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Angel on the Bus

Photo by John Clifford

Hollywood is so self-obsessed that it tends to associate words like voting and ballot with Emmy and Oscar, not presidential elections. Only no one ever admits that. Except for Drew Barrymore. Bizarrely, the actress who’s made a career as the boob-baring, so-crazy-God-knows-what-she’ll-do-next ditsy blond is brutally honest about her past years of political ignorance.

Her naiveté changed after she joined Declare Yourself, a voter-registration campaign, spearheaded by entertainment activist Norman Lear, aimed at the 18-to-30 demographic that usually sits out Election Day. At a Washington, D.C., rally, Barrymore was asked to make a speech. But she had no clue what to say and felt like a phony. Thus began her journey of self-education and, since this is Hollywood, where any such superstar odyssey is accompanied by cameras, so started her documentary, The Best Place To Start. The hourlong special will be shown on MTV September 21 through 28, October 1, and other times right up until the election.

So why am I writing about this? Well, Drew's people wouldn't take no for an answer ( I told them "I don't do celebs" over and over...). And they emphasized that she wanted to be in LA Weekly and not the Los Angeles Times . But, most of all, what makes Barrymore’s small film less than nauseating, and even revealing, is that she doesn’t make herself the center of attention, but rather uses her political awakening to drive a larger narrative about voting in America. It’s also aided by a distinctly nonpartisan message. But, best of all, it’s not often that an actress wants to go on the record describing what a dumb-ass she was.

 

NIKKI FINKE: So how stupid were you about politics?

DREW BARRYMORE: I didn’t have a family that spoke to me about it, and I didn’t go to school. I was interested in literature and films and traveling, and, weirdly, politics or voting was never in the repertoire of things I wanted to study. Being 27, 28 years old and not knowing what a primary or the Electoral College is — I was that person. So I got invited to this rally to encourage young people to vote. And I don’t know what it was in my instinct that made me go do it, because I don’t normally do things like that, because I’m so anti–celebrity on a soapbox. I just don’t think it works for me. And I walked away from this rally saying, I know voting is supposed to be important, but why? I felt like I had cheated myself by going out there and trying to talk about something I didn’t know whether I understood it or not, or whether I even cared about it or not. Certainly, I wasn’t able to articulate it, because I wasn’t educated. I wasn’t informed.

 

And a writer for the Washington Post slammed you as a celebrity who can’t even put a sentence together on a subject as facile as voting.

Well, you know, she wasn’t wrong.

 

So, suddenly, you want to make a documentary about it?

I had always wanted to direct a film and just direct anything, whatever. It’s all I’ve wanted to do in my life. It’s all I’ve tried to work towards in acting and producing. This one big goal lay ahead of me. And something inside of me, out of total instinct, picked up the camera and started filming myself. And I started studying at night about our politics, our government, our voting, and the more I grew interested in the subject and tried to understand it, the more I was having fun and enjoying the process of filmmaking. And I started out with this little baby camera in my hand by myself, and eventually I had like a three-person crew, and eventually I had a five-person crew with a professional camera. And there we were, traveling throughout the United States and kind of trying to figure this out for what ended up taking 10 months.

 

So how did you educate yourself?

The first book I read was on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I started there. It was a tough read, and I got through it. Then I asked some of the people I work with to start pulling some statistics. I was finding out all these angering facts along the way, and coming across one in particular. Forty-some-odd million voted for American Idol. No, they can’t bracket the ages specifically. But when you compare that to the 36 percent of voters 18 to 24 who voted in the last election, you think, whoa. That just baffled me. You’re capable of doing this. Why only in this category of the fun stuff are you applying yourself? And then I found that a lot of the stuff I was reading was liberal. So I wanted to go over to the conservative side and see what they were saying. Then I wanted to get away from the opinions of the parties and get down to the brass tacks of what our history was. A few weeks into my research, I was coming across personal stories about a young white man, Andrew Goodman, who went to crusade for civil rights and was killed in the process.

 

 

And you went down to Alabama and to the National Voting Rights Museum.

