Oscar and BAFTA winning filmmaker and Award Focus founder John Ottman speaks with Critics Choice Nominee and Gaslit creator, writer, showrunner, and producer Robbie Pickering in a wide ranging conversation about his STARZ Original Limited Series “Gaslit.”
The series is based on Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, a modern take on the Watergate scandal through the long-neglected lens of the lesser-known players involved in the downfall of America’s 37th president.
“Gaslit” highlights the life of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), big personality and celebrity socialite who happens to be the wife to President Nixon’s loyal Campaign Chairman and former Attorney General, John Mitchell (Sean Penn).
Their marriage begins to unravel when Mitchell realizes that Martha knows the secret behind the break-in at Watergate. He suspects that she is willing tell her side of the story, forcing him to choose between Martha and the very President he’s done everything to protect.
Awards Focus: I’m a political junkie and I think you are too but, in this climate, even I find it difficult to watch stories like Watergate because it’s so close to home with what’s going on now. I watch World War II documentaries all the time because you know the outcome will be good.
My partner who also loves this type of stuff said you really need to watch ‘Gaslit.’ I was fifteen minutes in and said this thing is great in every category. I was enthralled with it, and I didn’t want it to end. You managed to create this tone where it’s a serious thing that’s going on and it’s absolutely riveting but you have this cast of characters who make it almost fun in a way.
Robert Pickering: Fascism is fun for a while. That’s why people do it. I think people lose track of that in all these movies about World War II. The reason people do it is because it’s fun.
AF: It’s fun when you know the outcome is going to be OK.
Pickering: People do it because it’s fun and they don’t know what the outcome will be. Looking back these people didn’t know they’re part of this huge thing in history. They’re just scraping by and they have their own reasons for doing it. I think in that way they’re very relatable and fascism is just tyranny of the mediocre.
AF: From the cinematography, editing, music and casting there is nothing I could say critically of the show. The look is perfect. It’s not too glossy or grainy. The tone of the acting and writing is perfect. I’ll gush about it continuously. How did you gather this high caliber of people?
Pickering: For cinematography we wanted to hire somebody younger. We didn’t want to go for that kind of All the President’s Men 1970s paranoia look. We didn’t want to do something handheld. We wanted something kind of classical and dark.
We wanted to really concentrate on the characters rather than the world around them. Everybody has seen this world before and we wanted to show it anew through these really dynamic characters that we hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen characters that were relatable in any of the material from the 1970s. I feel like I grew up on Oliver Stone movies and I’ve always been obsessed with Nixon.
I’ve always been pretty obsessed with that period but especially Nixon. I think the way films mythologize that period… it feels very big like it happened on a different planet. We really wanted to keep the focus on the characters and make it feel relatable through how human they feel and how a lot of this evil is mundane and thoughtless evil.
In terms of the look of that we referenced filmmakers like Jonathan Demme and people like that.
I had been wanting to write a Nixon project for ten years and nobody wanted to do it. I wanted to do something that’s about the culture of Nixon where Nixon is at the center of it but you never really see him.
Nobody would listen to me until this podcast called “Slow Burn” came along. It showed me that a new way to do it was to center somebody like Martha Mitchell in the Watergate story. Once I locked in on that and kind of set out the arcs of the characters it was really easy to write the pilot.
All of these things had been swirling in my head for so long and as soon as I wrote it they had me list out who I wanted for Martha Mitchell. Julia Roberts was at the top of the list and they said, “Do you want to go to Julia?”
I said, “Yeah, let’s go to the Pope too.” To her credit, she read it and wanted to do it. My producer Sam (Esmail) knew her from “Homecoming.” I think she came on because she always wanted to do something with Sean (Penn) and saw that they could do this together.
I didn’t see it at first. The most undervalued qualities of Sean are his vulnerability and his humor. He’s really funny in something like Sweet and Low Down and of course Fast Times at Ridgemont High but a lot of his other work too.
There’s an element of this man-in-over-his-head comedy that he does in films like Carlito’s Way. I really thought in that way I could wrap my mind around it, but I wanted to meet with him first and was really reassured by the fact that all he kept talking about was the marriage between these two people. That’s all I wanted. I really wanted it to just be about marriage.
Then Sean started talking about makeup and making him look like John Mitchell. I said “Sean, nobody really remembers what John Mitchell looks like. We don’t have to do that.” He looks at me and goes “I remember what John Mitchell looks like.” When Sean Penn says that, you just kind of hope for the best.
AF: Did the fact that you had Sean Penn and Julia Roberts give you the ability to corral more high-quality people on the show?
