MOVIES : Clinton’s Card : When ‘Dave’ screenwriter Gary Ross isn’t turning out jokes for a president and other politicos, he is glorifying the little guy, sometimes in a ‘Big’ way

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

If he weren’t such a funny guy, says his friend Paul Begala, his lines would be spoken only by actors.

Which is not so terrible. The last time an actor said words written by Gary Ross--as Tom Hanks did in “Big"--the movie grossed $120 million and Ross was nominated for an Oscar for his first produced screenplay.

But since Ross is the kind of writer whose populist wit runs to lines like “Anyone who says Clinton doesn’t inhale never saw him around a Big Mac,” his words play as well within the Beltway as they do in Hollywood. Or as Begala, a White House political consultant, puts it, “Gary’s jokes are so good that even Clinton doesn’t rewrite them.”

Which explains the framed letter from the President--thanking Ross for helping write Clinton’s recent performance at the fabled Gridiron dinner in Washington--on Ross’ desk in his office at Universal Studios.


“When they need some jokes they call me,” says Ross, studying his White House epistle with a certain nonchalance. “It’s not like I spend half my life writing political stuff. I’m a screenwriter. But yeah, it’s kinda cool.”

It has also not hurt Ross’ career. The 36-year-old screenwriter is one of the more visible members of a younger generation of Hollywood activists who lend their writing and producing talents--rather than their fund-raising abilities--to Democratic circles. He was one of a team of screenwriters who crafted sound bites for Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential bid. He followed that with similar work on Clinton’s campaign last year and now counts among his close friends such White House operatives as Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s press secretary, and Jon Emerson, the deputy director for personnel.

“A lot of people can write funny lines,” says Myers, who has used several of Ross’ one-liners in her public appearances. “But Gary can write a joke which also incorporates the candidate’s message and that’s fairly unique.”

“Gary is very politically astute, but he also had a good sense of the pulse of the people,” adds Emerson. “It’s why his sound bites work and why his movies work.”


Indeed, Ross’ political acumen has added an element of air of verisimilitude to his second film, “Dave,” a Washington comedy about a presidential impersonator directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The film, which will be released by Warners Friday, has been received well by preview audiences and is generating good word of mouth as a possible early hit of the summer movie season. A special advance screening of the movie in Washington Tuesday was attended by such Washington luminaries as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and White House staffers Bruce Lindsay and Rahm Emmanuel.

Although the film’s central premise--an average Joe standing for a major leader--has been used previously, from Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” to such films as “Prisoner of Zenda,” “Moon Over Parador” and last year’s “The Distinguished Gentleman,” Ross wrote “Dave” out of a reaction to contemporary politics. Or, as he says, “The megalomaniacal chief of staffs populating the White House in the recent Republican administrations.” Indeed, the movie’s Capra-esque attitude toward power and the proverbial little guy evokes not so much a bygone era in film as it cannily captures some of the populist themes played out in the presidential election last fall. Or as Myers puts it, “Gary brings to his films a lot of the hopefulness that Clinton revived in people.”

“Is ‘Dave’ a glorification of the little guy? Absolutely,” says Ross, easing his football-player-size frame into his leather swivel chair. “I wanted to see what would happen to an ordinary guy with decent values who crash-lands into this power structure. Does his innocence make him weak or does it immunize him against the corruption?”

Those same questions might also be applied to Ross, the son of screenwriter Arthur Ross, who has been writing screenplays since the early 1980s. Although he has been called in as a script doctor on such films as “Mr. Baseball,” “Beethoven” and the upcoming “The Flintstones,” Ross is becoming known for his original scripts, which thrust a naive but well-intentioned protagonist into a cynical, pragmatic world with the predictable happy ending. “Big,” a fantasy about an adolescent boy grappling with corporate America, was seen in 1987 as something of a comedic commentary on Wall Street’s financial excesses. In “Dave,” Ross is attempting to bring that same sense of renewal to politics. In his next film, a cryptically titled drama, “a couple of points . . . ,” which he will also direct for Universal, Ross intends to explore similar issues within the judicial system.


“I clearly deal with innocence--corruption vs. non-corruption--a lot,” says Ross. “I like examining that question: ‘Does a lack of corruption make you stronger or weaker in a corrupt system?’ I’ve done it twice now (in film) and where it comes from in me, I don’t know, but I honestly wonder about that.”

