'Ohio: An American Vote' highlights Bush's victory.
By JOHN HORN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Documentary filmmakers James Stern and Adam Del Deo traveled to Ohio last November in search of a specific election story. When the presidential voting was completed, they ended up with a very different movie.
Stern and Del Deo, both of whom voted for Sen. John F. Kerry, initially traveled to the battleground state to document how thousands of Republican poll watchers would challenge Ohio voters. The two filmmakers were among scores of show business personalities parachuting into swing states in support of the Democratic ticket.
"I was outraged" by the poll challengers, says Stern, whose producing credits include "Michael Jordan to the Max" and both the upcoming drama "Proof" and basketball documentary "The Year of the Yao."
When the imagined drama of Kerry supporters being barred from voting didn't materialize, Stern and Del Deo decided not to leave Ohio. Instead, almost overnight, they shifted the focus of "Ohio: An American Vote," dispatching their camera crews, which ultimately numbered 18, to record all aspects of the final campaign push in the election's most important state.
With a researcher combing news wires for the latest developments in the campaign, the filmmakers tried to track both breaking news and find telling personal stories. They latched onto one undecided voter wrestling with the decision, found a headstrong activist stumping for Kerry and called in favors in order to cover musical performances by Bruce Springsteen.
'Ohio is great'
Ohio was among the last states called for George W. Bush, and gave the president the additional electoral votes, 20, to be re-elected. Had the state voted for Kerry, the Massachusetts senator would now be in the White House.
As Stern and Del Deo see it in "Ohio," what happened during the final days and hours of the campaign very well could have determined the state's, and thus the nation's, presidential outcome: On-the-ground operations might have been more significant than the political issues.
"This can show people how the process works," Stern says. "Ohio is great. It's rural. It's urban. It's suburban. It's African-American. It's white. And for our good fortune, it turned out defining the election."
Long lines, phony names
Ohio's Election Day was filled with drama, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, subsequently joined forces to contest the state's results, the second such congressional challenge to a presidential election since 1877. The challenge, which a critic said was "Hollywood-inspired," failed.
It wasn't simply that Bush's Ohio margin was narrow -- about 118,000 votes of more than 5.6 million ballots cast. Some voters had to wait in lines as long as 10 hours to cast ballots, and a "computer glitch" recorded an extra 3,893 Bush votes in a precinct with just 638 votes cast. Republicans complained that voter registrars affiliated with the Democratic Party concocted phony voters, using names such as Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy.
Two weeks before the election, Stern and Del Deo weren't even planning on making the movie, let alone going to Ohio. They decided at the last minute to visit the battleground state mostly to film the poll watchers.
"We had no access, no credentials, no crews," says Stern, who is financing the documentary himself. "The election was 11 days out, so all we had was a little time and, because I run a company, some money."
Something else they lacked was any entree into the Republican Party. Ultimately Stern and Del Deo brought in a producer with Republican ties, so that the film could try to depict the camps evenhandedly.
"I have no idea still who's going to come out of this documentary looking better or worse," Stern says.
But a 12-minute glimpse of the film's footage suggests that while Kerry's Ohio supporters may have exhibited more emotional energy, Bush's state campaign might have showed more tactical organization.
'A lot of improvising'
Stern and Del Deo's editors currently are sifting through more than 200 hours of videotape, looking for the best people, from short-order cooks to campaign volunteers, to tell the tale. "As the process went on, characters and stories emerged," Del Deo says. "There was a lot of improvising."
They hope to have a rough assembly later this month, and will then schedule a dozen follow-up interviews. When those conversations are added, Stern and Del Deo will begin showing the film to potential distributors.