If you had told Greg Whiteley in 2006 that he was going to spend the next six years of his life on the road covering a presidential candidate, he probably would’ve reconsidered the opportunity he had initially pursued so diligently. “I just couldn’t have imagined swallowing up six years of life working on this project,” says the documentary filmmaker who was just coming off making two well-regarded movies in a three-year span. “I showed up on Christmas Eve, met the [Romney] family for the first time and filmed them discussing whether or not [Mitt] should run. And I just didn’t stop filming for six years.”
In Mitt, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and debuts on Netflix on Jan. 24, Whiteley’s cameras go beyond the campaigns, beyond the strategies, beyond the polls. Viewers barely glimpse Romney’s advisors or television talking heads, and the media-fueled horse-races that are the Republican primaries and general election exist only as a low buzz in the background. Instead, Whiteley is in the family room and hotel rooms of the giant brood of Romneys as they rally around their dad, catching them unguarded at the most crucial moments of the elections: losing to John McCain, the momentum-shifting 2012 debates with President Obama, and the almost-bittersweet final moment of a six-year campaign that came up short. You might not love the Mitt Romney who ran for president, but Whiteley makes it very difficult not to like the man and his family.
“People ask me, ‘How did this happen?’” says Whiteley, “To this day, I can’t tell you. I continue to be surprised by it.”
Back in 2005, Whiteley’s Sundance documentary New York Doll got a limited theatrical release, and one of the places it briefly played was Boston. “I remember getting an email from somebody that following Monday after it played there saying, ‘Hey, I saw your movie and I just want to tell you that I loved it. And you’ll be maybe happy and surprised to know that the governor of Massachusetts was sitting just two rows ahead of me,’” says Whiteley. “I looked at the gate receipts for Boston and I think we averaged maybe six people per screening. So what were the odds? If you knew the movie New York Dolls, you would maybe be surprised that the Governor would be interested in this movie. So I just became interested in him and I began paying attention to him in the news.”
When Romney began to be mentioned as a possible presidential candidate the next year, and the media’s early interest basically started and ended with Romney’s Mormon religion, Whiteley — who is also Mormon — thought the candidate might be an interesting next project. Through a contact, he finagled a lunch with Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, and pitched him his idea: “I said ‘Look, what will invariably happen is there will be this huge disparity between [the public perception] and who your dad really is. The campaign is going to be putting out a message, the media has typically been taught to cover candidates [a certain way], and both of them end up creating this rather two-dimensional image. I think I was able to sell to Tagg that really what I’m good at is capturing people as they are. I’m patient enough and I’m good at this kind of storytelling. I remember just getting halfway through that pitch, and he goes, ‘No, I totally get it. I’m totally in. We’d love to do it.”
Tagg may have spoken too soon. His father initially nixed the idea… but his mother, Ann, said yes. That’s how Whiteley found himself invited to the Romney house on Christmas Eve 2006, as the family weighed mounting a campaign. “I was sort of surprised at how quickly I felt comfortable there filming,” says Whiteley. “I’ve since learned the Romneys are habitually polite, and I think they make it a point to go out of their way to make people feel at home and to feel comfortable — even if they don’t like you. So I think the fact that I was getting such good footage was less a tribute to me, frankly, and more a tribute to them.”
After Romney came up short in 2008, losing the Republican nomination to John McCain, Whiteley began cutting his film, assuming that Romney was done running for political office. When he got the call from Tagg that Mitt was back in for 2012, he signed on for the sequel. For understandable political reasons, there were preliminary conversations to cut a version of the film and release it during the 2012 campaign, showcasing a side of Romney that many voters never got to meet. “From what I understand, there were conversations about, ‘Hey, could the film be helpful?’ but I was never privy to those,” says Whiteley. “I knew what I was not willing to do. I was not willing to make editorial changes at all based on the needs of the campaign. I finally just determined, ‘Yeah, look, releasing the film is not going to be possible. I just don’t think the story’s done.’”
The story ends, of course, with Election Day, and Whiteley captures that day in intimate detail, from when Romney goes to the polls and notes the long lines in the suburbs as a potential positive omen, to the excruciating family discussion about when and how to concede. From the beginning, Whiteley always had an inkling that Romney’s story wouldn’t have a happy ending, but in the final stretch of the election, he couldn’t help but feel emotional himself. He followed Mitt and Ann to their home after the defeat before turning off his camera for the last time. “I really had enjoyed my time with him, and I really considered it a very rare privilege,” Whiteley says. “And I think it was a privilege that I had grown to take for granted, but now that I was on this last day, I realized, ‘Oh, this is it.’ As it turned out, it was six of the best years of my life.”
Mitt premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17. The Festival runs Jan. 16-26.