It's A conversation any father and son might have -- a quick chat about baseball, families and world affairs. But when the speakers are President George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush, even a seemingly innocuous conversation can suddenly carry great weight, especially when Oliver Stone is at the controls.
With sweat cascading down his face on a steamy June night in Louisiana, the Oscar-winning director was directing James Cromwell (playing the elder Bush) and Josh Brolin (starring as President Bush) through a critical moment in "W.," Stone's forthcoming -- and potentially divisive -- drama about the personal, political and psychological evolution of the current president. Although the father-son patter was ostensibly friendly, the subtext was anything but, hinting at the intricate parent-child relationship that Stone believes helps to explain George W. Bush's ascension.
While the Bushes in this scene from 1990 were talking about the Texas Rangers (of whom George W. once owned a share) and Saddam Hus- sein (against whom George H. W. was about to go to war in Kuwait), there was much more at stake, as Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser saw the fictional conversation unfolding.
"You need to back him down and take him out -- like you did Noriega," George W. tells his father about Hussein. The elder Bush wasn't sure he was going to be that rash. "You know I've always believed in leaving personal feelings out of politics," the 41st president told his son. "But Saddam -- this aggression cannot stand. Not gonna allow this little dictator to control 25% of the world's oil."
As the architect of the outspoken dramas "Platoon," "Salvador," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "JFK," Stone stands apart as one of the most openly political filmmakers in a business where it's usually the actors who wear their beliefs on their sleeves. A longtime backer of Democratic candidates (recent donations include a gift to Sen. Barack Obama), Stone is either the oddest person to chronicle the life of the current president or the most inspired.
Whatever the verdict, the marriage of director and subject has left nearly as many people running for the sidelines as wanting to be a part of the director's undertaking.
Indeed, "W.'s" combination of story and filmmaker and the poor track record of recent biographical movies scared off at least three potential studio distributors and any number of actors, including, initially, star Brolin, and even Major League Baseball, which declined to cooperate with the production.
Yet as Stone guided Cromwell and Brolin across Shreveport's Independence Bowl stadium, doubling for the Rangers' home field, it was possible to see that "W." could be, in a complicated way, sympathetic.
The father was belittling a son, George H. W. cautioning George W. to stick to simple things: "Maybe better you stay out of the barrel," the senior Bush told his son, and leave the family's political legacy to younger brother Jeb. "Well, son, I've got to say I was wrong about you not being good at baseball," the father ultimately said, tossing him a scrap of a compliment.
The future president didn't quite get what the reproving "barrel" idiom meant, but he realized his father didn't respect him. Brolin took in the snub, but then his bearing grew determined: George W. would have to prove himself beyond anyone's imagining.
Stone said it's part of what drove the younger Bush into the White House: to show his doubters wrong. "Someone who could step into that path and out-father his father," Stone said in his air-conditioned trailer during a break in filming. Racing to film, edit and release the film before the November election, Stone was not always getting five hours' sleep. Even though it was nearly midnight and the crew was just finishing its lunch break, the 61-year-old director grew increasingly animated talking about "W."
"I love Michael Moore, but I didn't want to make that kind of movie," Stone said of "Fahrenheit 9/11." "W.," he said, "isn't an overly serious movie, but it is a serious subject. It's a Shakespearean story. . . . I see it as the strange unfolding of American democracy as I have lived it."
Stone, Brolin and the filmmaking team believe they are crafting a biography so honest that loyal Republicans and the Bushes themselves might see it. Given Stone's filmmaking history, coupled with a sneak peek at an early "W." screenplay draft, that prediction looks like wishful thinking.
Still, it's a captivating challenge: Can a provocateur become fair and balanced? And if Stone is, in some way, muzzling himself to craft a mass-appeal movie, has he cast aside one of his best selling points?
Locating an inner voice
Dressed IN a suffocating Rangers warmup jacket earlier on that scorching June day, Brolin kept running into an outfield wall, trying to make a heroic catch as part of the film's baseball-oriented fantasy framing device.
Stone worried the leap wasn't quite athletic enough and chose to add the baseball's falling into Brolin's mitt through visual effects -- allowing the "No Country for Old Men" star to throw himself into doing everything else.
Brolin spent countless hours studying the president's speech patterns and body language but said he wasn't trying to concoct a spitting-image impression, which ran the potential of becoming a "Saturday Night Live" caricature.
"It's not for me to get the voice down perfectly," the 40-year-old Brolin said, even though he came close. More important, the actor said, was to unearth Bush's inner voice -- "Where is my place in this world? How do I get remembered?"
Like other actors approached for the film (including Robert Duvall, who was asked but declined to play Vice President Dick Cheney), Brolin had more than vague misgivings about starring in "W." He was, in fact, dead set against it. "When Oliver asked me, I said, 'Are you crazy? Why would I want to do this with my little moment in my career?' " Brolin recalled. Then, early one morning during a family ski trip, Brolin read Weiser's original screenplay, which covers Bush from 1967 to 2004. "It was very different than what I thought it would be," Brolin said, "which was a far-left hammering of the president."
