I came across the work of Eleven Films looking for fresh examples of remix works to share with my students and I reached out to them to learn about the makers behind their work. Tiffany and James have spent almost a decade building their production company, in their words, “From a busted laptop and one GoPro to a full editing house gaining millions of views a month.” To learn more about them in 86 seconds watch this video, and for more details, here’s an interview that took place on March 27, 2020, over Zoom, and was edited on April 12, 2020.
David Tamés: What do you call something that’s longer than an ad and is shorter than a film and has a strong political message? How would you describe your work?
James: It’s a bit like watching a Michael Moore film in two minutes. We don’t get paid to do this, we’re doing it to put out a message. It’s more like a PSA, a lot of times what we do is a recap of what has been going on in the country and summing up the mood of the moment as a two-minute film.
David: I was impressed with how well American Virus was crafted. Every once in a while I go out there looking for examples to update my list of exemplary remix works to share with my students and when I came across this video it got me thinking, my students might enjoy reading a conversation with the creative team behind this video, it is well structured with a discernible point of view, yet balanced.
James: Thank you, it’s a delicate balance to make, especially during a time like this. You don’t want to be tone-deaf, we don’t want to be disrespectful to the mood of everybody, but we also need to shine a bit of the light and put a mirror in front of what’s going on in the country. So it’s delicate. We’ll often start out a little bit of scary and then end with a little bit of hope.
David: I think you do a pretty good job accomplishing that. And the number of views and retweets proves that, and often you’ll get more views than ads that involve large and expensive media buys.
Tiffany: There’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of videos about Trump’s lies or everything he’s doing wrong, we see it every single day, all of us do. There are a lot of groups that put that out there and get a lot of views, but that’s not what we do, I want you to feel something, I’m trying to move your empathetic needle a little bit.
James: We have a motto, we make two kinds of videos, those that break your heart or those that break your face, and sometimes we do both in the same video.
David: Is the eleven of Eleven Films a reference to “up to eleven” from This is Spinal Tap?
Tiffany: A little, we’re old school rock and roll fans, we’re childhood friends, we’ve known each other since 1983, we went through middle school together and then we lost track of each other. Then a friend of ours was getting married on November 11, 2011, and I had been divorced for a while, James was in the middle of a whole thing, and I had sworn off weddings, I had sworn off love, I was a really pissed off and angry back then. James talks me into MAYBE I should go. So I asked my friend, “would it be okay if I crashed your wedding? I know you didn’t invite me, but I’d really like to go.” And he responded, “of course you can show up.” So I walk in and it’s like slow motion. I see James, in the background, and all these people are in front of him and he’s walking. He comes towards me, and we just hugged and I was like, that was it. I don’t know. We just sat down and that was it. We closed that wedding down.
David: That’s an epic romantic comedy plot in real life!
James: But we didn’t see each other in 20 years, and how odd that we meet again on eleven, eleven, eleven. And then we got engaged on eleven, eleven, twelve, and got married on eleven, eleven, thirteen, at our old middle school by our old teacher in between the two classrooms. So it’s a whole thing, we thought, what an appropriate name.
David: That’s a wonderful story. Your videos convey a strong political message, tell me a little bit about your politics and what you’re trying to say, what’s really important to you?
Tiffany: We’ve been activists a really long time, even before we re-met as adults. I was at Occupy Portland back in 2011, my political affiliation obviously leans left, obviously a Democrat, but more from an activist standpoint of “For The People, By The People.” If you want real change, you’ve got to get out there and do it. You have to get your feet dirty, get in the trenches, you have to see what’s really going on to understand what kind of change needs to be made. And then we meet and some sort of magic happens and we start talking about how are we going to start making everybody else see what we see? And then we started collaborating, we had late nights, we’ve seen the sun come up so many times. We lean left and we try to make everyone see that there’s a lot of bullshit out there.
