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The things I had the most fun with were writing the film and casting the film.

Interview: Robert Mrazek on ‘The Congressman’ Starring Treat Williams (Part II)

The Congressman, Ryan Merriman, Treat Williams, George Hamilton
(L to R): Ryan Merriman, George Hamilton, Treat Williams in ‘The Congressman.’ Photo courtesy of the film.

Continued from Part I.

In commemoration of July 4th, The Congressman, which is currently on VOD, is a reminder of behavior and values that citizens appreciate in their leaders. These are manifest in Robert Mrazek’s film which is about a Congressman (not unlike former congressman Mrazek D-NY),  who takes a stand for the little people as he tries to thwart a corrupt lobbyist and a conglomerate only concerned about profits at the expense of people and the environment.

How was the casting process?

I thought we cast well. We had choices for Charlie’s/Treat’s island love interest which became Elizabeth Marvel. Fred Roos gave us other options that we tested including Connie Nielsen who is spectacularly beautiful. And at the same time my co-director Jared and I looked at one another. We said, “Who is going to believe Connie has been living on this island for 30 years?”

Elizabeth Marvel gave a soulful, measured performance. She did a great job.

I thought so. She was a pleasure to watch. She came prepared. Ryan Merriman had a very challenging role because there was a lot of physical comedy required. Setting up those scenes on the boat was tricky. We thought, give yourself four or five days, then we only had two days to shoot the boat scene which we extended a day…and for Ryan doing everything in a way that’s believable was a pleasure to watch. Chris Conroy, who’s a method actor, who plays Ben, the painter, came at it from a different perspective. I thought the scenes between Chris and Ryan worked really well.

I had one of the local lobstermen on the island, John Murdock, help us. We went out with Kim Blacklock who plays Matty Pierce and  Ryan and Chris Conroy and worked them for a full day on how to raise, lower, and bait lobster traps and band the lobsters. They were committed. They liked the script and felt they were part of something good. To see it come alive with their performances from my view as the writer was a magical experience.

Richard Valeriani, Robert Mrazek, The Congressman
(L to R) Richard Valeriani, Robert Mrazek at the Q and A for ‘The Congressman.’ Photo by Carole Di Tosti

I liked that you did not beat us over the head about the corruption.

I wanted the audience to be able to discover it without telling the audience how to think. I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning movies. I’m not in favor of fracking, for example, and I saw a feature film about it. I thought the film (it wasn’t a documentary), was just hitting you over the head with these positions. If it was handled more deftly, it would have been better.

There are many political shows, like House of Cards, etc. I would say this felt unique and much more honest.

I wanted the film to be honest. I’ve watched House of Cards, in part because of Elizabeth Marvel and Jayne Atkinson. Obviously it’s not realistic. Most members of Congress haven’t murdered two different people who stood in their way. Of course, it’s very entertaining and we’re watching Kevin Spacey and he’s brilliant. But it isn’t real and it’s very cynical. I’m an optimist, I wanted to write a Frank Capra type story which has hope in it.

You have experience with Frank Capra-like results with laws that you helped pass. Could you talk the Amerasian Homecoming Act?

A group of HS students from my old high school in Huntington, NY, LI came to me one day. They saw a picture of a little boy on the cover of Newsday begging on the streets of Saigon, then called Ho Chi Min City. He had frail, little legs and he was bent over, but he had an American face. Viet Nam’s a very racially pure society. The students looked at me with big doe eyes and said, “Congressman, we want you to bring this boy to us, to LI, and we want to get the right doctors for him and help him to walk.”

At the time, we had no relations with Viet Nam. The early departure program had broken down. The MIA and POW program initiative had broken down. It was a challenge to get permission for me just to go to Viet Nam and bring the boy back. I had to get 340 signatures from members of the House, Democrats and Republicans, who said, “Yes. Make a humanitarian exception for the boy.” When I was there and saw him in his environment and would simply walk down the streets, I would be literally besieged by children who were Amerasians. The black Ameriasians stood out starkly. The ones who spoke English would say, “Take me to the land of my father.” It was heartbreaking to know that I was leaving with one, but there were thousands more. They were called Bui Doi which means “children of the dust.”

I came back and set to work trying to get The Amerasian Homing Act passed. I wrote the legislation myself with help of legislative counsel. The Reagan administration opposed it because they did not want the Amerasian issue separated out from other issues involved with orderly departure. The Senate and House Judiciary Committees and the Immigration Subcommittees opposed it.

Treat Williams, Elizabeth Marvel, The Congressman
Treat Williams and Elizabeth Marvel in ‘The Congressman.’ Photo courtesy of the film.

Reagan would not sign any of the bills that the Democrats would send him. But back then we did what were called continuing resolutions. At the end of the year we didn’t have any of the authorization bills passed. It meant that my committee, the Appropriations Committee, had to fashion together what was called a continuing resolution to fund the government for the next year. Though we weren’t supposed to, if we could get a majority of the members of the committee to support it, we could put legislation into the Appropriations Bill. So I took my Amerasian Homecoming Act and put it into the Appropriations Bill, what they call an Omnibus Bill. I got the Rules Committee to give me a waiver that stipulated that they couldn’t  knock that  individual legislation out without knocking down the whole continuing resolution. And that’s how we got it passed. It went through an Appropriations Bill. It led to 25,000 children coming from Viet Nam to the US.

These children were outcasts…homeless.

Absolutely. They weren’t allowed to go to school. Most of them had been kicked out by their families because the mothers would have been remarried and the new husband did not want to have this painful reminder of her relationship with one of the Americans. They were in very difficult situations.

