It was a night of tears, cheers, and bear hugs. After two months of careering around town, Grassroots, the new film about an improbable Seattle City Council campaign in 2001, had finished shooting. It was time for that fraught but inevitable movieland ritual—the wrap party.

The love and praises flowed, celebrating a rare event: a nationally produced film set in Seattle that was actually filmed in Seattle. But one figure stood apart, as distinct as a polar bear on Puget Sound. Amid the T-shirts and cocktail dresses, he wore a black watch cap and Michelin-man jacket. His face was red and his expression a rush of flickering emotions. He clutched a glass of brandy like a buoy in a storm.

This was Grant Cogswell, the poet-turned-activist-turned-politician-turned-filmmaker whose 10-year struggle to make Seattle a more urbane, communitarian, and transit-friendly city in the 1990s and early 2000s rocked local politics, nearly wrecked his own life, and inspired the book that inspired Grassroots. He’d traveled 2,800 miles from his current home in Mexico to attend and try to capitalize on the film’s making. He’d dropped in on shooting, been filmed himself for a companion documentary, enlisted Mayor Mike McGinn for one scene, even played a city councilman (not himself) in another.

The 2001 city council campaign was one minor chapter in a torturous decade for both Cogswell and the city he embraced. To watch others reenact it was “very, very weird,” he told me. “Uncanny in the original sense of the word.” Then he brightened. “Stephen [Gyllenhaal, the director] said it’s comforting when people see their pain being made into a film. It’s distancing, it takes it outside of them. And he was right. It put that whole period outside of me. It’s like sending your life off to the cleaners and having it come back better.”


Life, only better, is Hollywood’s implicit promise: Forge a happy ending, or an uplifting tragedy, out of stories that in real life just dribble or fade away. No one understands this better than a veteran director like Stephen Gyllenhaal. He made several powerful but underappreciated films in the ’90s, then swore off features and stuck to directing TV shows. An editor at Nation Books sent him Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics —a picaresque memoir of Cogswell’s 2001 run for office by his campaign manager and (then) friend, Phil Campbell. The story of Cogswell’s insurgent candidacy, conceived to help Seattle rise above its car addiction with a high-flying monorail system, electrified Gyllenhaal. He saw Campbell and Cogswell as heroic figures: “Like Rocky: The characters are everyday little guys scurrying around in the shadows of a beautiful city, challenging the status quo.” Not only that, they had the makings of that Hollywood staple, the buddy picture—and, as played by Jason Biggs (Jim in the American Pie movies) and Joel David Moore (the overwrought scientist in Avatar), of a classic comedy duo.

All of this meant improving the facts that Campbell had scrupulously recorded in Zioncheck for President. Far from a Hollywood bromance, the arduous campaign actually ruptured Campbell’s and Cogswell’s friendship.

Cogswell looks nothing like the tall, gawky Joel David Moore. He can be intense and abrasive, but he stayed cool and poised throughout the campaign, at least in public. Moore’s version is an idealistic goofball, a shoe-pounding, profanity-spewing eruption of righteous passion. He delivers a stirring post-9/11 speech that Cogswell never gave. He even storms about in a polar bear suit at a rally and a city council meeting—something the real Cogswell only joked about doing if he were elected. It becomes the movie’s signature image.

“So did you really have a polar bear suit?” one guest at the wrap party asked Cogswell. “I’m deferring all questions to the director,” Cogswell replied, nodding at Gyllenhaal. “It doesn’t matter what really happened,” said Gyllenhaal. “We’re making myths here!”