James: I was born and raised a Democrat. My parents were Democrats out here in Portland, they were both ex-hippies. When we re-met in 2011 Tiffany was a hardcore activist, way more hardcore than I was. I came to this with more of a national perspective of Democrats and she came with the let’s go burn it down perspective. The two of us have fought over the years fought back and forth about how that should go. But now we’ve come to a nice center and I think that’s why we’re successful, it’s not just a straight Democrat video, it’s not from anonymous or something, it’s right in the middle where it’s a good balance of both, more eye-opening.
David: How can you say you’re in any kind of middle? You take a pretty critical stance against Donald Trump.
James: If Barack Obama was doing the same things that Donald Trump is doing, I would absolutely make films about Barack Obama in the same fashion. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or not, you can’t do those things. It’s not our goal to attack Republicans, that not our goal per se, we call it out the way we see it, although Trump is making it really easy for us.
David: Have you ever made an angry political film that takes a Democrat in office and holds their feet to the fire?
Tiffany: We started working on a local level. Charlie Hales, the former mayor of Portland, decided to take all of the blankets and belongings away from the homeless people in Portland because it was unsightly for business. And then seven people froze to death on the streets that year. So we decided we were going to gather up literally tons of blankets, coats, gloves, hats, we made our own blankets, and we organized a protest and a giveaway. We made a bunch of food. We had a bunch of friends come. We shut down four city blocks in the city of Portland, just marching around. We made people aware that you can’t take blankets away from homeless people in the winter. They are going to die. There is no place to house them. This is wrong. You can’t do this. And he was a staunch Democrat. We filmed it, we made a whole thing about it.
James: We were all on Facebook at the time, working local and cutting our teeth. We call it out the way we see it. Taking blankets away from homeless people is not okay. So we went back out and gave it back to them. Now that we’re into national stuff, I have to be honest with you, the Republicans and conservatives right now are drinking a lot of Kool-Aid that is taking us down a dangerous path. Are there some bad Democrats out there? Absolutely. But what is going on with Republicans and the GOP right now is absolutely dangerous to our country. It doesn’t matter if you’re for abortion, or against abortion, that’s your personal opinion, and that’s okay with me, but what they’re doing is dangerous and we’re going to call it out.
David: What was it that triggered your move from local issues to making these videos that play on the national stage?
James: For me, it was when we were watching the Democratic debate in 2016 between Hillary Clinton (and I’m a Hillary fan), and Bernie Sanders said something that was so moving to me. He said, “I believe the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we transform this country and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need, is through a political revolution where millions of people come together and stand up and say our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires”. And I thought, I’m going to take what he said and turn that into a video and I put it out there to just see what happens.
David: And how did that go?
James: The video got 17,000 views on YouTube, our biggest video prior to that was maybe 2,500 views, and we thought, wow, that was a big deal. And after that we started putting the video out on Facebook and Twitter, which was new for us, we barely had a couple of hundred followers, we barely knew how to use Twitter. And we put it out there, half a million views in one day the next day it was up to 750,000 views. We had never ever, ever had any, any, anything like that happen. The news is re-tweeting it, we’re getting calls, they’re writing articles about it and you’re going, what is going on? We are just a couple of artist knuckleheads in our own house making these things and nobody’s paying us. There’s no PAC money behind us.
Tiffany: And we’re seeing that we may lose The House [of Representatives] if we don’t do something. So we’re just sitting around going, “what if we just do like a blue wave video and we put a bunch of people who have the best chance of winning in it and we make it like a pump-up video to get everybody out to vote? We might get like 200,000 views.” I didn’t know that it was going to explode.
James: Five and a half million views and every video since then has been in the millions. We recently had one, Midnight in Washington with Adam Schiff that got 12.5 million. We’re getting lots of calls from people, including congressional representatives, it’s resonating, I can’t believe our lives right now, it’s been pretty crazy, so we’ll just keep going.
David: Are you currently doing work for clients?
