Filed in: Director Series

Reconstructing the 2000 Election Recount for HBO

June 8, 2008 07:15 | By

Using archival footage and an A-list ensemble cast, the HBO film Recount chronicles with chilling authenticity the final five weeks of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It spans the period from the disputed vote counts of November 7, 2000, to the December Supreme Court ruling that stopped the Florida recount and awarded Bush the White House. As we progress though the 2008 election season, the film can be seen as a call for a democracy to count all the votes cast.

Producers Paula Weinstein and the late Sydney Pollack brought director Jay Roach onto the project when it was already in preproduction, with Pollack attached to direct, after Pollack’s illness made it too difficult for him to continue to work on the film. It is currently screening on HBO

Below the Line: What was it like stepping into the shoes of such an acclaimed director as Sydney Pollack?

Jay Roach: I have studied Sydney’s films for so long and it was be a real privilege to work with him. He had good advice about cast and crew and how to go about the project, which was relatively low-budget and had to be shot in a fast, lean way, given that there were 200 scenes and 100 speaking parts. Although the film is intimate, it’s an epic at the same time. We talked about that and about films that had inspired us both. Eventually Sydney became less involved. I was honored to collaborate with him a bit.

BTL: Reliving the 2000 election was painful.

J.R.: That’s why it plays as suspense. Even though you know how it comes out, you dread the outcome. Before going in, I thought about a Paul Greengrass kind of approach – the way he did Bloody Sunday and United 93, which are based on reality. Everyone knew the outcome before they started watching the films, yet they had a tremendous amount of suspense.

BTL: Casting must have been difficult because many of the characters were known from the news. How much did you take into consideration physical characteristics versus acting ability?

J.R.: For the most part, we tried to find both. We never wanted the actors to mimic the character they were playing, but we knew that a certain level of verisimilitude would contribute to the audience’s sense that it was authentic. People like Tom Wilkinson, Laura Dern, John Hurt, we tried to transform enough for the audience to put their skepticism about similarities aside and connect with what the characters were doing. Whenever we could, we tried to cast people who, even if they weren’t exactly lookalikes, evoked the characters they played. In some cases, that was less important because they weren’t public figures. Kevin Spacey doesn’t look that much like lead character, [Al Gore chief of staff] Ron Klain, but he met with and studied Ron, and was able to capture the predicament and attitude with which Ron approached the whole process.

We had incredible casting directors, Richard Hicks and David Rubin from Firefly Casting. Lori Wyman in Florida was amazing. I think 70 or 80 of the parts came from Florida. We saw hundreds of local people. But it wouldn’t work to just find people who looked like someone; they had to be great actors, first and foremost. The US Supreme Court was really important because many of those judges are still on the court and have a public persona that people recognize. It was a tremendous cast, down to the individual [elections] board members. We tried to find people that, if someone had lived through that election, they say, “Oh, I remember what Theresa LePore looked like when she was at that table.” People watched it on TV all the time. Also, we wanted to intercut real footage into the footage we shot.

BTL: How did hair, make-up and costuming help the actors, like Laura Dern, transform into real-life people, like Katherine Harris?

J.R.: In Laura’s case we studied wigs, makeup and wardrobe. People have been showing clips recently of the real Katherine Harris when she came out to certify the election. That red suit was identical; as was the suit she wore during the first press conference, which triggered all the parodies on talk shows. Some of it was even made by the same people who made Harris’ clothes.

More importantly, we studied the subtle body language of a person who sought the spotlight, then realized the spotlight was harsher and way more demanding and unforgiving than she expected. In the footage that I watched, I saw a very scared person who was smart, but who had stepped into a place that exceeded her expectations of what might be required. Laura and I studied those moments on the tape. She actually catches a few of them in an almost surreal and disturbing way. She did an amazing job.

Costume designer Mary Vogt, worked all that out with Laura and us. We only had eight weeks’ prep, so it was a daunting task casting 100 parts and fitting them with multiple costume changes, then dressing all the extras. Mary was an incredibly thorough, with the best eye for detail.

Michelle Buhler did makeup and Jane Hassinger and Margarita Pidgeon did hair for Laura, who didn’t look much like Harris until she was transformed. Before the filming began, I remember Harris herself was quoted saying, “I don’t understand how Laura Dern can play me, she’s blonde.” In some ways it’s true. Laura hasn’t had a huge number of parts where she changed as much as she did on this. The hair, makeup and wardrobe people did an incredible job.

BTL: How did you end up working with production designer Patti Podesta?

J.R.: She was one of the few crew that Sydney had already brought on. He had never worked with her, but hired her on her passion and presentation. She had done an incredible job on Bobby, which was also done on a tight budget and schedule. The minute I met her, I realized she was completely immersed in the project. She had already done very in-depth visual research. We didn’t have to build much, but we did build the United States Supreme Court. That was possibly the biggest challenge for her. You’re not allowed to film in there, but people make comparisons with previous films.

Her larger job was to find locations and create this sense of actually being there. There were easily 50 locations. My sense for the spaces was that the Democrats were under funded and had smaller places to work, whereas the Republicans had more preparation and preexisting government buildings that were already fully equipped. Patti made it so that in the Democratic offices there was always someone running cable in the ceiling from ladders, or patching internet cords across people’s desks. We didn’t want anything stereotypical, but there were real differences based on research. In the early part, when the Democrats are in the strip mall and the Republicans are in the George Bush Republican Building in Tallahassee, we deliberately intercut back and forth to show each side’s set-up, hoping the audience would see the difference.

