Screens Playing with fire

‘The Big Buy’ spent two years tracking Ronnie Earle as he built his case against Tom DeLay

Texas filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck planted themselves on history’s doorstep two years ago when they started filming Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle as he investigated Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and his Political Action Committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. The PAC is suspected of funneling corporate donations to state elections as part of the Texas GOP’s successful 2002 plan to take control of the statehouse and redraw congressional districts in favor of Republican demographics a plan that resulted in significant gains for Republicans at the national level in 2004.

Texas filmmakers Mark Birnbaum, top left, and Jim Schermbeck, who won critical acclaim for 2003’s Larry v. Lockney, followed Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, bottom, as he built his case against Tom DeLay. In the wake of DeLay’s recent indictments, they’re filming a new ending.

History obliged the documentarians when DeLay was indicted last week on two counts of conspiracy to skirt election laws and money laundering. Birnbaum and Schermbeck already had finished and screened one version of the story, The Big Buy, when DeLay was indicted, but are now filming a new ending. They spoke with the Current in consecutive phone interviews.

Where does the original film end?

Mark Birnbaum: What happened was that my friend, Bart Weiss, who runs the Dallas Video Festival, for many years has presented me with the gift of a deadline. He called us and said, ‘You guys have been working on this film for two years, finish it! I’ll give you the closing film spot at the festival, Sunday night in the big room.’ So Jim and I talked about it and we said, Let’s do it. Really, Ronnie Earl has done what he set out to do. He at one point in the film raises his hand and points, and he says, ‘It’s my job to point in the direction of the hill that needs to be taken. And this is a problem, this a probem facing our country, and we need to do something about it.’ And at the end of the film he says we need to turn off this tap, this corporate money. So even before any trials, he’s already accomplished that. So we decided we could end our film with that.

I thought if Tom DeLay was going to be indicted that would have happened already.

So you were surprised when the indictment was handed down?

MB: As every bit as surprised as you were. Every bit.

DeLay’s defenders have latched on to the film as evidence that Ronnie Earle is a self-promoter with bigger political ambitions who is using this case to catapult himself onto the national stage.

MB: His bigger political ambitions are that he wants to retire. He was planning on retiring about three years ago, before all this started. I’ve come to know him as a modest fella. He’s a politician, he’s run for office; it takes a certain amount of ego to do that. But he’s not part of the kind of “in” political group here in Austin. He’s not a big guy in the Democratic party.

Ronnie Earle

If you could put the story in historical terms, what is the kernel that appealed to you?

MB: I gotta say that the story we sought to tell was not exactly dramatic, but we thought it was important, that plan that began with `the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee` to dominate politics in the state of Texas and ultimately in the United States by first winning these elections in 2002, the state elections, then pushing through off-year redistricting, redrawing the map, so that in 2004 they could win a majority in Congress a perfectly legal plan, all according to the way the system is supposed to work, but for one alleged fact: For the first step of their plan, to win the 2002 elections in Texas, they used corporate money for political purposes a felony since 1905. And when Ronnie found out about that, he said, You can’t do that. It’s against the law.

So it was also well over a year into it that we switched our stylistic approach to the story to make it a crime story, a noir film: a lot of shots of the capitol at night, which looks kind of menacing. And we started shooting our interviews at night with one bulb on the desk kind of look. And that lent an appropriate feel to the story. Ronnie Earle was pursuing a crime, a number of crimes, that had been committed. That gave it a much more coherent style and look and we thought we had never seen a documentary quite like that maybe Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line, but that was dark, but it wasn’t noir.

Did you talk to Republicans who were concerned about how the ’02 and ’04 elections were won or are they just happy to be firmly in control of the state?

MB: It turns out the attorneys for most of these Republicans are liberal Democrats here in Austin Joe Turner and Roy Minton they’re quite openly and liberal Democrats, but they defend these Republican guys. They expressed concern, the same concern that Ronnie is expressing.

We haven’t gotten anybody fairly high up in the Republican party. We’re now attempting to call Mr.DeLay and Mr. DeLay’s attorneys to let them know we very much want to interview them. Now that we’re re-doing the end of the film, we’d like very much for Mr. DeLay to sit for an interview and explain why he’s innocent and express his concerns about Mr. Earle. It’s gonna be a little bit harder for him to say no to. At least I think maybe he’ll answer the door when we knock.

Did you feel you came away from this with a new perspective on the political process or did it reinforce beliefs you already held?

MB: Very much so in that I wasn’t familiar with the details of this story and I was pretty unclear about what redistricting was and how that game is played. And as always happens when I make a film, I’m immersed in other people’s lives and in the details of the facts that surround their lives, so I come away learning a lot. Our last film, Larry v. Lockney, was shot in a small town in the Panhandle, Lockney, Texas. And I had very little, almost no experience of life in a small town, only what I’d read, but I hadn’t directly experienced it, so it was a real revelation for me. It’s one of the great benefits of this job; it’s the greatest job in the world.

What do you think Ronnie Earle’s three greatest political skills are?

MB: His sense of humor. Have you heard why he said he wants to be cremated? He says becase there’d be a constant line of people waiting to piss on his grave. He’s a very deeply committed American. He just completely, deeply believes in democracy and its effectiveness and that is absolutely the core of what he is fighting for and trying to protect, that’s what he feels is at stake: Democracy is imperiled by this large influx of corporate money into the elections process.

