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Poker News: October 26, 2006

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Copyright © 2006 Movies Online

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 conference shots."

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: Death of a President Review

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