I was present at a roundtable interview at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 28th with Treat Williams to discuss his role as Charlie Winship in The Congressman. Treat Williams’ gives a complex portrayal of an individual who is going through a turning point in his life and must ask himself the hard questions about who he is and what he stands for. See Review.
How did you balance the comedic parts of the film with more of the dramatic parts. One of my favorite scenes was the parade of constituents. There’s one scene that had an explicit object…
It’s called a dildo…(we laugh)
But then in the next scene, you are serious when you talk about the Iraq War. So I was wondering how did you approach those scenes?
I always get the question, “Is it a comedy or a drama?” I always say, “It’s a good movie.” If you look at Capra’s films, I hope we came near what Capra elicited from people in his movies. I think any movie that has great comedy and a lot of pathos and a lot of deep feeling is a good movie. As an actor, I always try to find the comedy. I am going to be looking under every nook and cranny to find something that is funny. I’m always joyful when I do. There was an ad lib when in the scene you mentioned, he says, “Another two satisfied customers.” And I say, “Three. That thing had a life of its own!” That was an ad lib I came up with after I thought about it. So little things like that are a joy. Also, if you’ve been in a fight with your loved one, you always find in the middle of the fight, someone says something and you start to laugh. It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny. So I try never to say, “Well, a serious scene has to be serious and a funny scene has to be funny.” I think things happen organically and the humor should come out of the behavior and out of the story.
I don’t see either as an actor transitioning. I see it as people are able to make 180 degree turns emotionally. We’re just like that; we’re built that way. So you can laugh in the middle of a fight and you can get angry in the middle of a nice dinner when someone says the one thing that really pisses you off and suddenly this joyful evening turns. Like when someone says, “Isn’t it funny when you did that…” And you say, “I didn’t do that.” All of a sudden, boom, the whole mood changes. So to me it’s just human nature that these things can coexist in the same scene.
You were not just an actor in this. You also wrote. Were you an executive producer?
Well, there was no executive producer in my case, initially. What happened was… if I am with Sidney Lumet, I don’t have to do much. I was with Robert J. Mrazek and Jared Martin, who are first time directors. I did a lot, but I only stepped up when it was necessary. There was no ego involved. When it wasn’t necessary, all I wanted to do was come in and find out where do I sit and where do I stand and what’s comfortable so that I can make the best scene I can make. What happened was after the movie was done, we went back to the island to shoot four more days because Johanna Geibelhaus (editor, producer), who made this movie beautiful, said, “I am missing footage I need.”
When we went back to the island, I flew myself over in my plane. Here I was the star of the film; I was the gaffer; I was the grip; I did some food service and I carried stuff around. And all five of us Robert, myself, Johanna, Jared, and Joe Arcidiacano (Director of Photography), were a tiny film crew. We got the shots of me coming up the stairs. We got a part of the speech we missed where I come out on the stage and look out…that transition didn’t exist prior. We got me looking at the stars at night, where Charlie goes, “What the hell am I doing…well, this is pretty cool.”
My agent said, “Did you get paid for that?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, you’re going to be producer on the film. I never had an actor put so much of himself into a movie and give so much of himself. You deserve it. They immediately said, “Of course.” So it was a title given to me almost like a trophy for hard work but I’m proud of it. I did work hard. Once I got the title I became involved in the post production process. I’ve been more involved in the sense of “How does this work?” I’m the guy going, “How does it go out to the theaters?” As the producer, for example we’re doing one night in Connecticut, at the Avon theater where I used to go as a kid. I called them and asked if we could be showing for a week there especially if we did well. They said, “Well, that’s difficult because the Harvey Weinstein Company has a movie here and they might not let us. Even if their film is not doing well, they might not let us take it out of the theater and put yours in.”
So I’m more of a student of how to produce a film than a producer. I love the title, but I’m really learning a lot about how to maneuver those things. What do you do if Harvey Weinstein won’t take the film out? How do you smooze them to say, could you put it in after? So those are the kinds of things I’m learning. I don’t quite know how it works. I do know they’ve hired a wonderful guy whose company will take movies like this which are not easy sells and put them in very specific theaters around the country and slowly build, hopefully, a ground swell of the right people who will want to see it. There’s no spandex. There’s no explosions…no sex…no car chases, no violence. (we laugh)
Has there been any discussion about film festivals?
We didn’t get in. We tried a bunch. We are a standard, feel good, American film. They don’t want us. Are you kidding me? I have seen films that are absolutely awful, that have some gimmick to them at Sundance. I’ve seen films that you wouldn’t put in the garbage pail.
Did you apply to the Hamptons Film Festival? You’re a name celebrity. They love that.
I also think the timing was off. We weren’t finished. We only just recently finished. We did get in to Sarasota. One of the problems is that we should have hired these guys (Frank PR) two years ago. Love them. And when they got on board, everything exploded. If they had been onboard, we would have been in festivals. When we did get in to Sarasota, that was the beginning of it. They worked it out so that we were the closing night of the Sarasota Film Festival. That actually gave us enough noise so that the twelve theaters that did take us turned into 40 theaters.
