A year ago, Christopher Stoudt, the director of “Four Seasons Total Documentary,” was at home when his roommate’s brother, the sales manager of a Philadelphia-based landscaping company called Four Seasons, was at home. texted a photo of Donald Trump’s surrogate Rudy Giuliani sitting in an office behind a nameplate that read “Boss Lady.”
âWhen that was happening, I thought it was just one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,â he told Salon in a recent phone interview. Hours later, that moment was part of a ridiculous press conference that turned a small family-owned landscaping business into a local meme and landmark.
As a reminder, former President Trump launched the silliness by tweeting: âLawyers News Conference Four Seasons, Philadelphia. 11:00 amâ Then he posted a correction: âBig press conference today in Philadelphia at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping. 11: 30h! ” The famous hotel chain was forced to follow up by saying it had no connection with the landscaping company, which serves local businesses around Philly.
But as the following coverage chased down the reasons for the odd choice of the Trump campaign for the last breath of his campaign – the election was called for the Joe Biden mid-Giuliani collapse – the staff at Four Seasons and its owner, Marie Siravo, were left behind to face a barrage of hateful voicemail messages and online harassment for hosting the event.
âFour Seasons Total Documentaryâ is part of MSNBC’s push into the long-running non-fiction space, with Network President Rashida Jones serving as executive producer on the project. Don’t be fooled by its tongue-in-cheek title – this is an utterly serious but humorous analysis of how the press conference came about and its impact on this local business, presented from the point staff perspective.
RELATED: Four Seasons Total Landscaping Debacle Finally Gets the Documentary Treatment It Deserves
It also tells the story of how Four Seasons turned a situation that nearly destroyed the livelihoods Siravo built in 28 years from scratch. The landscaping company’s salvation came from picking up the narrative, making itself the epicenter of the joke. They’re the reason Four Seasons Total Landscaping t-shirts became a hipster fashion staple last spring.
This brave tone also informs Stoudt’s approach, starting with the fact that, at around 28 minutes, this documentary is noticeably shorter than the press conference that inspired it. Giuliani’s relentless ramblings widened a show for nothing to 37 minutes and 21 seconds.
The play may be more of an episode on an episode than a documentary, but its economical runtime doesn’t detract from its value. During this time, Stoudt and his subjects, including the journalists who covered the campaign and the event, dispelled many misconceptions about the how and why of the event. But as the director puts it, this is the least important part of the story.
It focuses on the people who said yes to a campaign’s request to host an event on their premises, and their amazement that they were part of a larger story. For Stoudt, the press conference at Four Seasons was an apt bookend for a presidential era that began with a game show host descending a golden escalator.
Watching Trump’s presidency end in front of a garage door next to a coiled yellow pipe, he observed, “It was kind of like the time when the Emperor had no clothes for the Trump campaign, you know? It’s kind of like it lets us finally take a look behind the curtain and see reality as it was. ”
Read on for the rest of our conversation with the âFour Seasons Total Documentaryâ.
The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
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What prompted you to shoot a documentary on, among other things, a press conference in a landscaping company?
It just seemed like an amazing opportunity to tell the story of 2020 and use that press conference as sort of analog to the Madness of the Year, divide the elections for so many – it probably is. the most controversial election of my life, at least. And I wanted to tell this story of the underdog of seeing this family seize this opportunity and turn it to their advantage.
Because at first the whole world hated them. They were getting endless phone calls and hate mail, and people thought they approved of the Trump campaign because of their hosting. They would have done it for any campaign, they would have done it for Biden, if he had asked for it.
You’ve done a lot of short films, and one of them being a 60 second short film you did on Katrina, a very different kind of disaster. You seem to gravitate towards news hotspots that say specific things about America. What does this documentary tell you about American culture?
It was just interesting to highlight what I felt as a collective sigh of relief for the country. In 2020, we were inside, we were locked in front of our computers. Much of our American experience that year was online. And when that event happened, it became the kind of antidote to all the misery and fear that many people had experienced. It also gave us this common experience to bond that was neither traumatic nor tragic. It was a light moment to show us that we should be able to laugh at ourselves.
