Oliver Stone is no stranger to the world of biopics, himself being heavily influential in establishing many of their standards as a modern genre. Filmic biographies, though, are part of an even grander cinematic tradition that have always had a place for examining men of power. In many ways, W. can draw back its thematic origins to a film like (most notably) Citizen Kane and its indirect look at the life of William Randolph Hearst. Here, though, the names are real and, for the first time, Stone brings to the screen the life of a President still in office.
Stone joined screenwriter Stanley Weiser (his writing partner from Wall Street) and his all-star cast to answer questions about his examination of the man who held the Presidency these last eight years. Sitting with Stone were Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), James Cromwell (George H.W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), and Rob Corddry (Ari Fleischer).
Q: What do you think George W. Bush would think of this film and was there any effort to contact him about it?
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. But, you know, I have to look with irony and this and I would only hope that one day he might be able to see the film because I think that Josh gives a great performance and I think that Liz gives a great performances as his wife, as Laura. So I hope he would enjoy it someday and would be wise enough to surrender to it.
Q: Would you be nervous about him seeing it in any way?
Stone: No, I think he’s made his position in general clear the last eight years on many things. I think that he would not, perhaps, in his present political state approve this movie, but that’s not the the point. The point is that the movie, I think, tries to understand him. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s the whole… We try to make him a human being. And I think that I’ve said repeatedly that I’ve tried to be fair and balanced and compassionate, above all, about this subject matter. And 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.
Q: Josh, can you talk about the research involved in playing Bush and how much of your interpretation came directly from the script?
Josh Brolin: The script changed a few times. You know, that’s just how it goes… The research? I’ve got all my peers up here, so it’s kind of embarrassing talking about research and how you stay in character and how you immerse yourself. You know, I just springboarded from a lot of fear that I wouldn’t be able to… When Oliver first approached me, I thought, “Why would you want to do a movie about that when we can just watch this guy on CNN?” Because 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. When I’m looking down and wondering, “Why would you want to do a movie about this?,” suddenly after reading it and talking to Oliver, I’m looking up and saying, “This is the greatest challenge an actor could ever have. Can I live up to it?” So anything I did was based in fear of not pulling it off. Then the other thing — to answer your question over there — is that we asked W. to be a technical advisor on the film, but he declined. I’m telling the truth. (Laughs).
Stone: Can I just add — I think it’s important — that Stanley Weiser, who is on the podium with us and is the screenwriter of the movie, was the first one to plunge in this vast but raw batch of books to finally start the break on the Bush administration in 2003 or 4. And I think that Stanley did a wonderful job of putting this all together because it’s a vast amount of material and it’s a lot. The investigative reporters who did this deserve a lot of credit. There’s very few of them. There’s 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.
Q: Oliver, can you talk about the website that’s launching to tie-in to the film?
Stone: It’ll come up on Friday the 17th. Stanley’s working hard on it. Our researchers are working very hard on it. It’ll be pretty good. You know, pretty good. A lot of the stuff you find will shock you. You don’t know. You don’t know a lot about Bush. You think you know. Everybody, like Josh says, has an opinion about the poor guy but, you know, we don’t know much.
Q: No sitting President has ever been lampooned as much by Hollywood in movies. Especially comedies like “Harold & Kumar” and references in “Anchorman” and “The X-Files.” What is Hollywood’s fascination with W. and what will Hollywood do when he’s out of office?
James Cromwell: You’ll have Sarah Palin to laugh at.
Brolin: Is it Hollywood or is it the media at large? This is the only movie that’s ever been done about this President. What about Palin on “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 we can 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 — what we’re starting to do now, I guess because of the last seven or eight years is that we’re starting to become proactive again. Protest this. Exaggerate that. The thing about this President is — forget Hollywood and just think the media at large — the thing about this President is that he is an exaggeration even that he admits. When you do this whole thing, it’s fun to watch. It’s an exaggeration. What we tried to do was create a drama with the realities of those exaggerations but not make it into buffoonery. Which I don’t think we did. They’ve done that themselves, but we haven’t.
Q: How do you make him sympathetic? Is it Laura Bush that makes him sympathetic in this movie?
Stone: Let’s ask Laura Bush. What do you thinks?
Elizabeth Banks: I don’t think it was difficult to make him sympathetic. I think that what Oliver did really well in this movie was remind us that the office of the Presidency, no matter who’s in it, is a really dramatic and difficult place to be. He’s such a great student of American politics and realizes 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. 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 guy. 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 crazy job and we elect personalities now to run the country. George Bush is not — I’m reminded of David Letterman, who has these bits where he does great moments in Presidential speeches — I mean, Bush is the absolute worst in public speaking. There is nothing Presidential about him. I think that when you think about the office of the Presidency and how difficult it would be and what any of us would be like in that spot, it’s very easy to sympathize with him.
