Paul Weitz, writer, director, and producer of “American Dreamz,” met with the press in Washington to talk about what inspired him to create a film that combines politics and the obsession with celebrity and reality television in a wild satire that has a dim, out of touch U.S. President acting as a guest judge on an “American Idol”-style television program.
Your President character is a not very bright, detached Texan who seems to have awakened after his re-election to understand for the first time how difficult and daunting our situation is. Is he supposed to be sympathetic?
One problem I have with most satire is that it is easy to detach from it because you don’t really connect to the characters. This character gets redeemed at the end of the movie. He's learned that he doesn't know everything by the end of the movie. It is relatively shocking and perverse, with good deal of optimism amid the apparent cynicism. If cynicism is an end product then I think it's deeply naive. I tend to gravitate to at least some hope for the characters.
But I would want Bush to weep profusely if he saw the film (laughs).
What inspired the idea for this story?
It was a reaction to my own odd feeling hat I would wake up and read the paper and stress out about terrorism and whether the administration was doing the right thing, but by the end of the day I was watching “American Idol” and worrying about whether Constantine was going to get voted off. People watch “American Idol” because we all want to see people pursing their dreams. The people on the show are not so good you can't fantasize they're like us. It’s the purest form of democracy we have.
People's attention spans have been carved up and the less time you have to deliver the message the simpler it will be. The internet gives the impression that everyone's an expert. The danger is of non-experts having as much of a sounding board as people who have spent a lot of time studying things.
How do you create characters who serve the satire without making them so unsympathetic that the audience doesn’t connect to them?
Hugh Grant's character [the show’s producer and master of ceremonies] is kind of an addict. He thinks the show is really lame but he's kind of addicted to the fame so I wasn't really drawn to a happy ending for him. Mandy Moore’s character is kind of like a shark. Both are kind of depressed people but she's fresher and more suited to it. She's so narcissistic. She even has a line: “I’m not physically attracted to other people.”
With the political stuff, it’s very far from like a SNL parody; Dennis Quaid is a good enough actor that he can make this a fully rounded character and someone your heart really goes out to. The most sympathetic characters are the bumbling President and bumbling terrorist, both redeemed by the end of the movie.
My model was SCTV. I became fan of Eugene Levy – he created broad characters but you really cared about them.
One of the core aspects of the American identify is that everyone has a dream and that's always looked on as a positive thing. It is a positive thing but it makes it difficult sometimes to deal with reality. We're obsessed with part of what's happened to celebrity culture; we used to romanticize them but now we want to tear them down. Another aspect of our thinking is that we're all two seconds away from fame. The idea of no class system here is becoming strange.
What do you like about making comedies?
It is addictive sitting in a theater and hearing people laugh. It's a total kick and you kind of dread the parts where people aren't laughing. I’m not sure it's the best thing as a film-maker. Any good comedy will have its range of subtle and broad but each one has its space on that spectrum. When you're in really dramatic situations in life there tends to be a gallows humor around it -- when people are going through really serious things they make a lot of jokes. There are certain things comedy is not suited for. It would freak me out to do something where people are casually shooting each other and to think about exposing people to it. People like their medicine to taste bad so if they're having a good time in the theater they don't think it's good for them.
There are definitely things that I’m drawn to, like trying to champion the idea of relativism. You can't make snap judgments about people – that is an idea I got from Chekhov. We tend to dehumanize people who disagree with us and I think that's a very dangerous proclivity. I like the idea of taking this thing that's been totally been discredited, like that Kerry's worst knock was that he looked at two sides of an issue, and champion it. You can be really cynical and at the same time be optimistic about human nature.
What made you decide to cast Dennis Quaid as the President?
Most prominent American actors of a certain age have already played the President. We were doing PR in Madrid for In Good Company. I asked him after he had a few beers and he said he'd be in it without asking what it was. He's convinced he's going to get audited after this film.
How did you select the musical material?
My last two films had soulful singer-songwriters and with this one I wanted something very different. I loved the idea of making a terrorist as goofy and hopeful and naive as possible, and show tunes seemed like such a hopeful form of music. I listened to a lot of show tune albums, but didn’t realize that when those songs were placed in the terrorist context they would have such meaning: “To dream...to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” It put a weird twist on it. That combination added elements straight out of a Woody Allen or Mel Brooks movie.
How do you keep a film like this timely, given the inevitable lag between writing and releasing it? And how do you keep it sharp when studios worry about offending audiences?
It was the tightest schedule I've had since American Pie. That was a challenge with big stars and singing and video playback. The way you get freedom in Hollywood is not success but lower budgets. If you can put these people together and make it for less than what one A-list actor would normally get paid they can't say no.
This film had two strikes against it. Satire is box office poison, and it’s not necessarily a worthy film. A character says Americans are such nice people but they cause harm in the world. That’s not usually the subject for comedy, but a subject for a low budget French film that gets played in one theater. When I first wrote it I sent to the head of Universal and told her she wouldn't want to do it but should send it to their indie wing. Then Stacy Snider said, “I don't want you to go somewhere else, so get some big stars and make it really cheap.” My main challenge with this movie was to just go ahead and do it.