Fall 2012

Seal of Approval

The director of The Contender and Commander in Chief has directed six presidents in all. Here’s what he’s learned on the campaign trail.

Rod Lurie

  THE BEST MAN: Lurie says of all his presidents, Geena Davis, in Commander in Chief, was the most presidential. 

I am the presidential movie guy. Or at least I’m the guy after Oliver Stone. And after George Clooney, maybe.

You know what? I’m the guy the DGA Quarterly asked to write about directing presidential films. That is without dispute. When I was contacted to write this article I was told I needed to keep my political views out of it. So, I am afraid if you’re reading this to determine my affiliations, you will have to go elsewhere. You will never, and I mean never, be able to figure out if I was an Obama guy or a Hillary guy

For the record, though, I have been called everything.

When I made my first film, Deterrence (1999), about a Jewish president who has to decide whether or not to drop the bomb on Iraq, I was vilified as a conservative.

Then I made The Contender (2000), which was ripped to smithereens by right-wing critics as virulent left-wing fanaticism.

When I created Commander in Chief (2005) and directed the pilot for ABC, I was attacked on the press tour for creating a campaign commercial for a soon-to-be female presidential candidate.

The truth is that I have never created a president to push a political point of view. I am often looking to create aspirational characters; that’s true. But, you know, in the end, it is really up to the actor in front of the presidential seal to decide exactly what kind of president you’re going to get.

President Jackson Evans in The Contender was a second-termer who had lost his vice president and nominated a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), to fill the job.

The first person I offered the role to was Paul Newman. To me, it was just slam-dunk casting. Newman had reached as regal a stature as was possible, and: had never played a president.

That last bit was the most important. What actor doesn’t want to walk around a set and be called “Mr. President?” Playing POTUS is a kind of rite of passage among American actors—our version of playing Hamlet. Actors get nominated for playing POTUS—as opposed to playing a congressman, for which nobody has been nominated in over seventy years.

Newman never even read the screenplay. He was in the “on” phase of his long-lasting “on” and “off” retirement.

Next I went to Gregory Peck. He did in fact read the screenplay—which for me was beyond cool. I could imagine him smoking a pipe, pen in hand, correcting my typos. One day I heard words from my assistant I never thought I’d hear: “Atticus Finch is on the phone.”

The conversation was brief. “It’s just wonderful,” he said, “but I’m too damn old.”

With those icons out of the mix I rewrote Evans to be much younger. I needed somebody with gravitas—somebody of stature and dignity and eloquence. And so I went the obvious route—I went for the Big Lebowski.

ACTING PRESIDENTIAL: Lurie directs Mariel Hemingway with Joan Allen (left) waiting in
the wings as a Senator nominated to be vice president in The Contender 

I met Jeff Bridges at his home at ten in the morning. When he answered the door he was in his Lebowski regalia (not Lebowski-like wardrobe, I mean the Lebowski wardrobe). As a joke I suggested we drink White Russians. Jeff thought that was a good idea. I could tell just from his demeanor that he was tickled to play POTUS. As we sat in his backyard, he sipped the drinks and recited almost every line from the film. When we were done he put his arms around me and said, “The Dude as The President. Who’d have thunk it?”

When we got to location in Virginia, the question was who would be the model for Evans? He was thinking LBJ and started trying out a thick Texan accent. Now, I don’t know about my peers, but I get nervous—okay, I genuinely freak out—when an actor starts trying on a Southern accent. That’s for Brits trying to find the easiest way to sound American. I convinced Jeff that a politician from Texas would not be from the political party not to be named in this article, but to which the character belonged.

The more obvious route would be to play him like Clinton. Evans was gregarious; he loved food and life. But John Travolta had just done that beautifully in Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors. So, Jeff decided to play Jackson Evans like someone he admired—his father. The great Lloyd Bridges. I loved the idea. It showed me how much respect Jeff had for the character. But it also allowed Jeff to impose on Evans several well-defined quirks from a man he nonetheless worshipped.

There is a bowling scene in the film. Jeff suggested that when Evans changes shoes he should smell the inside of the shoe, about which we had the following exchange:

ME: Why would he smell his shoes?
JEFF: I dunno, because people smell their shoes sometimes.
ME: Okay, but can he do it presidentially?
JEFF: He will by definition.

In fact, Jeff was so immersed in being presidential that sometimes things slowed down a bit. Before his big speech before Congress, Jeff said to me, “You know, a director is a lot like a president. You give the speech. Lemme see.”

And so I got in front of three hundred extras and labored through it all—doing my best fire and brimstone. It felt pretty good, too. That is, until Jeff got up and said, “Okay, now I know the pitfalls.”

In 2008, Barack Obama told Entertainment Weekly that Jackson Evans was his favorite movie president. I won’t say if this had any effect on my thinking about our president, but I will say that my Contender residuals went up after that. Setting up Commander in Chief was a different animal. I remember sitting with then-ABC chief Stephen McPherson and pitching him the idea for the show: “It’s the first female president. She’s a mom and a wife and the leader of the free world.” Steve bought it, but the pilot order came with the dreaded “cast contingent” label.

Geena Davis was my first choice to play President Mackenzie Allen (named after Joan). The problem was Geena was locked into a deal at CBS and was not allowed to even read our teleplay. Her deal was up at CBS on the very day of our casting deadline. That meant she couldn’t even tell us with a wink if she could play the part.

So we took a giant risk. We waited for her. Luckily, she read the script that morning, met me in the afternoon, and we cut her deal by evening.

Then she became as consumed by a role as I have ever witnessed. She became a kind of presidential scholar. She traveled with me to Washington to do research. When I told her there would be an episode in which her character throws out the first pitch at a baseball game, she got lessons from pitchers on the Los Angeles Dodgers. When I told her that Mackenzie rowed on the Potomac, Geena started taking rowing lessons in the Pacific Ocean.

When we first got to set, Geena did something that was consistent with all the actors I have directed as presidents (there have been six). She took charge of a room. She would be blunt, aggressive, and to the point. But I remembered what one of our cabinet-level show advisors had told me: “When a president speaks, he’s in control. Period.” So on one scene I recommended to Geena to merely lift a finger to get everybody in the room to stop talking. When we shot that moment, I didn’t tell the other actors in the room what she was going to do. Sure enough, as soon as Geena raised her index finger, everybody quieted down. Of all my presidents, Geena was the most presidential.

Geena and I got the word that the show was canceled at the very moment we were receiving an award at the United Nations. It was bittersweet, for sure—well, maybe more bitter than sweet. In our minds, something that made a difference was coming to an end. There’s always that chance when you play a president.

Anyway, there you go. I have written an entire piece and not given away where I stand politically. But, I’ll tell you this, if Jeff or Geena run for office, they have my vote.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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