Film Scouts Interviews

"Primary Colors" Press Conference
at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival

by Henri Béhar

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Wednesday, May 13, 1998

Attending: Emma Thompson, John Travolta, Adrian Lester, actors, Mike Nichols, director, Joe Klein, journalist, novelist.

The press conference room on the third floor of the Palais des Festivals was packed: actors Emma Thompson and John Travolta are hugely popular worldwide, director Mike Nichols enormously respected. There were one unknown and one unexpected - strike that, actually make that two virtual unknowns.
British actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company Adrian Lester (who plays, I mean, does NOT play George Stephanopoulos in Primary Colors - the movie) is making his American film debut. But only those that saw him on stage in England in Company for which he got a million and three awards, those that saw him in Sweeney Todd and as Sidney Poitier's son in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, those, particularly, that saw him in Declan Donnelly's productions of Shakespeare's As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream can begin to have a clue as to what this actor is capable of.
When Primary Colors - the novel, was first published, as everyone knows that haven't spent the last year in the remotest corner of the Amazon, it was signed Anonymous. As the moderator said at the beginning of the press conference, he would have loved to introduced the man as Please meet Mr. Anonymous. As fate would have it, months before the festival, Anonymous was revealed to be Joe Klein, a writer at Newsweek. It was intriguing to watch him discuss at length the novel, the film and their impact on his own life, in a venue that only two years ago, he never expected to find himself in.
The first question - asked by an American journalist - went straight to what seems to matter most these days to Americans as far as films are concerned: success, box-office, money.

QUESTION: Why was the box office disappointing back home, and will it be better in Europe?

(After a pause, Travolta jumps in.)

JOHN TRAVOLTA: Well, we're happy with the box office - $40 million in the US is excellent for a political film. We're hoping to do the same, if not better, internationally.

MIKE NICHOLS: My answer is: I don't know and I don't know. What I do know is that as far as us - as film people - are concerned, the most important thing is not to think about this because we're choosing what to do next. I've been doing this long enough to remember, there was a time when the question about a movie was "is it good" and not "how did it do on the first weekend?". You've heard about those times. They were happy times. For us, it's important to recreate those times in making our choices. Right now, I'm looking for the most uncommercial script I can find.

QUESTION: How much did you think of Bill and Hillary Clinton while you're playing your roles?

(Emma Thompson's eyes widen in mock bafflement.)

EMMA THOMPSON: Quelle surprise! What an unexpected question! (Laughs) We sort of went different ways. Actually, I didn't see much of Hillary Clinton on television or on radio because there was really not much call for it. And also, I don't think she's given much of a voice publicly.
Curious that the First Lady is the first one to hit the glass ceiling...
It's right there...
I didn't want to do an imitation of her because that's one way to make people go all about it wrong, and also because it was a little more creative for me to create an imaginary character.

JOHN TRAVOLTA: I kind of made a composite character but mostly it will reflect the man you think it reflects: our own President, Mr. Clinton.
But it was also fun to try and reflect on Carter and Kennedy and Reagan and other presidents that we've had.

QUESTION: When the book came out, Mr. Klein, it was officially called a fiction, which allowed you to go whichever way you wanted. When Elaine May wrote and Mr. Nichols worked with her on the script, that was a second level of fictionalization. All of a sudden, the actors go one way - far from Hillary - or the other: closer to Bill. How did you all work it out amongst yourselves? Mr. Klein?

JOE KLEIN: Lovely. I didn't have to collaborate with anybody. I did what writers always do, and it was a rather egomaniacal exercise. I took a situation from life. I've been covering politics for 30 years - 1992 was the most interesting campaign I've ever covered. And I started with that as the basis. But as soon as I started to write, the characters took on lives of their own. I mean, I don't know very much at all about Bill Clinton's sex life.

MODERATOR: You mean, you don't read the newspapers or watch television?!

