Miércoles 5 de Octubre de 2005, Ip nº 129

Bye-Bye, Mr. American Pie: Paul Weitz Tries Sharp Satire

LATE last year, the writer and director Paul Weitz set out to create a political satire about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. It seemed a risky proposition, both for the filmmaker - known for his teen sex comedy "American Pie" and the wistful "About a Boy" - and for the company that agreed to release it, NBC Universal: How the picture will play when it reaches theaters, next spring or later, may depend as much on world events and the gyrating fortunes of the American presidency as on Mr. Weitz's craft.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as the clueless, if good-hearted head of state named Staton. Marcia Gay Harden plays his Laura-like wife who calls him "Poopie." Willem Dafoe, a senior presidential adviser of the Karl Rove kind, gives the president "happy pills," and fits him with an earpiece. Hugh Grant stars as the gratuitously nasty host of a popular television singing contest called "American Dreamz." And a novice actor, Sam Golzari, plays Omer, a suicide bomber with a penchant for American show tunes. As the film came to life, with hundreds of extras, nervous movie stars and 12-hour days on a tight $19 million budget, the soft-spoken, somewhat shy Mr. Weitz observed, "It people don't have anything to say about it, it will be really disappointing."

HUGH GRANT is pacing in his trailer in downtown Los Angeles, raw, restless and a little frightened. It is July 21, and the news is everywhere, that London has been hit by a second attempted wave of bombings, after deadly attacks that left 52 dead two weeks earlier.

That is not, however, why the actor is upset. Rather, he appears to be having another one of the panic attacks that have been plaguing him recently. Mr. Grant, rangy and tense, wrings his hands, squints as if in pain and stands nervously at the far end of the trailer, away from his visitor.

"I've always sort of hated it," he confesses, referring to his craft. "On the last few films I had terrible stage fright. I would do the scenes in rehearsal, and it would be fine. But then suddenly you feel tight, and you panic, and you get really tight, and you can't remember your lines."

Working on "Bridget Jones 2" was the last straw, he says: "That sealed my fate." It made him decide to give up acting altogether, to try to go back to writing, something he had given up years ago.

Except the writing thing wasn't working out. For 18 months, he found himself sitting at home in England, staring at an empty computer screen. When his friend Paul Weitz sent the script for "American Dreamz," Mr. Grant decided that taking an acting job was better than feeling useless.

"Hugh didn't want to do the movie," Mr. Weitz says a bit earlier in the day. "He said: 'I'll read it, but don't be insulted. I'm not acting.' Then he was kind of mad, because he liked the script." Mr. Grant warned that he might be bad. He might be extremely neurotic. "He said that if I could deal with that, he'd do it," says Mr. Weitz.

Now it's a couple of days into Mr. Grant's scenes and his angst is feeding nicely into his role as the self-loathing Martin Tweed, who traded a career as an intrepid journalist for the glossy fame of a vapid American TV show.

Mr. Grant, who was educated at Oxford, can identify. "Saying other peoples' lines all the time is - it's always been - diminishing," he says, wondering aloud what he's doing here. "I have a little more self-respect than I did a few weeks ago. At least I'm doing something, even if it's agony, and scary. And now that I'm into it, what I fear is fear itself. I felt it welling up, and I've just managed to quash it."

He does not appear to be quashing it at the moment, however. His pacing gives way to sitting uneasily at the edge of a couch. "Do you mind if we finish?" he begs.

Out on the sound stage a few dozen feet away, hundreds of extras fill a room designed to be the set of "American Dreamz." Bright lights and a booming sound track, along with swooping television cameras (followed by the less-swooping film cameras) are there to introduce Martin and the "American Dreamz" contestants, Sally Kendoo, played by Mandy Moore, and Mr. Golzari's Omer.

"The thematic center of the movie is about self-importance and self-obsession, how much that is at the core of our culture," says Mr. Weitz, who finds time for such weighty explanations between setups. "I'm exploring the aspect of the American identity where dreams and aspirations are always a positive thing, the implication of the sense that if everybody is having a dream, it makes it impossible to have a sophisticated view of our own lives."

Politics relates to that, he says. "The juxtaposition of being at war with Iraq, yet going about our daily lives, being obsessed with 'American Idol' - as I was last year - was the impetus," he continues. "It seems like an absurd situation that lends itself to comedy."

Mr. Grant strides by, looking every bit the movie star, ready to face the impending scene in which he welcomes the crowd to a new season of "American Dreamz."

The producer Rodney Liber looks on admiringly and says, "He's awesome when he's relaxed."

A WEEK LATER, Dennis Quaid has joined the cast, having driven to Los Angeles from Montana with his son, Jack, and two chocolate Labradors, one of which has accompanied him to the set.

Trim and energetic, the actor says he prepared for the role of Staton by watching President Bush on television. He also stole bits from Ronald Reagan and from Bill Clinton, whom he considers a friend.

"I don't want to do an impersonation, I want to do the spirit of him," he says, referring to Mr. Bush. "I myself am not doing the anti-Bush thing here. I'm an independent. I'm not a Democrat or a Republican. I'm not trying to make a political statement." He adds: "But I hope I don't get audited."

Still, once on set Mr. Quaid seems to be channeling the current president. He affects a smirk and exaggerated bewilderment, confessing to the Chinese premier that he is "terrified" of North Korea. Mr. Quaid is also from Texas, and shares the president's athletic build.

In today's scene, the president has been invited as a special guest to a taping of "American Dreamz," and has lost his earpiece, leaving him dangerously out of touch with his handlers. Aides had outfitted Staton with the device after the president was found reading books and newspapers and questioning his own decisions. He discovers, for example, that Iraq has different kinds of Arabs.

