DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: An American Psycho: The Inspiration Behind “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”
by Jason Guerrasio
[EDITORS NOTE: Jason Guerrasio spoke with Niels Mueller about “Undertow”; the film was released on DVD last week (April 26th, 2005).]
The early 1970s in America marked the end of innocence with the battle for civil rights causing many deaths in the south, the Vietnam War becoming an obvious losing effort and Watergate not too far behind. Using this chaotic time as the backdrop for his chilling debut, Niels Mueller‘s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” explores one man’s tormented soul and his insane actions on a February morning.
In the film Sean Penn plays Sam Bicke, who from the outside looks like a regular working class guy fighting for the American dream. But when his wife (played by Naomi Watts) divorces him and his aspirations to start his own business falls apart, Bicke is suddenly at the end of his rope. Overwhelmed by the uneasiness of the country and his shattered life, Bicke comes to the conclusion that there’s one man responsible for his downfall: The President of the United States.
Based on the 1974 true events of Samuel Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane with the intent of flying it into the White House, the film is an unsettling look into a man’s troubled mind.
It’s easy to say “Assassination’s” subject matter hits close to home in a post-9/11 world, but Mueller can’t be faulted for the bad timing, he’s been trying to get the project rolling since the late 90s, having financiers before September 11th call the premise too ridiculous and afterwards turn it down because the premise was too real. But through it all Penn never wavered in his interest to play what many call a true-life Travis Bickle. Thanks to his name being on board Mueller got financing through Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and Jorge Vergara‘s company Anhelo Productions, and an impressive supporting cast that includes Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle and Aussie actor Jack Thompson.
Mueller sat down with indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio at this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival, where “Assassination” was the closing night film, to talk about his four-year journey to get the film made.
indieWIRE: What inspired you to tell this story?
Niels Mueller: The first inspiration for the script came around the time I was out of film school. I was broke, defaulting on my loans, and not doing so well. I got up one night, having insomnia, wondering where I was going in my life, and I flipped on this documentary that was on at four in the morning on the ’64 campaign, which was [Lyndon] Johnson versus [Barry] Goldwater.
Nixon/Kennedy saw the birth of television as an important factor in winning an election, but the ’64 campaign was full blown television campaigning, the birth of the sound bite, and the documentary was talking all about how the Madison Avenue folks came in and took over the campaigns. So in my delirium I started looking at the ’64 campaign as being the death of all substance in American culture. I started not thinking very well of these people that I was watching in this documentary, and I woke up the next morning and I thought I understood how somebody could start projecting their own personal failings onto a political figure. I started writing about a guy who’s separated from his wife and child, takes a sales job to reestablish himself financially but more importantly to win his wife and child back, and I had him talking into a tape recorder, and I hadn’t figured out why he was going to talk into a tape recorder. I spit out everything I could, wrote about 30 pages, and started researching assassins in American history. Out of ten books I took out of the LA public library there was one that had a very slim chapter on Sam Byck. Never heard of him. Separated from his wife and kids, talks into a tape recorder, sales being something hugely important for him and his own self-esteem. So he was the guy I was already writing about so I just shifted the story ten years later and changed the title. Kevin Kennedy, my writing partner, got involved and we essentially started all over again.
iW: What’s true in the script?
Mueller: All the broad strokes are true. Working at a tire store with his brother, that’s true. Coming up with the idea of a mobile tire store, that’s true. He gave money to the Black Panthers. On the airplane we stayed to verbatim truth because that’s the very public part of the story. If you go and do primary research and take out the newspaper articles for February 23  to the day after you’ll read how he grabbed the woman by the hair, took her to the front of the plane and how she begged for her life and that he let her go at the last minute. Some of what the cockpit recorder recorded is what we put in the pilots mouth. That he shot the co-pilot and killed him and also wounded the pilot, that he shot a security guard getting on the plane. We felt for the public part of the story we really needed to stay very close to what really happened. With that said I had to fight to keep my ending. Well, I didn’t really fight; I just walked away from potential financing a couple of times. I had one studio’s independent arm say they’d never make a film with an ending like that and I said that’s the only ending you can make after 9/11. You could have changed the ending before since no one heard of this thing.
iW: Had you pre-9/11?
Mueller: I had considered changing it around 1998-99 just to make it more achievable budget wise because that’s a big sequence, but after 9/11 it had to be that way, it’s more relevant.
iW: So after 9/11 there was never a thought to tone the ending down?
