Alexandra Pelosi’s New Film Reveals Why Billionaires Pour Millions into Elections

"one of the great stories that's never been told is about how we fund our elections"

A still from Meet the Donors.
A still from Meet the Donors.

A new documentary by Alexandra Pelosi—Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and daughter of the former speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi—made its debut on HBO last night. The film, called Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk, which opened in the wake of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, is likely to stir the pot.

In the film, Pelosi travels the country—armed with only her signature hand-held camera—to sit down with some of the biggest mega donors to the 2016 presidential election, in the hopes of learning their reasons for handing over million dollar checks in the name of politics. 

Pelosi calls her investigation “light” and accessible—not a shocking exposé. Still, the interviews included cover impressive footing.

Eye-catching moments from the film include peeks inside exclusive fundraising events, a chat with Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, and a one-on-one with the multi-millionaire Fred Eshelman who painted a less than flattering view of Nancy Pelosi in a political TV ad.

In addition to the film, bonus footage of Pelosi’s travels are available on HBO GO.

The Observer chatted with Pelosi about big money, democracy and the importance of having a sense of humor.

Your film is timely given the election, but what specifically prompted you to make it?

Joe Kennedy [III] told Richard Plepler that I should make this film. This was not my idea. I spent the last week at the convention with Joe Kennedy saying, “This is all your fault! This is all your fault!”…Usually you have a big premiere party because we didn’t do that because we didn’t want the billionaires in the movie to show up and say I don’t like the way I look, you can’t put that on television. So I had to just dodge them at the convention all week. But then every time I’d walk through the lobby I’d see Joe Kennedy and I’d say, “I’m gonna have to go into the witness protection program after this.”

And what did he say to that? What was the conversation like?

Well he’s friends with Richard Plepler who’s the head of HBO, and so he was saying one of the great stories that’s never been told is about how we fund our elections. We’ve heard bits and pieces of that trickle out in the last year…I decided to narrow the focus to just the Open Secrets list of the billionaires who you heard [in the film]…This isn’t a front line deep investigation with smoking gun and scary documentary music. This is a light romp. A road trip across America to meet the mega donors. The

“People don’t realize that running for president is like a game of monopoly”-Alexandra Pelosi

whole idea is that people don’t realize that running for president is like a game of monopoly. You have stop at Park Place and Boardwalk in monopoly and pick up the check. There’s a certain list of people and both political parties have them, and when you run for president the FEC records are the monopoly board. The FEC records just hands you a list of “Here are the people you need to go ask for money.” And I don’t think [candidates] realize that…they think “I’m gonna save the world.” They don’t realize that they’re gonna have to go around the monopoly board and beg for money from these billionaires. And that was what I was trying to show people. Just sort of an introduction, like running for president 101.

One of the things I was interested in while watching was that you used the handheld camera.

This is my tenth HBO film with the handheld camera.

So what does strategy entail and what do you get out of using the handheld camera?

Well before I made documentaries, I was a network news producer at NBC for ten years and when I would go on an interview, I would go with the camera crew and the lights and the camera and the audio guy—it was a big production, when the circus rolled in. And then the subjects would get hair and makeup and then they would sit down in the chair and then all of a sudden they would turn off. Like, “Oh, I’m being interviewed for television now.” And I’ve always believed an experiment watched is an experiment changed. When you turn on those big cameras people change. And so I’ve always believed that the small handheld camera makes people think they’re talking to a person…It’s a totally different approach. And my husband would be on second camera, my husband would film backup…That’s been my approach and I feel it makes my documentaries more human. Because I feel people on TV don’t act like humans. They act like cardboard cutouts who are giving sound bites.

The director.

Was that approach successful for you on this particular project?

You may not think that it’s the most revealing documentary film of the century, but the people in the film do reveal. The key is we need to learn how to listen. To know what to listen for…I’m saying this from personal experience from making documentaries: people get bored quickly. And I was trying to make this accessible. And so I think my approach is an accessible approach…when a billionaire invites you to [his or her] house, you have to be respectful. You can’t just light the place on fire and try and indict them on war crimes. One thing that’s really important to remember is you could scrub those WikiLeaks documents…but they don’t have an email saying, “I’m giving this check because I want this law to pass. It will help my business make more money.” There is no smoking gun. What you got out of the WikiLeaks documents—I had great fun going through them myself—are the seating charts. Who got to sit next to the president based on how big a check they wrote.

Was it difficult talking to the subjects of the film?

I have to be really charitable about the people that appeared in the film because there are so many who did not. That Open Secrets list of the 100 top donors in America? Many [of the donors on the list] sent me some very unkind emails and I got nasty phone calls and some really mean spirited rejections. I’ve got to give [the people who appeared in the film] credit because at least they showed up!

One of the subjects mentioned that there was a whole separate world of donations apart from the Open Secrets list.

