Milwaukee-born Niels Mueller co-wrote Tadpole, one of several collaborations with friend Gary Winick (13 Going on 30). Helming his own script, Mueller made his directing debut with The Assassination of Richard Nixon and an auspicious cast including Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, and Jack Thompson. I spoke with Mueller on December 16, 2004 at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco.
Groucho: So you worked in your father's office-supply store, right? Did you exorcise that experience with the film?
Niels Mueller: Yeah, absolutely. My father, 'til he retired, had one of Wisconsin's largest office-furniture and interior-design stores. And I asked my father, when we were in pre-production in Oakland, to come up, and I asked him to bring whatever he possibly could that would help us understand, one, how an office-furniture store in the '70s would function. And the best thing he brought were Super-8 films that he made at the office-furniture place. And we literally projected them on the barren white wall of the gutted interior that we ended up creating the office-furniture store in. And it gave us our color palette: Lester Cohen, my designer, was there. He just soaked it up , was taking note—and damned if Lester didn't put together a store that is a perfect 1970s office-furniture store because I walked in the place—and he created it out of nothing, and he nailed it...And also—I'll just quickly say this...the character that Jack Thompson plays—who is Sam Bicke's, Sean Penn's character's boss—for me at least, as I was writing it—y'know, 'cause I co-wrote the script with Kevin Kennedy—was informed by my father's business partner largely, who was this guy who grew up on a farm in New Holstein, Wisconsin, was the only one out of seven kids to go to college 'cause he had polio as a kid, and they thought, "Well, he might not be able to work the farming equipment," so he goes to Madison, which is the big city. And so everybody he met was like "Whoa," you know. Anyone who's not a white Christian or whatever is like somebody new and foreign to him, and elements of that character come through in the character played by Jack Thompson.
G: In the movie, Sam Bicke learns that he has to lie to pursue the American Dream, and he also experiences that the American Dream is a lie. Obviously, you've proved your merit as a director, but to get where you are had something to do with who you knew, right?
NM: Well, you know, I came out to Los Angeles—grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, went to college in Boston—I came out: I didn't know anybody! You know, but I tell you, the value of UCLA film school, and I say this—I've shown the film to a couple of film classes—I say, "Look at the person next to you. That's your most valuable connection." And that was the case for me, 'cause, you know, I got my Director's Guild card 'cause Brad Silberling, who just directed Lemony Snicket, hired me on a TV show he was producing. And that took me another seven years to find something else to direct after that, but that was a break. And then Alexander Payne, who's a good friend of mine, again, from film school, was the person who helped me get the script to the first producer, who got the script to Sean. So it was like simple, down-home connections that really made the difference.
G: Do you see the character of Sam Bicke as more of the symptom or the problem?
NM: The symptom or problem of society?
NM: Well, I'd say he's probably both, y'know, he's—I would say, maybe—the word I might use is he's indexical. He's an index of a certain mindset. An extreme version of a mindset. One thing that I was interested in exploring in the film is the thin line that separates us, who are frustrated that we don't have more control over our environments that are so massively expanded by virtue of the television set being in our living rooms, and we see all this stuff that we have no impact on and stuff that can deeply bother us as citizens, or as people. So, y'know, and then there's something, and this was something that attracted me to the story, is that, when you see Sam at the beginning of the story, he's an Everyman, and he still has, like, at least, his hand on the ledge; he can pull himself back up to normalcy or into a world that he can live in, and perhaps happily. But he's not your loner, crazed assassin; he's the guy who lives next door—you know, potentially. And then, of course, he's a problem in society, as well, this kind of a mindset, and we've unfortunately seen strange cousins of Sam Bicke's in incidents, y'know, from Columbine to, y'know, you can make all the comparisons you want. And there will be relevant comparisons that I'll leave to the viewer.
G: You mentioned the role of television. Though the film isn't about Nixon, he serves as a kind of character in the piece, and when you said that about that role in the film, it reminded me, too, of how his inaccessibility to his wife is maybe similar to his inaccessibility to Nixon—he can't get through to the people he wants to get through to.
NM: Yeah, that is a question I haven't gotten, and it's a good one. No, it's really good, because when you think about it along those lines, what makes Sam so combustible is the mixing of the personal with the public. And, you know, when you see people who have—who act out in indiscriminate violence and lose empathy for people right in front of them, I think that mixing is often a part of the issue, that there's a personal failing that gets projected onto a broader stage where you project responsibility for things happening within your own life onto something beyond your immediate life. I think that's—yeah, and that's really interesting because—yeah, there's this inability to connect with his own wife, and there's a distancing feeling of wanting to disconnect from this boss, and certainly there's no understanding coming from Jack Thompson's character for Sam. Jack Thompson is Lombardi, y'know, in some ways. Lombardi worked really well for Bart Starr. He worked really well for Jerry Kramer. There are other people he didn't work well for; talk to Jim Ringo, who was sent to go play somewhere else. You know what I mean? It's like—you know what I mean? It's how you interact—and so, but anyway, so then he has these people that he's not connecting with, and in addition to that, he has, in his living room everyday, this relationship with Nixon. And actually, I really like that you asked that question 'cause I love something about my film, if I can talk about it as an audience member, for a moment. I love the fact that Sam's relationship with his intended target—in this case, a world leader—his relationship with this leader—in this case, Nixon—is the relationship we all have with our leaders and our presidents: namely, it's a television relationship. And that was a really tricky thing to attempt to do in the film because, you know, normally, in a film, you dramatize some personal meeting, like they somehow, y'know—the character gets in your car, or the character or, y'know, this intended target, you come together in a room somehow; there's some connection. I didn't want to do it. I wanted Sam's connection to Nixon to be all of our relationship with our leaders, through television.
