Interesting TV

Alexander Mackendrick and The Watergate Hearings

In the early 1970s director Alexander Mackendrick used the Watergate hearings to explore the basics of film grammar.

After establishing himself as a director with vintage Ealing comedies in the late 1940s, he returned to America where he made the classic Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

In 1969 he went into teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, where his students included future filmmakers such as Terence Davies, F. X. Feeney and James Mangold.

As the Watergate scandal heated up with saturation television coverage, Mackendrick noticed that the principles of narrative filmmaking could be applied to real-life television coverage.

For those not familair with Watergate, it began with a seemingly minor burglary at the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, and as Washington Post reporters probed the story, they gradually uncovered widespread criminal behaviour and evidence of a cover-up within the Nixon administration.

The Senate Watergate Committee began hearings in May 1973 and after several dramatic revelations, Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974.

Over the course of that year leading to his resignation, various people were called to testify to the committee, which were broadcast live on TV.

One exchange that caught Mackendrick’s attention was the between Senator Howard Baker and Sally Harmony, who secretary to G. Gordon Liddy, one of the key Nixon operatives later convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping.

You can watch the footage here:

Mackendrick was struck by the inherent drama of the conversation and the visual language of what unfolded on his television set.

He even wrote a detailed pamphlet which explored how the principles of a dramatic film apply to documentaries.

It makes for fascinating reading, but this particular quote stands out:

“It’s my guess that a movie director, given dailies of exactly the same footage, could hardly have done a better job of editing even if given time to analyse the material. The rapidly intercut closeups may be silent, but their subtext is obvious and eloquent. Seeing these live broadcasts from Washington, I remember being transfixed by what was essentially news reportage.”

He even sketched out a diagram of where the cameras were in relation to the people:

The interesting thing is that you can apply Mackendrick’s analysis to any non-fiction footage, be it reality television, YouTube videos or serious current affairs.

The most seismic news event of the past decade was 9/11, a terrorist attack which many people at the time remarked was ‘like a movie’.

On NBC’s live coverage, a terrified witness on the phone says these very words at 04.21:

Presumably part of the terrorist plan was to use the Western media against itself, as they knew these images would be carried around the world.

The catch 22 for media is that they had to broadcast them as it was a major news story, but they also knew that the terror was being fed into millions of living rooms across the world.

Although the live coverage was edited in real-time, the way in which the images came together for audiences was like a dreadful disaster movie unfolding live on television. (For more on 9/11 and the movies click here)

On a very different note, Susan Boyle’s famous appearence on Britain’s Got Talent was massively popular because it was a classic underdog story compressed into 6 minutes.

Susan Boyle – Singer – Britains Got Talent 2009 by moovieblog

But notice several key points in the narrative:

  • Simon Cowell’s doubtful look at 1.06
  • Notice the cut to a sceptical audience member at 1.24 right after Boyle talks about her dream of being a professional singer
  • Simon Cowell’s raised eyebrows at 1.59 which indicate the moment where the underdog has come good
  • Amanda Holden’s eyes opening at 2.01 which accentuates that Boyle can really sing

This wasn’t quite live, but the basic narrative building blocks of what made it resonate were shaped in editing.

It currently has over 72 million views on YouTube (the reason I can’t embed from that particular site is a whole other story).

Mackendrick’s basic observations still resonate because they tap into the way in which human beings process the moving image.

Keep an eye out for any factual footage, be it on a serious news or the tackiest reality TV and notice how it is constructed.

You’ll probably find out more than you might initially think.

> Alexander Mackendrick at the IMDb
> More on Mackendrick and the Watergate footage at The Sticking Place


Vanity Fair on All The President’s Men

Vanity Fair’s recent in-depth piece on the making of All The President’s Men (1976) has some fascinating pieces of information about the classic political drama.

Written by Michael Feeney Callan, the author of a forthcoming Robert Redford biography, it reveals the following:

