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Provocative “President”: Films that arrive in a blaze of controversy often suffer from a rush to judgment by those who haven’t seen them yet but are still quick to be critical of what they imagine the filmmaker intends.
A case in point is Gabriel Range’s provocative docudrama “Death of a President,” opening Friday via Newmarket Films, which revolves around a fictional assassination of George W. Bush in October 2007. Range uses archival footage of Bush speaking as well as staged footage, skillfully blending the two to make us think we’ve actually seen the President shot after making a speech in Chicago. The movie does not in any way advocate, condone or approve of assassinating Bush and, in fact, Range makes it perfectly clear from the film’s opening frames that what happens in the aftermath of the fictional assassination is a tragedy for the U.S. and for American civil liberties.
Directed by Range, “President” is a Newmarket Films and Film4 presentation of a Borough Films production. Written by Range and Simon Finch, it was produced by Range, Finch, Ed Guiney and Robin Gutch and executive produced by Liza Marshall and Peter Carlton. Its cast includes Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Robert Mangiardi, Jay Patterson, Jay Whittaker, Michael Reilly Burke, James Urbaniak, M. Neko Parham, Seena Jon, Christian Stolte, Chavez Ravine, Dawn Newton, Patrick Clear, Malik Bader and Tony Dale.
When the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September (where it was known for short as “D.O.A.P.”), it was honored with the International Federation of Film Critics Prize. The critics group is known as FIPRESCI or the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique. Its award to “President,” it explained, was “for the audacity with which it distorts reality to reveal a larger truth.”
A recent viewing left me thinking “President” could wind up running for election in this year’s wide open awards race if Newmarket can get enough awards voters to actually see the film and discover for themselves that it’s not what they may have assumed it was. Academy members, in particular, could find themselves very much in synch politically with its story about how civil liberties in the U.S. suffer terribly through the enactment of a new and tougher Patriot Act that results from this fictional presidential assassination. The hard part will be getting people to take the time to give the film a chance and to disregard the incendiary statements by politicians who haven’t seen the movie.
Moreover, “President” is a very well made thriller that’s enjoyable just on that level. I was, therefore, happy to have the opportunity Friday afternoon to focus with Range on how he managed to bring his ultra-controversial project to the screen. “It struck me that imagining the assassination of President Bush was a very striking and arresting way of asking some questions about how the war on terror’s been handled and examining some of the consequences of the war in Iraq,” Range told me. A British journalist, he’s best known for directing the 2003 British television docudrama “The Day Britain Stopped,” for which he was nominated for a Best New Director BAFTA. In that movie he showed how a chain of events led to the country’s transportation system breaking down, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
“Although it’s set in the future and although it is fiction, the purpose of the film is to use the lens of the future to look at what’s happening right now,” Range observed about “President.” “I hope the film feels like a world that you recognize and that it feels realistic and provides a perspective really on some of the things that I think we should be concerned about that have happened in the last five years.”
The idea for the film first came to him, he said, “around Christmastime 2004. I lived in the States before 9/11 and for some time after and I was just really struck by the daily digest of stories emerging from the war on terrorism. But also when I was in the States in 2003 there were a lot of things that struck me as being really noteworthy, not least the way in which the administration at that time was seeking to connect 9/11 with the invasion of Iraq. Those (thoughts) really were very much on my mind. I’d made a film (‘The Day Britain Stopped’) in a similar style with my colleague Simon Finch, who also helped develop (‘President’). He worked on the script at the beginning of the process and he and I developed the idea together. So when I went back to the U.K., we talked about a sort of striking way of doing this and we both thought that rather than imagine the assassination of a fictional president, the most striking way of doing this would be to make a film about Bush and to make the film with the starting point of the assassination of Bush.”
Was hypothesizing such an event a case of wishful thinking as people who have denounced the film sight unseen have apparently taken it to be? “I don’t think that anyone would see this film and think that it’s presented as wish fulfillment in any way,” Range replied. “I think the assassination is portrayed as an horrific event with truly terrible consequences. It absolutely is not wish fulfillment. And I hope the film makes very clear that the assassination of President Bush would be an appalling thing with terrible consequences not just to America but to the rest of the world.”
Of course, with some of the film’s greatest detractors not having actually seen it, that’s not something that they’re personally aware of. “I think you’re absolutely right,” he observed. “I think that is exactly why the initial reaction to the fact that I’d made this film was as strong as it was. The initial reaction was one of horror. I was shocked to hear people like Hillary Clinton condemn the film as being ‘disgusting’ and ‘sick’ without having seen it. I find it quite interesting actually that for some reason people imagined that the film would be this sort of a liberal (view and) that it would be this kind of wish fulfillment and would in some ways be celebrating the assassination of President Bush. I found it quite interesting actually that that was really the false assumption. Anyone who sees the film, I think, would recognize that it is none of those things.
“And so what I would say to an audience is, ‘It’s not what you think. Reserve your judgment until you’ve seen the film.’ The irony is that one of the themes the film explores is the dangers of a rush to judgment — and there were many people prepared to condemn this film based simply on that premise. I was ready for that in the sense that I always knew that it was a provocative thing to do. I can see that this would be a sensitive film for some people and I can see that some people might find it offensive, but I think that the provocation is justified. I think it is absolutely right for films to be outrageous and to be offensive.”