Stanley Weiser: Aside from the office of the Presidency, look at him up close. If you look at Bush up close which I did after reading many, many books, you’ll see that he’s ruled by the same emotions that we are. Dread, fear, uncertainty. And he masks that in an overwhelming way. But the need to find religion or to be as good as his father. Before writing this, I couldn’t even bare to listen to George Bush on TV before. I had to turn it off. But if you really study him and read all these books, you’ll see that he’s a person that’s like us in many ways. He has the same underlying fears and insecurities. He has pain and I was trying to explore that pain because people only see the comic side. “Fahrenheit 9/11” dealt with the lampoonery and although it’s a brilliant movie, our attempt was to tell a different story. To show, up close and personal, his footsteps. What he had to endure. What made him and gave him such a massive kind of ambition to put his outlaw self in jail. The guy has willpower. He’s able to stop drinking on a dime. He’s able to stop smoking on a golf course. But he’s made one colossal mistake after another. But his intentions — like most people, his intentions aren’t to wake up in the morning and say, “I want to kill as many people as possible.” He’s a lot like Ahmad Dinejad. I’m sure if you knew Ahmad Dinejad up-close and believed in his beliefs, you’d think that he’s a pretty good guy and does what’s good for his people. But there’s an absolute blind fundamentalism that develops and congeals and you cannot empathize with. There’s an unreflectiveness in those kind of people. They’re convinced that they’re 100% right and that’s what brought him to hijack our nation. I want to say one other thing which is a political statement that Sarah Palin is George Bush on steroids with less brains. Much more dangerous.
Q: Can you talk about playing up the family aspect?
Stone: Please note that James Cromwell was the dad and that played a big role. A huge role. You noticed, I hope.
Cromwell: It’s an easy thing to lampoon and W. does lend himself to caricature. 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 and that Josh succeeded and that Oliver succeeded in finding the human being. That’s obviously the story. That’s what Stanley was saying.
Q: There’s a very popular Hong Kong actress, Gillian Chung, who was supposed to make an appearance in the film but wasn’t there. What happened to her scene?
Stone: Ms. Gillian Chung was in the movie. We used her — a very, very capable singer/actress. We used her in a belly dance scene with Saddam Hussein. Which was great but, unfortunately, had to go because of time.
Q: You’ve made films in the past about U.S. Presidents; Did the fact that George Bush is still in office make it more difficult?
Stone: Of course. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re making the movie a few months in advance. There could be — God forbid — another terrorist attack in the United States. Mr. Bush’s preemption policy could lead to a war in Iran. Or, perhaps, even Venezuela. Or, the way he thinks, we have the right to go anywhere in the world; Cuba or we might as well go to Georgia. This thing doesn’t end, by the way. We have that policy in place. He may be leaving in 2009 but, believe me, we have an issue with that policy and whether we can afford it or not.
Q: Thandie, you played Condoleezza Rice in the film. What are some of the challenges involved in playing a real person?
Thandie Newton: Well, the challenges are, as you would imagine, whatever is different from you. I think it was actually better that I had nothing at all that was comparable to Condoleezza. At first I thought Oliver was insane for wanting me to take the 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’s very technical. I always go towards a performance looking for what I can empathize with. Something I can feel. But I couldn’t. She is such a unique, physical personality and so it’s really very technical. It’s like theatre. I had a wonderful accent coach. It was like preparing for a dance recital. The way she moves is very different from myself. Wonderful makeup. We had an incredible makeup department. Hair and costumes. We had a wonderful costume designer. And it was theatre. YouTube, Wikipedia, Amazon.com. Actually, one of the best things for me was delving into YouTube and finding those little movies that people take with their phones; seeing Condoleezza Rice when she 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 you see at press conferences and the person at home watching TV that morning. There is someone in-between that you 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 these actors — where we were all completely immersed and desperate to find truth in something completely audacious. We went to work and we played and we were given this incredible context of insecurity and a very intelligent man watching us do that and steering us. And then the end result is what you see. But it was the most technical work I’ve ever done. I could feel. I just behaved. I think that’s very much what she’s like.
Q: What’s the line between playing the character and delving into parody?
Cromwell: It was because — I don’t think I made the right choice — I couldn’t find a handle on this guy because I had a lot of judgments about him. So I had an analysis of where he was stuck which is somewhere around here and then I laid a voice on top of it and Oliver didn’t say anything and I thought, “Well, it’s gonna work.” And then we got to the sort of fight scene and he kept saying to me, “What are you doing? You’re so quiet. You’re so still. Come on! Come on! Get involved!” and I said, “Well, you can’t get involved because I’m the parent and my child is acting like a jerk.” But what he kept on pushing me until, absolutely, the voice was gone — I mean, my voice was there — and I couldn’t actually bring it back. Looking at it now, in the entirety of the picture, it would have been a bad choice because it would look as if I was making a comment on it. When really the important thing was the relationship between myself and my son. Sometimes you have to let that go. People are not going to see George Herbert Walker Bush when they see me, but they are going to see a father and they’re going to see the dynamic that we’re trying to establish to explicate the relationship and the effect that the relationship had on the son.
