Oliver Stone has made biographical films before, even biopics of U.S. Presidents. But in his latest, W. the acclaimed director is attempting a creative high wire act; to make art based on events which are still unfolding. Aided by an all-star cast and a script written by Stone's old friend Stanley Weiser (Wall Street), the film takes a look at the professional and personal life of the current President of the United States of America, George W. Bush. At the heart of the narrative is the father-son relationship between Bush, the Senior (played by James Cromwell) and Bush, the Junior (played by Josh Brolin), the influence of two strong women (Barbara Bush, played by Ellen Burstyn and Laura Bush, played by Elizabeth Banks), and an incredible life story stretching from depths of dependency to the heights of political power.
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down in Hollywood with Oliver Stone, Stanley Weiser and the star-studded cast of W. to talk about the perils of contemporary political life, the challenges in playing the characters of the current U.S. administration and the effects of art on real life, both deliberate and unintentional...
Emmanuel Itier: Oliver - What do you think George W. Bush would think about this film, and did you ever try to contact him directly about the project?
Oliver Stone: Frankly, it’s very difficult to have a movie made on your life, for you or for me. It’s not something that you would perceive in the same way. It’s just the nature of our being, and so I have to look at this with irony and I would only hope that one day he might be able to see the film because I think that Josh [Brolin] gives a great performance, and I think that Liz [Banks] gives a great performance as his wife, Laura. So I think he’d enjoy it someday and be wise enough to surrender to it.
EI: Would you be nervous about him seeing it in any way?
OS: No, I think he’s made his position in general clear in the last eight years on many things. I think he would not, perhaps in this present political state, approve of this movie, but that’s not the point. The point is, I think, that the movie tries to understand him, and I also think that’s with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We try to make him a human being, and I’ve said repeatedly that I’ve tried to be fair and balanced and passionate above all about this subject matter, not to take sides and not to be my political self, which is my private citizen side. I feel like I am a dramatist and this is what I do professionally, and I try to keep it as a craft.
EI: Josh - can you talk about the transformation into this role, and your research? How much of the information was sitting in the original script for you to take and run with?
Josh Brolin: The script changed a few times. That’s just how it goes. When you do an Oliver Stone film, you just lend yourself to everything... the absurdity of life. I have all of my peers up here, so it’s kind of embarrassing to talk about research and how you stay in character and how you immerse yourself... I just springboarded off of a lot of fear that I wouldn’t be able to do this. When Oliver first approached me about this, I thought, “Why would you want to do a movie about that when we can watch this guy on CNN?” I had a very cosmetic view of Bush and of Oliver, to be frank.
Once I read the script, I was amazed. Usually, when you do a biopic, you follow about ten years of their life. You don’t get to go from 21 to 58 and then suddenly while I’m looking down thinking, “Why would you want to do a movie about this?” and after reading it and talking to Oliver at length, I’m looking up and saying, “This is the greatest challenge that an actor could ever have. Can I live up to this?” So anything that I did was based in fear in pulling it off. To answer your earlier question, we asked W. to be a technical advisor on the film, but he declined... I’m telling the truth!
OS: I’d like to point out that Stanley Weiser, who’s here with us, is the screenwriter of the movie. He was the first one to plunge into this vast and raw batch of books that finally started to break on the Bush administration in 2003 and 2004. I think that Stanley did a wonderful job of putting this all together, because it’s a vast amount of material. The investigative reporters who did this deserve a lot of credit. There’s very few of them. There are less than a dozen, and they’re out there and we thank them. They really made this possible. We wouldn’t have been able to look past the window of the Bush administration...
EI: Oliver, yesterday you mentioned an official W. website that will be coming up related to the movie…
OS: We’re working on it. Stanley is working hard on it. Researchers are working very hard on it, and it’ll be pretty good. A lot of the stuff you will find will shock you. You don’t know a lot about Bush, even if you think you know. Everyone, like Josh said, has an opinion about the poor guy, but we don’t know much.
EI: I felt strangely sad for the guy at the end of the movie - I didn't expect to feel such sympathy...
OS: This means that you have a heart. You might be a journalist, but you have a heart.
EI: No sitting president has ever been so lampooned: What’s the fascination with this man for Hollywood?