Mr. Weitz is delighted with the actors' performances so far, and gives minimal guidance: a pat on the back and a "Nice work."

"I was raised to be superpolite," he explains. "I had great parents, but it was a very class-conscious New York environment. One of the things I love about the set is dealing with all kinds of people. It's one place where being a control freak can be a benevolent thing. I try to project calm so they can do their thing. They shouldn't look over and see terror in my eyes."

In between the frantic pace of shooting, watching film shot the day before and preparing for the next day's shoot, Mr. Weitz has been rereading the script with concern. The bombings in London gave him a jolt. "In my own head, I wondered whether I was being exploitive," he says. The attacks "pointed out to me that I'm not living in a fantasy world, and to consider that these kinds of things have occurred, and will occur." He decides to change a line in the script, where a suicide bomber is wondering aloud whether to go through with his mission. Mr. Weitz has the character wonder "whether I can ease one person's suffering by making other people suffer."

Mr. Dafoe wanders by the set to check in with the wardrobe department. His head is shaved, except for a blond fringe at the base of his neck. Barbara Olvera, the chief hair-dresser, has made sketches of Dafoe's headpiece, and she makes her aim clear. "We can't really make him look like Dick Cheney," she says, "but it's the idea of an aging, crusty-looking old guy."

THE NEXT DAY, most of the cast is present for an intense scene, the climax of the film. It is Mr. Dafoe's first day and, amazingly, he does look exactly like the vice president: padded stomach, a loose, bulky suit, and wire-rim glasses. The head piece is a comb-over. Mr. Quaid, Mr. Grant, Mandy Moore, Chris Klein (who plays Ms. Moore's soldier-boyfriend) and Mr. Golzari are all here for the finale of the "American Dreamz" contest. A suicide bomber is a key plot point. For the first time in days Mr. Weitz is smiling in a relaxed way, and so are his performers. Ms. Moore is in a white gauzy, strapless dress, her blond hair piled high. Mr. Quaid wears a presidential blue suit; Mr. Grant has unbuttoned his snug blue shirt and Mr. Klein is in a military uniform. As the cameras roll, Ms. Moore, playing a contestant named Sally, comes out, and calls to her beau, William Williams (Mr. Klein), who has taken a radical political turn. The scene veers from slapstick to pathos to horror in the space of about two minutes, with Mr. Klein singing the "American Dreamz" song straight into the camera.

After a first take, the more seasoned actors loll in the corner. Mr. Golzari keeps a respectful distance. "I feel good, I feel strong," he says. "Being here is a beautiful experience. Every take I'm learning so much."

During a pause a few minutes later, Mr. Grant turns to him. "So how many movies have you done?" Mr. Golzari replies: "This is the one."

IT IS THE END of August, and two and a half days remain on the shoot. The news is filled with warnings of Hurricane Katrina.

A corner of the sound stage in downtown Los Angeles has been transformed into a dusty tent in the Afghan countryside. Cameras roll on a bearded man in a tunic and loose slacks, who carefully places a metal box on a table and adjusts some wires. He opens the box. It is a phonograph, with Donny and Marie on the inside cover. Carefully Omer blows dust off a vinyl disc, placing it on a turntable and listens to a lilting: "One, singular sensation, every little step she takes. ..."

Mr. Weitz, standing a few feet away, laughingly calls "Cut!" His energy is dragging by now; the long days have taken their toll, and the Ambien he took last night is still wearing off. Outside, in the bright sunshine, a dozen scruffy, bearded extras - dressed to look like terrorists - loiter along the sidewalk as they wait to learn whether they have been hired for the day. One dressed in a brown smock break-dances in the shade.

Omi Vaidya, a 23-year-old extra of Indian origin, says he doesn't mind playing a terrorist. "Not like it was a serious role and I'd have to really play a terrorist," he said. "Then I'd be perpetuating a stereotype. But it's a comedy; you've got to be able to laugh."

Opender Singh, a 54-year-old Sikh, works as a terrorist extra all the time. "I've been on 'JAG,' 'The Agency,' he said. "We're not politically in that area, so it doesn't bother me," he added, referring to his religion.

Mr. Weitz replays a couple of scenes he has edited together from earlier in the shoot. In one scene, Mr. Dafoe barks at the president, now reading voraciously: "We're making democracies, and you have to keep your eye on the prize!"

Unexpectedly, the director has developed warm feelings for the Staton character. "It's gone into more perverse territory than I thought," he muses. "It's sweet, and kind of intimate. It's made me more sympathetic than I'm prone to be in daily life."

The producers have brought over a sheaf of artwork to consider as movie posters. One has the Statue of Liberty as a sexed-up singing contestant. Another features Uncle Sam as an "Idol"-style host. A third features the actors' faces with various remarks: "Dennis Quaid is the bedridden leader of the free world"; "Marcia Gay Harden is the heavily sedated First Lady." Mr. Weitz prefers a simple drawing of a man's torso, in a suit, with a button on the lapel: "I voted for American Dreamz."

The other day a member of the crew brought in a newspaper clipping about the fact that Mr. Bush had chosen a history book as vacation reading. "It's uncomfortably close to the plot," Mr. Weitz said. He still worries about the timeliness of the film, and the tone. Anything can happen between now and the movie's release.

"I think a year ago a film examining the fallibility of a black-and-white view of the world would have been treated more roughly," he said. "I do think things have really changed."

  02/10/2005. The New York Times.