That feel-good quality--an untempered optimism just one note shy of naivete, that distinguishes his work in film and on the campaign trail--can, according to Ross’ colleagues, be traced to the writer himself.

“In politics, cynicism often stands in for intelligence, and Gary swims against that,” says Begala. “Like Clinton, who came to power by calling people together after the era of wedge politics, Gary’s movies resonate with those Frank Capra values, that we really are pretty good folks after all.”

Myers puts it more succinctly. “ ‘Big’ is an autobiographical film. Gary Ross is a 14-year-old boy trapped in a 36-year-old body.”


Indeed, while his size and flowing gray hair make him appear older than he is, Ross has a personality that might be termed puppyish in its unfettered enthusiasm. Dressed in an outfit apparently culled from the wardrobe department of “Magnum P.I."--loud Hawaiian shirt, faded jeans and a pair of sneakers--Ross in conversation evinces a genial gee-whizardry not unlike Tom Hanks’ overgrown boy in “Big.”

“I’ve never been profiled before,” he says, propping his feet somewhat self-consciously on his desk. “I guess I’ve never been newsworthy.”

Indeed, Ross’ eagerness extends to a helpfulness that lies somewhere between charming and overbearing. “How many people do you want to talk to about me?” he asks. "(“Nightline” correspondent) Jeff Greenfield and (radio talk-show host) Larry King know me. Do you need their numbers?”

Ross is also one of those exuberant funnymen who, despite an obvious intelligence and a dryly self-deprecating wit, is given to laughing at his own jokes. “My first novel was published by Xerox,” he says, cracking up at what must be the umpteenth retelling of the line. “Yes, I had points on ‘Big.’ Net points. Would you like them?” he says pinning another jokey coda to his answers. Even his phone messages culminate in one-liners. Rescheduling an interview for the day after the recent shootings on the Universal lot, Ross wryly suggests, “Let’s meet in my office. I think we’ll be safe there.”


It is an un-self-conscious enthusiasm that also extends to his attitudes about his work. “I approach writing from a humanist point of view,” he says. “It’s the way I approach politics--how it affects people’s lives. Maybe that’s idealist, but (as a screenwriter) I’m in that emotional place where there is room for idealism. In ‘Big’ and ‘Dave’ there is a similar question being asked: Is innocence redemptive? And I want people to come away with renewed optimism.”

It was during the waning years of the Reagan Administration that Ross first began to tinker with the idea of a comedy about White House politics. “Haldeman, Haig, Don Regan, all those guys were like demi-Presidents,” he says. “So I started thinking what would happen if one of those guys just refused to give up their power. Then I got the idea for a double--sort of the ‘Prisoner of Zenda’ format. It was a little Dr. Strangelove leap, but not that big of a leap considering what was happening in the White House at the time.”

Ross mentioned his idea to Lauren Shuler-Donner, the producer of the hit comedies “Mr. Mom” and “Pretty in Pink,” whom he had met several years earlier at a Stella Adler theater workshop. Although Shuler-Donner had a production deal at Disney at the time, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg passed on the project. “It was still during the Reagan Administration, and nobody (at Disney) seemed to think you could get away with this kind of satire on the presidency,” recalls Shuler-Donner, who found greater receptivity at her next pitch meeting with Warner Bros.

While the studio quickly approved the film, Ross was by then involved in the Dukakis campaign and it took him more than a year to complete the first draft of “Dave.” “Because I was writing sound bites for Dukakis while I was trying to write this, the whole thing felt blurry to me,” he says. “That line between reality and fiction. It was a very hard movie to make work.”


Although Ross easily assembled the film’s basic story elements--an ailing President, Bill Mitchell, is replaced by his look-alike, Dave Kovic, at the behest of a craven chief of staff--he struggled with the film’s point of view. Initially, he used a cryptic, idiot-savant tone like the film “Being There.”

“Dave was more of a cipher in the early drafts,” says Ross, “a guy who just stumbled into wisdom like Chauncey (in “Being There”), instead of being a hero who calls on his inner strength and resolve.”

