From the opening scene of HBO’s “All the Way,” the movie’s roots from the stage are immediately apparent. But director Jay Roach and writer Robert Schenkkan found many cinematic ways to adapt the Tony award-winning play, which chronicles the tumultuous first year of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Bryan Cranston) administration.
The film, which premieres Saturday, is still rich with dense yet gripping monologues and two-person scenes. But Roach and Schenkkan also made plenty of changes, enabled by a heavy emphasis on collaboration between the film’s major players. “It was a very giving, warm, inviting environment to be able to create,” Cranston told Indiewire. “You didn’t feel that your idea, ‘oh, I don’t know if it’s so good.’ You didn’t pre-edit your idea.”
Schennkan told Indiewire that he has “plenty of ego, but all I really care about is telling the story in the best possible way, and so far as I’m concerned, the best idea in the room wins… I’ll probably claim it as my own later,” he said with a laugh. “But I don’t really care whose idea it is — I just want it to work.”
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One of those ideas came from Cranston: “I pitched an idea that I felt would contribute to the overall texture of what it must be like under that kind of duress and stress and anxiety in the White House, when it comes to your familial make-up,” he said.
While it led to less than one minute of screen time, both Cranston and Schenkkan called it one of the most impactful changes made from the original play to the film. “Early in the play, “[Lyndon B. Johnson] complains how you give everything to public service and nobody gives a damn and you don’t even know your kids,” Schenkkan said. “And Bryan said to me, ‘I wish we had a real visceral sense of that — of him and his family and the cost.'”
Johnson’s daughters never appeared in the original play, but Schenkkan added a scene where Johnson is walking through the corridors of the White House, trailed by advisors reminding him of all the domestic and international issues currently on his plate. Abruptly, Johnson stops when he sees his daughter Lucy walking by, and the two of them have a quick, awkward conversation.
“It’s not a terribly successful conversation,” Schenkkan said, “because he’s the President of the United States. You just get this sense of a man who loves his children but doesn’t really know them, and knows that he doesn’t really know them and feels guilty.”
Cranston said he wanted that scene to “convey a sense of loss… Without saying ‘I haven’t seen you in a long time,’ I wanted to convey a feeling of he’s missed her. He looks at his daughter like, ah, she’s grown up a little bit. He’s lost track of time. He’s leap-frogged over periods of her life that he didn’t notice because of his business.”
While brief, the scene proved memorable for those involved with the production. “It’s just a beautiful moment and Jay shot it so well and Bryan plays it so lovely,” Schenkkan said. “In just this one little glimmer, we just get this facet of this guy. Boy does it pay huge dividends, both in terms of our understanding and our caring about this figure.”
Added Cranston: “We know from watching it that they aren’t completely comfortable with each other because even though they live under the same roof they’re ships that are passing in the night. That was important to me.”
It’s a scene that might pass you by when you watch “All the Way.” The film is full of big characters and big performances, led by Cranston’s mesmerizing transformation into the 36th President. But details matter. It’s these little moments of humanity that anchor the production in something real and identifiable. Like a parent discovering that time has moved on without him.
“All the Way” premieres Saturday night at 8pm on HBO.