John Sullivan on “America”, Exceptionalism and Conservatives in Arts

John Sullivan on “America”, Exceptionalism and Conservatives in Arts

The documentary film, America, opened a few weeks ago. Directed by John Sullivan and author Dinesh D’Souza, the film serves as a sequel of sorts to their highly successful 2016: Obama’s America. Kevin Williams spoke with the film’s co-director/co-writer John Sullivan about his film’s importance, American Exceptionalism and Conservatives in the Arts.

America Movie Poster 1

Kevin Williams: Coming out of 2016: Obama’s America, what did you want to do differently with your new film America?

John Sullivan: What we wanted to do is not what we just did which was a film on President Obama. We didn’t want this to be Part II. We look at America [our country] as having several different types of critics right now… those who are external critics and internal critics. We wanted to look at their criticisms head on because we thought no one has made a moral case for America.

It seems like the founding of America is under attack. The Expansion of the West is under attack. Our foreign policy is under attack. All these things are happening now and in this political climate. This [all] seems to have gone on longer than these last six years and we wanted to take a big look at this.

America Production Still, Courtesy Dinesh DSouza

General George Washington leads the Continental Army
in a scene from AMERICA.

I was really inspired by the History Channel series The Men Who Built America and thought that it was fantastic. I really thought that there was something in that style which allows you to tell a bigger story. Movies are all about emotion. You can bring in an intellectual argument or information into it, but it is really about moving people in an emotional way first. What we looked at was the idea of let’s have the audience meet these characters that we all learn about in history books. Let’s have them meet Lincoln, meet George Washington. Let’s have them meet Frederick Douglass. What would that look like? So we have a lot of historical reenactments from the arrival of Columbus all the way through the present day. We kind of mix in Dinesh D’Souza with a number of interviews with people on the Right and the Left who are some of the most staunch critics and defenders of America. And people outside of America who are defending it. In our movie, we present a new take on America and where we are at in our present situation by looking at our country’s history.

Kevin Williams: Did you have any worries about presenting American Exceptionalism as a subject matter? It could go above some regular film goers’ heads.

John Sullivan: You can take these issues like American Exceptionalism and a lot of times, they can pass over people’s heads very quickly. That is where I think the emotional connection comes in because the audience suddenly sees… by bringing out who George Washington was and understanding who this man was a little more and where we might be without him… we suddenly get the emotional response to this Exceptionalism and how lucky we are. I think American Exceptionalism runs two ways… I think we’re exceptional because other people recognize that. We have the Statue of Liberty because France at one time recognized that we were an exceptional nation. I think Exceptionalism also runs [a second way]… because this is an exceptional moment of time in the world that America is in. We can also lose that same Exceptionalism very fast.

Kevin Williams: After making 2016, was it more difficult or easier to make America?

John Sullivan: The hardest part for me is that I am very competitive so the bar we set for ourselves was so high on this one as an independent film. So I wanted to make America an exceptional film itself to really push and challenge myself as a writer, director, and producer. This one was also very different in making it as it has a lot more dramatic reenactments in it and we were trying to work with actors who aren’t A-list actors, but are very good actors. But I also didn’t want to make a “cheesy” movie and that was one of my biggest fears. Having high production values… I’m constantly hammering people to have high production values and I loathe to be a hypocrite there and not have it be the same for myself.

Kevin Williams: As a filmmaker and a conservative who’s followed your work, I must say that you are really personally pushing the bar for folks who want to do this. Do you ever feel a responsibility to keep that bar so high?

John Sullivan: I do. I feel a responsibility on two sides of that. I feel a responsibility to keep the bar high and hold all of us to a little bit higher accountability. As high as we can. The other side of that [responsibility] is that we are always limited by budgets. We don’t have studios behind us, so I do understand that. But at the same time, technology has allowed us to be a lot better at our craft. There is a lot more availability of good crews now than there were ten years ago.I am also trying to work with young filmmakers who are maybe in their teens and train them. I tell them, “hey guys, this what we can do and this is how we can do it.” I try to spend time with younger filmmakers and mentoring them along as I see this as part of the process of reaching back. Someone in my life did that for me and so I think that is very important to do that for someone else. That is one of the things that we don’t do very well in general. Particularly, those of the Center-Right political persuasion.

Kevin Williams: That is true. There are a lot of folks on the Right who complain about the lack of Right-leaning filmmakers, but they are unwilling to train someone from their side to do it.

John Sullivan: Exactly.

Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from AMERICA.

Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from AMERICA.

Kevin Williams: After having such a success with 2016, what expectations do you have for America?