JOE KLEIN: Well, I don't know how much of what we see on television is real or has been actually established at this point about Bill Clinton's sex life. I know a lot about Jack Stanton's sex life. And in my mind, both the characters, although obviously based on a real situation, took on a life of their own. Many of the characters were composites. It was also a reflection of 30 years of watching the intensity and the craziness of and the remarkable qualities that are necessary to succeed in American politics. I think 1992 was sort of the apogee of that.

MIKE NICHOLS: I really felt that when you're working on a film that's a story about people, there's only one way to approach it, which is to examine what is going on with people. You can't keep putting it down if you consult newspapers or video clips. Nor was it our intention. It never interested us. I never did any research for a moment on any real situations or presidencies. The work I did was on what was going on in the text that I had that was originally written by Mr. Klein, anonymously at the time. And by the way, he's also the author of "Greensleeves" and "The Story of O." (Laughs)
So back when he was Anonymous, I followed the story and did what I normally do: I was not interested. I found nothing else in real life that was helpful to me except for whatever stuck, having lived in America during many presidencies.

QUESTION (To Emma Thompson): You're very selective in your choices of roles, and your name is an indication and an invitation to good quality work.

EMMA THOMPSON (she swoons): Where do you come from?


EMMA THOMPSON: I ought to move there. (Laughs) You're very kind and I'm very honored that you'd say that. Thank you. I don't know what to say except you can't know what a privilege it was doing this film. Working with John and Mike and Adrian... it was amazing movie. We had two weeks' rehearsals so we got to talk. And that would work things out. We cried a lot, actually. We'd get to a point where one of us would say, "Oh God! That's true about people, isn't it!" There was a lot of drama that you don't see on the film. Really. Thank you.

QUESTION (To the actors): When you were developing character, what were each of you going for? What was your acid test?

ADRIAN LESTER: It came when I was doing scenes where people who are political advisors, people with technical careers, when they would say, "Oh God! I know a guy just like that!" or " I know a wife like that... I see that all the time... " To me, that was the test. I was doing something that reminded people of a real person. Someone who really existed. And coming from Britain, being British and doing something so close to the heart of American culture, that was quite important for me.

EMMA THOMPSON: I think it was when we were doing the scene where a rather sexist young man was saying, "I hope you don't mind if we start discussing business... " Elaine May said to me "I think that you have to do something here." She's an extraordinary lady, Elaine May. She's very original. Brilliant. She said, "I think you should say, No, no. How else could I learn?" Which, for me, was a defining moment for my character. Because that's when in her life, she's confused. And the same time, in a way, she's indicating but NOT telling this young man that she's got more intelligence in her little finger that he in his entire body. That was, for me, that was my moment.

JOHN TRAVOLTA: For me, it was the Crispy Creamy scene in the donut shop. I think the goodness and intent of the man was revealed. I like that. I felt at I arrived at the culmination of the character at that point. Although I must say at the first read through, Elaine May's writing was extraordinary, and I felt that we took off right there. I mean, everyone just fell into their niche. If the actor is worth their salt at all, suddenly they they're there in the first read-through because the part is so good. And I think Elaine's screenplay, that was certainly true.

MIKE NICHOLS: It's funny what John says about the Crispy Creamy, because when I read Joe's book, that's the scene that I saw, absolutely the way you see on screen. First to last. I saw how the Crispy Cream would look like, how we would move in and when we would move in. That's how I knew it was going to be a movie for me. In many ways, that scene is the heart of the movie. For no other reason, because perhaps it was the heart of the book. Because it's the moment in which everyone who works with the governor is concerned with political and strategic problems while it's happened, and he goes out to talk to someone about his life and his circumstances. That's his investment in the job.

JOHN TRAVOLTA: The film really explains the character well. The writing itself, I thought, was distinctive and it had the kind of depth that tells you all about the character. I play him as a man who is complex and has a large appetite for the human urges. He has political urges, as well. That was a complex thing. And I think I played him as a decent fellow who really wants the best for all, and it's revealed in various scenes.

