Jimmy McMillan was already a star in NYC by the time he was parodied on Saturday Night Live late last year. New Yorkers got a kick out of the retired postal worker turned politician for his theatricality: the undertaker black suits with leather gloves and high top sneakers, and of course, his iconic mutton chops. And who in New York would disagree that “The Rent is too Damn High!” But people were also drawn to his confidence, arrogance really, that he had every right to sit up on stage and debate Mario Cuomo for the governorship of New York.
With DAMN! Aaron Fisher-Cohen and Kristian Almgren have captured from behind the curtain, an extraordinary moment in political and American pop culture history. Their film celebrates independence and one man’s desire to wring some common good out of the dirty game of American politics; but it is also is a cautionary tale of the costs of overnight fame and success.
I spoke with the filmmakers in preview of their World Premiere screening of DAMN! At the Clinton School of Public Service on June 3.
What attracted you to Jimmy McMillan’s story, and how in the World did you get hooked up with him to make the film?
Kristian- When we first hooked up with Jimmy, we did not know exactly what was going to happen. It was just his persona – we thought that he was the type of subject that we could simply follow and the story and characters would just happen. Everything from the his look, to his voice, to his fan were extremely compelling to us (especially in a city like New York with so many “characters”).
We had just come back from a shoot for a piece about a falconer and saw Jimmy’s website. After sending the site to the guys (Aaron and Sam) I contacted his office and to my surprise Jimmy picked up. After about a 20 minute conversation and an appointment with his manager at the time he agreed to let us film for a day, then invited us back the next day and the next day, until we were part of his crew. It was really organic and stemmed from the simple idea that it would be amazing just to shadow him for a day. A few months later, we have DAMN!.
You made great use of extraordinary access and in the end the film is as much about the pressures of “overnight” fame as it is a kind of “Can Mr Smith still goto Washington” story. At what point did you see the film moving in that direction?
Kristian- Once Jimmy was on spoofed on SNL things started to pick up. Jimmy kept us informed about everything happening with him, so the access happened organically. While Aaron realized we had a full length doc on our hands earlier that I did, we were both on the same page as far as how the story would develop – mostly because the story wrote itself, it’s just how things happened.
Jimmy is a big personality and often quarrels with his staff in the film, did you guys every get caught up in that?
Aaron – Not really. But we did get a little caught up in the hype that comes with celebrity, you kind of have to take a step back and realize the ugliness that can come from fame. But as far as getting involved in quarrels we tried to keep our distance from all that.
How did you hear about the LRFF, and what made you decide to World Premiere here?
Aaron – Lena Dunham (2010 LRFF Official Selection Tiny Furniture) and I have mutual friends and grew up in the same neighborhood so i checked her film out and saw it was in the 2010 festival. Everything I’ve read about little rock has been really positive and we’re really excited to premiere here.