Sen. Clinton, who voiced strong criticism of “President” sight unseen, is one of several public figures whose negative quotes are featured in Newmarket’s newspaper ads for the movie. Those ads also quote favorable reviews from a number of movie critics and then ask moviegoers, “Which side will you be on?” News reports in mid-September when the movie was playing in Toronto quoted Sen. Clinton as saying sight unseen, “I think it’s despicable. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick.”
At least two major U.S. theater circuits — Regal Entertainment Group with over 6,300 screens in 40 states and Cinemark USA with some 2,500 screens in 34 states — chose not to book “President.” Regal CEO Mike Campbell has been quoted as saying, “We would not be inclined to program this film. We feel it is inappropriate to portray the future assassination of a sitting President, regardless of political affiliation.” Reports also quoted a Cinemark spokesman as saying, “We’re not playing it on any of our screens. It’s a subject matter we don’t wish to play. We decided to pass on the film.” On the other hand, there was no reluctance to show the movie in the U.K. where it’s already been seen on the television network More4.
Earlier this week CNN, CNN.com, National Public Radio and the History Channel announced they would not accept ads for the film. CNN, for example, cited “the extreme nature of the movie’s subject matter” as its reason for declining to accept an ad buy. NPR doesn’t run any advertising, but does air so-called sponsorship messages. It won’t be carrying any of those messages about the movie. On the other hand, a number of leading political and news related websites, including Fox News, the Huffington Post and Salon, are running “President” ads.
The Toronto International Film Festival took the bull by the horns and addressed the film’s controversial nature in a news release it posted on its website Sept. 1, pointing out that the festival “is committed to the free expression of ideas and to engaging audiences in thoughtful discussion about issues of the day. ‘D.O.A.P.’ contributes meaningfully to the public discourse surrounding current social issues, demonstrates highly original storytelling techniques and utilizes innovative digital effects. The film is not exploitative in any way and treats what would certainly be a great tragedy respectfully and un-cynically. In the tradition of great cautionary tales, a terrible and horrifying event unveils certain aspects of society’s current fears and future trends.”
Asked if the film’s controversial subject matter had made it difficult to attract talent, Range replied, “No, it really wasn’t difficult to cast at all. There was not one single actor who I met for this project who had any qualms about the subject matter — because I think they all understood the intent of the film. They all understood that it was a thoughtful piece and that it wasn’t just some polemic. But I think the film would have been very difficult to have made if we’d gone around (during production) shouting that we were making it when you consider how strong the reaction was to the news that we’d made the film. I think that’s a pretty good sign that it would have been virtually impossible to shoot this in Chicago if the entire world had been aware that we were making a film about the assassination of President Bush. I think it’s also a strong indication that probably an American production company or an American studio would have found it impossible to make this film.”
In making the film Range could, of course, have cast an actor to play the President rather than using digital effects to make it appear that Bush had been shot while greeting people outside the Chicago hotel where he’d just delivered a speech. “I really wanted to make a film that absolutely felt like the world we live in,” he said, “(and) that felt as authentic and realistic as possible. I think that one of the biggest problems with any film using the President is that as soon as you know it isn’t the sitting President (being seen on the screen) immediately part of you confirms it as being purely a work of fiction. It was very important that this film felt as realistic as possible.
“The film was about America today and George W. Bush is the president. So I wanted to do everything I could to make the film feel like that world. And I think it was very important that the film felt like a documentary, that it felt like a portrait of an event. I mean what we’re really asking the audience to do is to suspend their disbelief and enter into the alternate reality in which this has happened. I think that that’s easier to do with President Bush rather than a fictional president.”
To make the archival material work, he explained, “I watched hours and hours and hours of footage of President Bush and isolated and viewed the key sequences. The script was really written about that archive then. Simon Finch and I literally viewed several hundred hours of archives (from which) we were to choose the sequences that we would then use as the background for the film. I then wrote and directed the script around that archive. I did an archive edit before we shot the film and then for some sequences it became about literally storyboarding the sequence around one archive shot. You would cast the extras who were in the archive (footage) so that you could have them surrounding President Bush and find people who looked like them (to use in the shots).
“But the process was also about using special effects in sort of an inventive way so that (with) many of the shots in the film that feature President Bush, the majority of them have one of our characters standing in the back of the shot. I mean you don’t notice the characters because your eye is actually drawn to the President rather than the other people in the shot. But if you look at the film again you’ll see that there are quite a few places where some of the other characters are actually (in the shots) using composite techniques to make the archive our own. Or the archive would just be given a fresh context. For example, some statements made by Bush in the aftermath of (another) assassination have been given a fresh purpose in the film.”
Editing clearly played a major role in making “President” work as well as it does and Range commented, “It’s impossible to understate how hard Brand Thumim, the editor of the film, worked. I think he did an amazing job. I think the hardest thing about the film really was the edit in the sense that it’s really like balancing a lot of competing agendas in terms of making this hold together as a single film. There are obviously an enormous range of different sources of footage and there are a lot of different pressures. You know, you have to make the film feel real, you have to make it feel well paced and, I hope, it feels engaging and compelling.”