  • When Robert Redford first met Bob Woodward in Washington, D.C., he also bumped into Bobby Kennedy‘s widow Ethel Kennedy (“She had seen The Candidate and, responding to the Bill McKay role—a fictional Senate candidate from California—told Redford she was no fan of it”)
  • Bob Woodward admitted Redford’s involvement in a film project influenced his book with Carl Bernstein (“…we’d been influenced by Redford in the way we compiled it. It was he who suggested we make it about the investigation, and not about the dirty-tricks campaign”)
  • Screenwriter William Goldman only got involved in the project by accident after a social meeting with Redford and a mix up at publisher Simon and Schuster (“I didn’t mean to involve him in the project, and I wasn’t commissioning him as the screenwriter.”)
  • Redford reveals that Goldman’s script – for which he won an Oscar – was heavily rewritten by himself and Pakula as they only ended up using one-tenth of his work (“Alan hated the script, and we immediately made arrangements to re-write it ourselves, since we learned Bill was tied up already, writing Marathon Man for John Schlesinger. I was furious, but to what purpose?”)
  • Redford turned down roles in Barry Lyndon (1975) and Superman (1978) so he could make the film.
  • Warner Bros chairman Ted Ashley had to dissuade Redford from his initial plan not to star in the film and shoot it in black and white (“Ted didn’t beat around the bush,” Redford recalls. “He told us he needed to sell my name on the marquee, so the movie he was funding must have me in it.”)
  • Al Pacino was Redford’s first choice for the Bernstein role (“But then I chewed it over,” Redford adds, “and for some reason Dustin Hoffman seemed more like Carl in my mind’s eye, so I called Dustin and asked him if he was interested. That was a very short phone call.”)
  • Jason Robards was offered the role of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, even though he had recently suffered terrible facial injuries in a car crash.
  • Director Pakula and DP Gordon Willis were careful in creating the visual design of the film (“Gordon had a very novel approach to his lenses based on the notion that a good cinematographer always surprises the eye, and we were all of one mind that, since the information to be related was often complex, even tedious, we needed a very stylized look and, of course, dynamic performances.”)
  • Redford felt there was a harder side to Woodward than he let on (“Carl was the fuzzy, warm guy who tap-danced with his ego, while Bob was the hard man who went for the throat. …He has this thing about fires. He’s always poking at fires, always burning stuff”)
  • Redford felt Hoffman and Bernstein were very similar (“Carl and Dustin had a lot in common. Both were radicals, uptight and loose at the same time. And, like Carl, Dustin had a very, very healthy ego”)
  • Pakula was influenced by Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock (“I grew up on [Elia] Kazan, really loved him. On the Waterfront was the most impressive movie from a performance point of view that I’d ever seen. Later I learned visual style from Hitchcock. For All the President’s Men I wanted to blend both”)
  • Redford reveals that The Washington Post set was recreated on a Hollywood sound stage because filming in the actual newsroom was chaotic (“the journalists and secretaries went crazy when Hollywood came in their midst. It was all giggling women and people doing their makeup and a general feeling of disorder. It was as bad for them as for us, and we knew we had to get out of there.”)
  • A scene was tentatively scheduled to be shot at the White House but was vetoed by President Ford (“There was no way Ford would allow Redford to come to the White House to diss the previous president”)
  • Redford had to help out Pakula in post-production because of the director’s chronic indecision and reluctance to work beyond 6pm.
  • Warner Bros believed didn’t think it would make any money because people were sick of Watergate, but it eventually grossed a highly respectable $51 million.
  • Redford and Pakula argued about the finale but settled on a compromise of the image of the Teletype announcing Nixon’s resignation.
  • The huge success of Jaws (1975) and its pioneering release strategy influenced the opening, as it was rolled out to major cities in quick succession.

Make sure you read the full article here.

> All The President’s Men at the IMDb
> Find out more about the Watergate scandal at Wikipedia
> Buy All the President’s Men on DVD from Amazon UK

Festivals News

Frost/Nixon to open the 52nd London Film Festival

Frost/Nixon, the film version of Peter Morgan’s play about the famous TV interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, will open this year’s London Film Festival on Wednesday 15th October.

Directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer and Working Title, it sees both principals reprise their West End and Broadway roles as Michael Sheen returns as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon.

The supporting cast includes Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jr.), Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar) and Matthew Macfadyen (John Birt).

Set during the summer of 1977, the interviews between Frost and Nixon became a huge TV event as over 45 million viewers tuned into to see what their disgraced former leader had to say about his role in the Watergate affair.

Sandra Hebron, the Festival’s Artistic Director says:

“We’re delighted to be opening our festival with this fascinating study of a unique moment in cultural and political life. Engrossing and entertaining by turns, and brilliantly performed, it is a film with strong London links and a perfect opener for this year’s festival.”

Screenwriter and executive producer Peter Morgan notes:

“I’ve been so fortunate with FROST/NIXON, working with two world-class directors in theatre and film and watching two lead actors at the top of their games. Now, having the film premiere at my hometown just completes a thrilling, fairy-tale ride for me.”

On behalf of Working Title, producer Eric Fellner added:

“We are thrilled to open the London Film Festival with FROST/NIXON, and it is entirely appropriate as London is where the journey began for all of us when we saw and were enthralled by the original play when it opened here in August 2006.”

Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer concluded:

“We take great pride in documenting the lives of those who have changed our world. What David Frost and Richard Nixon said and did in their series forever altered public perception of authority figures and the media’s role in interviewing them.

We are honoured that the London Film Festival is allowing Imagine and Working Title to open its festival by showcasing our story of these two men and their stunning display of truths.”

I remember seeing the play in the West End back in November 2006 and was riveted by how it explored the tensions behind the scenes, the negotiations that were struck over what could be asked, the motivations of the two principals (in many ways Frost had as much at stake as Nixon) and how it brilliantly weaved history with informed speculation.

It is good to see Sheen and Langella return for the film version as both gave knockout performances on stage – Sheen in particular gave one of the most impressive portrayals I have ever seen in a live theatre.

The film version – if it delivers the goods – looks like an end-of-year awards contender.

Frost/Nixon will open the London Film Festival on Wednesday 15th October, opens in the US on 5th December (in limited release) and in the UK on January 9th 2009.

> Official site of the London Film Festival
> Frost/Nixon at the IMDb
> Gareth McLean of The Guardian interviews David Frost back in August 2006
> New York Times review of the Broadway production
> Find out more about Watergate at the Washington Post