Election Day

PBS Premiere: July 1, 2008Check the broadcast schedule »

Production Journal

POV: There are 11 different stories that happen around the country in Election Day. How did you meld these 11 stories together?

Katy Chevigny: One of the challenges of the film was figuring out how to tell the stories of so many different people and places all in one film. Everything happened in one day, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to do the film!

I thought: "How are we going to do this? Has this ever been done before?" And so I tried to figure out a way to make it work. We wanted the film to follow the chronology of a day by starting in the morning and ending in the evening.

On November 1, we had zero hours of footage, and on November 3, we had 105 hours of footage. We screened all of the footage from all 14 locations, picked our favorite characters and the scenes that really leapt out at us, and then we tried to figure out a pattern. We wanted to lay out the scenes in a way so that it was dramatic, it would tell the story of what was happening around the country, it would draw the viewer in, and it would make the viewer notice the similarities and contrasts in different parts of the country. The final edit of the film ended up being a puzzle that we spent many months solving, moving scenes around to figure out the best way to lay out the film.

POV: Did the different crews know who they were following before the day started?

Chevigny: Yes. We spent several weeks planning which characters we wanted to follow over the course of the day, and we assigned particular crews to follow them. That was actually an enormous undertaking in and of itself. We were looking for a variety of interesting people, stories and places. We were also looking for stories that hadn't been widely covered in the media, stories of underdogs, offbeat stories with offbeat characters, and stories that didn't fit a particular demographic.

POV: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

Election Day: Shanta Martin and film crew
Shanta Martin, an international elections observer from Australia, interviews a volunteer pollworker in St. Louis as Election Day cinematographer Jonathan Skurnick (right) captures the action.

Chevigny: One of the biggest challenges in making this film was a storytelling challenge: How do you incorporate so many different stories into one film so that viewers cared and could follow what was happening in the different places?

That was a creative challenge that I welcomed. I was interested not only in seeing how to find a contrast, but also how to balance it with enough similarities so that viewers still felt like they were watching one film.

Another challenge, related to using 11 different stories, was the fact that there were 11 different crews filming. We didn't want the finished product to look like 11 different movies, so we gave specific instructions to the crews in advance about a certain style and approach with the characters. We also chose footage so that viewers would feel the similarities of what they were watching, and get a sense of everyday life in the United States; we sought images and stories that would really speak to that so that the film would hang together as a piece.

POV: Tell us more about what you told all your crews about the style and approach. What was the uniform style and approach that you told them to aim for?

Chevigny: We didn't want the film to look like a grab bag of different filming styles and approaches. We really wanted it to look like a single film. In order to do that, I had extensive conversations with each of the crew members, particularly the cinematographers, about the kind of style they were going to shoot in.

There are certain habits in shooting observational documentaries, and one of the approaches is the "fly on the wall" approach, where you're filming what's going on without anything particular happening in the frame. That's the approach we went with. I encouraged everyone to not just rush around to film the action moment, but rather to really stay with their characters, see their character as the protagonist of a film, and observe what they're thinking, feeling and what's expressed on their faces as they see what happens during that day. As a result, we had footage where you really feel like you're present with different characters all over the country. That approach was a unifying element for the film.

I also told the crews and the cinematographers: "You don't have to shoot this like a news crew." There's a certain style that news crews film in, where they rush in, get a couple of shots of the action and then get cutaways so they can make a 90-second story from the footage. Our crews were often in places where there were also news crews but I told our crews that they didn't have to follow the news crews, that they can could even film the news crews filming. Unlike the news crews, we wanted to stay steady with the characters and have long shots so that viewers would have time to absorb the ideas and feelings in the polling places. My hope was that the approach we took made the final product feel more cinematic.

POV: How did you get permission to film inside the polling places?

Chevigny: We felt that it was very important to film inside polling places and see what was actually happening to people as they were casting ballots. So during preproduction, we sought permission from all the different places we were going to film in. In many cases, we were told "no." In Florida, for example, there's a statewide rule that says no cameras are allowed in any polling places. In other locations, the polling places can choose whether or not to allow cameras.

We had permission to film in a few of the polling places, but I also encouraged all the crews to fight for their right to get into the polling place and film, whether or not they had a piece of paper that said they could. Our thinking behind that was that one of the problems with our electoral system is lack of transparency. So filming for Election Day is a good use of cameras. In general, a good use of independent media and the press is to hold people accountable for what's happening inside the polls. Elections are public; there's no particular reason why we can't film the process. People should be allowed privacy about which candidates they're casting their ballot for, but in terms of what's going on, in terms of processing the votes, that's something we should be able to film.

So I told our crews to feel entitled to film, to feel like filming is something that is good to do, to know that it's important to document what's going on. As a result, by asserting our right to be there, we actually filmed in many more polling places than I thought we were going to be able to. It's rare to see the interior of so many polling places and the processes and conflicts that arise in them. And that was one of the accomplishments of our film.