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HEADLINE: Controversial Film : Death of a President
Death of A President is a very controversial new film
about the death of President Bush and it has generated alot of
dicussion and apparently even some bans in certain areas and theatres.
In 1965, Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama "The War Game"
created such a shockingly realistic vision of a nuclear holocaust,
that although it was fiction, it won the Academy Award for Best
Documentary. Forty years later, "Death of a President"
follows in the footsteps of that classic film, but in the context
of a vastly changed world.
"Death of a President" takes the form of a TV documentary
made in 2008, looking back at an event that happened in December
of 2007. "Retrospective documentaries are inevitably made
in the aftermath of a major world event, and they follow a very
particular style," says Range. "They carry a very particular
kind of gravitas." It might seem that the intensity of an
imagined catastrophe would be lessened by looking at it in hindsight.
"I think it’s actually more compelling that way,"
says Range. "We are a television generation. Whenever there
is a catastrophic event, we experience that incident through the
media. And until we’ve seen it on CNN, Fox, or whatever
else, it’s not quite real to us."
Range developed this method with his acclaimed 2003 TV film,
"The Day Britain Stopped." This documentary also reflected
on a fictional event that happened a year previously—in
this case an escalating series of transportation disasters, including
a train and a plane crash. The subjects of both films are jumping
off points for Range to explore more far-ranging issues. "The
Day Britain Stopped" isn’t so much a hard-hitting expose
of the British transport system, as it is a means for Range to
explore British society in a way that is extremely involving.
Likewise, Range utilized the admittedly sensational premise of
"Death of a President" as an opportunity to arouse discussion
about the impact of 9/11 on American life.
The film’s screenplay, which Range co-wrote with producer
Simon Finch, is a meditation on many things that have happened
in America over the last five years. "The war in Iraq has
definitely had an incredibly polarizing effect," says Range.
"The film also touches on the marginalization of dissent,
the nature of patriotism, and the balance between security and
civil liberties. Some parts of the script reference specific incidents,
like the Lackawanna Six, the alleged New York sleeper cell. The
story that Zikri tells is very much like two of the guys from
the Lackawanna Six tell—they went off to Afghanistan and
they hadn’t really appreciated that it was military training
that they were destined for."
The script plays off the audience’s awareness of what is
going to happen. "The tension comes out of not knowing the
exact point when the President is going to be shot," says
Range. "You have this situation that is spinning out of control,
and that fuels a feeling of crushing inevitability."
"I always knew that the controversy on the film would happen,"
Range continues, "but I genuinely believe that the premise
is justified, and that anyone who sees the film will not think
it is gratuitous. I took great pains to portray the assassination
as a horrific act, and it’s done as sparingly as possible."
As the viewers will bring a huge range of judgments and emotions
about President Bush into the theatre, great care had to be taken
with the way he is portrayed in the film. "It’s important
that Bush is shown as a human being, who is liked and respected
by people close to him," says Range. "He can’t
just be a symbol."
"Clearly, the film has a political perspective," Range
continues, "but it isn’t a polemic in the style of
a Michael Moore piece. I hope that people watching the film will
feel that they are watching something that is relatively balanced,
and not overly partisan."
Achieving the convincing blend of archival and staged footage
presented enormous challenge for Range. First the director spent
a year looking through news video and other material, trying to
find footage from separate events that could be combined to tell
the story. "It’s a needle-in-a-haystack thing, really,"
says Range. "For any given sequence of President Bush or
whoever, we were looking for very specific things, and it only
takes the wrong suit, the wrong tie, for what would otherwise
be a very promising piece of archival footage to be rendered useless.
So it is a long and arduous road."
Once the material was assembled, the fictional pieces were storyboarded
to match. Most of the work involved careful planning—the
signs that the filmed protesters held had to match the filmed
ones, etc. The assassination was staged at the Sheraton Hotel
in Chicago, where President Bush had earlier given his speech
to the Economic Club of Chicago. Special importance had to be
given to where the special effects would be used. "There
are some places where President Bush’s clothing has been
changed and his face has been inserted into the limousine at a
lot of points," says Range. "We had to add some of our
characters in some of the shots that featured the President. There
are quite a lot of special effects, but they’re very brief,
which I hope makes them slip by in the subconscious."
"Death of a President" is composed of three different
kinds of footage: the doctored archival film; the film staged
to match that; and the film shot by the documentary filmmakers
working in 2008. Range and his director of photography Graham
Smith (who shot "The Day Britain Stopped") determined
that the documentary-makers’ images should be much more
elegant and static than everything else. "I wanted it to
feel very respectful. One has to imagine that a film a year on
from an event like this would be quite funereal in tone. So all
the interviews were locked off, shot in a relatively wide shot
for a talking head interview. And the aerial and architectural
shots were given very formal compositions."
On the other hand, the simulated archival material was anything
but formal. It was largely shot on jittery handheld cameras, and
on a huge variety of formats, including DV, Hi-Definition, and
even cel phones. "With every single shot," says Range,
"we were thinking, ‘Who am I holding the camera? Am
I a protester? Am I a news journalist? Am I a member of the Chicago
Police Force?’ We always had to be thinking about how that
person would operate the camera and really make sure that the
camera moved in a way that feels right." This approach even
extended to the filming of press conferences. "In my experience,
working in television news, is that the cameras are packed so
closely that inevitably somebody elbows you and knocks the camera
tripod. So we deliberately put some camera shake into the press
A lot of the film was shot on High Definition video and the filmmakers
had to degrade the images by copying it. "We even used old
U-Matic 3/4" machines," says Range. "It’s
one way of emulating what happens when news footage is sent through
satellite link to a network center somewhere else and then copied
down to another tape. It was a multi-faceted process to try to
achieve this alternative reality."
Likewise, the significance of very ordinary pieces of stock footage
were elevated simply by the addition of the music by Richard Harvey.
"His music has a very dark, brooding sound and the scale
of his pieces are really epic," says Range. "Archival
footage on its own just isn’t strong enough to do that,
but his music provides the scale and the scope.
Range spent a lot of time preparing the actors to play documentary-style
interviewees. "It’s a very unforgiving form,"
says Range. "We’re looking at these people, knowing
they’re actors, knowing they’re not who they say they
are. The suspension of disbelief is different from when you watch
a fiction film." Range began by giving the actors an extensive
packet of background information on the characters they play.
He videotaped brief interviews and watched them together with
the actors, discussing what was and wasn’t working. Shortly
before the actual filming, they were given scripts. "I asked
that they learn their lines but not quite learn them," says
Range. "I didn’t want it to feel performed." Finally
he sat them down for eight hour marathon interviews. "The
scope of each interview is much broader than what is in the film,"
says Range. "I could do many cuts of the film where the same
characters comment on different sections of the story. It would
be a different film. It’s one of the intriguing things about
the power a documentary-maker has in terms of how a particular
reality is presented."
Long before "Death of a President" premiered at the
Toronto Film Festival in September 2006, it became a lightning
rod for international indignation. Some have even suggested that
if the President is assassinated, this film will have been responsible
in some way. "In my mind, there's no way that watching the
film would incite anyone to kill the President," says Range.
"And it’s facile to say that this film will put the
idea in people’s minds. Were somebody to assassinate the
President, it would be a truly horrific event, and I think the
film portrays it as that. And I also hope that the film portrays
Bush as a human being as well, rather than purely as a symbol."
Please take a minute to read Sheila Roberts review of the film:
of a President Review
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