Tiffany: We’ve done presidential campaigns, we’ve done lots of other things, like work for PACs, we’ve done client work that has gotten millions of views, but it gets to a point you’re just a workhorse, you’re just doing what they want, and that’s great, but every time we drop something personal, it really resonates with the people. And we want to keep doing that. And every time we get paid, our message diminishes. So we thought, how are we going to keep doing work at this level, this narrative that is working without being compromised?
James: We do professional work for clients, but here we are making these original micro movies and we’re putting them out there and they’re getting a heck of a lot of traction. And in some instances, they’re changing the narrative a little bit, just a little bit. When you do client work, you’re the artists, but trust me, they’re going to want their input and they’re going to change your art all around.
David: So how did you achieve that?
Tiffany: Artistically, what we came up with is we have to get drafted by “The Resistance”. We have to do fundraising so people can help us stay afloat. So we got a couple of filmmaker friends over, we recorded an interview. We’re also working with Demcast which is a digital platform for grassroots politics. They have state captains that can get you in touch with somebody who can get you doing polls or get you knocking on doors, you know before this whole craziness started. They helped us do our campaign of Draft Eleven Films which we only pushed for maybe, two weeks, and it was largely successful. I’m glad we did because now that everyone’s self-quarantining the client work has dried up a bit.
James: So we’re working on a donation basis and people on Twitter have been really generous, saying “shut up and take my money.”
Tiffany: Yes, they are so generous.
James: So generous. Because they just want to see more films like what we make. So now we have a small number of clients, we make book trailers for authors like Don Winslow and Meg Gardiner and [a staunch Republican we can’t mention] and a couple of other people. But other than that we are focused on our original films and we’re being supported by what we call the Resistance just through donations. And so far it’s been fantastic.
Tiffany: And we’ve gotten tremendous offers, the other day I got a personal message from Rosie O’Donnell saying, if you want to use me as a voiceover, I will do it.
James: And Alyssa Milano, I mean they all are like, we will do whatever you want.I’m just thinking wow man!
Tiffany: And these are like our childhood movie and television heroes stepping up, it’s just so humbling.
David: It’s great to see the response your work is getting, so now I’m waiting for the Eleven Films pledge drive for the edgy hard-hitting agitprop version of public television.
Tiffany: Yea [laughter]. We have a little freedom because we don’t have a billionaire running a PAC telling us, “you can’t say that about Donald Trump because we’ll get sued.” I’m not going to get sued, you’re going to get sued. We don’t have rules as they do. They can’t say and do what we do.
James: Some of our films have the F word in them and different things like that. We’ve made television ads and different things for people, there’s a television ad this month on CNN that we made. But here’s the thing, when you make your own art, you can make whatever you want. When you make a television ad, it is slow-down-ville. They want things to be so slow in a television ad. If you ask me, television is dying and the DNC is guilty in this thing as well as they haven’t embraced digital, the wave of the future.
David: They really are, aren’t they? They are lagging behind digital media transformation, much like their entrenched politics and organized opposition of young progressive candidates running for office is lagging behind the electorate.
Tiffany: Yeah and the pace of digital is so fast and you have an old traditional machine that doesn’t want this new flashy kid, they think it’s bullshit or it’s just going to go away.
James: But the truth is that television ads— and I believe the data supports this—traditional television ads don’t really don’t move the needle. You know, you see nine-hundred ads about how “don’t vote for Knute Buehler He’s terrible. He hates children,” and it doesn’t move the needle on television. But if you make a creative micro movie and put it out online, I believe it moves the needle a lot more.
Tiffany: And television forgot that there is an art to mudslinging. You can’t just go out there and stir up a bunch of shit, it just doesn’t work that way. Candidates are spending millions of dollars on TV ads and they do nothing. They do absolutely nothing. People are losing campaigns when they’re pouring money into television, when, if they just would’ve put a fraction of the money into digital, we would have turned them into a superstar. But they’re coming around.
David: On the continuum of pure propaganda on one end, and mainstream journalism on the other end, where would you place Eleven Films on that continuum?
Tiffany: Probably smack dab in the middle.
James: I would say in the middle, but I would say that we really made journalism entertaining. I don’t think you can sit there and say what we do is propaganda, we’re not lying. Nothing in our work is a lie. We don’t change somebody’s words around, what they said is what they said. We just put it together in an entertaining way, so I think we lean a little bit more towards the journalistic side, but obviously, we make it entertaining.
David: Yet clearly there’s a strong point of view.
Tiffany: I know what slant is. I want you to look at it my way, I want you to see what I see. But also, we’re talking to a majority of an older generation that only talks to each other. We have GenZies and Millennials who are coming up behind us that communicate in a certain fast digital way that doesn’t reach Baby Boomers. So I feel like we’re this GenX interpreter between the two worlds trying to help them both understand each other. Because if we don’t all figure this out, all of us are going to lose. So I feel like—and it’s probably because I’m a mom—I feel like we are the glue here. I’m trying to keep everything together.
James: And I would say that we’ve been successful in that. I just got followed this morning by Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) and then yesterday we just had George Conway (@gtconway3d) retweet our video. Okay. So you’ve got George Conway on one end and Mia Farrow on the other. We’ve been shared by Ariana Grande’s mom (@joangrande). We help connect young people, old people, Republicans, Democrats, a lot of different people, it’s a powerful medium.
Tiffany: We are here to let you know that you can be pissed off now. It’s okay to be pissed off, and you can say everything you want to say because now is the time. Now is the time.
David: You may not be lying, but you’re using the magic of montage to change the meaning of the clips you’ve used. You can change the meaning of anything through editing, and what I find so interesting about your work is that you are making transformative use of the materials, but with integrity, it’s refining and clarifying something that’s already there, that’s why I asked you about where you see yourself in the continuum between propaganda and journalism.
James: In all fairness to us in that regard, I do not believe we have ever taken something that Trump has said and used it out of context. Yes we have an agenda, and yes, I believe that what he’s doing is wrong, and I want to show you that. But I’m not taking anything Trump has said, or any of the other people that have said, and used it out of context. For example, Trump was talking about something but I’m going to use that line because it fits in here and what I’m talking about. We’ve never done that. That would be dishonest. And I’ll tell you something else, Twitter will call you out. They will call you out!
Tiffany: Oh man, they will just cancel you!
David: I wasn’t suggesting that you take things out of context or fabricate, but meaning inevitably shifts when you edit, don’t you think?
James: Yeah, that’s right. Things always shift when you edit.
Tiffany: There are a lot more Eleven Films films on the cutting room floor than are out there on the internet. There was one slated for release on Tuesday that we scrapped because it just was not “Eleven Filmsy” enough. It just wasn’t. We were working with Senator Ron Wyden, a great Senator, our Senator, and his team here in Oregon. We really like him. He’s done some great things for our state and he’s trying, with Amy Klobuchar, to get this bill passed to expand vote by mail. At the end of the whole process, we watched the video, and it was great. It was a nice clean ad. But we just told them no. We said no. In the end, we said we’re not going to release it and we’re going to make an original Eleven Films vote by mail video. But we’re going to do without their input because, in the end, it has to be our perspective. You don’t want to tell your own senator no. You want to help! But in the end, it didn’t hit hard enough. It didn’t pull at your heart. We weren’t being paid by them, we were making that ad with donations made to us by The Resistance. If people gave up their hard-earned money and put their trust in us to further the democratic message as Americans, my responsibility is to them. That is who I see as our boss.
David: It’s that balance, right, maintaining your integrity? There are a lot of political videos on the internet. Something that stood out to me about your work is that it had this documentary integrity and the intensity of a fictional ad, both at the same time.
Tiffany: And when you’re doing political films for campaigns, it’s not your ass on the line, it’s theirs. So I understand making ads to their specs. If the message is wrong for them, it could have political consequences. That is a huge risk that they’re taking. And whenever they risk it on us, I’m so thankful.
James: I will say that when Eric Swalwell ran for president, he’s a Congressman from California, and they got in touch with us and asked us to make campaign ads, I have to say that Eric Swalwell was like, “go for it.” He was one of the first people who got on board and trusted our messaging style right away. His team was really, really excited about the stuff we were making for them and we are forever humbled by that.
David: Every semester I refresh my collection of examples that I share with students. In my Introduction to Film Production class—a course in Media and Screen studies that combines theory and practice on equal footing—I give my students the option to produce a live-action video or edit a remix work. This semester all of the students chose the remix option, so I thought I’d not only include American Virus on my list of examples but add an interview with the makers since the work resonates with our current socio-political condition.
Tiffany: Wow, that is so nice. Thank you.
David: Do you have any specific suggestions for my students and other emerging media makers in terms of process and approach?
James: One of the things we do, especially Tiffany, who spends a ton of time on this. Say, for example, Trump gives a speech and the mainstream media picks up on about the two, three lines that really work well for CNN. But Tiffany spends an incredible amount of time looking for a different angle that nobody has seen. Maybe the mainstream news is using the same front angle of a shot, she finds a different angle, finds a different line in that same speech that he used that the media is not picking up on. Find something that nobody has seen before. I believe that’s what intrigues people. For example, in the American Virus video, a lot of people had seen the Steph Curry video. so yeah, we use that, but very few people had seen Shelby Young’s video of her acting like Princess Leia washing her hands. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of searching. It’s a lot of duct tape and wooden sticks back here to find and get those angles of things. Find shots people have not seen before, that intrigues the viewer.
Tiffany: It’s worth the time, we tumble down a lot of rabbit holes every single day. The editing is one job and it takes a lot of time but it’s also about the consumption of content out there. We constantly have two televisions running. We’re constantly looking at social media to see what has popped. Does anything look good? Maybe we could use that later. And we’re constantly building our database of clips, we’re constantly on the hunt, we’re constantly on the prowl for things. And then when you sit down to make your video, now you have a whole personalized library to work with.
David: What about sound, the other half of the picture?
James: Our videos are always music-driven, meaning the music is the driver. The car is the video but the driver is the music and Tiffany spends a ridiculous amount of time looking for the right music.
Tiffany: A lot of people don’t get that and they’ll just slap on some stock music on the back of this really great video that they made that would just be ten times better if they would’ve just taken the time to find something that works. I’m not just making candy for your eyes, I’m making candy for your ears. I’m making candy for your heart. I’m talking to the whole person. You can put a bunch of great clips together, but if you don’t have the right music or the right sound bite, it just isn’t a complete casserole, there are ingredients missing. I see that a lot.
James: Not to belabor the point, but there are a lot of people on Twitter who make really good content. But they’ll just take Trump line, Trump line, Trump line, and put some dorky music behind it. They’ll subtitle it and slap it out there and yeah, you’ll get half a million views, but it doesn’t move the needle. Nobody cares. Everybody knows he lies, that’s not teaching anybody anything new.
Tiffany: I want people to care about what they are spending their time watching.
James: And so people get excited to share our stuff because they know, Oh, here we go, it’s going to be another cool one, at least that’s the response we’ve seen.
David: After seeing American Virus and your previous work, I’m also looking forward to your next video. With your body of work and distinctive style, you are expressing an implicit contract with your viewers to deliver a provocative message, something we should take a moment to think about.
Here are some of the videos that Eleven Films has made:
- November Is Coming: Demand Vote-By-Mail (1.5 million views across social media platforms)
- The American Virus: We Will Prevail (3.5M views across social media platforms)
- Midnight In Washington (12.5 million views across all social media platforms), James and Tiffany know about the misplaced apostrophe at :40, the Twittersphere let me them know IMMEDIATELY and are still letting them know…
- The DonFather Trailer (2.5 million views across social media platforms)
- The White Nationalist Domestic Terrorism Trailer (3.5 million views across social media platforms)
- The #BlueWave Trailer (7 million views across social media platforms)