Q: Oliver, do view your similarly-themed biopics as part of a greater, combined work or is each one completely a different entity?
Stone: Every one is separate. Every one is different. Mr. Bush is as different from Mr. Nixon as I can think. Mr. Bush has no blame. I’m sorry, no denial. He has no sense of accountability. It seems to me no responsibility. Even when he goes to the hospital at Walter Reed, I find he has a very good record of going back and being very caring and solicitous and yet he seems oddly unable to empathize with the people and the reasons why they were there. The Iraqi victims of this war and other people. He seems, not having read history until recently, to not be able to step outside himself. He’s truly involved — someone said to me, an investigator-journalist, that he has a tremendous sense of personalization. He meets Putin and it’s about, “He looked into my eyes and I saw his soul,” or whatever. The point is, he personalizes very complex situations down to “me.” I think he’s got a large ego and I think Josh really conveyed that. “I am the decider” concept and with Cheney and other people, he was always the dominant force in the room. People think that Bush is a lightweight. That’s not quite so. He’s a powerful man, that one. He unfortunately brings very complex issues down to “me.” “My reactions 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.
Q: Richard, can you talk about what went into you Dick Cheney performance?
Richard Dreyfuss: Well, first of all, I think there’s Cheney in all of us. That’s the actor’s job. To find, the way I usually put it: “There’s Hitler and Jesus in all of us and it’s the actor’s job to bring them out appropriately. ” Because there’s such a wealth of information and video about this guy, it wasn’t hard to find him. I would be very curious to see the same film made two or three years ago. Because our experience of Bush is neither empathic nor sympathetic. It was the reaction of terror. And we lived in terror. In a terror almost unlike anything known in American history. And it was quite interesting to find out how fast we revised the Bush administration into business as usual when it was nothing but the opposite of that. We will live with the consequences of those eight years for many years to come. Oliver chose to surprise everyone. I think everyone expected there would be some kind of spectac methamphetamine version of the story. He surprised everyone by making a legitimate, political debate discussion about something universal which was the father and the son. I think that the problem with making the film now is the inability to have the character that represents me, you, the ones who were terrified of opening up the newspaper and we were afraid. We did things during those eight years that now that we are either going to look back on and say were silly or we were right and we escaped a bullet. But I told my children, “Keep your passports current and know how to get to Canada if I ever call and tell you, ‘Go to Canada.'” Because he had rewritten American history. And he had done it in such a way that there was no arguing with him. If you argued with him, a black spot was put against your name. People will forget that now, but Due Process was turned into Selective Due Process and if I was running the Democratic national 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 what I yearn to see is that kind of public posture that we experience. No one in this room does not know what I’m talking about whether you are for Bush or against him. What Oliver found were universals and a very good, high level of political discussion.
Q: Why was it important to release this film now?
Stone: Are you asking me? I think you should ask Scott Glenn because he’s from the midwest. Scott?
Scott Glenn: I think it’s important, obviously, in the context of the coming election for as much of the history of this administration in terms of the people. You know, no one can really predict the future, knowing, for example, three weeks ago that our economy and, now it looks like the world’s economy, is going down the toilet. It’s probably going to be the one salient conversation point from now till the end of the election. Having said that, I think it’s important to put that out in front of everyone. What I’m satisfied with is that the film — especially Josh and all of them — manage to humanize the story whether you like it or not. I think it’s important that we be able to see ourselves in both the darkness and the light. I remember that someone once asked Dustin Hoffman if there was a part that he wanted to play that he never did and he said, “Yeah, I would always have liked to play Hitler,” and they said, “Well, what would you have done?” and he said, “I would have played a man who was a strict vegetarian, 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 one another’s shoes. It’s gonna be interesting to me to see how this plays in Twin Falls, Idaho. Or Napa, 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, a lot of this other stuff is going to be secondary.
Stone: I want to hear from Rob. Rob, what’s your news report for this week?
Corddry: Oh, it’s over. We tried, we failed. We didn’t do it. (laughs)
Q: Rob, you’re background is all comedy. What was it like working with Oliver Stone?
Corddry: There’s nothing bad about doing an Oliver Stone picture. Oliver Stone and Ashton Kutcher have been compared a lot. When I auditioned, Oliver looked at my resume and said, “You’ve only done comedies.” He asked the casting director, “When people look at him on the screen are they just going to laugh?” and the casting director said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Look, my agents spend half their day convincing people that I am recognizable. I’m sure they’d be glad to convince you that I’m not.”