Stanley Weiser: Is it Hollywood or is it the media at large? This is the only movie that’s ever been done about this president, but what about Palin and Saturday Night Live? That’s what it’s there for. That’s what the people are there for, in order to exaggerate those things so that we can look at it and get perspective.
We’re constantly finding new perspective. We need to because they’re our leaders. What we haven’t done — what the Europeans are great at and what we’re starting to do now, I guess, maybe because for the last seven or eight years — we’ve been starting to get proactive again with protests and this and that, but the thing about this president — forget Hollywood, but just the media at large — is that he’s an exaggeration that he even admits.
When you do this whole thing, it’s fun to watch. It’s an exaggeration. What we try to do is create a drama with the realities of those exaggerations but not make it into buffoonery. They’ve done that themselves, but we haven’t.
EI: Was it a challenge to make him sympathetic? Elizabeth - I think Laura Bush makes him sympathetic in this movie.
Elizabeth Banks: I don’t think it was difficult to make him sympathetic. I think what Oliver did really well in this movie is remind us that the office of the Presidency, no matter who is in it, is a really dramatic and difficult place to be. He’s such a great student of American politics and realizes just what a fascinating spot the Leader of the Free World is.
I think that George Bush has provided us with a lot of fodder. I met George Bush and he told me that he hates to watch himself on television. I think that’s totally obvious, but we have to remember that he is a man. His desk is all incoming madness, and that’s what I think Oliver reminded us of. Regardless of who’s in that office, it’s a crazy job, and we elect personalities now to run the country. I’m reminded of David Letterman who has these bits where he does “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches,” and Bush is the absolute worst at speaking. There’s nothing presidential about him. So when you think about the office of the Presidency and how difficult that is and what any of us would be like in that spot, it’s very easy to sympathize with him.
SW: Aside from the office of the presidency, if you look at Bush up close, which is what I did after reading many books, you’ll see that he’s ruled by the same emotions that we are — dread, fear, and uncertainty. He masks that in an overwhelming way, but the need to find religion and to eclipse or be as good as his father… I had to park all of my politics at the door because, in writing this, I couldn’t even bear to listen to George Bush on the television before. I’d have to turn it off. But if you really study him and you read all these books you see that he’s a person like us in many ways, unlike us in many ways, but that he has underlying fears and insecurities and pain… I was trying to explore that pain.
People only see the comic side. Fahrenheit 9/11 dealt with the lampoonery, and it’s a brilliant movie, and so our attempt at this was that Oliver and I realized that we wanted to tell a different story that showed what it is to be up close and personal in his footsteps, to know what he had to endure, what gave him such massive ambition to try and rehabilitate his image, and to put his outlaw self in jail. The guy has tremendous willpower. He was able to stop drinking on a dime. He was able to stop smoking on the golf course, and he’s made one colossal mistake after another, but his intention, as most people’s are…most people don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Well, I want to kill as many as possible.”
He’s a lot like Ahmadinejad. I’m sure if you got to know Ahmadinejad up close and you believe in his beliefs, you would think that he’s a pretty good guy who wants to do good for his people, but there’s an absolute blind fundamentalism that develops and congeals, and then you cannot empathize. An empathy deficit occurs. They’re convinced that they’re a 100% right, and that’s what hijacked our nation down the road. I want to say one other thing, which is a paid political announcement: That is that Sarah Palin is George Bush on steroids with less brains and much more dangerous.
EI: I found that even with all the family issues, it was sad to see all the bodies littered afterwards.
SW: That’s how history goes.
OS: Please note that James Cromwell plays Dad. That plays a big role in this, a huge role. I hope you noticed. Can you talk about that? Because the family dynamic was raised…?
James Cromwell: Well, it’s an easy thing to lampoon. W. does lend himself to character. It’s a much more difficult thing to create a whole human being. You couldn’t leave out those aspects that lend themselves to caricature and lampoon, and have an accurate portrait of the man. The fact that people are moved means that we succeeded, that Josh succeeded, and Oliver succeeded in finding the human being. That’s obviously the story, and that’s what Stanley was saying.
EI: Oliver - This isn’t the first movie you’ve made about a president. But did the fact that George W. Bush is still in office change everything for you on this project?
OS: Of course. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re making the movie a few months in advance and we knew that, God forbid, there could be another terrorist attack in the United States. Mr. Bush’s preemption policy could lead to a war in Iran or perhaps even Venezuela. The way that he thinks we have the right to go anywhere in the world — Cuba? we might as well go to Georgia. This thing doesn’t end. We have that policy in place, by the way. He might be leaving in 2009, but believe me, we have an issue with that policy whether we can afford it not.
