Recount, a dramatized take on the controversial denouement of the 2000 election, premieres on HBO Sunday at 8 p.m. TNR’s Jonathan Chait, who covered the Florida battle eight years ago and is still seething about it, discusses the film with its director, Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame), and its screenwriter, Danny Strong.
Chait began the discussion here. Roach responds below:
Thank you for the welcome feedback on the film.
To answer your latter questions first, I dropped everything to make this film for HBO, Sydney Pollack, and Paula Weinstein because when I read Danny Strong's incredible, intensively researched script, I found myself realizing I'd forgotten so many of the details of the nightmare we all experienced together in this country during the Florida recount of 2000. But the script made me anxious and upset all over again. I wanted to pass that on--mainly to provoke discussion on the issues like the ones you raise.
Your comments about the "establishment" at the center of the country's politics in 2000 are fascinating. I agree basically with your analysis, and I admit I hadn't thought of it quite this way before. By 2000, the Republicans had, by their own declarations, become the anti-establishment party. From the interviews Danny Strong conducted and from the most respected articles and books on which we based the film, it's clear that many believe the Democrats lost the election partly because they were clinging to a more civil, statesmanlike approach to resolving political conflicts--an "establishment" approach. (Whether this was actually the nobler approach is a topic for another discussion.)
Things have really flipped since the ’60s and ’70s, haven't they?
To respond to your comments, and to show that, although I love comedy, I did not need to inject much additional humor or absurdity to the actual history of this event, here's a story about one experience from our direct research that ties into what you're getting at:
Late in pre-production, Danny Strong and I went to Washington, D.C., and interviewed Brad Blakeman, a very charming, intelligent spinmeister in Florida depicted in the film. He was, by his own account, the man at least partly behind "Sore Loserman," "Surrender Gorethy," "The Gorinch Who Stole the Election," and other demonstration characters and stunts that appeared at rallies outside the Florida Supreme Court and outside counting centers throughout the 36 days of the recount. (Tangentially, Blakeman recently started and ran Freedom's Watch, a group funded by the right to match the left's MoveOn.org.)
Blakemean also said he helped organize the edgier “Brooks Brothers Riot” from his roving RV office in Florida. As you see in the film, this protest took place outside the counting rooms in Miami-Dade County. By most accounts, the shouting and shoving and pounding of fists on the doors and windows succeeded in intimidating the canvassing board, who shut down the recount right after the protests, even though the board had approved the counting earlier.
Fascinatingly for me, Blakeman told us there was a very deliberate effort by the Republicans in Florida to "act more like Democrats," and to take a page out of the book written by the left-wing protestors in the '60s who used protests and street theater to inject turmoil and chaos into established political processes to make them look flawed, corrupt, or ridiculous (as with the Democratic Convention in 1968 or the attempts to levitate the Pentagon). Blakeman told us that the Republicans were certain that in 2000, the Democrats would "lie, cheat, and steal" to win the Florida recount. So, to "preserve the victory," the Republicans this time had to preemptively take to the streets and make the recount seem messy, chaotic, and even dangerous to the country. The hope was to prevent the recount from flipping the victory to Gore, and if it did, to make the recount's results seem illegitimate.
For Blakeman, this meant loud protests during the recounting; bull-horn disruptions that shut down speeches by people like Jesse Jackson and other Democrats during rallies; characters like "Cry-Baby Gore"; and catchy slogans and T-shirts at every possible public event. He told us that for him, what the Democrats and the Florida Supreme Court were trying to do was pure farce, so the only proper response was pure farce. He wanted people to connect hand-counting of votes with utter turmoil and dysfunction, and for him, the wackier the whole process seemed, the better.
Many of the reporters we spoke to described the streets of Tallahassee during the 36 days of the recount as being remarkably free of left-wing protestors. As the film portrays, evidently, the "establishment" Democrats felt an impartial recount process should be as free of political, partisan disruption as possible. Again, some have admired their restraint, and believed Al Gore, Warren Christopher, and Bill Daley were acting from high principles connected to higher forms of statesmanship. But in contrast to strategies like Blakeman's, and because they lost, the Democrats' approach has been described in most of the books and historical articles as weak, or at the very least, mismatched.
When we walked out of this interview with Blakeman, Danny and I were convinced the satirical tone already evident in his script was valid (along with its great drama and edge-of-the-seat suspense), and that history gave us room for even a little more looniness, seeing as it was an actual strategic element in the conflict.
To conclude, I will say that even for me, to this day, reliving the experience as I watch the film is anxiety-producing. The stakes were incredibly high. We came very close to an even more major meltdown. Our fantastic cast conveys the stress extremely well, I think. So it's probably good we got in a few laughs, too.
Thanks again for the chance to comment back.
Strong responds to Chait below.
The tone of the film was one of the first decisions I made in conceptualizing the project. My initial approach was that the movie was going to be a satire reminiscent of MASH or Wag the Dog. This felt like the most appropriate way to tell the story of what I perceived in the early stages of my research as a completely absurd event. However, the more I read, the more the tone started to shift. The institutional dishonesty and the pain of many of the actual participants made me realize that this event is too dark and important to simply satirize. So once I started writing, the tone organically shifted. There still would be a sharp comic edge to mirror the circus-like chaos of the recount, but it would not be the send-up of American politics that I originally envisioned.
A strong argument against any sort of comic tone is that this film chronicles too important an event in American history for any levity. It is a reasonable argument, but ultimately I felt this approach would diminish the power of the film. My personal feeling is that comedy enriches drama. By creating a contrasting tone, drama becomes more fully realized because comedy gives the drama a deeper hole to be mined from. A great example of this is the film/play The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman. It is an historical drama documenting the power struggle between Henry II and his scheming sons for his throne. Brimming with wit, the film is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and by maintaining a witty tone, it makes the drama sing with raw emotion and intensity. This is what I was hoping to achieve with the Recount screenplay. The second half of the movie is a constant series of government and legal institutions betraying their public obligations for partisan purposes. If the entire film was dark, then the power of what I was hoping would be conveyed with these betrayals might be lost on an audience that had already been too desensitized by a constant dramatic tone.
This is what made Jay Roach the perfect director for the film (besides the fact that he's a genius). He completely understood what the script was trying to achieve and was able to mine the comedy as well as deliver the tension and the drama. Jay and the actors ultimately elevated and exceeded the potential of the screenplay in a brilliant way.
Jay Roach is a director and producer whose films include Recount, the Austin Powers series and Meet the Parents. Danny Strong is a writer and actor who wrote the screenplay for Recount. Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.