‘Now what?’

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

To understand how a show like “Tanner ’88” could ever get off the ground it’s useful to know something particular about Bridget Potter, the HBO executive responsible for the project. During one of our early meetings, Bridget asked me if I recalled an incident from the late ’60s, when a group of Yippies tossed U.S. currency into the air above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, causing a mini-riot as traders scrambled for the bills. I told her yes, I remembered it well. She asked if I knew how much money was involved. No, I replied. “It was $123 in one dollar bills,” said Bridget, “I know that because it was my week’s salary. I was the only one in the group with a job.”
That was Bridget-a Yippie with a job, and when I worked with her, a powerful job. She called me in the fall of 1987 and asked me if I would create a show around a mock presidential candidate. Since I have a demanding day job, I often sabotage discretionary projects by creating completely unreasonable conditions, so I replied that I would only sign on if Bridget could persuade a major film director to co-create the series. Oh, and the director had to be Robert Altman.
Out of thin air
I expected that to be the end of it, but Bridget called my bluff. She contacted Altman, my hero since my college days, and shortly thereafter, he agreed to direct. Incredulous, I met with him in early December-with a start date of mid-January (just before the New Hampshire primary). With no treatment, no pitch, no clear concept of what we wanted to do, I felt like the Redford character at the end of “The Candidate”-“Now what do we do?” Altman, being Altman, simply started hiring actors he wanted to work with. If he had actors, he reasoned, he had something to film, even if there were not yet any defined characters, much less words for them to say. “Pamela Reed’s great,” he said, “Create a role for her.” I went off and had Christmas with my family.
Shortly thereafter, Altman brought all the actors to his office for costume fittings. It was time to decide what roles they were playing. Daniel Jenkins, who was tall and skinny, turned to me and asked, “What’s my character like?” “He’s … um … tall and skinny,” I replied. The cast members looked at each other: Uh-oh. This is the writer? Altman, Protector of Actors, simply smiled, his eyes twinkling at the challenge of creating something out of thin air.
With less than three weeks before the pilot was to shoot, I decided it was time to get serious about a script. First I checked with my wife to find out if she minded not seeing me for the next eight months. Since the project was by definition a limited series, she signed off and I started writing. From the beginning, our intention was to write as close to the news as possible and shoot it in a loose, documentary style, so as to create the impression for viewers that Jack Tanner really was running against Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis and the other presidential wannabes of 1988.
There was a limit to how prescient anyone could be about the outcome of the primaries, so I operated on best guesses from the vantage of two weeks out. Often I faxed pages to the set the night before a scene was to shoot, driving the production team (but not Altman) crazy with anxiety. But once I got the basic story on track, 20 years of experience writing on deadline proved invaluable in meeting the intense script demands. Between January and July, I wrote 11 episodes-not David E. Kelley output-but respectable for moonlighting.
Of course, I was greatly added by my partner’s unparalleled gifts in directing unscripted scenes. We decided to weave real players into the show, but what we wanted to avoid at all costs were the wooden performances that characterized politician cameos on sitcoms. When a nonactor was used, I did not provide dialogue but rather a detailed description of the scene, specifying what we needed from it from a story standpoint and taking care to give our guest a topic he or she could talk about with both spontaneity and authority.
Emotional terrain
For example, in “Bagels With Bruce,” an episode that followed Bruce Babbitt’s withdrawal from the race, we simply had Babbitt stroll with Tanner near the Jefferson Monument, musing about what he had learned from the race and offering Tanner advice on how he should proceed. In “The Reality Check,” Wendy Crewson improvised a scene with Kitty Dukakis, wife of the Democratic nominee, in which we simply asked the candidate’s wife to forgive Wendy’s character for betraying her trust. This was emotional terrain Mrs. Dukakis seemed comfortable with, and she played her part brilliantly. And since we shot the scene in the actual candidate’s hotel suite the morning of his Democratic Convention acceptance speech, Wendy didn’t have to reach too deeply to find the nervous wreck within.
In yet another episode, we put Tanner in the middle of a bombed-out Detroit neighborhood and let the real mothers of murdered children express their anger about the devastation around them. No writer could have improved on their eloquent, impassioned words.
I naturally had expected that we would be receiving robust guidance from HBO throughout the life of the series, but there was never time for the traditional give-and-take between the studio and creative teams. The first episode was delivered a few hours before airtime, and subsequent episodes weren’t turned in much earlier. There was no opportunity for HBO to review scripts or look at rushes, so to our everlasting gratitude, Bridget Potter and her boss, Michael Fuchs, mostly left us to our own devices. Few artists have ever been given such creative freedom and support in developing a new TV series. For Altman and me, it was as good as it gets.