How Volunteering for Hillary Taught Me to Take Action Against Impending Doom

Horror helmer Adam Egypt Mortimer on how directing helped him as a phone bank volunteer, and volunteering helped quiet his director's anxiety.
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When I was first asked to write this piece, it was 6:45 a.m. on November 8 and I was parked next to my polling center on Hyperion Boulevard. I wanted to vote then make it to my Hillary campaign phone bank center in Sun Valley before the 9 o’clock shift started. Shift changes were the crunch times – a flood of well-meaning but anxious volunteers showing up to make calls, sometimes apprehensive of what they’d be in for, all needing to be quickly signed in, logged on and trained by the small support team. Individually, one on one, with an endless series of minor technical disasters. I’d log them into a computer that automates the phone call, show them how it works – and then explain the script. “You are making a conversation in your own words with people who say they want to vote but might not leave the house to do it. You are getting them to visualize the process so they are more likely to enact it. The most important thing,” I would always say, “is to make an emotional connection to whomever you’re talking to.”

That was one thing I knew I wanted to write about: the relationship between what I do as a filmmaker on set and as a volunteer in the call center. You walk into a chaotic room of strangers and quickly get them emotionally engaged and working together on the same project. I did not know then that this article would be written not in victory but facing a traumatic future. Facing the demon world.

It was a loop of anxious thinking that got me to volunteer in the first place. There are a lot of ways that anxiety comes at you when you’re a filmmaker, and last year I had noticed the stark inescapability of that anxiety. I was waiting for a greenlight to direct, a greenlight that had a strong chance of never coming. You wait, and you wonder what you’re doing with your life, you can feel your cells aging, the world spinning without you. The emptiness grew. And then, when the greenlight came, the anxiety took a different shape, but one no less sharp. What if I drop the ball? … Do we have enough time? … This one has to be better than the last one or else it’s a step backward … this one has to …

I came to realize I would always be in this cycle, always swapping out one anxiety for the other. The Buddhism I studied in college had been wasted on a much younger man who had not understood this would be the engine of life.

And so I thought about volunteering. I thought about finding religion. I thought about how doing something outside my own head might be a great first step to challenging the rising sense of emptiness.

In June 2016, two things happened within a day of each other: my wife/producing partner/best friend moved out of our house, suddenly and permanently, and Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination.

Maybe I now found myself in a world where I needed to build something new, to imagine a positive outcome. Maybe I was in a heightened emotional state that made any event an opportunity to think about how I reacted, and related to that event, or how I could react if I made a choice. Maybe I was looking down the barrel of our – the macro, national “our” – possible futures and wondering how I could assert some kind of control over that world.

Some people didn’t like Hillary’s speech as much as all the ones that came before it, but it was while watching it that I texted a close friend – a producer, a writer, a weirdo – and said, “We have to sign up to volunteer.” It was one of those obvious moments, where you don’t really know what it means but you just do it.

We both had the same confusion about what we would do – California is not in a battleground state, we didn’t have any experience doing this, we didn’t even have that much free time.

But I trusted the strategy. Trusted there was a way to do something.

Although I live in Los Feliz, we wound up going to a phone bank in Burbank because it seemed like they had a greater need for people there.

I didn’t know what a phone bank was, either.

That turned out to be easy. We spent three hours in the back room of a pizza place with a couple dozen others, calling people in the area asking them if they wanted to volunteer. And the responses were amazing. “Thank you so much for calling!” one woman said. “I was hoping to figure out how to get involved.”

I walked away from that first session excited. It was touching a part of my brain – the part that loves to talk to people, to make a connection with a purpose. Goal-oriented relationships – a hallmark of the filmmaker approach to life, and, it became suddenly clear, a key aspect of campaign strategy.

Even remembering it now, it makes me feel awake, excited, cheerful – even now in this dark inverse world that we were pulled through, the demon world.

I started bringing other friends to the phone bank, as the strategy shifted from recruiting volunteers to calling people in battleground states. In fact, this strategy is what enticed other people to join me, as I could explain to them that despite being in California, the strategy had a use for us. This was an important lesson: Don’t assume there’s nothing for you to do. If you are pulled to the cause, the cause will want you.

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Every time I went, I felt a stronger sense that we were fighting for something awesome. That Hillary was a meaningful, important part of our world and had to succeed. That we really were standing against hate and ignorance, and we really were standing for a powerful, historical woman.

