David Van Taylor

FRF's Judith Mizrachy interviews David Van Taylor, Co-Director of

Judith: What prompted you to make this film?

David: The idea that Ollie North (who just seven years earlier had proudly misled and defied Congress) was now campaigning to be elected to that same body was an irony too delicious to pass up.  As RJ and I got involved, we found further layers of irony and insight.  By the end of filming, we thought we'd captured a story that goes beyond Ollie North, and even beyond the screwed-up state of American electoral politics.  We tried to shape a film that explores basic dilemmas of democratic leadership and citizenship.  For us, the choice between North and Robb took on the resonance of a Greek drama.

Judith: Can you speak about some of your past projects?  

David: RJ had just come off THE WAR ROOM, which he helped conceive and produce; as you know, it's an uplifting portrait of the wizards behind Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.  I had recently completed my first film, DREAM DECEIVERS, a much bleaker portrait of two young men whose suicide attempt prompted their parents to sue Judas Priest.  We sometimes thought of A PERFECT CANDIDATE as an intersection of those two films--a look at the dark underbelly of American campaigns.

Judith: Watching this film, one is amazed that Oliver North’s campaign managers allowed you the access that they did.  How did this come about?  Why do you think you were granted such access?

David: It's all about time and trust.  We spent many many months being told "no" before we got any kind of "yes."  And the initial "yeses" were much more limited than they later became.  But we kept at it, making sure the campaign managers knew that we were not just part of the press pack but were there with a much more historical perspective; that they could trust us to keep information confidential, and to turn off the cameras when asked to; and that we were generally okay people who didn't have some hidden agenda up our sleeves.  

Eventually, a real relationship develops that allows them to open up.  And the same relationship impels us to make a film that takes them seriously.  Even though the film reveals plenty of absurdities and even hypocrisies, it is ultimately empathetic to its main characters.  I think that's one of its strengths.

Judith:  In the film, Mark Goodin, one of North’s campaign managers, says some shockingly candid things about the unscrupulous methods used to get an American politician elected, and about the political system in general.  Were you surprised that Goodin and others were so honest with you?

David: I think I addressed that above.  You have to be honest with the people you're filming, and ultimately they'll be honest with you.  Another big part of it is finding the right people.  It took us a while to realize that Mark Goodin should be one of the "stars" of our film, even though he had been thrusting himself in front of our lens for a while before we got it.  

Part of it was realizing the limitations of North himself as a character in a film.   We found North to be basically one-dimensional; when you rip the mask off him, you'll find the same mask underneath.  Someone like Mark Goodin has hidden dimensions that only reveal themselves over time.  Ultimately, he's quite a conflicted person, which makes him more interesting and more appealing.  

Judith:  Did anything surprising happen during the course of filming that caused you to change your direction or focus?

David: Absolutely.  We came into the project quite focused on the North campaign.  Nick Doob, the Director of Photography, felt we had to widen out to look at Chuck Robb, the Democratic incumbent.  Once we did, it became a whole different movie-- unfortunately because Robb's limitations made the voters' choice much more excruciating.  As one voter says in the movie, it's a choice between "the flu or the mumps."  That's how we often feel stepping into the voting booth, and the movie really explores why we're in that bind, and what to do when you find yourself there.

The other change of direction I'll mention is that Don Baker, Washington Post reporter, also turned out to be a central character.  We had met Don on the very first day we shot (more than 6 months before the film's opening scene at the Republican convention, by the way), but had no inkling of what a complex character he would become--in large part due to his own back-story with Chuck Robb.  

Judith:  How did the major players in the film such as North, Robb, Goodin and Don Baker react to the film once it was released?

David: Don Baker loved it.  The Washington Post, by the way, had a special screening during the film's DC theatrical run and at the end awarded Don a "Postie" for best performance in a documentary.

Mark Goodin also liked the film a great deal.  When we screened it for him, he started writing down all the times he cursed, so he could ask us to take them out for the sake of his kids.  Halfway through the film he gave up, and announced that his kids would have to wait to see it.  On a more serious note, one of our co-producers saw Mark give a Capraesque speech to a disillusioned politico outside the DC Film Festival premier screening.  I think the film expresses some things that truly trouble Mark about politics and his role in them, and I think he's glad they could be expressed.

Ollie's and Chuck's reactions are featured in bonus material on the DVD.  Basically, Ollie seemed bemused, and Chuck was angry.  But we in no way misrepresented Robb--we had lots more footage that would confirm both his inability to connect with voters and his unwillingness to take a strong stand on the issues.  Fortunately, his angry reactions provided us with a lot of publicity.  His staffers really liked the film, by the way.

Judith: How do you think this film is relevant to what is happening in American politics today?

David: Unfortunately, not that much has changed.  American elections have if anything become more sensationalistic and more divisive over the years (though North v. Robb remains a doozy).  In the current presidential race, we're faced with a very similar choice: the warmongering Republican ideologue vs. the charisma-challenged Democratic war-hero-turned-waffler.  We're also still seeing the strong role of the religious right in politics.  If you look closely, you'll also catch cameos in the film by Dick Cheney, John Kerry, and various bit players in the current presidential race.  

I'd like to say that A PERFECT CANDIDATE is not so relevant today, but alas, it is.

Judith: Are you currently working on any new projects?

David: Absolutely.  RJ's series AMERICAN CANDIDATE just premiered on Showtime.  You might call it A PERFECT CANDIDATE-meets-AMERICAN IDOL.  He's also developing a reality series about race in America, another important theme in the film we made together.  

I've just finished WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE, about George W. Bush and the religious right; it's airing on Sundance Channel in October.  I'm also working on a series of ten documentaries based on the Ten Commandments.  Basically, it's a non-fiction version of Krzysztof Kieslowski's great fiction series THE DECALOGUE.  

David Van Taylor is Vice President of Lumiere Productions in New York City.  He came to Lumiere as Series Producer of WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE, a six-hour history of the religious right which aired to acclaim from both the left and the right in 1996.  More recently, he was Executive Producer of both LOCAL NEWS, a mini-series which chronicled a TV newsroom struggling to do the right thing, and GHOSTS OF ATTICA, which won the duPont-Columbia Silver Baton for its newly definitive account of the iconic prison rebellion and the ongoing legal struggle .  His feature documentary A PERFECT CANDIDATE, about Oliver North’s Virginia Senate campaign in 1994, screened theatrically in over 70 cities, was nominated for an Emmy, and has just been re-issued on DVD. 

Since 1986, Van Taylor has written, directed and edited documentaries for PBS, HBO, Discovery, Court TV, MTV, and TV Nation with Michael Moore.  His first film, DREAM DECEIVERS:  THE STORY BEHIND JAMES VANCE VS. JUDAS PRIEST, won an International Documentary Association Award.  His film CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE, aired as part of PBS’s 9/11 remembrance.  Most recently, he completed The Real Deal about George W. Bush and evangelical Christianity, as an update to Lumiere’s religious right history series.

Van Taylor is currently at work on WHEN MUPPETS DREAM OF PEACE, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian Sesame Street; and Advise and Dissent, about the battle over the next Supreme Court vacancy.