Q: Why is George W. Bush always shown eating?
Stone: That’s the personality. Josh, talk. In one scene, he actually ate like 26 sandwiches.
Brolin: Well, that’s grown every…
Stone: How many was it?
Stone: Fifteen full sandwiches.
Weiser: It’s documented that Bush would eat like that. Remember Altoids? The Altoids story? He’d eat like two or three tins a day. But he does eat with his mouth open. His favorite meal is a baloney sandwich on cheese. Cheetos. And he doesn’t care if he eats with his mouth open.
Brolin: To answer your question, I think it’s more about the need to keep moving. It’s that ADD thing. It’s a diversion tactic. Even when he meets Laura. It’s something to do. It’s like an actor who needs props. He just never got to the point where he didn’t need the props. And then he quit drinking and even more so. You quit smoking and you quit drinking and then what? You run. You bike. You eat.
Banks: You gotta be addicted to something.
Brolin: A war. I don’t know. I’m sure everybody knows people like that and I think he’s the extreme version of it. Again, it’s not exaggeration. You can see it, time and again.
Q: How did you balance comedy with serious characters?
Stone: Well that’s why we put Richard Dreyfuss in as Cheney. “The Goodbye Girl”. And Laura Banks.
Banks: Laura Banks?
Stone: (laughing) Elizabeth Banks. She has a background in a loose and easy style. And Josh — which was a surprise for me — just is funny. Whether he knows it or not. He’s a wonderful actor.
Banks: He knows it.
Stone: He just finds that line. It could have been, as you said, parody but I’m glad it never goes there. He’s credible but he’s completely lunatic at the same time. I love it.
Q: Was there anything you held back to secure a PG-13?
Stone: There’s no need for an R. It’s a very heady, philosophical subject matter and I think kids should see it. When I was 13, they allowed me to go see “Doctor Strangelove” and “Paths of Glory.” I don’t know a young child can’t go to a movie with her father or mother and talk about it. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen between a child and their parent at that age.
Q: Do you think of the film as a comedy or a drama?
Dreyfuss: I think it would be a mistake to define the film as a comedy. I think most drama has moments of comedy.
Newton: And we weren’t trying to be funny. Not at all. Ever. Ever. It was always about being authentic. About being truthful. We were trying to find the texture to these relationships and a lot of what these people said to each other — And did — was preposterous. And it is funny. It’s the kind of funny where, two seconds later, you’re crying. Not because it’s funny. You’re crying in desperation.
Brolin: I also think that, in order to get the drama you’re meant to get in two hours, you need comedy to take a breath. In order to ingest what’s being said. That’s what was important for me. So I did. I pushed. When I saw an opening to either ad-lib or improvise a little bit, I would. Look, Bush is an exaggerated personality. There’s gestures of his that you can’t deny are hilarious. That’s why there’s so much cartoonish impersonation of him. I remember that we had one interview before we started the movie and it was with Entertainment Weekly. They said, “Obviously, you’re not going to do an SNL version of Bush?” and I said, “Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what’s appropriate. I don’t know yet. We haven’t started.” When you’re doing the movie, you’re searching through the tones. I don’t know what it is. What we’ve come up with, Oliver and I — Oliver, especially — is that this version that came up is a very dramatic version with comedic overtones. It allows you to breathe.
Stone: Stanley Weiser, who was also my co-writer on “Wall Street” happens to be a very funny man and gave this thing this wit and that oddball perception that he does bring to life. I love him for it.
Q: Cheney’s vision of an exit strategy in the film are comparable to Alexander the Great’s ideas of conquest. Was this connection playing in your mind consciously?
Stone: Yes! Totally different, though. You’re exactly correct… You’re right. Alexander. “We’re gonna stay and use the resources”. But look what Alexander did with it. Mr. Cheney is into survival evolutions. He’s talking about resource wars where we’d go fight and kill for it. It’s much more ruthless than Alexander but a great, great analogy. By the way, he never said exactly that in quote but he did say he had no concern about the exit. It’s long term, about energy and geopolitics. Most recently, he’s really concerned about Eurasia and rightly so. But it always seems to be about us versus them and that kind of mentality. And 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.
Q: Were there a lot of scenes cut out and will they appear on the DVD?
Stone: Yeah, we had a lot of Saddam Hussein scenes and we have another evangelist in it who’s very good. Michael Shannon plays him and a Cessna piloting scene where he’s a little loaded. It’s fun stuff. It’s very good stuff. Some of the scenes are longer. It’ll be fun, but I think that the good stuff’s in the movie and we’re happy with it in two hours.