This behind-the-scenes documentary follows Beto O'Rourke's rise from virtual unknown to national political sensation through his bold attempt to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate. Embedded with Beto for the final twelve months of his campaign, Running with Beto follows his journey in real time through intimate access to O’Rourke, his family, and a team of political newcomers who champion a new way of getting to know a candidate — one Texas county at a time. The film reveals the challenges and triumphs of an unconventional campaign as Beto navigates an onslaught of negative advertising, inevitable strain on his family, and the pressure of delivering for legions of supporters. This film is creatively and financially independent from Beto O’Rourke and his campaign.
I met Beto O’Rourke in 2017 at first base. He was a sitting U.S. Congressman and I was holding him on base after he hit a single during a sandlot baseball game between my Texas Playboys Baseball Club and Beto’s Los Diablitos de El Paso.
When Beto’s team came to Austin and he spoke to our small crowd at the field, he had been running for Senate for about six weeks. When he jumped up on a hay bale in his dirty uniform and began to speak about running against Ted Cruz, it was immediately clear to me that he was a generational political talent. But more than that, I was intrigued by the unorthodox, risk-taking campaign he was planning: to visit every county, running without PAC money, without consultants, and without moderating positions for political optics. Having lived in Texas for 15 years, I could also feel that the national conversation was going to run right through the middle of Beto’s race against Ted Cruz – from gun violence to immigration to gerrymandering.
Because of recent events, I felt especially called to capture the intimate human experience of the wild campaign that was about to unfold. After the 2016 presidential election, I felt, more acutely than ever, how much we dehumanize each other through politics. How poorly we understand one another, how disconnected that leaves us -- and how much the entire experience drives people away from the political process in this country, which ends up leaving a relatively small group of people to elect our leaders and make decisions that impact our lives in profound ways. As a citizen, I had been asking myself what I could contribute. As a storyteller, I wanted to tell a story that might humanize the political process and inspire people to get involved.
A few months later, I had breakfast with Beto.I told him about my first feature documentary, Crawford, which was about the 705-person town that George W. Bush turned into the Western White House. How I had been this kid from the northeast, showing up in Crawford with major preconceived stereotypes, with a plan to make a film I thought would expose Bush’s political stagecraft. Instead, I told him, I fell in love with the people of Crawford -- warm, smart, funny, great storytellers -- despite our potential differences in political views. The film wound up being their story. This, I told him, was part of why I was drawn to his plan to visit every county in Texas -- to show up in person and connect as human beings, even if they might not be registered with his political party.
Beto allowed me to spend some time with him without a camera, getting to know one another, and in early November of 2017, a year before the election -- and seven months after Beto and I first met on the baseball field -- he and his wife Amy granted us access to make a completely creatively and financially independent film, over which they would have no control. We started shooting -- and over the next 12 months, we traveled over 47,000 miles, capturing roughly 700 hours of footage. We filmed nine-person meetings and 2,000-person rallies. We shot in pouring rain and in stagnant rooms without air conditioning. Every moment was a privilege. It felt like following a small rock band that was touring their way to fame while refusing to change a thing.
Crisscrossing the state, we felt the energy in the conservative panhandle, in the notoriously apathetic Valley and in tiny east Texas towns that hadn’t seen a statewide candidate from either party in decades. We captured passion in marginalized communities that typically only see candidates in the final weeks of an election. We tried desperately to keep up with Beto and his team, who moved at an inhuman rate of speed across the state as he scarfed down tacos while driving and left the car running during bathroom breaks. We tried to track the urgency Beto brought every hour of every day to connect with as many voters as possible. I spent time in El Paso with Beto’s wife, Amy, and the family, as they did their best to live life with Beto gone for about 28 days a month -- and quiet moments with Beto in lonely hotels before he got a few hours of sleep.
As I watched the political newcomers in Beto’s inner circle learning on the job, I too navigated new experiences throughout this project: I shot parts of the film myself. Fortunate to work with talented cinematographers for the first 13-odd years of my filmmaking career, I had never picked up a camera before. Because of the small spaces we were in with Beto -- cars, elevators, green rooms -- and especially because of the confidentiality and intimacy of many of the moments that unfolded, it was often vital that I be the only person from the filmmaking team present. I got a small Sony A7-S camera, added a simple sound rig, and prepared with some lessons from our DP in the van as we traveled. Then, like much of Team Beto, I learned by doing.
In between shoots on the road, we also followed three extraordinary Texans who were getting deeply involved in politics in new ways. I wanted to capture the way “regular people” were allowing themselves to be vulnerable and try new things in response to what they felt was a crisis in democracy. Marcel McClinton, a 17-year-old gun safety activist who survived a mass shooting at his church; Amanda Salas, a formerly Republican gay Latina hell-bent on turning out votes in her apathetic community; and Shannon Gay, a rural female gun enthusiast from a military family who drops more F-bombs than Beto.
Through their eyes, we saw the ground-level experiences of the people who made up the movement that grew behind Beto -- and through their experiences, we were able to capture key issues central to the race. As our partners at HBO observed, they are the “Greek chorus” of the film.
It takes a village to film this many hours, to keep pace with an onslaught of footage in post-production, and to navigate such an accelerated calendar. This project only exists because of the extraordinary team of producers, crew, editors, lawyers, investors, and vendors that has built it along the way.
Ultimately, of course, the film would not have been possible without Beto and Amy, who, despite the insane turns the campaign took, held true to their commitment to me. Their generosity in inviting me and the crew into their kitchen at their most vulnerable moment, after they had lost the election, will stick with me forever. It was the ultimate testament to preserving a filmmaker-subject relationship, and the candid moments that followed allowed me to complete the story arc of the film.
Beto, Amy and all the subjects in this film allowed us to share -- through very real, flawed, authentic experiences -- that you don’t have to be perfect to run for office, or be an expert to get involved in a political campaign. They allowed this film to be an invitation into the democratic process.
-David Modigliani, Director & Producer of Running with Beto