After 18 frenetic months documenting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, Drew Heskett ’14 barely had time to catch his breath before opening the door to a new opportunity – as official White House videographer.
The transition hit home on Inauguration Day. He was there with his camera as President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stepped off the parade route and into their new residence. Heskett admits it felt a bit otherworldly to grab the front door to the White House and follow the first couple inside.
“It’s the weirdest front door I can imagine walking through,” Heskett says. “It was one of those moments – ‘This is where I work now.’ ”
Documenting History and Shaping Political Messaging
His Chapman experience as a nonfiction storyteller helped prepare Heskett to take on this influential White House role, in which he’s part documentarian and part daily contributor to messaging that advances the president’s agenda.
As he captures video of everything from historic White House events to smaller meetings in the Oval Office, Heskett calls on skills honed during collaborative projects creating documentary films as a student in Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
He’s getting more comfortable in his new surroundings with each passing day, but of course no transition is seamless. As he recorded a recent presidential meeting with cabinet members, Heskett backed into a chair, which bumped a wall, causing everyone to look his way.
He smiles as he shares the memory. “More than anywhere I’ve ever been,” he says, “I’m trying to be invisible here.”
Up to the Challenge With Support From Chapman Contacts and Mentors
Ever since high school, Heskett has found rewards in telling absorbing stories with vivid images. He got hooked on documentary filmmaking at Chapman, where he majored in broadcast journalism and documentary film while also studying cultural anthropology and other humanities subjects. He learned to shoot in far-flung locations, to study up on his story subjects so he could quickly earn their trust, and to adapt on the fly as circumstances changed by the minute.
His chance to join the Biden campaign team arrived thanks to a recommendation by Chapman friend and fellow filmmaker Nathan Flanagan-Frankl ’14. Heskett was up to the challenge in large measure because of Chapman faculty mentors like Sally Rubin and Jeff Swimmer.
“I’ve had a lot of hard-working students over the years, but the way that Drew was so positive and so open to feedback really stands out,” says Rubin, associate professor in Dodge College of Film and Media Arts as well as the director of acclaimed feature documentaries such as “Hillbilly.” “Drew’s work has always been ambitious. When you combine that with his artistry and skill, plus his commitment to political and social issues – I think that’s exactly what the White House was looking for.”
Student Filmmaking Experiences Helped Him “Be OK With Uncertainty”
Heskett has a great creative eye and an intense curiosity, adds Swimmer, an associate professor at Dodge who oversees several of its renowned international documentary programs. “He’s very confident, without being flashy. I’m not surprised he rose so fast in the White House.”
For his part, Heskett says, “I wouldn’t be here without Chapman University.”
He cites his student experiences making films in Mozambique for Destination Africa; in India for the Sikhlens Festival; at the Mexico-California border for Community Voices; and in North Dakota and Montana for Project W. The last of these documentaries – “We Are the Land,” about an activist’s battle to eliminate fracking on her ancestral lands – earned Heskett and Ryan Westra ’14 the top student award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
“All of those experiences acclimated me to be OK with uncertainty, to be quick on my feet, to conduct myself respectfully, and to just do my best,” Heskett says.
He didn’t realize it at the time, he adds, “but I was getting ready for campaign life.”
Navigating Challenges Offers Valuable Learning Opportunities
As principal videographer for the Biden campaign team, Heskett traveled as many as 26 days a month, often capturing content at multiple stops a day, then editing during the plane flight or bus ride to the next destination. He navigated countless obstacles and variables, including COVID restrictions and protocols. Along the way, his work was viewed by tens of millions via social media, TV advertising and videos posted to YouTube.
The work offered daily lessons, including ones he passes on to aspiring campaign documentarians: shoot to accentuate what your candidate does best, and don’t be afraid to advocate for the access you need.
“The Eyes of the World Are on This Moment”
In his new White House role, lessons just keep coming, as do experiences he never could have imagined.
At the end of Inauguration Day, as the Bidens viewed a spectacular fireworks display from a White House balcony, Heskett took up his own extra-special vantage point, shooting over the shoulders of the president and first lady, capturing the show from their perspective.
“I was lost in the viewfinder but also aware that the eyes of the world are on this moment,” Heskett says. “I’m standing just on the other side of it – capturing it but also part of it. Friends sent me a lot of screenshots that night — ‘Hey, buddy, I saw you on CNN.’”
Try as he might, sometimes it’s just impossible for Heskett to be invisible.
“I got my five seconds (of footage) and I got out of there,” he says with a laugh. “Totally worth it.”
Learn more about Dodge College’s BFA in Broadcast Journalism and Documentary program.