Wag the Dog: About The Production

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With a 29-day production schedule and a modest $15 million budget, Wag The Dog relies on intelligent storytelling and genteel character development to dramatize the ultimate whitewash at the White House.

Initiated as a group project by producer Jane Rosenthal, director/producer Barry Levinson and actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro (in association with their production companies, Tribeca Productions, Baltimore Pictures and Punch Productions), Wag The Dog is a witty, incisive inside look at politics, pundits, Hollywood and the media, as a war is waged to divert public attention from a national disgrace ­p; an unthinkable sex scandal in the Oval Office.

Wickedly fictional with historical overtones truer than many care to admit, Wag The Dog examines the blurred lines between politics, the media and show business.

"We were all intrigued with the premise, and we met in San Francisco with New Line President of Production Mike De Luca to discuss our ideas," recalls director Barry Levinson. "We had developed a topic that was ripe for satire, and we thought David Mamet was a natural for the material."

While the genesis for Wag The Dog was originally a novel titled American Hero, which was adapted for the screen by Hilary Henkin, the producers brought Mamet aboard, because "he is certainly the premiere playwright of his generation," Levinson said. "David's way of looking at the world was a perfect fit. Not a lot of movies are strong dialogue pieces anymore. But this is sharp writing; there's an edgy wit infused into the dialogue."

Despite their hectic schedules, Levinson and Mamet were able to communicate via phone and fax to put together what they felt was a viable draft. Once the screenplay was delivered, Rosenthal rallied the troops and quickly assembled a table reading with Hoffman, De Niro, Anne Heche and a number of other talented actors, many of whom appear in the film.

"Bob and Dustin had been trying to do something together for years," Rosenthal notes. "They had one scene together in Sleepers, but they'd never really gotten the chance to spar together on screen, so it was kind of fun that it happened this way. The project was not originally designed for Bob and Dustin, it just evolved."

While Hoffman and De Niro seem tailor fit for their roles, neither part was specifically written for the actors. "I don't really know that we formally discussed who was going to play whom. Call it divine intervention, it always seemed that the right order was Bob as Connie Brean and Dustin as Stanley Motss," Levinson recalls.

A man who is content to bow out of the limelight and wield his power behind the scenes, Conrad Brean is embodied in the strong, quiet performance of Robert De Niro. "Brean is a bit mysterious," notes Levinson. "He's someone we don't define, but he's brought into the picture when the President's in real trouble. He works by floating rumors and then denying them to set the spin on a situation. Deny that we're sending out B-3 bombers, insist we have no B-3 bombers -- then people believe there are B-3 bombers. He works on that kind of twisted logic."

While Brean prefers stealth power and anonymity, Stanley Motss has a bigger ego: he wants nothing more than to bask in the glory of his most cherished production -- a global conflict that edges the United States towards war with Albania. "Dustin's character is very much that of a P.T. Barnum," describes Rosenthal. "The focus, much of the time, is more about him than his projects."

It was Levinson's idea to enlist a female actress for the key role of top presidential aide, Winifred Ames. Both Levinson and Rosenthal were pleased when they discovered Anne Heche was available for table readings, as well as for production.

"I was surprised they hired me," confesses Heche. "When I got the script, it said my character was a man, and I thought there must be a mistake. This was a huge part, and I guess Barry wanted to see how a woman would work in the role. On the day of the table reading, I was laughing so hard I could barely say the words. This is truly the best script I've ever read."

Three weeks after the table reading, Heche received the call asking her to accept the role. "I thought the dynamic of these two guys with a woman would be interesting; each was a different kind of character," asserts the director. "The mix added a stronger element to the story."

"I never thought I would really be hired, I thought it was just a reading, and I love to do readings. They're like acting class. But we started rehearsals a week later. It was that quick," Heche said.

Heche describes Winifred Ames: "She's very uptight, very Brooks Brothers, and she doesn't have any clue what's going on. All she's concerned about is the President and his re-election. She'll fight blindly for him, but she's baffled by Brean and Motss and the entire process swirling around her. Like many idealistic, young Washington types, you see her demise when she realizes she can't believe in the President, and nothing is as it appears to be."

Of her experience working with Hoffman and De Niro, Heche is ebullient, "To be working with the most incredible actors in this business, it was fine wine!"

When asked about the casting process and the ability to corral some of the greatest actors working in the industry, Rosenthal is reticent to take any credit, insisting she and her partners were simply lucky to assemble an extraordinary pool of talent for their initial table reading. "People want to work with Bob and Dustin and Barry," she says. "We were going lightning fast, I think part of the reason the project came together as quickly as it did was that the cast came with it."

But Rosenthal notes that even the best producers can't attract high-power talent without a credible and creative script, "The material is probably the most exciting entertainment, from a sociological standpoint, that I've worked on in a long time."

Comedian, writer and actor Denis Leary agrees. "Political pieces can sometimes become preachy, but this is funny because of the characters."

As the Fad King, Leary is the trend setter of the crisis team -- the man taking the proverbial pulse of the national zeitgeist. Always on the cutting edge of what's in style in fashion, music and the like, the Fad King helps Motss direct the creative process, continuously keeping his eye on the bottom line and his share of any potential profits. "The Fad King isn't a flashy or incredibly cocky guy," says Leary. "He just has a green thumb for knowing what's going to start a trend. He also wants a back end deal. The first thing every character Motss brings in wants to know is what they can get out of it, what is their piece of the action."

Leary especially enjoyed working with Levinson, with whom he shares a comedy writing background. "Barry has a terrific sense of humor and comes up with great ideas. He gave us a lot of freedom with the scenes and usually had two cameras rolling, so you were never really off camera which kept the energy right there every take."

The energy was particularly high when the cast and crew spent the day on a studio recording stage listening to music legends Willie Nelson and Pop Staples, the latter who joined the cast as a day player, singing and playing guitar. Nelson plays song meister Johnny Green, one of Motss' creative geniuses. "There are some people who are just perfect for a role," says Levinson. "Willie's certainly perfect to play a guy who is Willie! He's absolutely credible."

Levinson couldn't resist jamming with his actors as a small choir worked to lay down tracks for the flag-waving wartime theme song, "The American Dream." Written for the film by Tom Bähler (who also co-wrote "We Are The World"), the anthem seeks to stir American patriotism while taking attention off the President's affairs.

For Nelson, who has long been an American icon via his music as well as his various charitable works, poking fun at the political process was bliss. "First of all, the script was hilarious," says Nelson. "With Hoffman and De Niro, it was fantastic. I was glad to be included."

Every campaign needs a certain look, so Motss hires his favorite costume designer to complete his creative entourage. Comedienne Andrea Martin describes her character, Liz, as a traditionalist. "Like so many people in Hollywood, she takes herself very seriously, and that in itself is very irreverent. Everyone Motss brings in is very talented because they pull the wool over America's eyes, but they're very self-involved. There are illusions on so many levels in this movie."

Martin was on a hiking trip in the mountains when she received Rosenthal's invitation to join the project. She immediately agreed to cut her holiday short when she learned of the impressive cast with whom she'd be working.

"My first feeling when I walked on the set was great fear and trepidation because everyone else had been working on the script," she says. "I came in with a preconceived idea of how I wanted to act, but before I even got on camera, Barry told me to 'bring it down.' He kept using the word 'easy.' And that was the feeling on the set -- easy. No star trips, no baggage, just showing up, doing the work, having fun and laughing!"

Any film about politics requires a political foe. In the film, Senator Neal is the President's chief protagonist. Levinson's long-time friend, Craig T. Nelson, plays the Senator, who appears in a series of television announcements and news broadcasts. These public announcements and campaign commercials were all shot on a separate sound stage in Hollywood in only one day. "We really wanted Craig in the movie," says Rosenthal. "But the dates weren't working out. So we created another role, and he came in and played the opposition for us."

"Barry's not afraid of remodeling certain characters, of learning what works and what doesn't work as the project progresses and takes on a life of its own," she adds.

Helping Senator Neal in his quest to regain control of America's attention is a government agent played by Academy Award®-nominated actor William H. Macy. A friend of Mamet's since their days at Goddard College, where Mamet was a teaching fellow, Macy has been in awe of his friend's talent as a writer.

