When "Wag the Dog" was nominated for three Golden Globe awards last month, no one was more surprised than the film's director, Barry Levinson.
"If you're basically setting out to do a satire of politics and show business, and to be cynical, you assume that you'll never be particularly accepted," Levinson said recently, calling from his home in Marin County, Calif. "I think that's historically the case. We put a lot on the table, and it's quite interesting, the reactions we're getting."
"Wag the Dog" is a wicked political satire in which Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a Washington spin doctor who manufactures a television war with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, played by Dustin Hoffman. The film, which was adapted by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet from Larry Beinhart's novel "American Hero," has received nearly unanimous critical raves. Hoffman was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical; the screenplay was also nominated; and the film itself got a nod for best comedy or musical.
All this for a movie that was made, as Stanley Motss himself would say, "on a spit and a polish" just one year ago. Levinson was preparing to film "Sphere," a science-fiction thriller based on the Michael Crichton novel starring Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, when Warner Bros. put the project on hold. Not one to waste valuable pre-production time, Levinson decided to make "Wag the Dog" during the five-week hiatus.
Putting actors together
Levinson had been talking to De Niro about the project for some time, after Hoffman and De Niro appeared briefly together in "Sleepers," Levinson's 1996 adaptation of the Lorenzo Carcaterra novel. "Dustin and De Niro wanted to work together ** again," Levinson explained. "So De Niro's company, Tribeca Productions, purchased the rights to 'American Hero' and commissioned Hilary Henkin to adapt the screenplay. They sent me the screenplay, and I wasn't that crazy about it. They said, 'Take a look at the book.' I read it and said, 'It just isn't my cup of tea.' "
But Levinson admitted that one thing got to him. "The only thing I responded to is the idea of faking, not a whole war, which is what the book gets into, but the idea that you could float out some visuals as a diversion."
Over lunch in San Francisco, Levinson told Hoffman and De Niro, " 'Those ideas intrigue me in a way, but I don't want to mislead you guys, because it's going to go very far away from where the book is.' Then I spoke with Mamet, and we talked about ideas we had and how you can have merchandising and media manipulation and songs. And that developed into what would eventually become 'Wag the Dog.' "
By Levinson's lights, the finished product was solely a creation of his collaboration with Mamet; when Hilary Henkin received primary writing credit for the script, Levinson became so upset that he threatened to quit the Writers Guild, which arbitrated in her favor.
The fact that Levinson and Mamet are finally collaborating will seem a sweet vindication to the many critics who have compared the two men's affinity for writing stories about men at their most tribal: Levinson in such films as "Diner" and "Tin Men," Mamet in plays like "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."
Levinson said he and the playwright "had met over the years and talked about different things, but nothing ever materialized."
Levinson said he wasn't fazed by the prospect of changing the words of such a formidable writer as Mamet. "When you're shooting scenes, new things happen," Levinson said matter-of-factly. "It's not written in the same way that it would be if David Mamet were writing one of his plays. Screenwriting's different. And since you're not working with months of rehearsal, you have to work with that."
The cast, which includes Anne Heche as a prim presidential aide, had less than a week of rehearsal, during which Levinson was also scouting locations. "Wag the Dog" was filmed over 29 days last January and February.
Like so many of Levinson's films, "Wag the Dog" involves a medium with which the filmmaker has had what can only be described as a love-hate relationship: television. Television is where he got his start in show business, first as a floor director for a Washington TV station, then as a writer for "The Tim Conway Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." But in Levinson's autobiographical film "Avalon," television is a metaphor for alienation and the breakdown of the family; in "Wag the Dog," it's responsible for the disintegration of society itself.
'A massive effect'
"I don't know that it's by design," Levinson said of the recurring theme. "It's such an influence that it -- keeps cropping up. To my mind it's had a massive effect on us in the second half of the 20th century. We don't even understand, in many ways, what's it's done to us. Everything from how we behave to how we perceive ourselves. You can't begin to figure it out."
"Wag the Dog" also repeats another element in Levinson's work: Dustin Hoffman. Although Hoffman is known in filmmaking circles as "difficult," Levinson has fostered a fruitful collaboration with the actor since 1988, when Hoffman starred in "Rain Man," for which he won an Oscar for best actor (he has since appeared in "Sleepers" and "Sphere").
In trying to help Hoffman find the key to his character, Levinson said he stressed one thing. "I kept saying that Stanley is a supreme optimist," he said. "He can't be pessimistic. He has to be committed to the project, as these producers are. So no matter what it is, he moves on to the next level. It's not like he's dumb. He may be flamboyant, but they're not dumb. There's a shrewdness behind all of it."
Quiet and not-so-quiet
And what was it like throwing two powerhouses like De Niro and Hoffman together? "Night and day," said Levinson. "Bob is much more quiet, and Dustin's much more all over the place." Levinson added that, although Hoffman has been getting rave notices for his satirical send-up of the quintessential Hollywood producer, De Niro's quiet performance as the shadowy spin doctor is just as powerful, if more subtle.
"If you watch his performance enough times, you realize how strong it is," he said. "There's a tendency not to see that, but I think in time it'll get more recognition than it does up front."
Levinson, who was in the midst of editing and mixing sound for "Sphere" ("It's a race to finish this, and not under the best of circumstances -- there are so many opticals that affect the storytelling"), said that he hoped to direct the Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee story next. The script is by James Toback, who wrote Levinson's 1991 film "Bugsy."
Like his last six movies, that film will not bring Levinson back to Baltimore. "I do want to do some more Baltimore pieces," he said, "but I don't have anything on the table right now."
As for the return of the television series "Homicide," which Levinson executive produces, "We're going to have to see how the ratings play out. But I would love to find another show to bring into Baltimore as another series. It's a great place to shoot."
Pub Date: 1/06/98