💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Listen to the radio version of this story here.
Update: The documentary will be rebroadcast at 10 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 12. Streaming info is not yet available.
If Marie Siravo had named her lawn care venture something different, the Trump campaign would have probably still held its infamous press conference there.
That’s one of the takeaways from “Four Seasons Total Documentary,” which gives the inside track on one the most bizarre political gatherings in U.S. history — and the American dream success story for the woman-owned business in the city where the nation was founded.
“What if it was called Marie’s Total Landscaping?” someone asks in the 30-minute film, which debuted Sunday night on MSNBC, exactly one year after the original event.
Had it not shared a name with the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Center City, however, the year that followed would have been very different for the family-run venture, which transformed from struggling operation to internationally renowned brand that’s seen more than $1.5 million in t-shirt sales and has a rapt social media following.
That’s what attracted director Chris Stoudt, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who began work on the project within a month of the international hoopla.
“I wanted to give Four Seasons an opportunity to tell their own story from their perspective, and to shine a light on the fact that these were good people,” Stoudt said in an interview. “These were honest people who were just trying to do their civic duty.”
Campaign operatives chose the Northeast Philly business next to an adult bookstore and across the street from a crematorium because of its physical location, the documentary makes clear.
Sean Middleton, sales director at Total Landscaping, was in a Bible study class on that fateful Saturday, according to the film. Around 8:45 a.m., his phone wouldn’t stop ringing, so he took the call. It was campaign staff for Donald Trump.
“Why not?” Middleton says he remembers thinking, and by 9:45 a.m., the deal was done. “We would have done it for either party,” he later adds. “We were just trying to help.”
The parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping was deemed one of the only spaces with good access to I-95 that could be quickly secured, secure enough for Rudy Giuliani to give a speech to the throngs of international media that had descended upon Philadelphia as ballots continued to be counted in the 2020 presidential contest.
It was also free, a point made by Olivia Nuzzi, a political reporter who serves as the Washington correspondent for New York Magazine. “The Trump campaign had blown through $1.5 billion … they were out of money,” Nuzzi says in the film.
Money was also a worry for the folks at Total Landscaping.
“We were struggling [before this],” says Mike Siravo, son of founder Marie Siravo and general manager of the business, in the movie. “Almost living paycheck to paycheck.”
Now, things are somewhat different, Middleton told Billy Penn. In addition to the side hustle of merch — a joint venture with Philly Drinkers, another local small business, that has allowed the team to donate about $50,000 to charity — Total Landscaping has gained three actual new landscaping clients due to the fame.
And it’s looking up. “Everyone is optimistic as the name Four Seasons Total Landscaping and the folklore associated with it continues to grow,” Middleton said.
It almost didn’t turn out that way. At first, the vitriol that characterized the 2020 election threatened to swallow up 28 years of hard work the Siravo team had put into building the business.
They received literally thousands of hateful voicemail messages. Yelp reviews went nuts. “I put my house up for the mortgage on this place,” Marie says in the doc. “We were in danger of losing both.”
Then Middleton and the younger Siravo turned things around. Longtime friends who’d grown up together, they decided to embrace the craziness, and “let people know we were in on the joke.” Within a day, Sean jumped on Twitter and Mike took over Instagram. The memes started flying and the merch started selling.
From there, it was off to the races. An artist in Berlin sculpted a Four Seasons Total Landscaping diorama. A punk rock concert held there sold out in seconds. Marie and the business starred in a Super Bowl commercial.
As director Stoudt said on Sunday, in advance of the film’s debut: “Everybody wanted to make this documentary.”
How’d he get the gig? One, he had an inside connection: he was friends with Kevin Middleton, younger brother to Sean Middleton, the Total Landscaping sales director. (“He and Chris are good friends and both play guitar in the band La Lenguas,” Sean explained.)
Two, Stoudt wanted to focus on the people. “It did feel a little classist,” the filmmaker said. “All these outlets talking about this working-class, salt of the earth landscaping company. I wanted to push back on that.”
That was the selling point. “We had so many outlets reaching out to us … it felt exploitative,” Middleton said. “I knew immediately we could work with Christopher and his heart was in a good place. When Glen Zipper and Sean Stuart agreed to produce, we all knew it was a great decision.”
Stoudt, who worked his way up to director from beginnings as a production assistant on “The Apprentice” — he never met Trump, but found the offices they worked out of at Trump Tower surprisingly “dingy” — said he knew Zipper because the Los Angeles documentary scene is relatively small, and thought he’d be a good fit.
Zipper, whose previous work includes acclaimed high school football doc “Undefeated” and the Emmy-winning “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali,” was immediately on board, Stoudt said. He sent an email with the subject “Four Seasons Total Documentaries,” and the project was born.
When Stoudt spent eight days in Philadelphia to shoot scenes, he was treated to the full family embrace.
Cheesesteaks from Steve’s Prince of Steaks were memorable, but not as much as the homemade dishes from Marie, who as per her usual behavior, kept everyone fed with meatball hoagies and roast pork sandwiches with provolone and broccoli rabe.
“Literally every day was a different Italian feast for lunch,” Stoudt said. “I ate really well.”
During their time together, the filmmaker worked to convince his subjects that their story would resonate. “Is this what people wanna hear about?” Marie asks incredulously at one point, after recounting how hard it was to get started in landscaping when prospective customers didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman.
Yes, Stoudt affirms with his film, that’s exactly the story he wanted to tell.
“My career goal is to tell great stories that challenge people’s perspective and bring people closer together,” he said. “I like having people judge a book by its cover and forcing them to confront the commonality they might have with the subject they judged.”
A native of New Orleans who came through Philadelphia often to visit relatives in Reading, Pa., Stoudt described the city as “honest and forthright,” with a populace that “does not hold back.”
“I just witnessed so many people who were fighting for democracy,” Stoudt said. “I gained a newfound sense of respect for Philadelphia.”