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LAFF ’08 INTERVIEW | “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” Director Stefan Forbes

LAFF '08 INTERVIEW | "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" Director Stefan Forbes

[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]

Screening in the Documentary Competition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Stefan Forbes‘s “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” tells the story of the late iconoclast Lee Atwater Atwater was the man behind successful campaigns for Reagan and the Bush Dynasty, pioneering the art of campaigning. Featuring Ed Rollins, Michael Dukakis, Tucker Eskew, Howard Fineman, Mary Matalin, and Sam Donaldson, “Boogie Man” depicts Atwater’s role in the G.O.P.’s hold on America. indieWIRE talked to Forbes about the film, and his hopes for LAFF.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking?

Growing up in Cambridge, MA, I was surrounded by amazing independent cinemas like the Brattle and Off the Wall. My Dad would hip me to great old European films and I got exposed to them at an early age. Maybe too early – I nearly had a nervous breakdown in a Bergman double feature – but I grew up with the belief that films should be challenging and they could change your life.

What was the inspiration for this film?

Atwater had always intrigued me. I couldn’t figure out how a Southerner who resented powerful Eastern elites could write the winning playbook for the Bush dynasty. Plus, Atwater loved the blues and hung out with James Brown and B.B. King, yet he was accused of running the most racist Presidential campaign in 150 years. Where was the truth? And if he was essential to Reagan’s and W’s elections as well, how could one guy amass that kind of power? I couldn’t believe no one had told Atwater’s story on film. He had an epic American life with a built-in 3-act structure.

Please elaborate on your approach to making the film…

I used to play in bands, and have shot and directed a lot of music videos. Music was central to Atwater’s life, and I was excited to use it as a Greek chorus driving the story and saying things the characters couldn’t. I never intended to score it myself, but had to when we ran out of time and money. It forced me to question what each scene was really about, and take the edit to a deeper level. Visually, I went handheld to bring immediacy to the interviews. My producer Noland Walker (“Citizen King“) and I strongly believe that history is a living force and wanted to bring immediacy to the archival footage. We hit on the idea of showing clips to our interviewees and getting their reactions in real time. It resulted in powerful moments, such as when I confronted Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis with footage of Atwater mocking him to a planeful of reporters. It also took a while finding the balance between drama and comedy – I kept discovering hilarious never-before-seen clips of Atwater and George W. Bush on the campaign trail. It was like discovering the Bush family’s private home movies.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?

We barely had enough money to hire more than the occasional soundman, so I had to shoot and edit it myself on my laptop with only a few sporadic research interns who would disappear whenever they got a paying gig. I quickly got buried under an avalanche of archival footage and photographs. Telling someone’s life story is a huge responsibility which gets even harder when you venture onto hotly-contested cultural terrain. I wanted Atwater’s closest friends and colleagues to tell his story without the intrusiveness or partisanship of a narrator, which made the edit brutally hard. But ultimately the lack of VO limits editorializing and gives the film richness and the power of personal testimony. Everyone gets a chance to talk, and the audience has the pleasure of making up their own minds.

What are your goals for the Los Angeles Film Festival?

I hope to get some sleep. Honestly, I was working around the clock on the score and sound mix until the last minute. Of course everyone wants to sell their film, and it looks like we’re about to get a couple of offers, which is incredibly exciting. The people who run the LA Festival have really been great. They took us filmmakers on a 2-day retreat to the Skywalker Ranch and went out of their way to introduce me to George Lucas. He invited me to bring Boogie Man back for a private screening with him at the ranch. It’s been gratifying to see the film getting people talking about issues America often avoids. That was my goal.

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