Verisimilitude: A New Formula
by Harry Clein
On two soundstages—11 and 4—at the Burbank Studios, 30.000 square feet are given over to a replica of the fifth door newsroom of The Washington Post. Alan Pakula, the director of the film version of All the President’s Men, had wanted to use the actual newsroom, but the Post’s editors fretted that this would interfere with the paper’s day-to-day operations. Thus, $450,000 was added for the construction of an additional set to the film’s already top-heavy budget.
Some of the cost was due to Pakula and designer George Jenkins’ insistence on exactitude. Jenkins, first of all, had every desk of the actual newsroom photographed, and documented as to what it contained. Seventy-two cartons of letters, pamphlets, and papers were collected from reporters’ desks, shipped to California, and placed strategically on the counterparts. One-hundred-and-fifty desks were obtained and painted the Post’s shades of red, green, and blue. More than a ton of books, including 1972 Congressional staff directories, volumes of the U.S. budget, and various Congressional reports, were also used to decorate a set that will show more realistically the workings of a major newspaper than any other film ever made.
“By giving them so much.” Jenkins explained, “I hoped I’d be encouraging them to use it.”
A trained eye might have discovered certain differences between the Burbank and the Washington newsrooms. Pakula had some modifications made, based on the size and limitations of the sound stage. “But the set.” he said, “was not modified to make it easier to photograph. It was the other way around: I wanted to push myself into solutions dealing with reality.”
When the real editor of the Post, Ben Bradlee. visited the set one day, he whistled his amazement. Twenty-five actors, including Robert Bedford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards, along with twenty-four extras, were at work in the modern, blindingly white newsroom. “Unbelievable.” Bradlee murmured, meaning quite the reverse. He then went on to guess correctly that the scene being shot was occurring at 10:30 of a Saturday morning.
To get the same realistic look for the background action, a second assistant director, Charles Ziarko, was sent to Washington for ten days to observe. Was it different in 1972, he wanted to know. There were slight differences, and he noted them. For action purposes, he reported back, the newsroom was about “as exciting as an insurance office,” and might look almost too dull on film. The actors were given more to do, moved a bit more quickly than they might have in real life. Ziarko discovered, during his time in Washington, that surprisingly few people smoked in the newsroom. He noted the number of those who wore glasses, the racial mix of employees, and the differences in dress between reporters, editors, and copy aides. All this will be mirrored in the film.
To help in the recreation of the atmosphere in which Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked as they tracked down the ever-widening Watergate story, Roy Aarons, the Post’s West Coast correspondent, coached principals and extras in proper journalistic jargon for their ad-libs, these picked up on an eight-track recording system for judicious inclusion in the final dubbing. Aarons’ instruction sessions included the handling of sources over the phone, and what the Post’s reporters would be doing at different times of the day. Each day of the shooting a Pakula assistant tacked up the Post’s front and editorial pages corresponding to the 1972 dates of the scenes being shot. Some of the ad-libbed dialogue came from comments on the stories carried.
“Phone sequences,” Pakula said, “are the essence of the film. What I’m trying for is to get the sense of the subjective experience as Woodward and Bernstein discover the story. The telephone is the means through which they reach out for the story. So, I keep trying to hold to their point of view. If I were to suddenly cut to another person at the other end. I’d be breaking the sense of that subjective experience.
“Now, in those phone conversations, the reporters are talking to disembodied voices. It would possibly be more visual to show who they’re talking to, but my feeling is that forcing the audience to be on just their side gives us a greater sense of being with them, of showing what the experience was like, of feeling the frustration and difficulty of dealing with someone who wants to hang up on you.”
Why so much attention to so many miniscule details? “It was the little objects that literally brought down the most powerful men in the world,’’ Pakula said.
“I’m using the camera as the reporters’ eyes: thus the detail has to be exact; the camera sees what they see.”
Redford said: “This is the most overresearched project anyone could do, and there’s a great danger of its becoming over-complicated. I had to discard most of my notes and just go with the essence of what I gathered from them—except when something pertained to a specific incident that we had to get accurate.”
To what extent is Redford involved in the film, beyond his role as Woodward? Caught in an off-moment. Redford explained: “I must have spent more than a hundred hours with Woodward in Washington, mostly following him around during his normal course of working. For instance, I sat next to him while he made phone calls as he and Bernstein were running down some stuff on Charles Colson.”
This means, of course, that Redford was engaged in the project long before Woodward and Bernstein had written All the President’s Men. To go back to the beginnings, he was on a whistle-stop promotional tour for The Candidate in 1972 when the Watergate events began breaking. Several genuine Washington journalists were on the train, and it was cynically suggested by some that Nixon was probably involved, a notion that outraged Redford more than the reporters. Later, as Woodward and Bernstein began to uncover the cover-up, he came across a picture of the two and found himself fascinated with the odd coupling they represented. He looked them up, suggested a film of their story, and when apprised of the fact they would be writing a book about it, made the first film offer, for which Warner Bros, provided the financial backing.
“They were still right in the heat of their story when I was with them.” Redford said, “and during much of the time I was observing them. I learned what a good reporter does, and I hope that gets into my portrayal of Woodward.” He gave his own prescription for professionalism in reporting: “He doesn’t accept anything the way it is, trusts nothing to be what it appears to be, takes nothing on face value, and that’s only for starters. Then he’s got to develop a technique for building questions that will get to the point, and learn methods of extracting answers without it appearing that he’s doing so.”
While the credits won’t say so, there is little question that Redford is the true producer of the film. Indeed, the producer title goes to Walter Coblenz, who worked with Redford on The Downhill Racer and The Candidate, but he is the “line” producer, the executive reins being in Redford’s hands. “I’m not interested in a producer credit,” Redford said, “and I’d rather it go to my company, Wildwood.” But, if he is the real producer, what did he do, besides being the first to propose the film? He hired Coblenz, for one thing, he obtained William Goldman as the screenwriter, for another. And he brought in Dustin Hoffman as his co-star. The director, Alan Pakula, came last, instead of, as is often the case, first. And it was Pakula who brought with him photographer Gordon Willis, and designer Jenkins. “By and large, though,” as someone put it on the set, “it’s Bob’s baby.”
“As part of our research,” Redford recalled, “we had a meeting with the editors and writers of The Boston Globe, telling them that what we were after was to show the newspaper business as it was. They were interested, but concerned and nervous. They agreed there ought to be a good movie about the field, but there had never been one before. The Front Page was not only outdated, they felt, but they thought even for its time it was hyped up. Would we be doing the same? Well, while we’re not making a movie exclusively for the newspaper profession, we’re trying to show it like it is, warts and all. It’s a new formula, it hasn’t been tried before, and we can only hope that it works.”
Harry Clein is writing a book on the filming of All the President’s Men,
American Film, October 1975; pp. 25-26