So I saw the film and liked it a lot, I was surprised.
“Tell me why you were surprised!”
Because of how it played in Toronto and made a scandal. I thought it would be much more lurid and sensational, but it’s actually quite thoughtful and sober.
“Oh good! I’m glad you thought that.”
How do you feel about the way the film was hyped?
“Well, I think that the initial knee-jerk reaction to news of me having made the film was because people thought it was something else. They thought it would be a sort of liberal fantasy, some sort of liberal wet dream, that I was somehow revelling in the moment of the assassination of President Bush or that this film was somehow cheering an event like that. That obviously led a lot of people to condemn it without having seen it. Of course, the irony to me is that one of the things the film is about is the danger of a rush to judgment.”
Especially since even though the film is critical of the Bush administration, when he gets shot, you actually feel bad for him. You show it as the human tragedy that it is.
“That was the intention, I’m glad you felt that.”
That wasn’t mentioned in any of the reports from Toronto; I heard that people cheered when Bush got shot.
“That’s not true! That’s complete rubbish, anyone who sat in that cinema will tell you that actually what was interesting about all those screenings in Toronto is that you could hear a pin drop. Nobody cheered, nobody clapped. Quite a few people after it told me that they found it incredibly moving at the moment that he was shot, which I’d always hoped but wasn’t quite sure that we’d achieved.”
One of the things I found amazing about the film is that you often can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s staged. You used special effects, right?
“Sure, but the process began really with choosing the archives and trying to find little bits of archival footage that I could build the film around. The process was then about making the archives our own, either through adding a character into the back of a shot or… The protest footage, for example, I filmed at several protests in Chicago: one to coincide with President Bush coming to town, another to coincide with the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. So for some of those protests I had some of my actors there and around on the street, but then separately, I also staged my own protest with 400 extras. It was about trying to do everything possible to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.”
At times, you forget that it’s fake. You feel like you’re watching any post-9/11 documentary, except that Bush gets shot. Did you write all the talking heads material or were some of them real experts?
“Yes I did, they’re all actors. The piece is entirely fictional, but every single twist and turn of the narrative is actually inspired by a true story, by real events that have happened over the last five years. One of the hardest things about making a film like this is to make those interviews and quotes feel as realistic as possible. We were at great pains to try and track down the real life counterparts to the characters in our film. For example, for the secret service agent character, we actually had a former member of the presidential protection detail who sat on set advising us, similarly for the forensics experts. And then for some of the other characters, some of them are deliberately reminiscent of people who’ve worked with President Bush. So like, the speechwriter obviously, some of the things she says may remind people of perhaps Karen Hughes a little bit.”
In the general style of the film, I sensed a kinship with the documentaries of Errol Morris. Was that intended?
“I think Errol Morris is a terrific filmmaker and that his films have a very particular pathos and gravitas. On some level it is the case that I wanted the film to feel reverential, that it was made in quite a composed and respectful sort of way, so in that respect I guess there is a similarity. But it wasn’t intended as a deliberate homage to him, but he does make very elegant documentaries. The key thing was to make a film that felt appropriate, to try and imagine a world in which this has happened and try to imagine the style in which a film like this might be made.”
When you were writing “Death of a President”, a year or so ago, did you worry that news events would change?
“One of the definite problems with making a film set in the near future is the danger that you will be overtaken by events, somehow you’re offering hostages to fortune by saying that the world stage will move in one direction or another. One of the things that was very reassuring was that on the day the film opened in the U.K., North Korea announced that it had completed its first nuclear test and there was President Bush on television making some very similar remarks to the ones he made in the speech featured in the film. At least we’re getting some things right, I hope.”
Another thing I liked is that even though it has the form of a documentary, it feels like a political thriller at times.
“Good! I mean, the assassination was a dramatic device and I hope that the film works as a political thriller and a murder mystery. I wanted to find a dramatic framework for exploring some of these anecdotes from the prosecution of the war on terror. The key ingredient to any thriller is that you set this sense of suspense and fear and one of the things that I was trying to do was to explore this climate of fear, both on a political and social level, since 9/11.”
One of the consequences of 9/11 that you depict well is how, after the assassination, both the government and the media rush to find a scapegoat, preferably Muslim and related to Al-Qaeda.
“Well, I think in quite a few cases, the administration has been very quick to arrest someone with not altogether compelling evidence and declare them as a terrorist mastermind. There has been a sense that the administration has actively been looking for poster boys for terrorism. They want to be able to hold up the picture of somebody and say, ‘This is what we’re fighting, the battlefield is here and now, it’s in Chicago.’ The administration very much wanted to present this sense that we’re at war because that has allowed them to do many other things which I think under normal circumstances would never have gone by without comment or without remark.”
Don’t you think it’s funny how with JFK, they were trying to sell the single shooter version but it felt like a conspiracy, but in your film, they’re trying to convince people of a conspiracy when it’s actually one man?
“There’s definitely an irony there. I hope what the film does on some level is a very extreme form of manipulation of the media, in some way it toys with the idea of the conspiracy theory, but in a different way.”
It’s weird that it used to be that the government was like, ‘We don’t want you to be afraid, it was just that one guy, forget it.’ And now it’s like, ‘Be afraid! There all these people who are after us!’
“That’s exactly what they are doing. There’s always been a desire to present Al-Qaeda as very powerful and very organized, something which perhaps others might take issue with. I think there’s no doubt that Al-Qaeda is a very serious threat and terrorism is something which obviously needs to be dealt with. There’s no question that a lot of the measures that have been taken in the aftermath of 9/11 were absolutely taken for the right reasons and many with good effect, but not all. I think there’s just a danger that the politics of fear can cloud people’s judgement.”
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT opens October 27th across North America.