That’s the dark money. The dark money piece of this is a totally different film. That is the corporate lobbyists’ system to get laws…to protect their companies. That’s the banks that are writing laws to screw over the consumers. And that happens every day in America…It’s a totally different film. It’s not the film I made. And I’ll tell you, that could be another film and it would be a great film and I look forward to watching that film, but I’m not going to make it…I am thoroughly convinced that the political industrial complex will reject this film for its levity.

Do you see this film as scratching the surface at something larger that you hope will be explored?

Absolutely. I have so much so much faith in the viewer because I know they’ll get it. They’ll say, “Oh, they write a check, they become ambassador.”…getting appointed to commission—how do you get that? You write a big check…when a donor says, “I’m investing,” I think that’s revealing.

Pelosi met with John Catsimatidis.
Pelosi met with John Catsimatidis.

I feel like you used humor in a way—in your questioning or in the way you cut certain scenes to frame certain responses. Was the film intended to be funny?

I always try to be funny…I think documentaries should be more accessible to the mainstream…I think everybody should be able to watch documentaries, not just the intelligentsia…I do think that documentaries are for the intelligentsia and they should be for everyone.

What do you think the billionaires will say when they hear about the movie?

I think Bernie Sanders made the billionaire class feel demonized… A lot of them say it’s bad for their business to give to campaigns…I think that they feel like a new pitchfork is out for them. At the convention [the billionaires] were all staying at the Ritz-Carlton, and protesters were protesting in front of the Ritz-Carlton. People now know that the system is rigged and in favor of the people writing these big checks. And so the protestors are on to that so they know where to go. They go to the Ritz Carlton to protest. Its not a secret…there they are at the hotel bar…many of them would say, “You don’t really understand how rich I am, and how little a million dollars is to me. I give to hospitals, I give to charities, I give to lots of places. You’re all just singling out the political donation because of the politics of it all.”…people don’t really know how rich these people are. I’ve been saying for a week, and nobody seems to think this is funny…Chris Rock has a bit where he says “I’m rich. I’m so rich, if people knew how rich I was they’d be rioting in the streets.”…People don’t understand how rich they are. And how much disposable income they have. So they would probably say they’re being unfairly demonized.

Was it uncomfortable to talk to Fred Eshelman, the donor who made the advertisement against Nancy Pelosi?

No. He was a really good, decent guy. He gave me a ride back to the airport! I went to visit him in North Carolina and he said “Let me drive you to the airport.” He was a great guy. That’s the thing. It’s not fair to demonize them, because—give him kudos—he met with me. He made that ad and then he met with me. And I emailed with him. He’s funny, I mean, he’s not a bad guy. I think that people like to demonize people personally. And I think you have to separate—and God bless him—he believes in something. That’s what he believes! I think that those ads make people hate politics. I think every time you see an ad that says, “Hillary Clinton is the devil.” and “Donald Trump is gonna destroy America.” Every time you watch one of those ads, you feel dirty and it makes you hate your government, right? I said to him, “You say you love America, but don’t you realize that those ads make people hate their government and make them not want to vote?” Those ads turn people off. And the fact that the republicans spent a hundred million dollars to turn my last name into a curse word—that’s the game. That’s how the game is played. I don’t have any ill will. I thought his ads were pretty funny actually. That’s why I included it, I thought it was funny. I’m all for fair game.

“If you believe in something and you want to put your money towards it, you’re putting your money where your mouth is—God bless you for that. Even if you’re saying that Nancy Pelosi is Frankenstein.”-Alexandra Pelosi

If you believe in something and you want to put your money towards it, you’re putting your money where your mouth is—God bless you for that. Even if you’re saying that Nancy Pelosi is Frankenstein. I think it’s dangerous…it’s just turning people off…I have to make this point. Where is all the money going?…billionaires write million dollar checks. What is that money being used for? It’s being used for ads…both sides do it, both sides are guilty…and in the end who wins? The answer is the networks…and who loses? The average American voter loses because they feel like their vote doesn’t count. But the truth is…if they showed up and voted, it wouldn’t matter how many billions of dollars Hillary Clinton spent to tell you how awful Donald Trump was.

Do you think, though, that the ads—and what have you—end up skewing democracy anyway, even if everyone were to vote?

For sure. I see this firsthand. I know how those ads give people an impression that has nothing to do with reality. I don’t think we have any idea of who our politicians are whatsoever. I’ve been to Hillary fundraisers. She’s amazing in person…It gets distorted by all the ads and all the trash talk and all the hating. Who is she? If you don’t feel any connection—they just turned her into a caricature that people are turned off by. People have no idea what Hillary Clinton is really like. I would bet you the same is true of Donald Trump…the [most stupid] thing he said will be used against him on a daily basis between now and November. You have no idea who these candidates are.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Alexandra Pelosi’s New Film Reveals Why Billionaires Pour Millions into Elections