It’s also an interesting examination of the instant judgment people have cast on the company, simply for choosing to host a Trump campaign press conference. The owner never reveals what her policy is, but she always has such a vitriol directed at her. Like you said, by the time you got to Four Seasons, the family had already turned the story around. But did they hesitate when you approached them?
They were hesitant at first. And the reason they were was because every outing in the sun, and everyone wanted to know why that had happened. Why did they book this press conference? Attention wandered completely from the family. And in fact, they were supposed to be anonymous, right?
The press conference was never meant to be announced that it was at the Four Seasons. Then Trump made his tweet, and suddenly, they were put under this magnifying glass. Suddenly their reputation and character was on the line. And it was a place they had never asked to be.
For me, I have always focused less on the Why of it that the who of it. And in telling this story, the which is it, I can still touch on the Trump campaign and the dysfunction that was going on at the time. And the kind of denouement of Rudy Giuliani before our eyes. I mean, the great irony is that if it hadn’t been for this funny little mistake, no one would have ever seen this press conference.
And what I took away from the media coverage while directing the film was that the Trump campaign didn’t want any looks on Rudy Giuliani that day. He had derailed, he had assistants assigned to him to make sure he wasn’t creating more trouble for the campaign than he already had. So, by this perfect failure, all of a sudden the whole world is watching.
And the media reaction was a bit classist. Like, everybody was talking about the way [Four Seasons Total Landscaping] was next to a sex shop and in front of a crematorium. The reality that this was just a small family business, trying to support itself, catering to the needs of local businesses that needed landscaping, was sort of glossed over. Suddenly their character was on trial.
What did you do or say to put them at ease and let you tell their story?
My family is from Reading, PA which is very close to Philly, about an hour away. So you know I don’t have any credit for Philly Street, but I felt a sense of familiarity with the area. And I remember the first thing I said to them was that if we wanted to make the movie, they were going to have to take me to a lot of great cheesesteak restaurants. And yes, we just started to laugh and joke. It was easy for me to be able to sort of start joking around with them and start removing some sort of “press” from it all. In other words, I approached them in a way that no one else had.
Did you take it to other outlets besides MSNBC? Or were you hired to do it for them?
We were certainly not contracted by MSNBC.
I asked this question because the cable news branding has become very politicized and MSNBC is seen as the liberal answer to Fox. You never say what family policy is, you just tell the story. Has a representation of politics entered into the formation of the narrative?
I will give a little history there. The story changed a lot as it developed, right? At first, the tone was a little more comical. And then I remember, on January 6, I was in a Zoom meeting with my producer. . . and I got a text from a friend saying, âHey, are you looking at this? People are storming the Capitol right now. This moment was such a tragedy for our country.
And after that, I started to see the direct line you could potentially draw from Four Seasons at that point. We had Rudy Giuliani in front of the crowd shouting: âTrial by combat! The importance of story and the power of story really became evident, and of course we needed to correct. Then the goal became to be able to tell a story that could reflect what happened without editing it in a way that made us tip our hands too much on what we believe as filmmakers.
Because when you make a film, you have to put aside your own prejudices. You have to be objective. And the expression we like to use is a warm heart and clear eyes.
It’s very “Friday Night Lights”.
“I can’t lose.” Exactly.
But I still make films with a really warm heart. I like to find the good in people and humor. For me, politics ends up distracting, because that’s not really the point.
Look, I’m a long haired guy from California. And when I show up in Philly, Holmesburg, with long hair, it’s pretty obvious where I am, you know. But that has never been blamed on me. And that wasn’t really the point. He always tried to let the moments speak for themselves.
You always try to tell a story that is as universal as possible. And this is the American experience, and the American experience should be bipartisan. He must not divide. I think everyone can agree that the division we experienced as a country before this moment was incredibly toxic and created so much angst for so many people. We wanted to do the opposite. We didn’t want to create more division with our film.
âFour Seasons Total Documentaryâ will premiere Sunday, November 7 at 10 p.m. on MSNBC.
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