EI: Thandie, what are the challenges of playing such a high-profile real person?
Thandie Newton: Well, as you’d imagine, one of them is that they’re different from you. I think it was actually better that I had nothing at all that was comparable to Condoleezza [Rice]. At first, I thought that Oliver was insane for wanting me to take part, but I also thanked him so much for asking me to rise to the challenge because I do believe that I’m a character actress at heart, so it was very technical.
I always go toward a performance looking for what I can empathize with - looking for something that I could feel, but I couldn’t do that with this. She’s such a unique, physical personality, and so it was really very technical and it was like theater. I had a wonderful accent coach. It was like preparing for a dance recital because the way that she moves is very different from myself. We had an incredible hair and makeup department. We had a wonderful costume designer, and it was theater.
YouTube, Wikipedia, Amazon.com — actually, the best stuff for me was actually delving into YouTube.com and finding those little movies that people take with their phones, and seeing Condolezza Rice when she really thinks she’s not being watched. They were the moments that really helped me. What I was trying to find was the person between the person that you see in those press conferences and the person who’s at home brushing her teeth in the morning. There is someone in between that we never see, and that’s what the movie was for me.
Obviously, you do all that technical work and then you come to set and you play. Being with an actor like Josh, being with all of these actors, where we were all completely immersed and desperate to find truth in something that’s so audacious... we went to work and played, and we were given this incredible context and security, and a very intelligent man watching us do that and steering us. Then the end result is what you see, but it was the most technical work that I’ve ever personally done. I didn’t feel. I just behaved, because I think that’s very much what she’s like.
EI: James - Can you talk about finding the line between impersonation and characterization?
JC: I don’t think that I made the right choice. I couldn’t find a handle on this guy because I had a lot of judgments on him, and so I had an analysis of where he was stuck, which was somewhere around here. I laid a voice on top of that. Oliver didn’t say anything and so I thought, “Well, it’s going to work.” Then we got to the fight scene and he was saying to me, “What are you doing? You’re so quiet and still. Come on, get involved.” I said, “Well, I can’t get involved because I’m a parent and my child is acting like a jerk.” But he kept on pushing me until the voice was absolutely gone. I mean, my voice was there and I couldn’t actually bring it back.
But looking at it now, the entire picture, it would’ve been a bad choice because it would’ve stuck out as if I were making a comment on him, when really the important thing was the relationship between myself and my son. So sometimes you have to let that go. People aren’t going to see George Herbert Walker Bush when they see me, but they are going to see a father and they’re going to understand the dynamic that we’re trying to go for, to establish, to explicate the relationship and the effect the relationship had on his son.
EI: Oliver - You have helped to define the biopic as a genre. When you do a film like this, do you take that into consideration, or are all your films separate?
OS: Everyone is separate. Everyone is different. Mr. Bush is as different from Mr. Nixon as I can think. Mr. Bush has no sense of accountability, it seems to me, or responsibility. Even when he goes to the hospital, to Walter Reed, he’s got a very good record of going back and being caring and solicitous, and yet he seems oddly unable to empathize with the people, the reasons why they were there, the Iraqi victims of this war, and other people. He seems to have not read history until recently, or to be able to step outside himself. He’s truly involved. An investigative journalist said to me that he has a tremendous sense of personalization. He meets [Vladimir] Putin and it’s about, “He looked into my eyes and I saw his soul,” or whatever. The point is that he personalizes very complex situations down to “Me,” and I think he’s got a large ego. I think that Josh really conveyed that “I’m the decider” concept with [Dick] Cheney and with other people. He was always the dominant force in the room. People think that Bush is a lightweight, and that’s not quite so. He’s a powerful man that way, and I think that the ego dominates. He, unfortunately, simplifies complex world issues down to “Me” and “My reaction to things” and “I am stronger than dad.” I’m making this simple, but in a movie, you’ve got two hours to make a point.
EI: Richard (Dreyfuss), Bush is one thing, but Dick Cheney is more inscrutable than any of the other characters. How did you get inside of that role?
Richard Dreyfuss: Well, first of all, I think there’s some Cheney in all of us, and that’s the actor’s job. The way that I usually put it is that there’s Hitler in Jesus, in all of us, and it’s the actor’s job to bring them out appropriately.