It was interesting. People actually said, “Oh. This has legs. We should reconsider putting it in our theater. So everybody’s now getting their feet wet with us, saying,“Well, OK. We’ll put it in for a week and see if anybody comes.” (Treat smiles) This is why I’m out here in NY instead of on my tractor. I believe in it. I think it’s a valuable film. By the way, if we end up with three stars on Netflix, that’s fine. That’s where I watch my movies. I’m in bed with my wife and we decide what we want to watch a classic? Comedy? European film we haven’t seen? You look at the stars and if it’s got 2 ½ you go…? If it’s got someone like Judy Dench and one star, I don’t care. I’ll watch it. It’s a great way for me to find films. So I think that somehow it will have an afterlife on VOD and beyond. It’s worth seeing. It’s a pleasurable experience to see. It moves me. (he laughs) I watch it and I find… I don’t know why but Charlie’s one of my favorite characters: Prince of the City, Danny Ciello, Berger in Hair, Charlie Winship, The Congressman some of my favorite guys and of course Andy Brown (Everwood-TV series) was a wonderful character.
I just reviewed By Sidney Lumet for Tribeca Film Festival, speaking of Prince of the City.
I was there for the Q and A afterwards. I thought it was wonderful the way they wove in Al and I especially Al’s work back then but the way it was woven in to what Sidney was talking about. It wasn’t, “Oh what a great performance this is…” it was actually complimenting Sidney’s understanding of the world
Lumet beautifully captured New York stories. In the future if someone came to you with a good script for a film to act or produce would you consider it or do you plan to stay in TV?
Yes, I would do it but looking back, I would have hired some different people. It was too chaotic. And there were people who shouldn’t have been there. They didn’t understand that we were making something special. There were some people who were let go, ultimately, because they were undermining the film to save money and we had some people that were incompetent. So the incompetence was very painful for me and very difficult. It was probably one of the most difficult shoots that I have ever been on.
So if I could have control from the beginning and go out to people and tell them, “Yes there’s no money in this but we need you to step up.” Most people would say, “I’m in.” But they didn’t do that. They hired people who didn’t care or understand the film was special. I’m angry that they didn’t care. But would I do it again? Yes.
Robert and I had a conversation this morning. He said to me, “I will never direct a film again. I am not meant to be a director, Treat. You and I both realized that on the shoot.” Well, I might direct or I would find a DP who would really move the camera so the camera tells the story. Yeah. Of course I’d do it again. I hope the show Chesapeake Shores runs for five years, so I could do any independent film I want. But it’s hard.
This was not a great script when we started. We worked very hard on it. Nobody hands it to you on a platter. It’s hard work. But Robert, the others and the actors have been very appreciative of my help on the film. Every day I went to work wanting to make this the best film that it could possibly be. Nobody had an ego on this film. For the ones who didn’t care, they thought that they were just making some schlocky independent film and they wanted to play on the island. There was a lack of focus (professionalism), for some people that I am still angry about, but somehow it got made. We all weren’t on the same page then, but it got made.
It’s good. It must be seen.
I hope so. I don’t know how else to get it out there. But I think there are people who will enjoy it and say this is good. It doesn’t aspire to do great things. It’s a movie that opens your eyes to various aspects of what’s happened in politics and maybe gets you thinking about the problem with big money in politics. Politics early on was never intended to be a job or a career. It was intended to be a couple of years of service to your country. Then you went back to your farm. It evolved to a money driven thing and of course, power corrupts.
Politics has become a revolving door into the corporate world. The film made a lot of important points, and it didn’t hit the audience over the head with them.
In a speech I had at the end, Robert wrote that Charlie is explaining how Congress works. I said, “Robert, we’re not here to teach. We’re not here to preach in this movie. It always has to be a guy talking to himself and it has to be a guy where the issues are particular to him. If I start explaining to the audience how Congress works, we’re going to lose them.” I said, “Robert, I’ve got to cut to the chase and get off the stage.” He said, “OK.” We cut a whole page. He was great and it ended when it should have ended.
Will you do more writing and directing? I don’t see you only as a conduit.
I’d like to find a story I love. Actually, Johanna and I are talking about the possibility of making a film about the making of this film. I think it would be an interesting movie because it was so chaotic yet out of the dust rose this lovely little film. I think there’s value in seeing that.
As an indie film, it’s always interesting to discover how the funding occurs because it’s a hard scrabble existence with indie films.
Yeah. I just got off the phone with Matthew Modine and there are two leads in this film project. And I thought, “Oh God I want to do this and work with Matthew Modine. Matthew wrote me an email and said, “Listen, there’s not enough money to shoot this in NYC.
Is it a Kickstarter film?
It’s a Kickstarter movie. There’s no money which is fine. But he said to me, “Treat…I saw the guy’s last film. It’s not good.” Of course, Matthew has worked with all the great filmmakers and is becoming a great filmmaker himself. And I said, “OK. It’s just not right,” and we both passed. You want to find the one that you’re willing to “kill yourself on” like I did with The Congressman.