That was my favorite part of my journey. That was the place I always aimed to get to. Selma was the place that affected me the most in my research, because of what people went through there to ensure themselves and everyone the right to vote. The selfless acts they did. I was so inspired and so moved.

 

And you explored the suffragist movement.

Because of hearing stories about the suffragist movement, and having Bill Maher tell me, which didn’t make the documentary either, that his mother was unable to vote. And realizing that women didn’t have the right to vote until 1923.

 

It’s unbelievable when you think about it.

It’s fucking crazy. I’m still really not sure that young people understand how recent all of this was.

 

How much of the documentary did you write yourself?

I wrote all of the voice-overs for the documentary. I tried to keep them very short and, again, very un-opinionated. Except when it came to things about myself. I’m free game with myself.

 

The documentary shows you on the Wesley Clark bus, during the New Hampshire primary, reading a Washington Post article about you with the headline “Get Off the Bus, Angel” and looking very upset by it.

Well, when I read it, I was really discouraged. My God, this hurts. This feels raw. I don’t want to be a celebrity doing this. I got a lot of those headlines. That just happened to be my favorite one.

 

And in the next scene, you’re looking out the window, and we see your eyes, and you almost look like you’re going to cry. Was that at the time your reaction to this article?

That was a true moment. I had just gotten off the phone with my publicist, who said to me, “All this shit’s going down. They’re ripping you apart. And they want an explanation as to what you’re up to.” And I said, “I don’t know what I’m up to. I’m up for learning. I don’t want to exploit this.” Because I have this theory that if you tell people what you’re doing before you do it, it takes the air out of it a little bit. I think it goes back to that theory that the more you talk about something, the more you give it away. And I think if I talk about it too much, I could get stuck in a fear of what people think about it. I just want to stay true to myself. So if I’m quiet, I’ll stay closer to my instincts that way.

 

So you made the decision to just keep your mouth shut and do the work.

I was just processing it in that moment. The thing is that after my first reaction, which was ouch, I felt, “This is exactly what fucking politics does to you. It tries to make you feel stupid. And it tries to disenfranchise you.” And I said to myself, “I swear to God, I’m going to do exactly what I’m supposed to do, which is keep going, keep learning, keep staying on this journey. Do not get sidetracked by this bullshit.”

 

So you think the political process wants to make voters feel stupid.

I can’t figure out why. It’s so ridiculous. You have one side of it where people are trying to disenfranchise and repress voting. Or be so highfalutin that they’re alienating everyone. On the other side, you have the most soulful individuals in our history, doing the most brave things human beings can do within their capacity to ensure and enable the right to vote. And it’s an incredible dichotomy. They should come together. They should not battle each other.

 

Back to the documentary, I can’t imagine you had a hard time getting people to talk to you, given who you are.

Oh, you’d be surprised. I got turned down more than not. I swear to you, there were so many people who wouldn’t accept us. We had a lot of requests where people were like, “No, I don’t get politically involved.” “No, I don’t have time.” We were turned down a lot. To the people who did show up? God bless them. We were like, “Really, you’ll do us?” We were so bowled over by that. My producer would chase people into the bathroom.

 

 

Where did the money come from for the documentary?

I financed it myself.

 

How much did it wind up costing?

It ended up costing just a couple of hundred thousand dollars. I certainly know that when you look at Michael Moore’s credits, he made certain films for $50,000, and his more recent films have cost in the millions. We all traveled very economically, mostly by trains and automobiles. We all took the cheapest flights we could find. We all stayed in motels, and I can’t tell you how fun that was. We just had a real intimate vibe. Everyone did this for no money. I’m more used to producing anywhere from a $5 million to a $150 million film. You just don’t see people doing things for free that often, even the nicest people in the world.

 

Oh, please. It’s like, “Sony is paying the tab. We want to go first class.”

Exactly. We tried to keep ourselves at a low-enough budget so that if there was a chance someday, and only when we really had something to present, we could pitch ourselves to some networks. And we got on the network that was our first choice. And we were very lucky, because MTV easily could have said no. And the reason they were my first choice was because they are, in my opinion, the lion’s mouth of youth.