Mueller: Immediately after 9/11 I, like a lot of people, couldn’t think about anything then a couple of months down the road you start thinking about it and you start thinking, am I contributing something by bringing attention to a story like this or not and I think ultimately this is based on a true story so to me it contributes something.
iW: Did you ever contact the Byck family?
Mueller: Because the very public part of the story is very laid out and I ended up getting FBI records and transcripts of the tapes he made, I was able to tell the story without contacting the family. And I felt I did it well.
iW: Sean Penn is the major piece of getting this film made. How did you get the script to him?
Mueller: The script got to Sean within a couple of months of when I first met him in 1999. The script has not changed much since 1999 either. There was a producer involved through New York a company called Independent Pictures that no longer exists and he sent the script to Sean… But I was worried that we’d spent many months waiting to get a representative of Sean to read it, to get Sean to read it, and ultimately he’s never heard of me, he’s not going to be interested in the film. But in the first eye-opener of many, the script was sent to Sean on a Thursday, Sean read it Friday, called on Friday and said I really, really like the script and he wanted to meet the director. I was in New York at the time, I flew out to meet Sean in San Francisco the next Monday. I was very nervous and anxious, but within a half-hour of meeting him I was getting a sense of Sean as a human being and I felt I connected with him.
iW: Were you worried you lost Sean after 9/11?
Mueller: I wrote him a letter after 9/11, I mean I could have called as well but it was something I wanted to drop a note about, and I think we were very much in sync with hoping and feeling that the film would have something to contribute to a dialogue after 9/11. I had people calling, I don’t know if something was printed, but people would come up and say, sorry I heard that Sean dropped out and I told Sean that and he just smirked.
iW: Though you had Penn attached, getting financing was a journey, and 9/11 didn’t help either…
Mueller: It was hard to get financing before 9/11 and it was at least as hard to get financed after 9/11. I got close a number of times before 9/11. A lot of people responded to the script but they felt it was very execution dependent and they didn’t know who I was. There were also people who just thought it wasn’t blockbuster material, which I always knew it wasn’t. Then after [9/11] I had two places that talked specifically about the ending and how they wouldn’t make the film with this type of ending.
iW: How did you finally get it?
Mueller: I ultimately ended up in the best hands I could have ended up with, with Alfonso Cuaron, who is a filmmaker I admired for years and his partner Jorge Vergara, who is an equally impressive man. He actually saw Sean on Larry King Live and saw how he spoke with passion and said, “This is a person of passion and I can imagine he will bring that passion to this role.” He had gotten the script before the Larry King interview, but that was sort of the thing that made him say, yeah, lets go ahead and make this film.
I met Jorge Vergara, and this was the meeting that would decide if he’d finance the film or not. He invited me to come and watch the Mexican national team against the Argentine national team at the LA coliseum. I’m a huge soccer fan so it was a great thing because I would have been extremely anxious about how I’m going to present why this film should be made and for this all I was hoping for was to watch the game before we talk about it. So we just stood and watched the game and then we started talking afterwards and he said, “Niels don’t worry I’m going to finance your film.” And I’ve had a lot of people say they were going to finance the film but when he said it I knew it. And then with Alfonso Cuaron I’d fly over to London when I had a cut and he’d put the cut up on the “Harry Potter 3” editing system and he’d work with me and it was fantastic. And he was a huge help on the way, discussing casting and all kinds of things. I got extremely lucky. But you start with Sean for a reason, because you want to build a film around him and the film essentially got made on his back, and I know that and I’m indebted to him forever. I also built the cast around him.
iW: How did you initially take being in front of this cast?
Mueller: I had trouble with that for the first half-hour to hour. My first day of the shoot was Sean Penn and Don Cheadle and I forgot to call action, forgot to call cut, I was just saying wow. But you just quickly realize you’ve got a job to do and ultimately it was like, o.k. people are looking at you to do something here so do it, including Don and Sean.
iW: What was their feeling towards you?
Mueller: The truth with Sean is there was a real benefit to the film following apart for four years because we got to know each other. Sean immediately worked to make me feel ready to work with him. We’d got out drinking to talk about the financing falling apart and we’d talk about the character and by the time we were on the set we’d already done the work. We were very much in sync.
iW: You’ve talked about this film having relevance after 9/11. What do you want audiences to take from the film?
Mueller: Ultimately the fact that it is as relevant as it is, it provokes questions. I don’t know if it provides answers but it certainly provokes a lot of questions and if an audience can go in and be provoked by something and be thinking about it in a week, in two weeks, in three weeks, then I feel that I’ve succeeded.