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Mitt Romney documentary a standout amid Sundance's stars

Published January 7, 2014 9:17 am

Premieres • Mormon filmmaker gives inside look at 2008 and 2012 races.
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Filmmaker Greg Whiteley started making his documentary about Mitt Romney one Christmas Eve in Park City — and the first theater audience to see the movie will be in Utah, too.

Whiteley's film "Mitt," an inside look at the former Massachusetts governor and his family during his 2012 presidential campaign, is one of the films selected in the Documentary Premieres program of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

It's one of 24 titles in the Premieres and Documentary Premieres programs, announced Monday by festival organizers. These are often the big-ticket films, drawing big-name movie stars.

"Mitt" will have its first Sundance screening as the Salt Lake City Gala, on Friday, Jan. 17, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City. It will also screen in Park City.

People who can't make it to the festival won't have to wait long to see it: Netflix will premiere the film to its customers Friday, Jan. 24.

"There's a large gap between the Mitt Romney that people came to know based on the 24-hour news cycle, and the real Mitt Romney," Whiteley said in a phone interview Monday.

"It's not a puff piece on him," said Trevor Groth, programming director for the Sundance Film Festival. "It's a really neutral look at the process." That said, Groth opined that the movie "would have served him well during the election."

The press notes for "Mitt" boast the filmmaker's "unprecedented access" to Romney from his first presidential campaign in 2008, through the 2012 Republican nomination, and into the final, failed campaign against President Barack Obama.

"I was sort of allowed to be in rooms that I had no business being in," Whiteley said.

Whiteley's pursuit of Romney started in 2006, toward the end of Romney's term as governor — and when he started considering a presidential run.

Whiteley, who first came to Sundance with the 2005 rock 'n' roll profile "New York Doll," thought he would be the perfect filmmaker to chronicle Romney.

"I thought, 'I'm a Mormon, he's a Mormon, and this might be an interesting campaign,' " Whiteley said. Through a producer contact, Whiteley made a pitch over lunch to Romney's eldest son, Tagg.

"I said, 'You know your dad. He's one of those guys where the more you get to know him, the better he really is,' " Whiteley said.

Tagg Romney passed along the recommendation to his father. Mitt Romney nixed the idea, Whiteley said — but then Tagg approached his mom, Ann, who was more receptive.

Tagg Romney told Whiteley that the family would be gathering in Park City over Christmas to discuss whether Mitt Romney would run in the 2008 campaign. Whiteley asked if he could film the family discussion, and even offered to give the footage to the Romneys. So Whiteley spent Christmas Eve filming the Romneys.

From then on, Whiteley said, "I just never stopped filming. They just never said no."

Whiteley said one of the Romney sons was usually around to let him into events. "They greased the wheels. There was always a hotel room or a bed," he said.

"The family never said no to anything," Whiteley said, though campaign staffers would often try to shut him out. "Sometimes Mitt would stick up for me. Other times, you can tell he didn't want to bother with it," said Whiteley, who described the governor as "polite to a fault."

Because of that access, Whiteley said, "Mitt" is the opposite of the great 1993 campaign documentary "The War Room." In that film, directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker had no access to the candidate, Bill Clinton, but got copious footage of his campaign staffers, so their movie focused on them — and made movie stars of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

"We focus much more on what it's like to be a candidate," Whiteley said, "what it's like to be a member of that family."

Whiteley has shown a rough cut of the film to Romney's son Josh, but the family has not seen the finished film.

No word yet on whether the Romneys will come to the Sundance premiere. A Romney representative did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon. The family sold its Park City house in 2009, but recently bought an 8,700-square-foot "Utah Rustic" mansion in Deer Valley.


Sundance Premieres

For more on the 24 films in the Premieres and Documentary Premieres programs at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, go to page ??-??, or online at http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment.