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Sundance 2024 Q&A: Producer Mark DiCristofaro on transcending traditional documentary with ‘War Game’

A still from “War Game” shows a group of role-players in a replicated White House situation room. The documentary film will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Thorsten Thielow)

By Katy Nicholas

Jan. 22, 2024 4:04 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 26 at 1:26 p.m. 

The public is getting a front row ticket to government processes, and Mark DiCristofaro is the producer.

A current student in the Master of Legal Studies program at UCLA, DiCristofaro is also the vice president of production for Matador Content. He and his company worked to create their unscripted documentary, “War Game,” featuring 40 role-players tasked with saving a hypothetical country after a contested election. The film will premiere Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival.

DiCristofaro spoke to the Daily Bruin’s Katy Nicholas about the purpose of “War Game,” and the logistics of his role as producer. He also gave insight on balancing higher education with a full time job.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Related: Q&A: Emma Seligman shares the evolution of ‘Bottoms’ from pure camp to the middle ground]

Daily Bruin: How did you get involved in “War Game”?

Mark DiCristofaro: My company had gotten word that there was a bipartisan veterans’ organization putting on this war game exercise on Jan. 6, 2023. Every once in a while, a project comes along that feels like it’s an intersection of a cool project to produce, but it’s also meaningful. I think that many Americans were trying to grasp what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, and processing that trauma and also trying to figure out, “What are we going to do next time?” This was a cathartic way to work through that and try to put something out there in the world that might make a difference.

DB: Could you explain the format of the project?

MD: “War Game” transcends a bit of the traditional documentary format. We were, as filmmakers, invited to document a six-hour, unscripted exercise. Participating in that exercise were former Pentagon officials, former White House officials, former Department of Defense officials, former Homeland Security, former generals, all from both sides of the aisle, from the past five presidential administrations. We not only built the space and the conditions for them to role-play to some scripted exercise, but what we did was really fun because we had screens in the room, and we recorded our own live newscaster. We produced these scripted injections to operate within an unscripted documentary exercise.

(Courtesy of Chris Ferenzi)
Todd Lubin, Mark DiCristofaro and Amy Breguet (left to right) stand on the set of “War Game.” DiCristofaro balances his work as a film producer while also studying in the Master of Legal Studies program at UCLA. (Courtesy of Chris Ferenzi)

DB: What is your role as producer like on “War Game”?

MD: Our directors proposed this vision of, “What if we built a situation room and a White House press briefing room?” So basically sets, and that’s something that we’re really good at. Then there was the challenge of having 40 role-players role-playing this. How are we going to cover 40 people over a six-hour exercise? My job was to try to take a real complex logistical knot and try to untangle it and have it run efficiently.

DB: Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope they take away from this production?

MD: It’s not just D.C. insiders or people who follow politics. “War Game” is a thriller to capture the attention of a wide audience and hopefully to relay a message about how fragile our democracy really is. This documentary literally takes you tableside with the president and secretary of defense, and you get to see how these decisions are made, how human these people really are and what it takes to have to make gametime decisions that have enormous repercussions. I hope that whether you’re on the left or right or in the middle, that you can watch this and say, “This democracy thing isn’t something that we should take for granted.” It’s something we actually have to work on and make sure that every two years when there’s an election, we go to the ballot box and vote.

[Related: Q&A: Alumnus-directed film ‘The Woman King’ empowers by reframing historical accounts]

DB: What meaning does the timing and location of this project hold?

MD: We shot this steps away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023. The location that we took over and built all of our sets on was the hotel closest to the White House that still was open on Jan. 6, 2021. All the insurrectionists stayed there, and so producing this exercise in this physical location had a tremendous amount of meaning, not only for us as filmmakers but the role-play participants and the hotel staff.

DB: What made you want to pursue the Master of Law and what do you hope it adds to your career?

MD: I’m standing on a career of 15 years having the opportunity to produce some cool content, work with some great people and really learn my industry inside and out. I see this as a legal capstone to place onto my career. Having the opportunity to get greater access to the study of law and to get into the thought process and writing process of a lawyer, I can already see the results in my day-to-day work. Going back 15 years, you couldn’t pay me to go back to school. But getting the opportunity to be back in the classroom engaging in debate and thoughtful conversations is something that at this point in my life just feels really right.

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Katy Nicholas
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