G: Let's talk about Sean Penn. I'm curious what your perspective is on his approach to a role, observing that and his method. What does he go through?
NM: I won't be able to parse it entirely, 'cause, y'know, it's something that I don't entirely know how he does what he does. And like when I look at certain scenes, there are certain shots where—just quickly, for instance: where we didn't get one shot in Sam's apartment, before we had to wrap the set. So I took this one little bit of the set, and I shipped it to Omaha, where we picked it up, so that all there is is this tiny little corner of the apartment, where we got this one shot. And everything else is just like a bunch of crew and crap. And Sean is somehow able to be alone, in the apartment, and damned if it doesn't feel like you're in a real apartment, and he's all by himself. I don't know how he does it. It's amazing, and it was really amazing to watch him walk—you know, we'd chat in his trailer or somewhere off-set, and see him come to the set and then completely disappear into the role. And you watch the dailies and you see "Cut" called, and Sean's whole posture changes. He enters this part, in this guy who's really—in some ways, his soul's been shriveled a bit, and Sean's able to communicate that through everything, muscle-wise. And he just, he looks different; he disappears when he—but, you know, I'll tell you, just to try to answer your question a little bit more satisfyingly: one advantage that came with the film falling apart financially for four years. We finished the script in '99, and that's when Sean signed—said he wanted to make the film, and it got made because of his unwavering commitment to the project: that's it. Sean's, y'know, just a rare man of his word. And really became a friend and partner in making this film; it was tremendous. But it—the advantage of the financing falling apart is it gave us a chance to get to know each other, and we ended up doing the work leading up to the film without it being about doing the work. We'd get together, talk about the latest round of financing falling through, and have a drink, and we'd end up talking about the character, about the film. Not often in, y'know, like, as you'd imagine, sitting around and discussing motivation, etc., but just talking about the character freely. Without it being about the work was a way—it was a great advantage, y'know, because it just—it was very easy and just led us to the point where, when we started filming, that we were just in complete sync, and it built up this level of trust and just sort of were in complete sync on the character.
G: Did you have any specific strategy for directing him, having been, I presume, a student of his other work?
NM: Ye—well, I'll tell you, my overarching strategy was to always be straightforward with him about my thoughts and not hide the fact if—since I'm a first-time feature director, if there's something I don't—or I feel like, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing," to not hide that. To, y'know, to say out loud, "Fuck, what the hell am I doing here?" (Laughs.) Y'know? And I found that really quite liberating, because you can either be intimidated by a depth and breadth and hugely talented body of work like that, both as an actor and as a really accomplished, excellent director, or you can embrace it, say, "I have another great filmmaker on the set." That said, Sean was incredibly respectful of me, and I think he's just respectful of directors, you know. We often were in sync. Sometimes we'd have disagreements, but we'd have honest disagreements, and discuss it, but it's always about the work! Y'know, and I'll take that any day. Yeah, so I guess really the only strategy was just to be straightforward. And so he always knew where I stood. I mean, he—any actor has to open them—to play a role as—with this kind of depth, that's really that intimate, soul-bearing, such a soul-bearing role, to open yourself up entirely, y'know? And so I felt I owed that minimally from myself, so I didn't hide when I was lost or confused on the set. That can happen on occasion.
G: Sure. What for you, and for him—'cause I presume you were in sync on this—was the moment when Bicke loses it, snaps, goes over the edge?
NM: We never discussed it, never parsed it, but I can tell ya, y'know, it's like—I mean, you just, you both sort of know it, though, but you don't really need to talk about it. And we might—you could talk to Sean, and maybe you'd find a variation in his answer. I—so—I'd be actually interested to hear how Sean would answer that, because what's interesting about the film is that it's not this film that's told plot-point to plot-point, but through this emotional sort-of unraveling and spiral—downward spiral of this character. So, y'know, I think that a big point is when he opens the divorce decree and then he has that conversation, at 3:27 in the morning, with Marie, on the phone. But then there is still a little further slippage when he quits the job in the way he does, and a little further slippage when he—when we meet his brother, who, in some ways, is like Kurtz, y'know; he's lingering in the story and is an imposing figure, and now suddenly he's in the apartment—the only person who enters the apartment in the entire film, other than Sam. The apartment almost is like Sam's inner world, and here—and that's a scene that I remember not as being a scene I shot as a director, but I really remember that scene as being like, I felt—feeling like I was intruding on this private moment between two brothers in their living room. That's the palpable world that actors of that caliber create.
