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My Fantastic Photo Op With President DaveBy John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1992
ARCADIA, CALIF. -- I'm standing on the lawn of the Los Angeles County Arboretum here in the San Gabriel Valley, looking up at a life-size replica of the White House South Portico, shouting questions at actors Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, when director Ivan Reitman tells me it's time to shoot my close-up.
How did an ink-stained wretch like me end up in the heart of what people here simply call "the business," filming a scene for "Dave," a comedy scheduled for release next year?
(Music swells as we flash back to the day before.)
"How would you like to be in a movie tomorrow morning?"
The voice belongs to Gary Ross, screenwriter of "Dave." Ross's story line involves a presidential look-alike -- Dave, played by Kline -- who is hired to stand in for the chief executive after he suffers a massive stroke. Ross says the idea came to him during the Ronald Reagan's second term.
For an air of authenticity, Ross and Reitman (who also directed "Ghostbusters" and "Twins") are including as many genuine Washington articles as possible. Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and John Warner (R-Va.) have filmed scenes. Ross says he is looking for someone to play a newspaper reporter covering the White House who shouts questions at a distant president during a photo opportunity.
Hey, I think, I could do that. In fact, I have done that. I played that very role for this newspaper, covering the White House for more than a year.
I quickly accept Ross's invitation.
"Just wear what you wore when you covered the White House," he tells me. Later, someone from wardrobe telephones to instruct me to wear "something dark and subdued -- after all, this is Washington."
When I show up the next morning, the wardrobe person comes to my dressing room (to preserve authenticity, the hair and makeup people are instructed not to do anything to me).
"Are you one of our speaking roles?" he asks.
He eyes me up and down as I tell him that I am.
"Let me get you another tie," he says quickly. I look down at my red tie with large, Polynesian flowers on it -- one of my favorites. He returns with a dark blue, Ralph Lauren print. Very subdued.
I hear the wardrobe person go next door to inspect the other "real person" recruited for this scene, Richard Reeves, a syndicated columnist and former New York Times political reporter. I hear the wardrobe person tell someone: "They're dressed exactly the same."
It hadn't struck either of us, but Reeves and I have both attired ourselves in the Washington uniform: blue blazer, gray slacks and blue, button-down shirts. We were each even wearing cordovan loafers. Reeves is asked to change into a white shirt.
Making Believe Scene 1, Take 1. We're on.
The presidential impersonator is rolled out before reporters for the first time on the arm of the real First Lady, played by Weaver. To be sure that reporters and photographers don't get a good look at him, he appears on the Truman Balcony while the press corps is kept on the South Lawn, three stories below. Aides whisper responses into the ear of "the president." (Boy, where do they come up with this stuff?)
The script calls for only two questions: "How do you feel, Mr. President?" and "Ready to get back to work?" The scene seems kind of empty, though, and Reitman and Ross ask Reeves and me to come up with more questions.
As the cameras roll, Reeves and I bark our lines as if we really are on the White House lawn amid our colleagues.After exhausting our scripted lines, Reeves shouts: "Where's the vice president? When will he return?" I add: "Who's in charge? Are you making the decisions?"
Afterward, Ross comes up to us, eyes wide. " 'Who's in charge?' Would you really say that?" he asks. "Boy, you guys are tough. We really weren't prepared for that." He obviously has never stood next to Sam Donaldson in a real photo op with the president.
The improvisation seems to energize Reeves's and my performances. Unwilling to let a president, even a pretend one, stand there unchallenged, we begin shouting ever more questions during subsequent takes.
During the shooting, I am struck by some of the make-believe that technicians have produced on that lawn. Amid the palm trees and roving peacocks of the Arboretum, they have constructed a faithful, full-size reproduction of the White House South Portico -- but just the South Portico. There is nothing to the left or the right of it.
While Reeves and I are being painstakingly positioned for a shot up over our shoulders to Kline and Weaver on the balcony, it becomes clear that our main role is to hide the fact that huge portions of the White House are missing.
The moviemakers even replicated the foliage and fountain of the South Lawn. But flora they have added are all dead. The trees are resting on -- not in -- the ground. Their leaves, along with those on bushes and shrubs and even the blades of grass, are painted green.
Later, Ross takes us to the two sound stages at the Warner Bros. studios in nearby Burbank, where replicas of the third-floor living quarters and the West Wing have been built. Some of the details they have added will never be evident to moviegoers: On the floor of the make-believe briefing room, I find a sheet of paper listing the White House press pool assignments for Sept. 3, 1993. (Memo to whoever is covering the White House for The Washington Post then: We've got in-town pool duty that day.)
A Star Is Born My day on location allows me to indulge in a little make-believe of my own. When I arrive at 8:30 a.m., a production crew member escorts me to my dressing room, one of five small cubicles in a trailer ("Dressing Rooms for the Stars" proclaims the sign on the back) with my name handwritten on a piece of masking tape next to the door. On the way we pass a large recreational vehicle with a satellite dish on the roof. On the door, on a similar piece of masking tape, is written: "Sigourney."
Inside my tiny quarters are a chair, a clothes rod, a shelf that folds out into a cot and a pillow. I assume Sigourney's has at least another clothes rod.
My first visitor is from the Warner Bros. casting department. He fills out a "deal memo," which details the terms of my employment. The form covers my role ("Reporter #1"), pay ($750), screen credit ("PD," or producer's discretion) and billing (that one's left blank).
I make a note to call my agent. Then I remember: I don't have one.
At the end of the day, I sign a "day performer" contract, under which I grant the producers all rights to my performance "forever and throughout the universe." (Well, there go my plans to market posthumous videotapes on Alpha Centauri.)
While Reeves and I are being treated better than any reporter ever is at the White House, the extras portraying the rest of the press corps are forced to stand in the hot sun on the "South Lawn" like, well, like a bunch of White House reporters. Water, sodas, fruit and bagels are available on a table marked "Cast and Crew Only." A guard shoos away extras who dare approach.
These folks get paid $65 a day if they belong to the Screen Extras Guild, $40 a day if they don't. Many are retirees; others are actors trying to get a break.
When Reeves and I are first taken to our spots in the front of the pack, and the extras find out we have actual dialogue, we get a lot of bewildered -- and resentful -- looks. When they find out we are true amateurs, though, and no threat to their ambitions, they seem to warm up to us. After the first take, they genially cheer Reeves and me. "You've got it sewn up: Best Supporting Actor," says one.
It takes about four hours to film this one scene from a variety of different angles. On screen, it will last a matter of minutes -- if it even makes the cut.
I head back down to the parking lot to return to my real-life job of routine, deadlines and mundane drama. I have an interview to conduct in an hour and editors to please. But first, my new friends Kevin, Sigourney and Ivan come over to thank me and say goodbye. I glance back at the set, wave to some of the crew and wonder just how I'll look on the big screen.
By the way: When are the Oscars?
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company