I was present at a roundtable interview at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 28th with Robert Mrazek, former U.S. Congressman (D-NY). A prolific novelist, Mrazek wrote, produced, and co-directed (with Jared Martin), The Congressman starring Treat Williams with George Hamilton, currently on VOD release. In Mrazek’s film Treat Williams gives a complex portrayal of a Congressman (not unlike Robert Mrazek), who goes through a crisis in his life and asks himself hard questions about who he is and what he stands for. In this election season which promises to be explosive, the film reveals there are still political leaders who do care for the little people, and though they do not come from wealth, they do not use their position simply to line their pockets after their political stint is over. See Review.
What I’d like to ask you about are the autobiographical elements. When you wrote this, did you realize new things about yourself?
It wasn’t so much self-discovery. I wrote the screenplay very quickly. I’ve written books that took me four years to finish. The screenplay came together within two months in 2012. I write every day. In October 2012, I finished a novel for Penguin Random House and I wanted to be at our island for another two months before we were going to come back to Ithica, New York. It was two months, and I thought, what could I write? And at the time there was a lot of public awareness in the media about the dysfunction of Congress and the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together. Mitch McConnell was attacking Harry Reid and they couldn’t work together on anything.
It was different when I was in Congress. And I think I was inspired by the contrast of the two cultures. There was the one on the island; there are about 50-60 people who live there year round. A lot of them don’t like one another, but they know they have to work together to make the island function. There in Congress you have 535 lawmakers who can’t get together on anything: authorization bills, appropriations bills, etc. There are ideologues on both ends of the spectrum. So that provided one of the elements for me to work the story. One thing that was autobiographical was I was the origin of looking into how we began reciting The Pledge of Allegiance in 1988.
Could you talk about that?
I was a member of the Democratic leadership, and we were meeting in 1988. Tom Foley was the speaker at the time and we would meet every week. At one of the meetings, a member of Congress from the South stood up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if the Pledge of Allegiance is important enough for every school child to recite every morning, then it’s important that we do the same thing.” I stood up and said something to the effect that actually ended up in the movie. I said, “Each one of us at the beginning of each session of Congress gets up and puts a hand on the Bible and swears to uphold the Constitution and all of the freedoms that our nation holds dear. And I don’t think we need to recite a loyalty oath every morning just to prove we love our country.” And she said something like “I would have expected no less from you…” and she mispronounced my name.
And then we started to recite the pledge and no one voted against the resolution to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I wasn’t about to do it. I had a two to one Republican district and I was a Democrat. You learn to pick your battles. I didn’t stand up for the Pledge and I was often there at the beginning of the Session. Around two weeks later or so, we’re back in the leadership and she stands up and says, “Mr. Speaker! It is my sad duty to report that we have ‘pledge dodgers’ right here in the leadership, the Democratic caucus.” She was looking at me.
That was when I researched the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought well, we’ve recited the words since we were kids, but what was it about? It was then that I learned the “Pledge” was created by a militant National Socialist in 1892 named Francis Bellamy. He believed that the Federal government should take over all industry; that everyone should earn the same wage and that the Federal government should run the public schools. In addition to reciting the Pledge, he created the Bellamy salute which was the stiff arm salute that was later adopted along with other ideas that he had by the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1920s.
When I was thinking about how to put a hook to the movie in October 2012, I thought, what would happen to me now if I had my feet up on the Whip’s desk and somebody took a picture of me during the “Pledge”? You know nowadays, you never know when you’re being photographed with a cellphone. And what would happen today if that same Congressman said, “You know who wrote the Pledge and the Bellamy salute?”
That was an inspiration. It was autobiographical in a sense as other elements in the story are. Being a congressman is a killing ground for marriage. It certainly contributed to the break-up of my first marriage (there is a scene where the congressman and his former wife discuss their marriage/divorce).
I wanted this to be real. I wanted you to feel like you were peaking behind the curtain and seeing what it’s like being in public life. For example, what is it like being on a Congressman’s mobile office? I didn’t exaggerate those constituents who came to see me. Depending on the phases of the moon, you never knew who you were going to get. I wanted to make it realistic enough. But we didn’t include the woman who used to visit me regularly at the mobile office who said her neighbor was beaming microwaves through her kitchen window and they had killed her cat. She was lining the whole kitchen with aluminum foil and in the meantime she wanted me to have her neighbor arrested. If I put that in the movie, you would have thought that was fiction. But that’s the way it was.
I was in that office because I had been in the legislature 7 years before I got elected to Congress. I knew how to help people. If you were a battered housewife, I knew where I could get you into a Safe House. If your family was hungry, I knew where all the pantries were in my legislative district. So I thought, I’ll have the mobile unit. People will stop by with all their issues and problems, and I’ll be able to help them. I’ll go home feeling, “Wow! This has been a good day!” But I represented the wealthiest congressional district in the United States on the North Shore of LI, the Gold Coast. And those weren’t the people who came to see me.
Writing the story, was there anything that you think you might have done differently?
We had to work within the limitations of a very small canvas because we did not have a substantial budget to make the movie. It had to be a small canvas movie, but at the same time, we were very ambitious in shooting on an island that did not have central power. So we were humping generators around for each set up and doing five or six a day, and doing a town meeting where we needed four hundred extras and shooting in the capital in Augusta for the Washington scenes. It was very ambitious. So once I embarked on it…looking back, I thought we accomplished everything we could with the limitations of our resources.
If I had one thing I wish I could do over, it would be to expand the scenes with George Hamilton, the lobbyist. He’s the counterpoint for Charlie/the congressman, Treat. In the first scene we shot with him, he was so good, he lit up the scene. And I couldn’t help thinking about other scenes I could have created because he seems to be the chief wicked lobbyist. However, I conceived of him actually working for somebody who was far higher up the food chain, someone he would be weekly reporting to, though in the film, he seems to be the guy who is pulling all of the strings. He’s working for the global fishing conglomerate. And I imagined that the head of the global fishing conglomerate is like Ned Beatty in Network. You walk in and there’s a Ned Beatty type at the end of the conference table. So there were a lot of ideas, but we just didn’t have the resources to do them.
This was a first time filmmaking experience. How was the experience?
As a first time director I wasn’t frightened, but I was concerned about being able to work with my co-director and harness the set and create a good atmosphere on the set and give the DP enough opportunity for scene shooting options for each scene, and I was concerned about how we would be blocking it out.
The actors were all accomplished actors. And what I found out from the start was that they made it very easy for us co-directors. Treat, when he started preparing for the role in the summer of 2013, he was still shooting a series called Chicago Fire. On his breaks he would take two or three pages of a given scene from the film and he worked on the scene as he walked by the lake. That night he would call me and say, “Bob, here’s the scene I worked on today. I think it can be expanded here.” Or he’d say, “Maybe there shouldn’t be so much anger.”
Treat helped me to shape the script. It was a true collaboration in every way. He contributed a lot to the way I finalized the script. Charlie/Treat is the key to the film. He carries the movie in almost every scene. And when Treat arrived on set, he was Charlie. He was totally prepared; he was totally into the role. He’s not a method actor, but boy, he does what he needs to do to get inside the character, in this instance, Charlie, the congressman.
Continued in Part II.