Imagine this scene: “Quiet on the set!” shouts the assistant director as doughy actor Jonah Hill tugs uncomfortably on the Brooks Brothers suit he’s wearing to portray Scott McClellan. It’s the first day of shooting on “What Happened,” a big-screen adaptation of the former Bush press secretary’s best-selling exposé, and Hill is being directed by Judd Apatow, who turned the tell-all into a raunchy White House coming-of-age story co-starring Seth Rogan as Vice President Cheney and Michael Cera as President Bush.
OK, so maybe that’s not going to happen. But buzz is already beginning to build about a possible docudrama based on the controversial book.
“We’ve been talking to TV people, and interest is starting to come, but it’s too early to say anything,” says McClellan’s literary agent, Craig Wiley, who is also in charge of fielding offers for the book’s ancillary rights.
Should the book be sold to a studio or a TV network, it would mark the sixth project about the Bush presidency that’s currently in development or being shot. Others include Oliver Stone’s “W,” now filming in Shreveport, La.; “Fair Game,” adapted from the book by outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, with “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman and actress Nicole Kidman attached; “Against All Enemies,” based on counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke’s memoir (but currently on hold); an untitled documentary by Michael Moore, following up his record-breaking “Fahrenheit 9/11”; and a French documentary, “Being W,” which was promoted at the recent Cannes Film Festival with a poster of Bush in clown makeup balancing the planet on his fingertip.
“It’s possible, down the road, that we might do something on the Bush administration,” says HBO Films Senior Vice President Len Amato, who also served as an executive producer on the pay channel’s recent “Recount,” about the acrimonious presidential battle between Bush and former Vice President Al Gore. “Recount” came out eight years after the 2000 election, and Amato says distance can be helpful when weighing the impact of a project taken from the headlines.
“As events are unfolding, it’s like trying to hit a moving target,” Amato says, adding that “it helps to get a little perspective” when filmmakers decide to tackle topical material.
Few recent presidents have drawn Hollywood’s interest like Bush has. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was never the subject of a docudrama biopic, nor was the president’s father, George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan became the lead character in two telefilms: a 2003 CBS biopic that was assailed by conservatives and wound up playing on the network’s sister cable channel Showtime, and a 2001 made-for-Showtime film called “The Day Reagan Was Shot.”
Of course, there have been numerous projects about Richard Nixon, ranging from the 1989 TV movie “The Final Days” and Stone’s big-budget “Nixon” to more unusual endeavors including the 1999 teen comedy “Dick” and the 1984 one-man show “Secret Honor.”
The possibility of more new films about the Bush years will likely be tied to the success or failure of Stone’s biopic, which expects to shoot through July and is tentatively set to premiere Oct. 17, before the presidential elections. Described by its director as a “tragicomedy ... in the vein of ‘Network’ or ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” the film stars Josh Brolin and centers on the president’s Iraq incursion and his troubled relationship with his father.
One film whose future will be closely tied to the fate of Stone’s movie is “Against All Enemies,” an adaptation of larke’s best-seller about his frustration with the government’s pursuit of Al Qaeda leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite a strong script penned by “Zodiac” screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the project has been mired in an on-again, off-again limbo for several years.
Two years ago, after winning the Academy Award for “Crash,” director Paul Haggis was hired to direct the film at Sony’s Columbia Pictures. According to a source close to the project, Haggis met with Clarke, worked with Vanderbilt to revise the script, formulated a budget and hired a production designer to work on sets. Things were moving along, and negotiations were taking place with Sean Penn to play Clarke, when suddenly another political film starring the actor opened and flopped.
“When Sony’s ‘All the King’s Men’ was released, its failure at the box office unsettled the studio execs, who decided we had to cut the budget in half,” says the source. Haggis walked away, and a few months later Robert Redford came on board as director, with rumors of Bruce Willis taking a starring role. But the slashed budget continued to cause problems. Sony dropped the project, and producers now say the film is “on hold” while they seek new backing.
Klieg Lights, Big City
If you were in Washington last month, you might have caught Ben Stiller and others shooting “Night at the Museum 2” at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. But if you missed all the excitement, fear not: More than a half-dozen other productions, starring actors ranging from Leonardo DiCaprio to Liam Neeson, have “expressed interest” in shooting in D.C. over the next year.
Though the city’s Office of Motion Picture and TV Development has no firm word on the exact locations, street closures, etc., for future films, work on permitting the projects is ongoing, says Crystal Palmer the office's director.
Among those seeking city approvals: “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a feature based on the documentary about James Carville’s work planning a political campaign in South America; “W,” the Stone biopic about Bush; “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the 16th president; “Transformers 2,” a sequel to last summer’s robotic blockbuster; “Farragut North,” tentatively starring DiCaprio, directed by George Clooney and based loosely on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign; “X-Men Origins: Magneto,” a prequel to the superhero series focusing on the villain who can bend metal with his mind; and “First Man,” a look at what happens to a power couple once the wife decides to run for president.