Brolin said many friends still weren't buying it. "There were a lot of people I tried to get involved, who were very, very reluctant to do the movie," Brolin said. In addition to Cromwell, the cast includes Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, Toby Jones as Karl Rove and Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld.
While noting Bush's low approval ratings (23% in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released this week), Brolin, like Stone, said "W." isn't intended to kick the man while he's down. "Republicans can look at it and say, 'This is why I like this guy,' " Brolin said. "It's not a political movie. It's a biography. People will remember that this guy is human, when we are always [outside of the movie] dehumanizing him, calling him an idiot, a puppet, a failed president. We want to know in the movie: How does a guy grow up and become the person that he did?"
Stone, who was briefly a Yale classmate of Bush, is clearly no fan of the president's politics but said he's amazed by the man's resilience and ambition. The movie is basically divided into three acts: Bush's hard-living youth, his personal and religious conversion, and finally his first term in the Oval Office.
"He won a huge amount of people to his side after making a huge amount of blunders and really lying to people," the director said. What further fascinates Stone is Bush's religious and personal conversion: a hard-drinking C student who was able to become not only Texas governor but also the leader of the Free World.
"We are trying to walk in the footsteps of W and try to feel like he does, to try to get inside his head. But it's never meant to demean him," Stone said.
The movie has hired a former Bush colleague as an advisor, and labored to get the smallest details right. For all the historical accuracy, though, "W." is clearly a work of fiction.
"We are playing with our own opinions and our own preconceptions of him," Stone said. "This is his diary -- his attempt to explain himself."
A project gains priority
This wasn't the movie Stone was supposed to be making. Instead of "W.," the film was going to be "Pinkville," a look at the Army's investigation into 1968's My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Only days before filming was set to begin, with many sets already built and department heads in place, "Pinkville" star Bruce Willis pulled out of the film last fall, unhappy with a script that couldn't be rewritten because of the writers strike. Stone flirted with casting Nicolas Cage in the lead role, but enthusiasm from United Artists -- whose war movie "Lions for Lambs" had just flopped -- had waned on fears that "Pinkville" was too violent.
At the same time, Stone had been working on the "W." script with screenwriter Weiser, the author of Stone's 1987 hit "Wall Street." Stone was at first worried the topic was almost too timely -- "When I made 'Nixon,' " the director said, "he had died."
Said "W." producer Moritz Borman: "He wasn't sure. He worried, 'Is there enough material about Bush? Or will there be more once he's out of office?' But then a slew of books came out."
Soon after "Pinkville" imploded, Stone returned to "W.," and by early 2008 he was convinced it was not only the right time to make the movie but also imperative the movie hit theaters before the next presidential election, because its impact would be greatest then, when everybody was obsessing over our next president. But that early release date created a post-production timetable that would be half of Stone's most hurried editing schedule. Before he could set up his cameras, Stone and his team first had to answer a key question: Who in the world was going to pay for it?
"You put the two names together -- Bush and Stone -- and everybody had a preconceived notion of what the film would be. But look at 'World Trade Center,' " Borman said of Stone's commercially successful 2006 movie about two Port Authority policemen rescued from Sept. 11 rubble. "There was an uproar when it was announced and then, when the movie got closer to release, the very people who protested it preached from the pulpit that it was a film that had to be seen."
Still, Borman and Stone knew few studios would commit to the movie, especially given the desired October 2008 release date, because studios often plan their release schedules more than a year in advance. What they needed was an independent financier, someone not afraid of challenging material -- a person like Bill Block.
Block had formed QED International in 2006 as a production, financing and sales company interested in the kind of highbrow drama that studios increasingly shun. Block saw in "W." not a troublesome jeremiad but a crowd-pleaser, and QED colleagues Kim Fox and Paul Hanson quickly assembled the "W." deal.
"What Oliver is making is a splashy, commercial picture," Block said. "This is not a static biopic. It's kinetic."
In addition to footing the film's $30-million budget, QED also raised money to underwrite its prints and advertising costs upon release. Any distributor committing to "W.," in other words, would have no money at risk: It could release the film, take the distribution fee of about 15% and move on. "I think it's a no-brainer," Stone said. All the same, "W." could spark a potential inferno inside the White House. "You never know exactly why" a studio rejects a movie, Stone said, while noting that all the major studios are small cogs in global conglomerates. "But at the highest levels, it didn't pass. Some would say it's too much of a risk and too much of a hot potato politically." Stone declined to name names, but two people close to the film said among those considering but passing on the film were Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal.
Harvey Weinstein's Weinstein Co. aggressively pursued the "W." deal, but QED, Borman and Stone picked Lionsgate Films in part because of its strong balance sheet. Also, because it's not part of a larger studio, Lionsgate is one of the only truly independent distributors left.
Lionsgate worried about fitting "W." into its October schedule and has discussed a post-election release if the film isn't ready in time. But whenever it comes out, the company is ready for any backlash -- after all, it's the distributor of the "Saw" and "Hostel" films.
"To the extent there is going to be heat," said Joe Drake, president of Lionsgate's motion picture group, "we can take the heat. That won't be a problem."