Bill's Run

PBS Premiere: June 29, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: You grew up in Kansas. How did that play into the story of the making of Bill's Run?

Richard Kassebaum: This was my first extended trip back to Kansas in twenty years. It came at a good time for me because I was feeling a little adrift. I had just finished a big show overseas with a lot of reenactments and I was trying to get away from that kind of filmmaking experience. This was a chance to get out of Los Angeles, take a break from work and try to refocus.

Bill lives and raises cattle on land that once belonged to our great grandmother. We grew up visiting that area -- called the Flint Hills -- every summer, fishing and hiking and exploring. So returning home really felt like reconnecting to that part of my childhood. In the film my mom talks about the importance of being able to go home, about how crucial it is to a person's journey through life to be able to draw on the strength that comes from a sense of place. So for me going back to make this film was, I suppose, a part of my experience and journey.

POV: What role do places like Burdick Oil, the local gas station, play in the film?

Richard: My first day back I got a flat tire and wound up at Burdick Oil. I spent the afternoon talking to Earl, and realized that I wanted him to be a big part of the film. At that point the film was going to be about Bill's campaign, and yet I found myself going back to the station and spending as much time as possible hanging out with Earl and whoever was there that day. Burdick Oil is a real meeting center for the community, a window into the community. And it just evolved from there.

The film is full of what you would call iconic images of the Midwest, images of rural America that are familiar to people. I guess when I was growing up, the sight of a silo at sunset or a tractor working the fields or cattle grazing was so familiar to me that I took it for granted. In the film, I tried to move beyond that surface. Burdick is a community in transition. So, places like Burdick Oil can have a sense of timelessness about them, but actually they represent a lifestyle that can't be taken for granted. One that might not be available to people forever. These were issues that Bill was directly addressing in his campaign, so I tried to incorporate them in other ways as well.

POV: What was the most surprising thing you found in making the film?

Richard: I was surprised by how welcomed I was into the community by complete strangers. They were very open and up-front with me, as I was with them. I would introduce myself, say that I'm Bill's brother (many people knew him), and that I was making a documentary about the campaign and the people in the 68th district. People were incredibly open, honest and generous with their time, especially Shari Weber [Bill's opponent], who invited me to come interview her in the House of Representatives and spend an afternoon answering questions. She fully participated in the film.

I love the people I met through the course of making this film. When it came to talking about their personal histories and the history of the community of Burdick, there was so much pride. People wanted to share their story, the story of their ancestors. They realize that it could be coming to an end. They are certainly aware that there are only 60 residents left in town. Young people are leaving and most of the residents are getting on in years. People are pragmatic in Burdick. They know that there are only so many options.

I was also really surprised by Bill's first speech. It was candidate night in Abilene, Kansas. All the candidates for state office were there. He went up and in his very straightforward, matter-of-fact way, laid out the problems facing rural Kansas and what he thought should be done to solve them. He challenged every other candidate there that night to come up with their own solution, if they opposed his. I didn't think it was a good way to get elected, but there's a lot of integrity in how he chose to present himself as a candidate. And I was surprised that it turned out to be quite effective.

POV: Were you surprised that Bill won?

Richard: I was very surprised that Bill won! As the campaign wore on, it just seemed that all signs indicated that Shari was going to win. She had a lot more money and a lot more organization. Bill entered the race very late, with only about eight weeks to campaign, and his message was not one most people wanted to hear. It just didn't seem like it was in the cards, but election night was a real surprise.

POV: In your view, what does it take to make a good politician?

Richard: Well, I think in Kansas the ingredients are straightforwardness and honesty and not promising something that you can't deliver. I saw this in this campaign and in my mother's career as well.

POV: Were people more engaged in the election than you initially expected?

Richard: I think with a small district race, during a year with no presidential election, there's always apathy. But Bill added a spark to the campaign. He's a farmer-rancher; he talks the talk. He interacts with a lot of farmers and ranchers who can recognize a kindred spirit, I suppose, who may not like what he's saying, necessarily, but who can respect his opinion and how he voices it.

I think people respond on a personal level when making a decision on who to vote for, especially in a campaign of this size. In the film, Goldie Steely is a really good example of this. She lives in Burdick, she's a music teacher, and she gave music lessons to both my brother's children and to Shari's children. For her the decision didn't grow so much out of the issues of the campaign, but out of her friendships with both families. I think she really was anguished over having to make her decision.

POV: Why do you think Bill won?

Richard: I think he won because in a small district, enough people knew him personally, respected him and thought he was a good person who would do a good job representing the district. They understood what he was saying about the problems facing the community and that drastic measures needed to be taken. There are also quite a few Democrats who were concerned enough to switch parties and vote in the Republican primary for Bill, and that was possibly enough to sway the election.

POV: Is Bill going to run again?

Richard: Yes, he is. Does he want to stay a politician? I don't know. I think he has achieved what he said he would. He brought a bill to the floor for a vote in the House. I think he's taken satisfaction in seeing that he can make a difference even as a freshman Congressman. But it has been a stress on his family. Jennifer has taken over a large part of the chores while he is away at session for three months in the spring. So while I think it's been satisfying for him, and he is going to run again this year for a two-year term, I think he's very unsure how far he'll go beyond that.

POV: Why is this an important story?

Richard: Well, first of all, I really made the film for the people of Burdick. But the more I worked with the footage and cut the film together, the more I did see themes emerging that I thought would appeal to a broader audience. I think this is a helpful film for people to understand how politics works on the small scale in rural America. The experience Bill has in his campaign is one that unfolds in countless communities across the Midwest. It's grassroots campaigning, it's politics at work at its most basic level, and that, especially these days, is a very positive thing to see.