The film includes a number of very powerful action scenes with protesting crowds massed in the streets outside the hotel where Bush is speaking. “I shot a lot of those myself in Chicago with Graham Smith, the director of photography. We shot President Bush on several occasions when he came to Chicago. We actually filmed a variety of demonstrations but also then reconstructed our own demonstrations. In fact, when we filmed our own scenes, we invited back a lot of the people who had taken part in the actual demonstration that we filmed the month before. So every attempt is really made to try and blow the boundaries between fact and fiction.”
In “President,” the Bush assassination takes place in October 2007. How did Range decide when would be the right time to set that event? “It really had to be a time when President Bush was still in office and October 2007 seemed like a time when we could make some reasonable guesses about what the likely issues would be on the administration’s slate,” he answered. “As it turns out, I think the film is strangely prescient in the sense that (it) features some fairly uncompromising remarks about North Korea that the President made in a speech in 2003. And on the day the film opened in Britain, North Korea had just announced it had completed its first successful nuclear test. So there was President Bush on our television screens making very similar remarks to the ones he makes in the film. So I hope we’re getting some things right.”
When “President” premiered at Toronto, Range noted, it “got a terrific reception. There were lines round the block for every single screening. Every screening of the film sold out in a matter of minutes. They actually (set) some extra ones. I think there were five screenings in the end. The film got a terrific reception there. The response from the audience was very warm. The film also sold (to distributors) around the world, so that that was terrific. What was great about the prize is what the jury said about the film that I thought was very kind. They said they thought the film distorted reality ‘to reveal a greater truth.’ And if that’s what an audience feels when they leave the cinema then I’m thrilled.”
There were no problems getting “President” accepted to be shown at Toronto, but the problem Range did face was having very little time in which to get it finished to be ready for the festival. “I sent a very early cut (to the festival),” he explained. “There was an incredibly short period of time between (April and May of last year when the film was shot) and Toronto. In fact, I finished the dub of the film on the eighth of September and the film played to an audience on the 10th in Toronto. So it was an incredible struggle to get it into the festival. I sent a rough cut to (festival co-director) Noah Cowan and he was extremely receptive to the film. I’m obviously very grateful that he trusted that the film was going to turn out the way that it did. He saw what was really a very early cut of the film and still felt confident that the film was worthy of (being screened at Toronto), so that was very fortunate for us.”
While “President” is fiction, it has the look and feel of a genuine documentary. Asked what he would call his picture, Range replied, “I think of it as a thriller, but it just happens to be told in this very particular style, which is that of a documentary.” In its press notes Newmarket refers to the film as a “retrospective documentary,” noting that Range took a similar approach in making “The Day Britain Stopped.” “President” is a retrospective documentary, Range explained, “in the sense that the characters talk about an event as if it were in the past, which of course is actually set in the fictional world of the film in the future.”
Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 16, 1988’s column: “Although home video is often regarded as a force that helped drive movie revivals out of theaters, the current reissue of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ would almost certainly have never come about were it not for home video.
“The 1962 political and psychological thriller (about an attempt by a brainwashed Korean War veteran to assassinate a presidential candidate during a political convention) from United Artists, which was directed by John Frankenheimer and stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury, had not been seen in 15 years when MGM/UA re-issued it theatrically last February, thus paving the way for a major home video release this summer. Through last weekend its limited release has brought in a very healthy $1.3 million.
“Given the awareness stemming from its current theatrical success, ‘Candidate’ now stands to generate much more heat when it arrives in July from MGM/UA Home Video than would have been the case had it remained a dusty and long-unseen classic…
“‘The reissue, which originally had been planned for several major markets, is presently in 18 markets because of the response from the public and has grossed more than $1 million at the boxoffice, which is much better than anyone had ever anticipated,” (MGM/UA Home Video executive vice president and chief operating officer Bud O’Shea) told me. ‘Because the film today holds up as well as it did when it was initially released, the awareness now to the public has enabled us in the Home Video division to position this film for release in July to, I think, a much broader audience than any of us ever anticipated.’
“The cassette that MGM/UA Home Video is releasing will be unusual in that it doesn’t end when the movie ends. ‘This is actually, we think, a first,’ explains O’Shea. ‘We were fortunate enough through Frank Sinatra and his company to get John Frankenheimer, (producer) George Axelrod and Mr. Sinatra together recently to talk about the creation of the film. So at the end of the cassette is about a seven minute clip of the three of them talking about how the film was made, talking about Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury and relating back and forth to some of the scenes in the movie. It’s a little bonus to the consumer. This has never been seen before and was just done about two weeks ago.’
“It’s an approach to enhancing movies for home video that more video companies ought to take. Clearly, when people buy or rent movies they have some interest in the picture or the filmmaker. The opportunity to learn a little more about how that film was made — from the filmmakers, if they’re available, or from critics or other observers — should make the video even more attractive.”
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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