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She's Played the Part, Now She's Filming It

A former campaign staffer is using Staples Center as the set for her mock documentary on the seamier side of the political process.


The California state campaign director was on the phone the other day, solving a Hollywood crisis.

"What do you mean Alec and Kim can't get in? She won an Oscar, for Christ's sake. And he--he's married to someone who won an Oscar. Tell them to hold on," he said, hanging up. "You see the [expletive] I have to deal with?"

It sounded real, but was it? It's been hard to tell at the Democratic National Convention this week, where Celia Fischer, a political-operative-turned-filmmaker, has been making a low-budget mock-documentary about the chaos and pathos of a modern presidential campaign. The movie is called "Bottomfeeders," a reference to those at the lowest, local levels of national politics. Fischer knows these people. She used to be one.

For 16 years, Fischer worked in the trenches, trying to get Democrats elected to all tiers of government. In 1992, she served as Pennsylvania state director for Clinton/Gore. In 1996, she ran the California coordinated campaign.

But Fischer wanted to write movies. Burned out on politics--she remembers one morning at the 1996 convention in Chicago when "my alarm went off and I started crying because I didn't want to get out of bed"--she decided to go to film school at UCLA.

Cut to four years later. Fischer again was striding into a Democratic convention, but this time with a smile on her face and a script under her arm. Thanks to Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the convention committee, Fischer had permission to use Staples Center as her set.

"We're having a little trouble with the reality line here!" Fischer said gaily one afternoon as she watched her actors mingling with actual delegates, party officials and journalists. People Fischer knows from her previous career kept interrupting to say hi. But that wasn't the oddest part.

"That's John King," Fischer said at one point, eyeballing the real CNN correspondent, who stood nearby holding a microphone. She turned and nodded to one of her actors, a faux TV reporter who also clutched a mike. "He's supposed to be John King, who was my model for the role. This is getting a little weird."

Fischer's hilarious script, which has already won the Samuel Goldwyn Award at UCLA, begins with a film crew trying to follow a presidential campaign manager named Rick Barrett as he does his job (think James Carville in "The War Room"). But when Barrett learns that the documentary is underfunded and has no theatrical distribution deal, he bails.

"Do not even [expletive] tell me this is some kind of Sundance Film Festival, artsy-fartsy, granola [expletive], let's-all-cry-for-the-gay-Eskimo movies," Barrett growls. "Until I know your audience demographic . . . and you can assure me theatrical within a hundred yards of a Baby Gap, this interview is over. Cut!"

The filmmakers instead opt to shadow Cissy Jones, the woman with the worst job in the "Jack Tybalt for President" campaign: state director of Tybalt's opponent's home state. Fischer admits that the Jones character--a woman in black leather, combat boots and dark sunglasses that the script calls "more rock and roll than politics"--is based in part on herself. And then there are the cameos by Fischer's friends.

Joy Alexiou, who ran the coordinated Democratic campaign in Northern California in 1996, plays a guest at a VIP cocktail party who accidentally gets doused with cucumber-yogurt dip. Julie Buckner, who was communications director in 1996, plays the Vermont state director--a flannel-clad woman who feels unappreciated.

"The headquarters called me up once. . . . They heard Ben or Jerry was a supporter and wanted me to get a case of ice cream donated and shipped. Like what am I? Their Good Humor girl?" Buckner grumbles in one scene. The camera then shifts slightly, revealing a case of Ben & Jerry's, ready to ship.

John Gurrola, former communications director in the White House Office of AIDS Policy, is the film's location manager. The process reminds him of campaigning, from time constraints to budget headaches.

"But if you said to me: 'Go make a movie. Here's a campaign staff,' I think I could do it," he said. "If you said, 'Run a campaign with a movie crew,' I don't know. Movie crews take breaks and stuff."

Does Fischer have qualms about making a life in a place where, as her script puts it, "the fulcrum of intellectual debate centers on, 'Hey, are those boobs real?' " She says no. She has an agent, a second script in circulation and has cobbled together nearly $500,000 to make "Bottomfeeders." If that weren't enough, she's 30 pounds thinner than she was on the campaign trail.

"I'm no longer eating cheese balls in hotel rooms late at night," she explained. "Now I eat meals, on real plates with silverware that isn't plastic."

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