“Gary’s sense of politics and his aptitude for writing sound bites helped a great deal, but he needed to make Dave more intelligent so he could grasp the job (of the presidency),” says Shuler-Donner, who also encouraged Ross to add a romantic angle to the film, a budding relationship between the First Lady and the look-alike President. Other changes were made when Reitman joined the project. The director of “Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop” and the “Ghostbusters” movies, Reitman was attracted to “Dave” less for its political setting then for “its themes of personal maturity and a sense of taking responsibility for our lives,” as he says. “That spoke to a generational change--that our parents were no longer in office--that seemed to be occurring.”

Reitman, who has a reputation for using a dozen writers when one will do, worked with Ross for several months, fine-tuning the script before filming began last August, a shoot that coincided with the final months of the presidential election. Together they enhanced the role of the First Lady (played by Weaver) and reworked the character of Dave (played by Kline) from being a somewhat bland insurance agent to a zealous owner of a temporary employment agency with a Clinton-esque jobs-jobs-jobs attitude. “That’s the change I’m most proud of,” says Ross, who was on the set every day, rewriting lines as needed. “While no one’s political party is ever mentioned, I wrote it with the idea that the real President was a Republican.”


Reitman too was keen to gird the film with a sense of realism. “Because this has a relatively outlandish premise, the film would normally have been either a farce or a satire,” he says. “But because Gary writes with a strong sense of humanity and warmth, his script always fell toward realism rather than something that was silly or nasty.”

To enhance the realism of Ross’ script, Reitman took a three-pronged approach on the production. “I wanted to cast real people--journalists and politicians--where we could; I wanted the production design to be as accurate as possible and the acting style had to walk a very fine line between realism and outright comedy.”

While the film’s production design team, headed by J. Michael Riva, the designer of “A Few Good Men,” aspired to an unusual level of accuracy--for instance, the weavers of the rugs used in the film’s White House scenes also made the carpets in the actual Oval Office--one of the most talked-about elements of the film is expected to be the numerous cameo appearances by politicians and journalists. Although Ross had originally written just a few scenes calling for such verisimilitude--a broadcast of “The McLaughlin Group,” for example, in which the journalists discuss President Bob Mitchell’s unexpected surge in the polls--Reitman urged him back to the typewriter for a longer series of sequences that features such recognizable figures as Oliver Stone, Jay Leno, Tip O’Neill and Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent. Several of Ross’ friends from his political work, including Washington columnist Chris Matthews and Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, also make appearances while Ross plays a small role as a policeman.

“I’d used Casey Kasem and Larry King in ‘Ghostbusters,’ ” says Reitman. “And once we got McLaughlin to agree, it started to snowball. Only a few people turned us down. For instance, (NBC’s) Andrea Mitchell wanted to appear, but the network refused, insisting it would confuse the line between fiction and reality.”


That line between realism and farce was also of concern when it came to casting “Dave,” which in addition to Kline and Weaver also stars Frank Langella as the White House chief of staff, Ben Kingsley as the vice president and Charles Grodin as the accountant called in to balance the federal budget. “Because I don’t write jokes, I write a situation that is real and which strikes me as funny,” explains Ross, “we needed someone who could root the role in reality--be a populist hero that people could identify with--but who also had the grace of a clown.”

Although Robin Williams was an obvious choice to play the dual lead--a role that calls for some finely tuned characterizations between the starchy President Mitchell and the nonplussed Dave Kovic--"you just assume that Robin isn’t available,” says Ross with a laugh. Kline, a classically trained stage actor who had won a best supporting actor Oscar for his work in “A Fish Called Wanda,” was eventually asked to read.

Kline was intrigued by the role “because he wasn’t a larger-than-life character. Dave wasn’t a psychopath or a maniac, he’s the guy next door,” says Kline. “This was a comedy of a different stripe, something I had never played before on film. Like ‘Big,’ it’s funny but ultimately very poignant.”

Like Reitman, Kline was also attracted to the film not so much for its politics but “because this is a romantic comedy. I’m not a very political person, and the politics in this were only a backdrop to a Capra-esque story of a guy whose decent values cut through the system. Like what we saw Clinton do in the election, Dave sweeps aside the old jargon for a renewal of our faith.”