Pickering: We had a lot of actors on our list. I was driving home one night from pre-production and I immediately called up Matt (Ross) and said Shea Wigham. Shea Wigham plays G. Gordon Liddy brilliantly, and he wasn’t initially on our list, but his name just came to me when I was driving home.
A lot of Sean’s character is based on real things in my life like my father and my parents’ divorce. I put a lot of my life into it and I talked with Sean about that.
There’s a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Martha’s asking John Mitchell to stay with her. Their relationship has been ruined and their apartment is empty. She’s begging him to stay with her and I told Sean this is a scene based on something I witnessed. This is a real scene.
You’re never just making fun of the character which is really easy to do especially with conservative characters and conspiracy kooks like this. That’s what keeps the tone consistent. I think everyone involved… the writers, me as the creator, Matt as the director, our DP… everyone being on the same page was important. We never made fun of these characters. We’re always taking them on their level and always seeing ourselves in them.
When I was interviewing writers for the writers room one of my first questions was, “Name a quality of yourself that you see in these characters… but it can’t be a good quality. It has to be a completely shameful, embarrassing quality that you see.’ When we were writing John Dean I was just writing myself in my twenties trying to make it in Hollywood. I had weird non-commitment issues with women.
With John Mitchell I was writing my dad and me at times. With Marty, I’m writing my sister and that’s also me when I was younger dealing with my parents’ divorce. It’s not only the directing, but that unity of sincerity across all the departments is what keeps it centered tonally.
What better scene partner can you have than Sean Penn? He’s known Julia since she was I think eighteen. I was watching Julia go to places I hadn’t seen before. I really have to give credit to Sean because it’s really difficult to go to those places and come back.
It was just really remarkable to watch. I’m a big Sean Penn fan obviously. We would be there editing it and just knowing that all these people are going to get recognition for this show. Sean’s performance is so good. It’s so invisible how he’s tying it all together. I think you really take for granted the brilliance of a Sean Penn performance at this point. When you’re there and you’re seeing what he did with your words it’s really remarkable how selfless he was. From the beginning he was talking about how this was Julia’s show. He said ‘I’m here for Julia.’ The guy couldn’t have been anymore gracious or wonderful to work with.
AF: Speaking of words, your writing is so delicious. It doesn’t bring attention to itself yet there’s something so enthralling about it.
Pickering: I think so many things in filmmaking are about rhythm and how the rhythm can hypnotize you or throw you through a loop or make you stop and think. That’s how you get over the flowery writing sometimes.
When you’re writing G. Gordon Liddy, he has to speak like he speaks. There’s a rhythm or cadence to that monologue and an ending of what it means to be American, what it means to be strong and what it means to be Nixon. I didn’t want to do a preachy political show.
AF: I could go into why each actor is so great in this. You’ve credited the performances from these actors to you and the directors. You struck the perfect tone in this. The guy who plays the security guard is so endearing from the moment he is on screen.
Pickering: Patick Walker plays Frank Wells. He hadn’t done much, but he was from Georgia and when he auditioned for us, he had this bright-eyed bushy tailed thing that people have when they first come to Hollywood. You could sense that in his audition for Frank. You sense this optimism in him. We saw it and we just felt like that was Frank.
Frank comes to Washington D.C. to work, expecting a better life and not desiring fame. He’s never had that desire in his life, but he gets fame instead. All these pressures are put on him that he didn’t ask for and he doesn’t know what to do with this fame.
All these people he’s been surrounded by have been thinking about fame their whole lives and what they would do if they had a big platform. There are a lot of bad things about Frank Wells’s life. There’s also a lot of hope in what happens to him after that. He went back home and went back to where he was wanted and where he was comfortable. That’s more than you can say for a lot of the players in the saga including Martha.
Starz let us make whatever we wanted to make. You think with the cast we have there would have been another network that would have done it in a heartbeat but I think it was really hard for people to wrap their minds around how this was going to work tonally with a woman at the center of this story.
I think a lot of them are scared to do political stuff and everyone who comes along and says they’re going to do political stuff says we’re going to make it human not political. It’s going to be about the characters, not the politics. I think it was hard for a lot of them to believe me when I said that but Starz did and they took a risk on it.
There’s this weird kind of baffling brand loyalty out there with TV that doesn’t exist in film. I think about HBO. People will watch anything HBO and I’m guilty of that too. As time has gone by since “Gaslit” was released so many more people are discovering it and watching it.
It’s a little sweeter to be discovered that way because it doesn’t come all at once. You were a legend to us in film school. The fact that you actually like the show and weren’t assigned to it means a lot.
AF: As soon as it was finished, I wanted to watch it again and that never happens especially with a show versus a movie.
Pickering: That’s the biggest compliment you can give me. Thank you for watching It. I’m such a fan of yours as well.