Fahey, whose presence really helps to elevate their new documentary, Slay the Dragon, from being just another competent political issue film.

There are actually multiple parts to the feature, including another story that wound up with a disappointing denouement plus an overall consideration of recent gerrymandering concerns approached from a nonpartisan vantage point. When I talked with Goodman and Durrance about the film by phone, we discussed the intentions of the doc, which was co-produced by Participant Media, as well as how it turned out, contrary to their expectations. Below is the latter half of the interview.

Nonfics: You guys premiered this film almost a year ago (at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival). Has anything changed or been updated since then?

Barak Goodman: We did change the ending a bit because the original ending was passe after a second, more important Supreme Court case happened following the completion of the film, and we had to reflect that. Also, our distributor, Magnolia, and Participant as well, were very keen on having the film be part of a larger movement or campaign against gerrymandering. We wanted to have a kind of rousing call to action at the end of the film, so we made room for that as well.

Those two things are different from the version that debuted at Tribeca about a year ago. We haven’t been able to keep up with every little development, naturally. There have been many of them at the state level around the country and it’s just too much. We can’t continually be amending the film. But for the most part, we’ve acknowledged the big strokes in the new ending.

Working with Participant Media and the outreach campaigns they do, the film will have an ongoing life anyway beyond the premiere and initial release. What is that like for you guys, and what does it entail for Slay the Dragon?

Chris Durrance: It’s great for us. You put so much effort into these stories. Many of them you work on for a year or two years, three years, and want them to be seen as widely as possible. And you want them to have an impact. You want them to be some kind of reference point in people’s lives. Ideally, even stimulate change. Participant and Magnolia, when they came on board, could not have been better partners for the impact campaign. What they’re doing in Michigan and Colorado and Wisconsin, it’s super exciting. So we’ve been helping out on that.

Katie Fahey, the central character in the film, has left Voters not Politicians, the group she founded, and she has formed another group called The People, which is working for change not just on redistricting and gerrymandering but on voting rights and so on, on a local, state, and national level. And we’re also working with them. It’s fantastic to see. If you look back to when we first met Katie, she was this political neophyte. We didn’t think she had a chance. So to watch that after the last few years has been so heartening and so inspiring.

So you were expecting a different outcome for the film?

Barak Goodman: For much of the film, we thought the court case coming out of Wisconsin was likely to succeed. That’s what the political experts and legal experts were predicting. And Katie’s effort was likely to fail. There were too many obstacles weighing against her. The money discrepancy was too large. She was so inexperienced, as were her fellow activists. The smugness and the overconfidence of the opponents of that ballot measure kind of, well, we assumed that Katie would fail.

We had a 100 percent, 180-degree swap. We were surprised on both sides. And I think the Supreme Court outcome, Justice Kennedy’s decision basically to punt rather than to retire with this feather in his cap, surprised a lot of people. We were not very good prognosticators in this case.

Chris Durrance: The reason there was so much attention on this now-forgotten court case is that it would have changed the law in every state. That would have changed the law nationwide. In one fell swoop, this one case would have shifted the course of American politics. It was a huge case. And the North Carolina decision, when that came through and when we changed the ending, it was a really crushing blow to the hopes of nationwide reform. The courts were basically saying, “We’re stepping out of this. This isn’t something we’re going to rule on.”

It was left to people like Katie to really inspire a group of fellow activists to really take it on for themselves. So, she’s only gained importance since we finished the film. When we started, we didn’t even know her. It’s not only that we didn’t think she’d win, but we hadn’t even come across her. When she started, it was just a few dozen people at the beginning.

When you’re following a story that could conclude either of two ways, do you plan for both while you’re making it or leave that to the end?

