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Getting Lucky

Getting Lucky

Articles - Directing

“How did I end up on a film set, directing some of
the finest actors on the planet?”
—Niels Mueller

As a kid, I used to imagine what it would be
like to inhabit someone else’s body for a day and see the world
from his or her perspective. I wondered if red would still be red—if
sour might be sweet to someone else’s taste buds. It makes
sense to me that the kind of films that originally attracted me
to moviemaking, the films that I still find most powerful, are
those made by moviemakers and actors who bring you inside a character
and let you experience the world through a different set of eyes.
That is the most transporting experience a film can offer and,
to me, the most entertaining.

It’s why Sean Penn is, for my money, as good as it will
ever get—or ever can get. He inhabits the roles he chooses
completely and brings you inside, whether you like it or not. There
were times during The Assass­ination of Richard Nixon when
I was on-set filming a scene between Sean and Don Cheadle
or Sean and Naomi Watts and felt embarrassed to be there, because
I felt like I was intruding on private moments. I very clearly
remember this happening in a scene between Sean and Michael Wincott,
who plays Sean’s older brother in the film. It felt more
like I was sitting unnoticed in someone’s living room than
working on a film set.

So how did I end up on a film set, directing some of the finest
actors on the planet and working with a producing unit and crew
that would be any director’s envy—much less a first-time
feature director? This is the question MovieMaker has asked me
to answer.

I think it’s fair to say I got lucky. That’s part
of the answer, at least. You don’t end up with Sean Penn,
Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts and Jack Thompson anchoring your cast
and Alfonso Cuarón, Jorge Vergara, Alexander Payne and Leonardo
DiCaprio as producers without some degree of luck. But since the
occurrence of this luck after so many years of struggle without
reward is something I can’t explain, I’ll leave it
at that and go back to the beginning of the project to try to fill
in the blanks.

Before coming across the idea for the script, I had been interested
in what some historians refer to as “the decade of shock” to
the American system. Authors I’ve read talk about this decade—which
starts in 1963 with the first Kennedy assassination and ends in
1974 with Nixon’s resignation—as being the one in which
America lost its innocence. Whether that’s true or not, I
don’t know, but the question interested me. So I was fascinated
when I came across this little-known story from American history
about a man who, in 1974, felt the country was coming apart at
the seams and decided to assassinate President Nixon. It was a
tragic story that, amidst the profound sadness, also had an element
of humor that emerged from the simple human struggle of this man.

Kevin Kennedy and I finished the script in 1999 after a year or
so of outlining, writing and rewriting. We had decided before we
started writing that I would direct the film and Kevin would be
a producer. But once the script was completed, we weren’t
sure what to do with it. We didn’t have agents and we had
no contacts with production companies or producers. Luckily we
had a good friend from film school—a really excellent moviemaker
named Bob Manganelli—who, without any prompting from us,
called a production company that had just passed on producing his
script to tell them about ours. He told them that, based on what
they said they were looking for when they rejected his screenplay,
our script was perfect. Bob did this without asking for a percentage,
a credit or anything in return. So, my first bit of advice to struggling
moviemakers is to make friends with people like Bob.

The next step was to get someone at this production company to
actually read the script. Which is how another good friend of ours
from UCLA, Alexander Payne, got involved. I realized that one of
the producers at this company was the producer of Alexander’s
first feature, Citizen Ruth. So I called Alexander and asked
if he’d make a phone call. Alexander kindly picked up the
phone and the script was read immediately. I was called in shortly
there­after for my first meeting.

It was clear that the folks at this company loved the script but
had reservations about me directing, which made perfect sense.
They had never heard of me and I hadn’t directed a feature
film before. I was asked by one of the producers if the script
was available without my further participation or “is this
something you feel you just have to direct?” I answered, ‘Well,
I figure I’m the only one who will give myself a chance to
direct and I think I’ll do so with this one.’

To make a long story a bit shorter, they bought the script with
me attached as the director, Kevin attached as a producer and then
proceeded to make their greatest contribution to the project—they
got the script to Sean Penn.

Through four years of constantly collapsing
financing, Sean Penn (as Sam Bicke) stayed committed to The
Assassination of Richard Nixon
. “That is what got
this film made,” says Mueller.

When we sent the script Sean’s way, I was hoping we wouldn’t
have to wait more than four or five months to get the eventual “no” from
a manager or agent who wouldn’t want to bother Sean to read
our little script. As it turned out, we sent the script on a Wednesday,
Sean got it on Thursday and called on Friday to say he wanted to
meet with me—which I did the following Monday.

I would never have allowed myself to imagine Sean doing the film
while I was writing the screenplay, as I knew I would have more
than likely been setting myself up for disappointment. (Just imagine
the number of people on the planet right now with scripts they’d
love Sean to do—another reason I consider myself lucky.)
That said, after meeting Sean, I wouldn’t have wanted to
make the film with anyone else.

Within the first half-hour of our first meeting, Sean said he
wanted to make the film and from that point forward never wavered
in his commitment to the project. Along with the aforementioned
luck, Sean’s commitment is what got this film made. Sean
is as fair and principled a person as I’ve ever met and is
a rare man of his word. When the financing for the project fell
through a few months after our first meeting, Sean recommitted
to making the film. When we got close to making the film a year
later—only to see the financing collapse yet again—Sean
recommitted.

This went on for four years. Producers and financiers came and
went, but Sean stayed loyal to the project. That is what got this
film made; that is how I ended up on the set with some of the best
actors around—Sean’s commitment.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Stat Sheet

Shooting Schedule: 38 days in the San Francisco Bay area

Budget: Under $10 million

Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle & Jack
Thompson

Directed by: Niels Mueller

Written by: Kevin Kennedy & Niels
Mueller

Producers: Alfonso Cuarón, Leonardo
DiCaprio, Arnaud Duteil, Avram Kaplan, Kevin Kennedy, Jason
Kliot, Alexander Payne, Frida Torresblanco, Jorge Vergara,
Joana Vicente

Editor: Jay Lash Cassidy

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Ultimately, things seemed to happen for a reason on this film.
The four years of collapsing financing gave me and Sean a chance
to get to know each other, which served us well. By the time we
finally started rolling film, we were very much in sync about the
character and the story we were telling. And we ended up with the
best producers—the only producers—for the project,
in Alfonso and Jorge.

Alfonso is a moviemaker I have admired for many years; I’ve
learned so much from him along the way. And Jorge is a visionary
producer. He gets involved with films that he feels have something
to say—something to contribute. He is willing to make a film
like The Assassination of Richard Nixon without a safety
net—unbonded, with no distribution in place. This is a truly
independent film and there is a significant difference between
films that are made independently and those made with what people
refer to as an “independent spirit” (but that’s
another discussion altogether).

Suffice it to say, this film could only have been made independently
and only with producers as courageous as Alfonso and Jorge, who
didn’t shy away from making a film whose story is as relevant,
timely and sensitive as this one. And its success depended on having
an actor willing to inhabit the character whose story we were telling,
to bring us in and let us see the world through this man’s
eyes.

When people ask me what kept me going for so many years, my answer
is simple: I believed the story was one that needed to be told
and I knew it would suck going through life having almost made
a film with Sean Penn. MM

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