 

How long did it take you to edit?

Three months. Myself and my three producers were really just new to it, and trying to find our way. So we just kept trying to figure out how to do it. Our first early cuts were good, but we felt that when we really sat back and watched it, there was just no element of the journey. I had been so focused on the other subjects that I had almost cut myself out of it entirely, because, as a director, I wasn’t interested in myself. I know myself. I live with myself. I’m sick of myself. But it really lost the narrative thread. And I also wanted there to be humor and emotion there. So the first cut took a month, and then we went back for another pass for a second month and worked on my journey. We had 80 hours of footage, so by the second month, we were down to a two-hour version. And then, for the third month, we just really spent whittling it down and taking this piece of marble and making a little sculpture out of it. By then we had no objectivity. It crawled up our butts and died. I mean, we were just so stuck in it. And this new editor made us sit down and talk about stories. And he really came in and just helped us hone in.

 

You had a big learning curve to be a Hollywood producer. Was it the same with producing a documentary about politics?

When I started my production company, and I don’t know if I did it subconsciously or not, it was exactly the way I started this documentary. I funded my own production company for two years, until I felt that we could go to a studio and have something to offer them. When I started my production company, I had been making films for 20 years. But that still doesn’t give you the experience of how a budget works, or how the casting process works. So I went on a learning curve. And I did this documentary exactly the same way. I just like to do things without other people’s expenses and expectations.

 

And the major difference in making a film versus making a documentary?

The thing that really baffled me about this experience was that I’m so used to working with a script, and using it as a guide, and we did not have anything like that. We only had the opportunity to know what we wanted and to try to capture them and to go to the places we thought they would happen. But you never know. Like when we drove through Selma, we saw people playing at a baseball field. And it wasn’t planned. And I had butterflies in my stomach because I had so much fear of coming in and in any way disrupting anyone’s life or making anyone at all uncomfortable.

 

 

It’s a very foreign world from yours.

And I had so much respect for it. I remember that day I was very nervous, and we decided to go stop at the baseball field and interview some people. And it was all spontaneous. And we sat there for 20 minutes watching their game and eventually started talking to people. And that’s where the guy came from who told us he was in the march, and he became like our angel. So we really did things spontaneously. We did things from our hearts. We did things instinctively.

 

Had this boom in documentaries started yet?

No, none of it. It was really a quiet thing when we started. We weren’t even in editing yet when we saw an early screening of Super Size Me, and I just walked out of there going, “Fuck, I want to throw in the towel. That is like one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. What am I doing in this world? How dare I even attempt this?”

 

And your reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11?

I went to the premiere. I hate going to premieres, and I ran past the red carpet. I didn’t even want to be photographed. I said, “I’m only here as a learner.” I went with one of my producers, and we just sat there as the credits rolled up. And we looked at each other. And we were just silent the whole ride home. And we went into the editing room the next day, and we were so inspired. And I watched Roger & Me a lot while I was making this documentary. And that was a real narrative piece. And then I watched The Fog of War. And I was just studying documentary after documentary, and being so inspired by what people were doing. I didn’t want to copy, but I was just trying to be more informed. And I’ve always liked documentaries. I just ate them up like a delicious meal all the time.

 

What was the most surprising thing for you that you captured on film?

I’d say my desperation to have a better understanding of things. I’m just so utterly, gluttonously passionate about wanting to be smarter about things. And the thing that I feel like I learned most from this experience was that politics is about getting to know yourself and figuring out what you want and going out there and expressing that. And there’s a reason that voting is anonymous, because there’s something very alone about it. It was fun for me to share something that, in the end, I learned was very private.

 

You realize this is all going to hurt your image as the boob-exposing, so-crazy-God-only-knows-what-she’s-going-to-do-next ditsy blond . . .

I wouldn’t have expected this of me either. So I can’t wait to surprise myself again. I don’t know what the hell I’ll be up to next, but it’ll be really fun.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.


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