John Sullivan: My expectation for the film is really to create a dialogue. I want to have conversations. The thing that I was proudest of with 2016 was that a lot of conversation happened around that film. I think it raised information that people didn’t know about the President and it started conversations. I had the experience several times while I was traveling around the country promoting it… I’d be sitting in airports and people didn’t know who I was. They know who Dinesh is but they don’t know who I am and people are sitting around me talking about 2016 and saying “What this mean?” or “I don’t believe this part!” and “Is that really true?”

People were doing their own research on it and for a filmmaker, that is just the proudest moment! It like having a kid who just won a big track race or something. This is what you want. To create a dialogue in the public square.

Kevin Williams: In making 2016, you did a lot of traveling. Where did filming America take you this time?

John Sullivan: For this film, we shot in Camden, South Carolina; Tampa-St. Petersburg for another set of reenactments; Oklahoma City… and then we did interviews all around the country. We were in D.C., New York, Los Angeles and all over the country filming. This gave us the settings we needed for all the different elements of our film.

Kevin Williams: What do you expect the Media response to be to this film?

John Sullivan: Ha-ha (hearty laugh).

Kevin Williams: As if I should ask?

John Sullivan: One thing we found with 2016 is that it took the Media by storm. It happened so fast in the ramp-up of what it was and it was so far off the Media’s radar to begin with that they almost didn’t know how to respond.

Some of them tried to be silent. I think if this one gains traction and it starts to do similar business, I think they’ll be out with every sling and arrow that they can shoot at every member of our team. We already see what is going on with Dinesh D’Souza and in this sense, I think that the critical response will be that “it’s not worth your time, not da-da-da.”
The thing I always find interesting in our reviews is that nobody ever actually reviews the film or the quality of the filmmaking. There are so many critics who are trying to move into the political realm and to be honest… they are way out of their league on that part of it.

I always find it funny because they are arguing political points and I read several film reviews on 2016 that had nothing to do with the film. I mean nothing to do with the film. Because they were going back [in time] to stuff Dinesh had said. Well, what about the film?

With America, we have upped the production values a good bit. There are big battle reenactments scenes and we shot them in a very stylized way that makes it feel like a major feature film. From that standpoint, the critics should say “I don’t like their political persuasion, but wait a second… these guys know what they are doing.” Hopefully, they’ll look at the filmmaking aspect of it.

Kevin Williams: Was it easier to raise the budget you needed for making America?

John Sullivan: Yes, the financing was a little bit easier for this one. We proved ourselves with 2016. So that made America a lot easier to do. We are still kind of in that lower end of independent filmmaking. I would always joke when I was promoting 2016 and this is true for America too… that we were the catering budget of Batman!

But being an independent filmmaker, there is a discipline that comes out of that. Having to be very planned-out on what we wanted to do during filming. We might have a little space to move around in our budgets, but I can’t go back now and say “I didn’t like the sunset in the Revolutionary War reenactments. Let’s go shoot that again.” It’s not going to happen. That type of stuff is hard because you have to be much more disciplined.

Kevin Williams: As for the Conservatives who might have the bucks to help finance more films, are they beginning to understand about the connections between art, commerce and culture regarding films?

John Sullivan: Unfortunately, no. There are people who have the means to really make a difference if they really understood. I grew up as a huge Jacque Cousteau fan. I loved The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau and had all the books at the age of five. That is who I wanted to be in life, I loved scuba diving. In the show, Jacque Cousteau always said, “you always save what you love.”

I don’t know that people from the Right love films and art in that way. I think they don’t really understand the value that it has culturally in that sense. That is the hardest part we have [to face] as filmmakers. Look, I have all this research on George Washington that we use in America. I would love to make a feature film on Washington. That is a $40,000,000 proposition even on the low-end. Just because it is a historical piece, big battle sequences, locations, everything.

I sit here and lament the fact that even after 2016, I can’t round up 40 rich Republicans to give $1,000,000 each to make a Washington movie. I think that is really sad. There are some great historical figures like Frederick Douglass… what a story! We did so much research on him. I’m glad we are bringing people like him to the screen on a small scale, but I think a feature film with Denzel Washington as Frederick Douglass… how incredible would that be?


Frederick Douglass, by Rich Gibbs

I’m not saying there has to be any politics in it, but just the historical story of Frederick Douglass escaping slavery and becoming who he was… a banker and the Ambassador to Bermuda? All the stuff that he did in the Abolitionist Movement? It’s just a fantastic American story and part of our history. There are so many great characters that we can talk about from our own history that’d make great movies that people would come to see. It is just unfortunate that we don’t have the momentum yet in that way.

Maybe America can change that if we have success with the film.

Kevin Williams: Maybe a younger investor?

John Sullivan: I’ve seen that a little bit more. I think people under the age of 40 “get it” very clearly. Maybe we are getting to the stage where some Conservatives in that age group are starting to have the resources to put behind something like this.

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