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Andrew Callaghan on new Jan. 6 documentary 'This Place Rules'

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

Next week marks two years since the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. This month, a monumental congressional report recommends federal criminal charges against former President Trump for his role in the attack. Now a new documentary on HBO attempts to peel back the beliefs and events that led to that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THIS PLACE RULES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Give me liberty, or give me death. No more fraud. We need to revote in all seven swing states.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am 1,000% sure that he is going to get it again - four more years. I have no doubt whatsoever. I have never doubted it for a nanosecond.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

SELYUKH: That was a clip from "This Place Rules" by Andrew Callaghan, who first became known for his YouTube series, traveling in an RV, talking to people from all corners of the country. He joins us now. Andrew, welcome.

ANDREW CALLAGHAN: Hey, thanks so much for having me. I'm a big fan of NPR, so I'm stoked to be on.

SELYUKH: The film is stitched with lengthy interviews with people who have deep conspiracy beliefs, including - you have a convicted pedophile who accuses politicians of being pedophiles, some of those perma-protesters we have at the White House who are shouting grievances, you have a rapper cashing in on the Trump mania. How does all of that connect to the events of January 6?

CALLAGHAN: Well, I started making the film just about the 2020 election, so it was to study how the country would change as a result of either Biden or Trump winning the election. And although obviously the MAGA rapper and people like the QAnon guy you're talking about are very different in terms of what their hustles are, but they're all connected in the same way that they all are in this really tight echo chamber that got tighter and tighter in the lead up to January 6. And alternative news outlets like Newsmax and One America News Network and The Epoch Times really tightened in and kind of made the echo chamber so dense that they were just telling some of these people exactly what they wanted to hear. And things just ramped up to the point that almost everyone at the Capitol believed they were doing something that would save the country and win the spiritual war between good and evil and eradicate the deep state.

SELYUKH: And you paint these pretty detailed, pretty unsettling portraits of those people. What is it that you hope to show through them?

CALLAGHAN: I guess just show that, like, a lot of the foot soldiers that were manipulated by some of these media profiteers and like nihilistic moneymakers are just people who are - more or less been brainwashed and aren't necessarily bad people, aren't necessarily full of hatred, don't necessarily want the worst for the outcome of America and human civilization. But a lot of them are just confused, lost, and the conspiracy framework provided a lot of closure and explanations for them with, like, a rapidly changing world. The goal of the film was to really talk to people without a pre-loaded agenda, not trying to slam dunk or find the dumbest person there and make them feel small or catch them in a lie or a contradiction. But to actually try to apply some empathy and really talk to some of these folks and figure out why it is that they feel this way.

SELYUKH: You also did spend some time with some pretty high profile far-right people - Alex Jones, Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys. And after these conversations, a conclusion you seem to draw is - you, I think, just now alluded to - is that their role in the events of January 6 was kind of cynical, commercial.

CALLAGHAN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: Could you talk about that?

CALLAGHAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that the propaganda machine that builds upon stoking fear about, like, an imminent civil war around the corner is always built to sell ads, to sell products, to push merchandise. There's always a net profit that's going to be made during a really tumultuous time in America. You know, obviously, Enrique Tarrio, former chairman of the Proud Boys, Alex Jones runs Infowars - they both were running the two biggest T-shirt companies and the two biggest patriot merchandise empires during the stop the steal movement. Enrique Tarrio personally told me that he doesn't actually think the election was stolen, even though the Proud Boys were some of the key instigators of the Capitol riot. So for a lot of these people, it was a cash grab, and a lot of people made a ton of money off of this.

SELYUKH: As you pursued this documentary, and even in your previous work with your YouTube show "All Gas No Breaks," you sort of travel around the country, and you seek out people living on these extremes. How is that different from this criticism that you offer for both fringe and mass media, that - this idea that highlighting divisions is kind of the focus.

CALLAGHAN: When there is a massive divide in America, you're going to find interviews on the fringe. I think the difference what I'm talking about is punditry versus reporting. And what we try to do is physically speak to people, actually show up and be there and ask people simple questions like, what's on your mind? How are you feeling? And letting them guide the conversation as opposed to presenting it in a very talking-head style where if you want to tune in, it's just me and a panel of four other people kind of bickering with each other to get the viewer as pissed off as possible. So I think that's the main difference. And obviously being a journalist, no matter where you stand, whether you're on the fringe or in the mainstream is kind of like a storm chaser job.

SELYUKH: It's not clear from the film that any of the people you actually spoke with were at the Capitol on January 6. Did you seek any interviews with people who were there?

CALLAGHAN: I mean, I am - I'm the only person to interview the QAnon shaman from jail. If you go to our YouTube channel, Channel 5, I have about an hour and a half interview. But I mean, I'd venture to say that, like, you know, 90% of the people I interviewed in the film were at the Capitol.

SELYUKH: So when you ask them about what happened that day, what is their understanding of how it happened?

CALLAGHAN: I think it was such an embarrassing moment for that crowd because so much of their mythology prior to that stood on, like, assisting and defending law enforcement and backing the blue under any circumstances, because that's, like, the posture they took during the 2020 protest movement. It's funny, I would interview people before the Capitol who were like, we got to storm the Capitol, and then as soon as it happened, all those same people say that it was antifa who stormed the Capitol to make Republicans look bad.

SELYUKH: That was Andrew Callaghan. His new documentary, "This Place Rules," is out streaming on HBO Max. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.

CALLAGHAN: Hell yeah. It's a dream to be on NPR. I appreciate you guys so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.