What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film?
My first memories of Jim Traficant take place at my grandmother’s house. Snippets of the “adult” conversations often included mentions of Jesus Christ, JFK, and Jim Traficant – and not necessarily in that order. He was the football star, turned Walking Tall sheriff, and finally our Congressman. I was told he stood up for the “little guy!”
Even at a young age, especially at a young age, the guy’s entire act really amused me; the polyester suits, the dead animal hair, the vulgar language, and adolescent humor. I didn’t know or really even care about politics, but this guy was a fantastic. He cracked me up. On Sundays, I vividly remember laying belly down on my grandmother’s green shag carpet just a few feet from the wooden box television, watching Traficant yell directly into the camera. It was like he was looking me in the eyes. He was oddly magnetic.
When I realized that I had to be a filmmaker, I knew this was my story to tell.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
Jim Traficant is from my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio — we were a one industry town. A steel town, once the second largest producer of steel in the world. And, in a six month period is all collapsed. Everyone, including every man in family lost everything, overnight.
Jim Traficant came to represent everything about our town. The anger, the frustration, the “chip-on-our-shoulder” populism.
It making the film, it was my goal to render a portrait of a real person – the good, the bad, and the utterly inexplicable. I poured through every court document, devoured every C-Span clip, and coveted anything that could help me understand Traficant and his relationship to the Mahoning Valley. My opinion swayed almost daily – how could the same person be so devastingly brilliant and so bat-shit crazy? I kept asking myself: was Traficant a transcendent hero who spoke truth to power or Youngstown’s cautionary tale of greed, corruption, and ego. No matter how strongly galvanized my opinions became over the years – I removed myself from the film to present a complicated portrait of a man and let the audience form their own conclusions.
It’s my hope the documentary captures the larger-than-life persona of Jim Traficant and illustrates one of the most turbulent times and unique places in American history. Much like the blast furnaces that dominated the landscape and psyche for generations – Traficant was vibrant and powerful, and now he’s a relic of a bygone era. A fading symbol of all things good — and bad.
My childhood fascination with an enigmatic hero turned into a filmmaking odyssey where memories and emotions are confronted with facts and truths.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
It took us over 6 years to make the film, so many many things changed. But, most dramatically Jim Traficant passed away just as we were finishing the film — so it changed the ending, the tone and put a greater responsibility on us and our film. We would be, in a way, casting the images of his final legacy.
What influenced the visual style of your film?
Our doc is really a vast tapestry of archives. We’ve worked hand-in-glove with our local historical society. So, we wanted to use as many of the old news clips, photos, campaign materials, etc.
Jim Traficant was larger than life, and extremely well covered by our local press.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during writing and production?
To start making the film. Being born and raised in Youngstown we all knew the magnitude of the project — and how emotionally invested everyone in Youngstown is regarding Traficant, the mob and the mills.
Were there any risks that you faced during writing/production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
Being threaten by “retired” gangsters to not make the film!
I didn’t not embrace that in any way — haha!
I did just ignore and keep plowing forward.
What risks does your story take?
I think its a great risk to allow the archives to dictate the story.
I knew from the beginning I would not use a narrator, nor would I write soundbites for interviewees, or try to orchestrate the documentary in any way.
I choose to interview the people that lived during this incredibly volatile time period and only use first hand accounts to illustrate our story.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
I think it’s simple. Get started. It’s going to change a million times. So, just get started. Really great things will reveal themselves the deeper you get into the process.