Although Kline and Reitman de-emphasize the inside-the-Beltway aspects of “Dave,” Ross is adamant about politics as a viable film subject. “I think politics has all the elements of good drama in it--good guys vs. bad guys, nobility, virtue, built-in conflict,” says Ross, who prefers not to compare “Dave” to such recent Washington fare as “The Distinguished Gentleman,” the Eddie Murphy comedy written by Marty Kaplan, a former speech writer for Walter Mondale, or Tim Robbins’ satirical “Bob Roberts.” Instead, he cites the conventional wisdom regarding baseball films that once prevailed in Hollywood.

“For a long time the rule was that you couldn’t make a baseball movie, but then there was ‘Bull Durham,’ ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘A League of Their Own,’ ” Ross says. “I do think that people care about politics. I don’t think they care about people who treat them cynically, but if you tell a heroic political story, there is a huge market for it.”

Ross’ interest in politics can be traced to his upbringing in Studio City, where the two main topics in the Ross household were films and politics. “It was the ‘60s,” recalls Ross, who was an ardent supporter of Robert Kennedy by the time he was 12. “Dinner was at 7 and by 7:30 we were watching Walter Cronkite.”

There was also a more personal interest. During the McCarthy era, Ross’ father, an outspoken liberal who wrote the films “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “The Great Race,” was, as Ross puts it, “dark-gray-listed because of his politics. He wasn’t a communist, but he was very involved in liberal causes.”


Largely due to his parents’ influence, Ross became an ardent liberal. He was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was killed, and later Ross served as a delegate for Ted Kennedy’s short-lived presidential bid. Although he was something of the proverbial class clown, Ross intended to become a lawyer and go into politics. He spent the summer after high school graduation working as an intern on Capitol Hill for Rep. Paul McCloskey Jr.--a liberal Republican from Northern California “but the first congressman to call for Nixon’s impeachment,” he recalls--before spending three years at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a cliche, but it was partly the post-Watergate cynicism,” says Ross who abandoned any idea of a legal career and began writing fiction in earnest. He dropped out of college after his junior year to work on a fishing boat on the Chesapeake “trying to get experience” for a first novel.

He wrote a second unpublished novel--"another impostor story about a Nazi war criminal who tries to pass himself off as a Jew"--supporting himself with the $50,000 he earned from an appearance on “Tic Tac Dough.” “I said the word Macbeth and I made like $46,900 in one game,” he recalls. Eventually Ross used the book as a writing sample with producers. By 1985, when he was 29, Ross was writing “Big” with his then-partner, Anne Spielberg.

“We were hanging out in my apartment one day and we started to kick around this idea that Gary had, ‘What if a boy becomes a grown-up,’ ” recalls Spielberg. “We whipped out the tape recorder and I think 75% of the movie is on that tape.” “Big,” produced by James L. Brooks and directed by Penny Marshall, became one of the biggest hits of the summer of 1987 and Ross and Spielberg were nominated for an Oscar.

Today, Ross lives near his parents in Studio City with his wife, Allison Thomas, a former staffer in the Carter White House who also worked for Edmund G. Brown Jr. when he was governor of California. He is already at work on “a couple of points . . . ,” which will be produced by Sydney Pollack, and is co-producing “Zapata,” a film about the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, with Shuler-Donner. And he continues to remain politically active on a national and local level. He is a member of several Hollywood activist groups, such as the Environmental Media Assn., and is a volunteer at a local homeless children’s center. Most recently Ross wrote campaign advertisements for Assemblyman Richard Katz’s failed L.A. mayoral bid.


“Because Gary is an independent writer, it’s not like he has a business agenda like a studio chief does,” says Andy Spahn, president of the EMA. “So his opinions get listened to because they are untainted that way.”

“Look, I have doubts all the time whether you can change this country through the electoral process,” says Ross. “But I think it is possible to be affluent and have a social consciousness. I also think it’s possible to make a commercially viable movie and still achieve your point-of-view. I’m trying hard not to say this piously, but what I find heroic is people helping people who can’t help themselves. I find that moving and I tried to put that in ‘Dave.’ That can come across as naive or old-fashioned, but that’s what I want to write about, that’s the reason I’m in politics. Maybe I’m just a misguided liberal, but that’s going to be in my movies.”