Barak Goodman: In this case, more the latter. There’s a certain amount of putting your head down and just moving forward. It’s a leap of faith, these kinds of films. Looking back on it now, the chance we took with this, if Katie had failed, I don’t really know if we’d have a film. I think we told ourselves: a) that the court case was going to succeed, and therefore we would have some good news, and b) even if Katie failed, there would be such a lesson in that, a stark reminder of the stakes and how under pressure democracy is. But the truth of the matter is, it really would have been difficult watching the film if Katie had lost.

But you’re so deep in it, you’ve got so much behind you already, and there’s so much invested in the film that you just have to put your head down and go. I give all the credit in the world to Diane Weyermann at Participant Media and William von Mueffling, who funded the film, for having the faith that either way, this was going to be important. It’s easy for us because we don’t have money in the game; we’re just making this film. But these guys stepped forward and said, “We believe in this. Either way, this is going to be an important film.” Fortunately for us, it does have some good news in the end and people can have faith, and they can get up out of their seats and cheer and leave the theater wanting to do something, which was the goal all along.

Chris Durrance: It’d have been very hard to stomach. It would have been so dispiriting and so disheartening to see both the court case and Katie fail. Where does it leave you? But we didn’t really cut different endings. This was all happening at such a fluid moment. What did happen in the course of the filmmaking is that Katie’s story took on more and more importance. You can almost track the cuts and see her moving more and more to the beginning of the film. And Michigan becoming more and more important.

That’s just a reflection of her and her personality and the movement that she was building and how that movement was snowballing and how the pushback just became so outrageous, so egregious. That’s the big change that happened in filmmaking terms as we were going through the whole process of shooting it, of gathering the stories. And of editing it.

Did you ever consider covering any of the other organizations that were pushing similar ballot measures in other states?

Barak Goodman: We made contact with a number of them, including one in Pennsylvania, but there were none quite as pure grassroots as this one. This was such a pure popular movement — almost an uprising, you could say. It had that feeling of being just what they called it: Voters Not Politicians — voters versus politicians. It really felt pure to us. And we saw it up close over a long period of time, how they were tempted or there were all sorts of proposals to help them, to fund them, to kind of take over their grassroots campaign by larger organizations, and they pushed those away. They didn’t want that.

We really became believers, ourselves, in the kind of purity of their cause. We just didn’t see that in other states’ movements quite the same way. It became very clear that this was the one. Win, lose, or draw, we were going to put all our chips on this, as filmmakers, on this story. There was a certain amount of willful suspension of disbelief in the sense that we didn’t confront only the implications of them losing, even though we sort of in our hearts thought they must lose. You just felt like this is too good of a parable of modern democracy to not follow it and see what happens. We’ll deal with the emotional impact of it later in the editing room. Fortunately, they just became more and more irresistible, that movement, until it was inevitable that it was going to win in the end.

Chris Durrance: So many of the people were fresh to politics. They hadn’t been organizing; they weren’t activists. These were school teachers, people out of GM plants and engineers. Almost all of them were surprised at how galvanized they had become, and Katie was just this fantastic leader. She didn’t know it herself that she had it in her, but she became just this fantastic leader inspiring people and empowering each person to find something that they could bring to it. It really was utterly different in kind to anything that was going on in other states. They didn’t pay people to gather signatures, they didn’t join forces with an established group, like Common Cause, which had been fighting this fight for a long time. It just grew out of nowhere. It was so fantastic, this David and Goliath, pure form of democracy taking on some of the most pernicious gerrymandering the country has ever seen. It just cried out for us to follow them.

I feel like you’re still underselling how great of a character Katie is.

Barak Goodman: She’s a fantastic character. And she grew so much in the role. When we first met her, she did have that freshness and that innocence, but she didn’t have what she came to have, which was this enormous charisma. That really blossomed in front of our camera over a long period of time. She’s now become somebody with a real future in politics. She definitely did not have that when we first met her. She was all full of energy and enthusiasm but so naive and so in over her head in many ways. So the leadership really emerged and was just a part of a delightful surprise for us to see happen.

Slay the Dragon is now available on VOD everywhere. Read more of our conversation with Goodman and Durrance here.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.