There’s such a wealth of information on him and video about this guy, he wasn’t hard to find. I would be very curious to see the same film in two or three years, because our experience of Bush is neither empathic nor sympathetic. It was the reaction to terror. We lived in terror - terror unlike almost anything known in American history. It was quite amazing to me how fast the Bush administration was at business as usual when it was nothing but the opposite of that. We’ll live with the consequences of those eight years for many years to come.
Oliver chose to surprise everyone. I think that everyone expected that there would be a methamphetamine version of the story, and he surprised everyone by making a legitimate political discussion about something universal which was a father and a son. I think the problem with making the film now is the inability to have the character that represents me, you, the ones who were terrified, and we did things during those eight years which now we’re going to look back on and say were silly or that we were right and we escaped a bullet.
I told my children to keep their passports current, know how to get to Canada if I ever call you and tell you, “Go to Canada,” because in American history, he had done it in such a way that there was no argument. If you argued against him, a black spot was put against your name and people forget that now, but due process was turned into selective process. If I was running the Democratic campaign right now, I would love to ask Senator McCain, “According to the Solicitor General under Bush, Senator McCain, were you tortured in Hanoi?” because under the Solicitor General’s definition, he wasn’t. I think that’s what I yearn to see - that kind of public posture that we experience. No one in this room doesn’t know what I’m talking about, whether you’re for Bush or against him. What Oliver found were universals and a very good, high level of political discussion.
EI: Why is it important to release this film before the election, and is that intentional?
OS: Ask Scott Glenn, because he’s from the Midwest. Seriously, I’m curious.
Scott Glenn: I think it’s important, obviously, in the context of the coming election, for as much of the history of this administration to be in front of the people to judge one way or the other. No one can really predict the future. No one could’ve predicted that three weeks ago, our economy, and now it looks like the world’s economy, is going down the toilet and is probably going to be the single most salient conversational point through the end of the election. But having said that, I think it’s important to put that out in front of everyone.
What I’m gratified with is that the film, especially Josh and Oliver, managed to humanize the story of this guy whether you like him or not. I think it’s important that we can all see ourselves in the dark and in the light. I remember one time that someone asked Dustin Hoffman if there was part that he wanted to play that he hadn’t, and he said, “Yeah. I would’ve always loved to have played Hitler.” They asked what he would’ve done with that role. He said, “I would’ve played a man who was a strict vegetarian, and who couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or kids.”
I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we all walk, to some extent, in each other’s shoes. It’s going to be interesting, to me, to see how this plays in Twin Falls, Idaho or Nampa, Idaho, or Boise or Salt Lake City. My guess is that when people look down at their feet and see sewer water coming up over their knees and understand that they don’t really know how to swim, it’s going to be the economy that they make the decision on, and a lot of this other stuff is going to be secondary.
EI: Why is Bush, in the film, always eating and drinking?
OS: An obsessive personality. Josh should talk about what he went through. In one scene, he actually ate 26 sandwiches.
JB: I love how it’s grown — 15 sandwiches.
SW: I have to say that it’s documented that Bush would eat like that.
OS: The Altoids story — he has them everywhere and will eat like two or three tins of Altoids a day, constantly.
SW: But he does eat with his mouth open. His favorite meal is a bologna sandwich on cheese.
SW: …With Cheetos, and he doesn’t care if he eats with his mouth open.
JB: To answer your question, I think it’s more about the nature of having to keep moving. It’s that ADD thing. It’s that and especially, even though you see it, it’s a diversion tactic. Even when he meets Laura, it’s something to do. It’s like an actor who needs props until they don’t need the props. He just never got to the point where he didn’t need the props. Then he quit drinking and it was even more so. You quit smoking, you quit drinking and then what? You run. You bike. You eat.
EB: You’ve got to be addicted to something.
JB: You go to war… I don’t know. I’m sure that everyone knows people like that, and I think he’s the extreme version of it. And again, it’s not exaggeration. We’ve seen it again and again.
EI: Rob (Corddry), we know you as the funny guy, the comedy guy, from films like What Happens In Vegas…
Rob Corddry: …Which was a very important film [Smiles]
EI: This is a nice departure for you - How did you get cast in an Oliver Stone biopic?