When this Republican leadership is under attack they have been very adept at turning it around and undermining the accuser. Do you think this movie has the potential to counteract that kind of blowback?

MB: Hardly. I think our little movie is a just ping-pong ball on that constantly crashing wave of administration and big political power. So I don’t think they have anything to worry about from us. But, I’ll tell you this: `Texas` State Representative Lon Burnam `D-Ft. Worth` was at the screening and he’s a guy who lives and breathes this stuff, he eats this stuff for breakfast. He saw the film and he said he’d never seen all of it presented in the way that we did, the way that we connected the dots, and `he` thought that people needed to see it just because of that, because it just explained a complicated process.

We made a film about campaign-finance reform without once ever mentioning the phrase “campaign-finance reform,” which causes people’s eyes to roll up in their heads. So I feel like we’ve accomplished something here; we’ve explained a complex process that most people are not aware of but that affects their lives, `that` changed the political climate of this state and of the United States.

How did you feel about this very close-up look at campaign finance? Jaded or optimistic?

Jim Schermbeck: Oh, we don’t use those words. We don’t want anybody to know this is a film about campaign finance, or else they won’t see it. If you’re talking about how elections get their gas in America, I think it’s eye-opening in that respect and Tom DeLay is kind of in a class by himself in that regard, so it’s an extreme of an extreme close-up and it’s pretty interesting to watch.

Since DeLay hasn’t talked to us yet, there’s not really a good proponent of this type of system speaking on his behalf. So I’m not sure you get the other side, its defense whatever that could be to rely on this kind of money to do the politicking.

You said that DeLay is in a class by himself; could you expand on that a little more?

JS: On the Hill his various enterprises are known as DeLay Inc. for a reason. There are interlocking committees like TRMPAC and ARMPAC and so forth. He’s had children’s charities, sometimes money comes to children’s charities, sometimes they’re linked to political activities as well. He was the organzier of the K Street Project which is now an online affair where they fill every available lobbyist position on the Hill with Republicans. So it is quite the empire.

What is your philosophy about the way the political finance system is supposed to work?

JS: Well, I think people should be allowed to give to the campaigns of their choice, and I certainly have done that. It’s how much you give and whether that twists the campaign itself and whether that money should be coming from just individuals themselves or corporations. And I think Texas has a good law surprisingly good for Texas and keeping corporate money out of those elections is a good idea. I think there were good reasons to do it in 1905 `when the law was passed`; I think there are good reasons to do it now.

After spending a lot of intimate time with Ronnie Earle, what is your measure of the man?

JS: People accuse him of being a partisan Democrat, and I don’t think that’s where he’s coming from. If there were still a chapter of the Farmers Alliance Populist Party left over from the turn of the century, I think Ronnie would be the first to sign up for that, because he’s more of a populist than a Democrat.

I’m not sure people know what “populist” means anymore. How do you define it?

JS: It’s kind of a bottom-up view of politics, putting more emphasis on the grass-roots, citizen-friendly aspects of government than on a top-down approach. It’s giving citizens at the grass-roots level more power to decide things rather than assigning that power to institutions or our government or things above them in the hierarchy.

Was there a particular moment in the filming process, a particular interview, that was a turning point or an epiphany for you?

JS: We started `filming` right after the investigation started, so we weren’t sure we even had a story to tell until the first indictment came out. And it was that day of the indictment and the night of the indictment that changed things and made sure we had a film. And certainly the interviews we had with Ronnie around that time, and especially the night of, were pivotal for us. I think because of the blowback he knew was coming, he took it with a it was all kind of an abstract idea up to then, so the indictment made it real and he takes on a more serious tone at that point. I guess for him, as well as us, that was a pivotal moment.

As a concerned citizen as much as a filmmaker, are you worried about the blowback?

JS: You mean because of the DeLay indictment? No, that’s to be expected. You play with fire when you start messing with Tom DeLay, so I imagine `Earle` took that into account.

I understand there is the possibility of a theatrical release?

JS: Well, we are all lighting candles that that is going to happen. A theatrical release would be like hitting the lottery for people like us. We’re gonna finish the film and we’re gonna get it the best deal we can to have it seen by as many people as we can in hopes of showing them what this case was about.

Our idea when we came to it, or at least my idea, was to provide a documenation of history in the making. I was beginning high school when the Sharpstown scandal hit in Houston, a scandal about 30-35 years ago that shook the Democratic party to its core in Texas; it was a big deal. When I read that this investigation was starting, I remember thinking we need to document this, because there’s no film you can go back and see that tells you what Sharpstown is about, why it’s important, why you should be reading about it now in order not to repeat those same mistakes. So my goal was to go out and do a film that can be seen 10 years from now and they will instantly understand what this case was all about it and how it got to where it is.

Mark said Lon Burnam saw the film and felt that it provided a great narrative.

JS: `Laughing` Well, Lon’s gonna say that that’s pretty self-serving because he’s in the film!

It’s not just about Ronnie Earle, Ronnie Earle is certainly the point of view that we have because he allowed us access to him, so of course we’re gonna use that, but the film is really about all the events from the 2002 election onward. So it includes redistricting, and the investigation, and the indictment, and so on. I think what it does, in terms of the timeliness of what is going on right now, it puts the DeLay indictment in total historical context. People can understand why Tom DeLay might have been indicted if they see this film.

By Elaine Wolff

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