I began to Instagram what happened at the phone bank, because I wanted my friends to see that this was easy. That some random indie horror director – not a seasoned activist – could show up for Hillary. And my friends started to respond. Where do you phone bank? What do you do? OK, I’m in.

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One of the women running the phone bank asked me if I’d be willing to take a leadership position, because I was bringing more friends each time. The more energy I put into it, the better I felt. There was the sense that no matter how tiny the part you were playing in this, the part was meaningful. You could take control of your relationship to the terrifying machinery of politics, this process that feels so far out of our control.

I trained phone bank volunteers. Supporting them. Cheering them on. Troubleshooting the equipment. Telling them how much of a difference we were making.

We had a script:“Hi, this is _____________. I’m calling from the Ohio Partnership for a Democratic America / The Florida Coalition to Elect Hillary. Can we count on your support for Hillary Clinton? Our records indicate you requested a vote-by-mail ballot – have you received that already?”

It was not immediately clear what the purpose of the script was. There was a distinct lack of direction in training the trainers. What are the important parts of the words? What is the action we are trying to elicit in the people we call? What’s the point of the scene?

What’s the motivation?

I did a little side research on this, and when I brought back the answer – emotionally engaging would-be voters to visualize going to the polling booths – I realized how much I was structuring my volunteer process like I structure my directing process.

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During the last month before the election, I met some very cool people. There was Dorah from Zambia, who was getting to vote for the first time. There was Eileen, a retired doctor who sat at the table and made call after call like the Terminator for six hours at a time – and brought consistently amazing donuts. There was Leah, who ran the whole center with a zen warrior-like imperviousness to chaos and an angelic love for Hillary. There was Lisa, a neck-tattooed butch lesbian who prized her Hillary pin: “You know how much this will be worth some day? The first woman president?” There was a group of women who I had just seen perform the week before at a UCB show. There was Jonathan, the college kid who worked with Leah to organize and communicate the entire strategy in the area. And there was the entire volunteer staff, who on election day wore all-white pantsuits: white for the suffragettes, pantsuit for Hillary.

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On election day, I left the volunteer center around 5 p.m. so I could meet my friends at a bar and celebrate our victory.

By the time I got there, they had already started crying.

In the days since, the movie I keep thinking of the most is Jacob’s Ladder. It’s the one I come back to whenever I feel the familiar echoes of trauma. That quality of living in a world suddenly unreal. A world out of your control. Where in a sudden flash you see demons on the street, and even the people who want to help you are drowning you in a bathtub full of ice.

At 11:00 p.m. that night, everyone in the bar was crying. I texted Jonathan from the call center to check in. “Leah and I cried it out after everyone left.” Another friend of mine texted me: “I wish I’d volunteered.” I stared at that one for a while. It wouldn’t have made a difference, would it? We wouldn’t have won because one more person made a couple more phone calls.

But.

But.

Here’s why I volunteered: To protect myself. My country, yes.

But. To protect myself – from the feeling that I couldn’t possibly make a difference. Because that’s the demon world talking.

When I direct, I prepare the hell out of what I’m doing, precisely so I can feel comfortable accepting the chaos, the disasters, the opportunities for things to go in a different direction. You write pages of notes and then you leave them behind and face your humans.

So, for Hillary, yes, I could have done a lot more. We all could have. But in the face of the always impending doom, and fear, and negativity – in defiance of it – you can take control, or take actions that make you feel more in control. And that feeling is the exact opposite of trauma, and that feeling will propel you to do it again.

It might feel like we’re watching options disappear, that our opportunity to assert control is being threatened, but the fact is there are now more opportunities than ever to fight, to become involved in creating the future you want to see. Many people I know who were involved in the campaign for Hillary have put their energy into the campaign for Louisiana Senatorial candidate Foster Campbell, a Democrat who has a chance to take a seat in a run-off vote December 10. If he wins, the Senate will be nearly balanced and this will go a long way towards fighting the Trump Executive Authority. As soon as that is decided, I know people who will begin looking towards the 2018 midterm elections.

Adam Egypt Mortimer is a filmmaker and writer living in Los Angeles. His debut feature, the indie horror film Some Kind of Hate, was released theatrically in 2015 by Image Entertainment. He directed the “New Year’s Eve” segment of the anthology horror film Holidays, which also features segments by Kevin Smith, Nicholas McCarthy and Gary Shore. He also wrote the acclaimed comic book series Ballistic, published by Black Mask Studios; the collected trade paperback for the series was published in 2015.