RC: For one thing, there’s nothing bad about doing an Oliver Stone bio picture. Oliver Stone and Ashton Kutcher have been compared a lot to one another. When I auditioned, Oliver looked at my resume and said, “You’ve only done comedies.” He asked the casting director, “Are people just going to look at him on the screen and just laugh because that’s what they’re used to?” The casting director said, “Yeah.” I told Oliver, I said, “Look, my agents spend half their day saying that I am recognizable. I’m sure that they’d be glad to convince you that I’m not”... Here I am.
EI: And in actual fact, the movie came to you: W. is really funny...
OS: Well, that’s why we put Richard Dreyfuss in as Cheney. Elizabeth Banks has a background in a loose and easy style. Josh was a surprise for me. He is funny, whether he knows it or not, and is a wonderful actor.
EB: He knows it.
OS: He finds that line. It could’ve been, as he said, parody, and I’m glad that it didn’t go there. He’s credible but he’s completely a lunatic at the same time. I love it.
EI: Was the PG-13 rating part of making it accessible so that more audience could see it?
OS: There’s no need for this. It’s a very heady and philosophical subject matter. When I was 13, they allowed me to go see Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory… I don’t know why a young child and their father and mother can’t go to a movie with them and be able to talk about the movie. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen between a parent and a child of that age.
RD: I think it’d be a mistake to define the movie as a comedy. I think that most drama has moments of comedy.
TN: And we weren’t trying to be funny — not at all, ever. It was always about being authentic and being truthful, and really trying to find the texture to these relationships. A lot of what these people did and said to each other was preposterous, and it is funny. It’s the kind of funny where two seconds later you’re crying but not because it’s funny.
JB: I think also, in order to get the impact of drama, what you’re saying in two hours you need comedy to take a breath in order to ingest what is being said in the movie. That’s what was important for me. When I saw an opening to either adlib or improvise a little bit, I took it. Bush is an exaggerated personality. There are gestures of his that you can’t deny are hilarious, which is why there’s so much cartoon-ish impersonation of him. I remember when we had one interview before we started the movie, with Entertainment Weekly, and they said, “Obviously, you’re not going to do an SNL version of Bush,” and I said, “I don’t know, maybe. Maybe that’s what’s appropriate. We haven’t started.” So when you’re doing the movie, you’re searching through the tones and you don’t know what it is. I think what we’ve come up with, Oliver especially and me secondly…
OS: …and Stanley, who has a very comic sensibility...
JB: …and Stanley, there are so many different versions of this movie. This version that came out is a very dramatic version with comedic overtones that allows you to breathe.
OS: My co-writer from Wall Street, Stanley Weiser, also happens to be a very funny man when you get to talk to him, and he gave this thing - that wit and that oddball perception that he does bring to life, and I love him for it...
EI: I especially liked the Cheney opinion of the Middle East. “There is no exit. We stay.” It’s seemed somewhat analogous to Alexander the Great’s ideal.
OS: Yeah, it is, but totally different in that... you’re exactly correct. Alexander said, “We’re going to stay and use the resources,” but look what Alexander did with it. Mr. Cheney is into survival and evolution. He’s talking about resource wars. “We’ll fight and kill for it.” He’s much more ruthless than Alexander, but... a great analog!. By the way, he never said exactly that in quotes, but he did say that he had no concern about… it’s about energy and geo-politics. Most recently, he’s really concerned about Eurasia, and rightly so, but it’s always us versus them, that kind of mentality. I repeat again. The pact for the new American century, it’s all there in black and white. You can read it for yourselves. These guys believe it.
SW: By the way, that was Oliver’s greed in the good scene. He wrote that.
OS: Not without you.
EI: Oliver, in closing, was there anything that you had to leave out, asomething special to wait for on the inevitable DVD?
OS: Yeah, we had a bunch of Saddam Hussein scenes, and we’ve got another evangelist in there who’s very good. Michael Shannon plays him. We have a Cessna piloting scene when he’s a little loaded. He goes up with Noah Wiley in a plane. Gillian Chung was in the movie. We used her in a belly dance scene with Saddam Hussein which was great, but unfortunately had to go because of time. There’s some fun stuff, some good stuff. Some of the scenes are also longer. It’ll be fun, but I think the good stuff is in the movie, and we’re happy with it at two hours.
Lionsgate Films' 'W.' in in theaters now.