G: How did you wind up with Jack Thompson in that role? He's just perfect.
NM: Yeah, no, Kevin Kennedy, my writing partner, was the first person to say, "What about Jack Thompson?" and I knew him. I went to see him in the '70s in films like Breaker Morant and Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. And then I popped in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and I said, "Holy cow, this guy's still damn good, isn't he?" And at that point, he became almost the only actor—(Laughs)—really, for the part. What's great about him is he's going to be a discovery for a lot of people, so he's able to—like Sean, like Don Cheadle, like Naomi Watts—disappear into the part, not overwhelm it, just be, y'know, this salesman of the '70s who cut his teeth in the '50s and—yeah, I mean, he's a phenomenal guy to work with and, again, a guy who just gave Sean so much, and who Sean gave so much to; they really respected and worked off of each other just beautifully.
G: We should talk about the evolution of the story. I know it started as a fictional account—"The Assassination of L.B.J.", right? And then, you stumbled on Bicke's story and developed it, and then also—over the process of getting the film on the screen—9/11 happened in between. Can you talk a little bit about that journey with the story?
NM: Yeah, I was interested in telling this story about a guy whose assassination attempt isn't noticed. I was interested in that because,y'know, so often you hear this grand design that somebody had in mind when they perpetrate some act of violence, and nothing changes. And that's something I wanted to be in the film. So that was an element, and I also wanted to explore: how does a person go from point A to point B, with point B being where they lose all empathy. So I was exploring this character through a fictitious assassin. And I was writing a guy separated from his wife and child, and I had a guy who was obsessive about the American Dream, who takes a sales job, and it's important to him, specifically, to succeed in sales. Y'know, 'cause that's—this country's about selling and about—y'know, this country's been built on the back of small businessmen. And so often the American Dream is defined as being a self-made man, so that was something important to him. And I had him talking into a tape recorder without having a reason why yet. And I started researching assassins, and only one book out of ten—the rest of the books ignored this case, so he's a very ignored would-be assassin—was the story of Sam Bicke: separated from his wife and children, obsessed on the American Dream, an ignored assassin in American history—I mean, largely ignored—so it factored in on that level, or it mirrored what I was writing on that level. And then he also spoke into a tape recorder, for the last couple of months of his life, and he provided the reason for the tape recorder, in that he was recording the motivation behind his—for his actions, knowing that he wasn't going to survive the assassination, or the assassination attempt. So I was very much writing this guy without realizing it. Then, of course, you bring in a true story that you now base the thing on, and so some things had to shift to now tell this based-on-a-true-story story. And I shifted from '64 to '74 and changed the title.
G: I'm always interested in the tension—where there's a movie that's inspired by a true story—between the fictional elements and the historical elements. What did you see as your responsibility to the real Byck?
NM: Mmm. I felt that it—I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the man, and in some cases, you move away from surface truths, surface facts, to get to a deeper truth. I'll give you an example. I don't think he ever worked as an office-furniture salesman. In between the tire salesman with the family member and wanting to get his own tire business, mobile tire business, going—those are true—I think he worked as a salesman, probably at another tire store. I changed it to office furniture not only because I knew the world well, but also because I wanted the clientele coming in to be specific, to be indexical of the segment of society that he wants to belong to. The guys coming into the furniture store are self-made men; they have their own business. This is his measure of success; this is the achievement of the American Dream. If I had a non-descript clientele which would come into a tire store, I wouldn't be able to get to that deeper truth which he obsessed about on his tapes. So you make changes like that, to get to a deeper truth. And I also, by the way, I'm telling the true story of—at least based on a true story—of this man. I changed characters, I changed names to protect privacy of people around him; that was important to me, is important to me, to protect privacy.
G: I've heard that one of the projects you have in development is, to some degree, about Milwaukee, or set in Milwaukee. What do you hope to capture of your home?
NM: Well, part of it's just that I think it'd be fun to shoot there. It's a great city, and sort of—like Oakland, in this respect—there are parts of the city where time has stood still, so you just have, y'know, just these great locations. Yeah, so a big part is just I want to go shoot at home. I think it'd be fun. And it's just sort of an ensemble cast, more of an ensemble cast, so less singular point-of-view in that film than this film. But I have a lot of humor to that one, too, so it—I think Milwaukee, it's sort of an under-exploited city in film, and it's a good town. It's a little colder than Oakland and San Francisco, but it's really nice.
G: Alright, well, it's been a pleasure talking. I think our time is up.
NM: Thank you very much. Appreciate the enthusiasm for the film, and appreciate the time.
[For Groucho's review of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, click here.]