9:00am PT by Chris Gardner
Behind the Viral Election Sensation 'America: Endgame'
Like many on Election Day, John Handem Piette was transfixed by cable news, patiently waiting for results that would determine the next president of the United States. By Thursday night, however, when neither President Donald Trump or Democratic rival Joe Biden had been declared the winner, Piette was done “slouching on the couch” staring at the TV.
The editor and independent filmmaker, 36, then opened his laptop on the dining room table inside his parents’ New Hampshire home where he’d been holed up helping his mother recover from knee replacement surgery. “My refuge is always creativity,” says Piette, who is normally based in Brooklyn. “Editing is my happy place.”
It was also a better option, he says, than watching Trump’s “crazy victory speech,” during which he declared that he was poised to win a second term. Piette, a self-described “Marvel nerd,” admits he sat down with no meticulous plan about what to create but found himself leaning into an idea to tinker with one of his favorite scenes, the finale of Avengers: Endgame.
An epic scene even by blockbuster standards, the finale finds all the Avengers uniting through a series of portals to battle Thanos in a moment that would determine the fate of the universe. (The Disney film itself also buoyed the movie business in 2019, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time with nearly $2.8 billion.) Because the battleground state of Georgia proved to be so crucial in terms of election results and a possible run-off that could determine control of the Senate, Piette says he had a vision of placing the head of voting rights activist Stacey Abrams on Okoye, a character from Wakanda in Black Panther.
“That’s when it clicked,” he says of the moment that wound up featuring Barack Obama as Black Panther and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as Shuri. “I was just doing it for me to take my mind off of things, but when I did the Stacey Abrams thing, national treasure that she is, my heart skipped a beat. I got into workman mode and thought, this is going to be a thing.”
That thing kept him up for the 16 hours that followed while he cast a parade of real-life politicos to stand in for Avengers castmembers, including Biden as Captain America, his vp Kamala Harris as Falcon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as Captain Marvel, Michelle Obama as Gamora, Hillary Clinton as Valkyrie, Nancy Pelosi as Wasp, Hunter Biden as Thor, Pete Buttigieg as Spider-Man, Bernie Sanders as Doctor Strange, and Trump as Thanos. In a series of castings that divided the Twitterverse, he also cast Greta Thunberg, Sean Connery and Elon Musk to join the team. (More on those later.)
America Assembled!@JoeBiden @KamalaHarris @BarackObama @ChrisEvans @MarkRuffalo @RobertDowneyJr @brielarson @AOC @staceyabrams @michaelb4jordan @Russo_Brothers #Election2020 #ElectionResults2020 #joebiden #DonaldTrump #BidenHarris2020 #avengers #endgame pic.twitter.com/cDl1VsFbOo
— John Handem Piette (@JohnHPiette) November 6, 2020
Technically, it proved to be a heavy lift. Not only did it require intricate editing, but Piette also had to sift through hundreds of images because the action sometimes required multiple angles per person. Backed by “inspiration from good ol’ Mary Jane,” Piette powered through the night and emerged in the morning with a full 2:34 minute clip. He posted it on Facebook and Twitter, mostly hoping his close friends would get a kick out of it while he dozed off and got some rest. But his phone kept pinging.
As a onetime senior producer and editor at Group Nine Media where he produced more than a hundred animal videos for The Dodo, some to viral results, he was familiar with seeing content catch fire. This was different: “It wasn’t just my phone; it was the reactions and the comments. People said that watching it made them emotional and some wrote that they were laughing and then crying. That took me by surprise.”
What happened next was completely shocking, he says. Retweets and reposts stacked up by the thousands as big stars like Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk, and Star Wars legend Mark Hamill weighed in. Even Jennifer Aniston shared the clip.
“I lived in the Hollywood Hills for five years so I was pretty steeped in the Hollywood machine before I left. I’m a big Lakers fan, so when LeBron retweeted it, that was mind-blowing. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan so when Mark Hamill retweeted it, gave me credit and thanked me, I had to put my phone down. It made me emotional. He’s been a hero of mine for a long time on- and off-screen. That’s Luke Skywalker! That one hit the hardest.”
He knows the edit is not perfect and says that’s part of its charm. “Part of the magic of seeing something go viral is when you can see the messy edges. You can imagine that somebody made it in someone’s basement and that makes it more endearing. I could’ve spent another day animating the mouths, smoothing out the edges and fixing the jitteriness of it, but time was of the essence. I was also way too delirious to do that sort of fine-tuning after not having slept.”
He’s had time to sleep now, and he's caught up with the variety of responses, positive and negative. Regarding the latter, he says it was made in earnest from the heart with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humor. “The message I wanted to portray is unity. We are all human beings fighting for democracy and for the human race,” he explains. “The hate and bitterness in our politics have gone too far.”
As for why he included Musk in a band of political leaders, he said he wanted to honor the way the Tesla founder exited a Trump advisory council after the president made a decision to exit the Paris climate accord. He received the most messages about including Connery, the legendary James Bond star who passed away Oct. 31. “He’s a lot of people’s hero. He’s mine, too,” says Piette, citing his favorite 007 film, 1963’s From Russia With Love. Following his death, old interviews resurfaced during which Connery condoned violence against women, statements that he later clarified. “For him, this is about the afterlife — it’s been reconciled,” Piette says. “He’s hopefully made peace with his past.”
The viral success also has translated to a mountain of DMs, emails and texts, some of which included job offers. “I’d now like to focus on things that I care about, maybe edit something for organizations that need help,” he says, pointing to the upcoming runoff election in Georgia. “I also am thinking about another America: Endgame 2.”
But he’s keen to push a few personal projects forward, as well, including editing a documentary that he directed, polishing a feature screenplay and developing a few more indie projects. He’s also recently signed on to edit a narrative feature film for an established filmmaker. “Hopefully 2021 will be a year that I can make the films I’ve been wanting to make for years now.”
Asked how his mother is doing post-surgery, Piette laughs and says that while she’s healing nicely, he’s had to remind her to take it easy. “I’ve had to slow her ass down. She’s been trying to get up and dance without her cane,” he says. “She is literally my number one fan.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.