Patti had all that worked out. She had a fast team with really great art directors and set dressers. Set dresser Radha Mehta came in with truckloads of stuff and turned those two headquarters into instantly cluttered, chaotic spaces, packed with too many boxes of papers and computers.

Michael Hausman is amazing because he line-produces and first-ADs at the same time, which is extremely rare. It was an incredible marriage of the two functions. Usually it’s an adversarial relationship because the line producer is responsible for budget and scheduling and the AD is trying to get the director everything he wants. Michael gets to have his own internal battle. He’s very funny. He’s done Milos Forman’s recent films. He’s one of the most professional and inspirational guys ever.

Michael brings local people in and involves them in the shoot. He had a great relationship with all the locations, including the mayor and local film people, which is not a small thing because we took over that town, Jacksonville. It was a great experience. UPM Scott Ferguson and co-first assistant director Pete Thorell were incredibly organized and created a great environment for us to do good work.

BTL: How was your experience with cinematographer Jim Denault?

J.R.: I was impressed by his work on this film. I’ve seen really cool films that he’s made – Boys Don’t Cry, Maria Full of Grace – but we didn’t have a lot of time to talk. We studied films together, but I knew I would be shooting at such a pace – some days eight scenes, each requiring all its own setups – that sometimes we would be literally running from set to set.

I said to Jim, “We’ll talk about what we’re doing. I’ll certainly rehearse and block scenes, but then I am going to count on you and your operators to capture this like a documentary. I’m going to tell the actors, ‘Don’t think about where the cameras are. Just be there in the moment with each other. Figure out what’s going on from your character’s point of view.’”

Jim, and his operators Patrick Rousseau and Jim McConkey applied this sensitive, performance- art-like approach to shooting. I sat at the monitor going, “Oh, look at that shot!” Often it was the unconventional angle that would get the most moving and compelling shot. That was Jim Denault finding the scene. He pre-lit to be flexible. We wanted that oppressive fluorescent glare that offices have, but it had to look cinematic as well.

One of my favorite shots is when Al Gore is on the speakerphone, about to throw in the towel. The camera is on Kevin’s face. It tilts down to the speakerphone, this inanimate object, as his hand grabs the phone, as if to grab the man through the line. He says, “No, no, no, Mr. Vice President. I want one more shot [at it].” Then the camera tilts up revealing the intensity and passion in Kevin’s face. That one shot says everything about the way Jim approached the cinematography. It was all about performance, suspense and character; it looked amazing.

BTL: What was the biggest challenge for editor Alan Baumgarten?

J.R.: We had a very high shooting ratio because we were shooting many cameras – two all the time, frequently three. We shot on super 16mm film and dumped it all to high def. Alan and I had worked together many years ago on a TV show called Space Rangers. We hadn’t had a chance to work together again until he worked a bit on Meet the Fockers. I brought him in because of his speed, eye for performance and storytelling. He also had the incredibly daunting task of seamlessly weaving in existing archival footage.

The fantastic additional film editor Joel Goodman cut a lot of that footage. Many times, I’m in the middle of a chaotic situation. Because I’m not exactly sure how it’s going, I overshoot and figure it out in post. In film school they said, “Never say we’ll fix it in post,” but a lot of times I had to say that. Alan and Joel often found ways through scenes that were not planned. They became storytellers and were great at it.

I’d like to credit our music department. Dave Grusin worked with Sydney on The Firm and other films. Dave is a master of the organically grown, holistic score. The themes weave together. There’s all kind of subtext and layers that come out through the score. He is a masterful composer. That’s why he’s been nominated for Academy awards so many times. I love our score. It is very evocative, not down the middle at all. It’s kind of haunting, especially the cues that play over the beginning and end, and during Katherine Harris’ moments. A lot of that came out of experiments we did before Dave came on, through temp music editor Ben Schor, trying lots of things. You preview with temp music, so the temp becomes a crucial part of the reactions to the screening.

BTL: Your visual effects seamlessly integrated into the story.

J.R.: That’s Alan working closely with Dave Johnson, our great visual effects man, who has been with me on every single film I’ve done. They had a great chemistry. Dave plugged footage into TV monitors if it wasn’t available on the set. He did set extensions on places where we shot green screens, such as in the US Supreme Court.

BTL: Is there any last comment about the film you’d like to make?

J.R.: We talked to several people who said – and they’re proud of it in the Republican Party – that they deliberately chose to become like [the way they perceived] the left had been during the sixties. They literally said, we knew they were going to lie, cheat and steal, the way they used to in the sixties, so we decided we were [also] going to. It’s amazing the logic, but I do think it is crossing the line having people storm a building during an impartial recount. By the way, a lot of footage in that sequence is real footage. People weren’t sure whether we were making that up. To make it clear that we weren’t, we intercut footage of actual people into the film from the actual footage recorded at the time. It really is authentic.

All the departments did a tremendous amount of research. In writing the script, Danny Strong did two years of research and got journalists directly involved. We had a whole floor of archival footage and stills to get all the details right. There was meticulous research on the look of the ballots, how the counting was done, things like that. I can’t say enough about getting the research right because we knew people would be questioning that. We tried to look at it like a historian. Our mantra was “Let’s just get it right.”