"David is an astounding poet," says Macy. "He's a writer like no other, and he's influenced everybody. I don't pick up a script or a play without hearing his voice. But David's writing has a sense of music that few writer's can imitate. He's also a great storyteller and can tell a joke better than anybody I know."

"I don't see David as a political fellow with a political agenda, so I don't think Wag The Dog is as much about politics as it is about human nature," continues Macy. "Whenever you get huge concentrations of either power or money, you get corruption. It's the human condition. I don't know if there's a more powerful figure in the world than the President of the United States, and it's an institution that is going to corrupt as absolutely as the adage implies."

"There are people out there who really know what's going on, and in this story, I play a guy who actually knows what's going on," Macy says. "I'm a CIA guy who makes it his job to find out what's actually happening -- there's no war in Albania, there are no terrorists. I track down Brean and Ames and let them know they're in a lot of trouble."

The cast also includes Suzie Plakson, Kirsten Dunst, Suzanne Cryer and John Michael Higgins, with cameos by Jay Leno, Jim Belushi and Merle Haggard. Levinson's, Hoffman's and De Niro's daughters, (Michelle Levinson, Jenna Byrne and Drena De Niro) also make appearances in the film.

Principal photography commenced on January 13, 1997 for the unprecedented 29-day shoot. Although much of the film takes place in Washington, the crew spent only the final three days of filming there. During a location move one evening, Hoffman, De Niro and Levinson took a late dinner break at Lespinasse in The Carlton Hotel, where they ran into the real life President Bill Clinton. After welcoming the filmmakers to town, the President posed with the threesome for a quick snapshot.

With an ever-economical eye, Levinson selected specific locations in the D.C. area, such as an intersection bordering the White House, a Capitol Hill neighborhood, the historical Hay-Adams Hotel and other sites overlooking several national monuments which could not easily be duplicated for the screen.

Levinson specifically made the film a work of multi-media. He shot much of the film's footage on video, applying it as news broadcasts or special announcements where his characters deliver their messages to the nation.

When the filmmakers initially met about the project, their schedules were such that they believed they wouldn't get to more serious discussions regarding casting, production costs and the like until well into 1998. But when Levinson found that Sphere, his upcoming film with Hoffman, was to be postponed for a short while, he phoned Rosenthal and De Niro to discuss moving ahead with the film. Although delighted at the prospect, both De Niro and Rosenthal were a bit apprehensive about the short time frame available for shooting. But in the end, the foursome decided to take on the challenge without reservation.

Determined to create a quality project without sacrificing any of the production values, the filmmakers focused on what they believed were the essentials: a compact shooting schedule and a commitment to make decisions quickly.

"We knew if we were really going to do this picture, it had to be done in a very specific style -- not in the traditional style of Hollywood filmmaking," notes Rosenthal. "We also believed that if we were going to make an edgy, political, social comedy that was somewhat dangerous, we had to do it in a fiscally responsible manner; otherwise no one will ever be able to get these kinds of movies made in the future."

"Frequently, when you have more time to make a decision, you put it off until tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. The very longest we ever had to make any decision was overnight!" she laughs.

Levinson agrees, "We had a certain sensibility that we had to commit ourselves to. We didn't have to cut corners, we just evaluated where we spent our dollars and our time. I also like to work fast. I think it stimulates everyone and helps the actors; it gets their minds cooking."

Levinson insists that the time crunch did not hamper or alter his style of directing. "I just did what I normally do," he says. "Bob Richardson, our cinematographer, likes to work quickly too, so he found ways to do the work in half the time without having to sacrifice shots. We spent the time that was necessary to accomplish the task and define moments that are important in the movie."

"The material is always what's most important," Levinson continues. "I can't get into a movie if I don't enjoy the material, whether it's a drama or a comedy. In terms of how it's changed the way I think about politics -- well I think we live in a world of absurdity at all times. There's nothing on any given day that you don't read and think, 'this is insane,' and yet, it is reality. It's just a reflection of the madness we live in today."

"I've always had a healthy dose of cynicism," says Rosenthal. "But since I've done this movie, perhaps I'm a little less cynical because we've taken everything to such an extreme. I do believe in the power of the media, but I also believe in the power of our political system. I just hope the audience is entertained -- I hope they go see it, eat their popcorn and are entertained."

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