On Tuesday's edition of "Fresh Air," the daily one-hour interview show on National Public Radio, airing on hundreds of NPR affiliates across the country, host Terry Gross interviewed Paul Weitz, director of the new Bush-mocking movie "American Dreamz." Gross helped Weitz to explain his point that "dreams are sometimes delusions," like democracy in Iraq. Weitz expressed sorrow that John Kerry lost to Bush in 2004 because "he was able to look at both sides of an issue, which seems to be the hallmark of intelligence."
Weitz began by suggesting his movie was a way of dealing with how America has been paralyzed by irrational fear since 9/11, so paralyzed it's almost impossible to have a rational thought in George Bush's America:
And I think in terms of agenda, I feel like one of the uses of comedy can be to dissipate fear. And we've been living in an atmosphere of fear for such a long time in the country that it makes it almost impossible to have a rational thought. And beyond that, I then started to think of an overall theme. I didn't really care that the movie was lampooning "American Idol" or lampooning the current administration. What I was interested in was in making a movie about what I think is a core aspect of American identity, which is the idea that everybody has a dream. And that's always looked at as a positive thing. In a way, it's the best thing about America. But, at the same time, the question presents itself of whether that makes it impossible to deal with reality.
Gross: And whether those dreams are good or not.
Weitz: Yeah. And oddly in the movie, the person whose dream saves them is this showtunes-loving terrorist who has the dream that he can become a star because he was chosen for this "American Idol"-type TV show. But I think, on various levels, you can see how this idea of American identity being that in which we have to all be aspiring towards something greater than what we are affects us. And on the political level, I think that one can look at sort of the Bush administration's dream of creating democracies in the Middle East and sort of like this idea that if you just have a dream and adhere to it, everything is going to be OK.
And I think that in terms of political discourse, that the idea of shades of gray has gotten such a nasty--it's almost like the third rail of politics. I mean, beyond all the sort of political mistakes Kerry made in the last election, it seemed like the one thing that really ruined him was the idea that he was able to look at both sides of an issue, which seems to be the hallmark of intelligence. So I think now is the time to question whether dreaming is an appropriate reaction to the world.
Gross: Yeah, so one of the points you're making is dreams are sometimes delusions, and it's helpful to know the difference.
Gross: Dennis Quaid plays the president in "American Dreamz," and you portray the president as somebody who's not very bright and who wears an earpiece in which he is told by his chief of staff what to say and when to say it. But the president starts to rebel. The president starts reading the newspaper, and once he actually starts learning what's happening in the world, he starts to question things. Do you want to describe how you wrote the president the way you did and why?
Wow, Terry Gross is esteemed for her interviews, but this is facilitating like a PR flack, not interviewing. From there, Weitz went on to describe how he created his dimwit-president character as a Bush clone, except his fictional president learned to accept reality, which he does not expect Bush to embrace:
Weitz: Yeah. I mean, I took as a starting point his famous quote that he doesn't read the newspapers. And so I always wanted to do something about a president who's having a nervous breakdown. And I thought, well, what if this guy had a little bit of a breakdown because he woke up on the morning of his re-election and felt kind of cocky and decided to read the newspaper for the first time in four years. And this caused him to realize that he had been making decisions based on a black and white view of the world. And the more that he learns, the more sort of he doesn't want to leave his bed in the bedroom of the Oval--of the White House. And it's not--you know, because it's Dennis, it's--he's able to create a relatively fully formed character I think. And I'm not particularly interested--I mean, I happen to have my own feelings about Bush, and I don't think that he's going to wake up any day soon and sort of reassess everything that he's done. But that was not my aim with this movie. My aim was to have a character that begins in a place of being kind of blind and suffers because he's learning about things, and then in the end, his kind of triumph. In the movie, Dennis' triumph is not that he's suddenly become smart, but actually that he decides he wants to deal with reality and with the idea that things are not easily solvable.
So, in a way, it starts as a parody of the administration, but I'm interested in creating a character which, you know, the movie model that Dennis and I were talking about most was Peter Sellers character in "Being There," the Chauncey Gardiner character.
That would be the man who was basically a moron, which everyone falsely believed was simple, yet deep. Weitz also had a very typical Hollywood take on terrorists, that they're great fodder for jokes. Scary, yes, but hard to define as evil. They're just too serious:
I think that part of the task here was to make that character watchable. And--I mean, the very strange thing that happens in this movie is that the two--probably the two most sympathetic characters are Dennis Quaid's president, who has a lot of Bush's qualities but does not share the quality of seeming to never actually change his perspective on things but actually becomes humanized during the course of the film, and this sort of show-tune singing terrorist, who is doing what he's doing for a reason which is that he says early on that his mother was killed by a stray American bomb. I wanted the Omer character to be as sympathetic as possible and to kind of separate him from the other terrorist characters in the movie and have him be kind of a redeemable character. And so there's something very sort of vulnerable about somebody going out there and singing show tunes in front of a big audience.
Gross: So when you look at bin Laden tapes, you know, in which he's like threatening the United States and the Western world, do you just imagine him singing and dancing?
Weitz: I'm not sure I'm quite capable enough of--I mean, I'm terrified along with everybody else, there is no question. But at the same time, these are people who take themselves deeply seriously. And when you are a relativist and a humanist, you want to poke holes in anyone who takes themselves terribly seriously.
NPR probably can't do too much to help out "American Dreamz" at the box office, which came in a lowly ninth in its first weekend, grossing just $3.6 million.