W.: How Oliver Stone Shot his Bush Biopic as Indie Feature

W., Oliver Stone’s biopicture of George W. Bush, was shot in Shreveport, Louisiana for nine weeks in the spring of 2008, taking advantage of the state¬ís tax breaks, as well as its ample variety of locations and stages.

Production designer Derek Hill was responsible for transforming Shreveport locales into settings as disparate as Yale, the White House and the Bush family compound in Crawford, Texas, in a tight ten-week pre-production window.

Despite its anomalous Louisiana setting, Hill strove to design the film as authentically as possible. “Working with Oliver, we always try to go as real as possible because the events we are depicting are documented. I checked every detail in the script and if I found the remotest possible deviation, I brought it up to Oliver.

The main goal was for the sets to be as accurate as possible so that Oliver’s story could develop within them. Whatever the subject is, working on an Oliver Stone film always makes you a lot smarter. When you’re done, you always know a lot more than you did when you started,” Hill says.

Hill and his team scoured Web sites, books, documentaries, photographs from Getty Images and Corbis; they even took their own aerial shots. But for the Texas-specific scenes, Hill also relied on his upbringing.

“When Oliver approached me about doing the film, he teased me and said something like, ‘Well, you know, we’re right in your backyard. I’ve known you for 20 years, so you’ll know exactly what to do on this film.’ But you still want to be as accurate as possible, and even though I’ve driven through Midland, I’ve never stopped and studied exactly the subject of our film,” Hill explains.

“So I went there to make sure our houses were right, the landscape was right, all the textures were right. As far as Austin, I know Austin very well and the Texas Governor’s office is very distinct. We didn’t have the big backdrop of Commerce Street (the main artery) that runs down in Austin, but we got a very good look for what we needed for the show and replicated it,”
One of the key sets where several critical scenes occur was the Situation Room, the White House variation of the Star Chamber.

“Several important scenes take place in the Situation Room, so we tried to design it as accurately as possible but also we had to make it as shootable as possible so that Oliver could get everything he needed. So it’s a little bigger than the real thing to accommodate cameras, crew, lights, equipment. We didn’t want to have to always pull and restore walls, so we worked around the angles Oliver wanted to film and designed the scale around that. We designed the table that the Bush team sits around during their meetings so that it could be pulled apart and Oliver was able to shoot scenes in sections that way,” Hill says.

A pivotal Situation Room moment involves an electronic map that certain members of the Bush Administration use to promote their New World Order. Hill and chief lighting technician David Lee built a circular oval light over the table in the Situation Room. Explains Hill, “We controlled it with a dimmer board so the lights came up and down during the scene. The map itself was done via front and rear projection.”

Because the film spans so many years, from George W. Bush’s college days to his presidency, and features so many characters, the costume, hair and make-up departments had particularly challenging jobs.

Costume designer Michael Dennison notes that, like the other department heads, he rigorously researched W.’s real subjects prior to filming, but the application was always in service of the story Stone was trying to tell.

“In the course of the movie, some characters have seven or eight costume changes, which is a comfortable amount of clothes,” Dennison says. ¬ìSome have 18-21 changes. The Bush family has the majority. Most of Bush¬ís cabinet members have a look that is specific to the White House, but we also had a little fun with that; we weren’t duplicating history. Our costumes are representational, but correctly so. They are interpretations.”

The same mantra applied to the make-up. As Stone puts it, the actors were not meant to be look-alikes, but “feel-alikes,” in terms of the people they played. This meant a specific use of wigs and make-up enhancements, Brolin, in particular, wore several prosthetics, but not to the point of impersonation.

Explains make-up department head Trevor Proud, “Our responsibility was to make the characters believable, as opposed to laughable. The approach we had with Josh was, basically, for the audience to realize that there is something different about him and his appearance has been changed slightly, as opposed to extremely. With a character who is so well known and in every single scene, the changes have to be so subtle and so delicate that only after a while will the audience actually realize that there is something different about him, but will also accept him as George W. Bush, as opposed to Josh Brolin playing George W. Bush.”

Ultimately, Stone hopes that audiences will be intrigued with the tale of how the Bush family prodigal son overcame the missteps of his youth to become one of the most powerful and, for better or worse, influential Presidents of the United States, and how his early life informed his presidency. Stone insists this isn’t an indictment or validation of Bush; drama, he points out, is not judgmental.

“We were not out to demean or hurt the man,” Stone declares. ¬ìThat is not the right motivation for me to direct. Too much time is involved. Who needs a negative mindset We let the man speak it in his own words. We set out to show his reasoning for the Iraq War as a function of who he is, his personal history. The hope is when you walk out of the movie, you say, ‘I understand that guy. I may not agree or like the result, but I understand.’ And that’s drama. I can’t say I liked Oedipus when I walked out of ‘Oedipus,’ I can’t say I liked Agamemnon, I can’t say I like many of the Greek heroes. Some of them are outright assholes. But you watch them, you follow their story. That’s drama. It may be easier or more palatable to have a character with whom you sympathize, studio executives love that word. But it’s tricky: if we sympathize with everyone, we create a manufactured values system. It’s much more interesting and real if you try to empathize and understand, if not always approve.”