The Congressman, Richard Valeriani, Treat Williams, Robert Mrazek, Nancy Zises
(L to R): Richard Valeriani,Treat Williams, Producer Nancy Zises, Robert Mrazek before a screening of ‘The Congressman.’ Photo by Carole Di Tosti.

There are so many stories in the film: a love story, the story of Charlie’s career, the island story, his conflict with the aide who shoves him under the bus. You give closure to all. It could make a series.

I knew both the island piece and the Washington piece very well. And I wanted there to be a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” kind of speech at the end. It was my “Jefferson Smith” speech which Treat loved and was very complimentary about.

I don’t know why it came together so easily for me. I knew there was a confluence of the different themes along with the environmental theme and I managed to insert them all. Maybe it was easy because I started with the disillusioned congressman, and I knew the territory so well that things started falling into place. It’s not autobiographical in that I did not have a romantic relationship with someone I met on the island. That never happened. It’s kind of you to say that it could make a series. I have a lot of different projects I’m thinking about and hoping that if I get traction with this film, I would be in a position to go on and do another one.

Would you direct again? Or produce?

The things I had the most fun with were writing the film and casting the film. Fred Roos helped. George Hamilton said earlier today when we were doing an interview together, that Fred made his reputation casting. He was maybe the greatest casting director in our generation. Harrison Ford was putting in kitchen cabinets in his home on Mulholland Drive, when he met him and Roos cast him in American Graffiti and he thought he’d be great for Han Solo in Star Wars. So it was really special and to have him give us these names and be able to afford the cast. He probably wouldn’t want me to say it, but George Hamilton came all the way up from LA to Augusta, Maine, on a coach ticket for $2000. He was only there for three days. It wouldn’t cover his tanning bills for the week. Forgive me, George. So that part of it was a lot of fun. If I ever were to direct again, it wouldn’t be with a budget that would require putting out so many fires on a daily basis. I was so exhausted by the end of that shoot. I had as much hair as Treat when I started this (we laugh), not quite. I did have more hair than I have now.

The Congressman, Richard Valeriani, Johanna Giebelhaus, Treat Williams, Robert Mrazek
(L to R): Richard Valeriani, Johanna Giebelhaus, Treat Williams, Robert Mrazek for ‘The Congressman.’ Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Did the cast eat lobster?

That’s one thing we had no shortage of on that island. They only fish six months of the year. Up there lobster is not even a delicacy. It’s like chicken. They fought a lobster war back in the late 1980s. They had two of their boats sunk. And they were cutting the trap lines of the fishermen who were invading their grounds. It was getting very scary. There were gun shots exchanged like in the film. They went to Augusta, Maine, to the legislature and said, “These waters have been ours for four hundred years under English common law. We’re asking to be protected because we will continue conserving the resources by fishing only six months of the year.” They won the hearts of the legislators, so the waters are protected against others coming in to fish them.

You also protected an Alaskan forest and were threatened by a Congressman.

Conservation of the Tongas National Forest. (The Tongass Timber Reform Act) There was a Congressman from Alaska who was a former trapper. He was a big guy, 6 feet and broad chested, but not as big as me. He was very emotional. Knowing him, I didn’t think he was seriously looking to knife me. He had the knife in his hand, and was in my face screaming. It was a little disconcerting, but it was no Clint Eastwood moment. They were cutting down these trees that were twenty feet in diameter that had been there when Christopher Columbus came over. They weren’t even creating jobs by finishing the lumber in this country. They were just cutting the trees down, trimming them, putting them on container ships and sending them out to the Pacific Rim for the revenue of a Big Mac, three or four dollars a tree. Could that go on? It took me three or four years to get the legislation passed which I felt good about.

In light of global warming, that was prescient. It’s a great moment for conservation.

Yes. Other legislation I’m proud about is the National Film Preservation Act which set up the Federal Registry in the Library of Congress and protects 25 films a year from material alteration.

What’s your message to other story tellers who want to make a difference?

Persistence. If you have the passion, you have to somehow retain the passion because you never know when the opportunity is going to come. When it does come you have to be prepared. I’ve written so many books. The first two I had written to become an author after I left Congress?  It didn’t matter what connections I had. It only mattered to a publisher whether it was going to be viewed as commercially viable. I spent three years writing two novels, both of which were rejected by every publisher in New York.

 Was that through an agent?

The second one got me an agent, a good agent. It was a sympathetic book about Congress, actually. It was about a leadership fight between two younger members of Congress and an old bull. My agent after reading the novel said, “Bob, this is a good novel, but nobody wants to read a sympathetic novel about Congress right now. And I think it will be difficult to place.”

It was. It didn’t get placed, but I kept going. I felt, I’ll try another one. The third one did hit, and it enabled me to believe that I could make a living as a writer, an author. But you don’t make the same living as a novelist that you do as a lobbyist.

So my message would be stick with it. Eventually, the opportunity will be there for you. I wrote three screenplays, one of which ended up with Fred Roos. It was that connection, even though to make the film would have been $40 million dollars. He said that my the screenplay was the first film he wanted to do since Apocalypse Now. After meeting him, getting to know him and working with him on developing the project, it enabled me, when I finished this script, to feel comfortable showing it to him. He encouraged me, “Bob, why don’t you think about directing it.” I hadn’t thought about directing. I was going to send it out there and maybe someone would option it and make it. When he turned around and said, “Why don’t you make it,” it was a wonderful feeling of being empowered. I thought,“Why not? You’re 68 years old. You better get started if you’re going to do this.” (he laughs) There aren’t many opportunities left.

 


About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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