JOE KLEIN: I have to make the distinction between novelist and journalist. As a novelist, these characters kept on moving in directions that I could not at all predict. Sometimes it disappointed me, sometimes it exhilarated me. I was really disappointed when Libby had to die at the end. As for a journalistic evaluation, for the 10 years that I had a political column in the states, I had campaigned against the attempts of packs of journalists to make moral judgments against individuals acts of politicians because I believe that the phenomenon of the witchhunts is far more significant than any of the "crimes". And I do believe we're driving interesting people out of the business. I think that if you look through history, great leaders have always had great strengths and great weakenesses. It's like a great steak: there is fat and there's muscle, and it's all mixed in. You can't have one without the other, and I think we have become far too literal and far too negative in our pursuit of political characters as journalists.

QUESTION: Was Joe Klein fired from his publication after the book came out?

JOE KLEIN: Was I fired? No, I was not fired. I was working with Newsweek at the time. I continued to work at Newsweek for a year. Now, I work for the New Yorker. I did resign from CBS Television. I was an occasional commentator there. There was a bit of a controversy over the fact that I had not revealed my identity, but I figured that for an anonymous author to reveal his identity, that would be an oxymoron.
(...) I don't think my life has suffered all that much. First of all, the battering I took was only from a small segment of the press. No one who I knew or really respected took me on, and I learned so much from it. I really got a chance to see what it's like on the other side of the microphones. The experience will be valuable to me in the future, but also for future novels. The prominence? I didn't want it. That's one of the reasons for the anonymity. I could easily do without it. I am very happy to have been able to meet all of the people up here who have been absolutely wonderful, and I'd like to say that I'm proof for authors that you need not cringe when your work is made into a film. I'm very proud of this film and extremely impressed by the work that everybody did. But I'm really lucky. I mean, I can continue to be a journalist, to work for The New Yorker which, to my mind, is the best magazine in the America. And I'm here with you right now. It's been great for me.

QUESTION (to Mike Nichols): Did the documentary "The War Room" on Bill Clinton's campaign inspire you?

MIKE NICHOLS: Before we started work on Primary Colors, I was extremely interested by perhaps one aspect of The War Room which was, especially in the case of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the nature of their concentration. They actually forgot their physical selves as evidenced in how they dressed. Their concentration and their... joy in the absorption is what helped me understand what I said to Elaine May and what I said to the actors as we started: One of the secrets of this movie is that it's really Seinfeld. It's about friendship. It's about things that happen to friends on the road which is about the time of your life. That's really the happiest time of your life when you look back. You just don't know it when you're in the middle of it.

QUESTION (to Mike Nichols): In your mind, is Primary Colors a political or a moral tale?

MIKE NICHOLS: It's a moral tale. I think of it as a story about the American process and about the fact of scandal leading the headlines, and what that does to potential candidates, if you know that your life right back to kindergarten and before will be spread for the American people before you could perform one act in office. Who would that eliminate? Maybe almost everyone. And where would we go as a result of that? If that's a political concern, then to that extent, the movie is political. If it's a moral concern, I think of it as, It's time to get a lot of the toothpaste back into the tube. We've got to find some way to grow up and understand that private life is private, even for people in office. And move on.

QUESTION: Have you all had any contact from the White House?

EMMA THOMPSON: Well, last I heard for the moment is they haven't seen it. The last time I talked to them, it was about... recipes, I think.
(Chuckles) Hillary has this great chicken thing that... (laughs)

JOHN TRAVOLTA: I was invited to a party as the President and do a speech with him, as him. (Laughs) I'm not kidding.

QUESTION: Did you accept the invitation?

JOHN TRAVOLTA: I declined because I think it's best to leave the character on screen and not go and do parties. It was very funny and interesting invitation, though and I understand the President would like to see the film and see it in private. I was very tempted, though. I was very close to hopping on a plane and going. Then I though nahhhh... It would take 1.5 hours to get in the grey hair, get fat again for a moment. I withheld my urge there.

EMMA THOMPSON: He doesn't always hold back his urge.

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