David Mandel (‘White House Plumbers’ director) talks the ‘big dose of desperation’ underlying the Watergate scandal [Exclusive Video Interview]
“I didn’t think anyone would ever do a Watergate series, so I never thought to ask,” reflects David Mandel about one of the defining moments in American political history. But as it turns out, he recalls, “One day, I found out there was a Watergate series and the next thing I knew I was the director of it.” The Emmy Award-winning executive producer credits his longtime home HBO for backing the series “White House Plumbers” because “only they would make this show about two very dangerous guys in the 1970s who went to work for the President to basically break the law in the name of the law.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
While Mandel says he doesn’t “want anybody sympathizing” with the two criminals who masterminded the infamous Watergate break-ins — E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) — he does hope the series helps viewers understand them. “The name of the game was desperation. They were both very desperate but in two different ways,” explains the director, noting how by the time of the Pentagon Papers leak that brought them together, Hunt was a “has-been” and Liddy was “a never-was.” He continues, “You glue those two things together… and you pour on a big dose of desperation and it was to me the opportunity to tell this story through these two characters.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Leah Katznelson, “White House Plumbers’ costume designer
They dynamic between Hunt and Liddy is at the heart of the series, and the duo appear on screen as surprisingly polar opposites. “Liddy is outward-in and Hunt is inward-out,” suggests Mandel. While Liddy was larger-than-life and Theroux captures that eccentricity in his performance, the director shares that for viewers, “What’s going to sneak up on them is what happens to Hunt over the course of the five [episodes] as the in comes out.” The executive producer goes on to note that “as dangerous as they were, they’re almost at their best when they are together” as two sides of the same “dangerous, incompetent coin.”
“White House Plumbers” allows director Mandel — who earned two Emmy nominations as director of “Veep” — to show off his range and vision behind the camera. Best known for his directorial efforts on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Veep” which employ a lot of shot-reverse shots and “non-fiction documentary style” filmmaking, he admits, “I wanted this to be big, I wanted it to be cinematic, I wanted it to feel like a movie.” He drew on the “cinematic ideas of that great 70s filmmaking” like “All The President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor,” “stealing” some of their flair while also doing his “version of the heist movie” when filming the Watergate break-in itself in the third episode.
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Viewers may not expect that “White House Plumbers” dedicates a lot of time to exploring Hunt and Liddy’s family lives. Mandel thinks that depicting the “collateral damage” of the Watergate saga on Hunt and Liddy’s wives and children helps illuminate the big picture questions of how the events changed political discourse and fostered mistrust of the government. When the series moves into the Hunt household in particular, the director and his cinematographer Steven Meizler switched to handheld cameras; this choice gives those scenes “a horror-movie anxiety” as Hunt is “barely functioning to keep his family together.” The Liddy family, in contrast, is “very set and perfect and there is order, and it’s insane order.”
As the limited series progresses, the events and their consequences get increasingly dark. Even though this shift in tone might seem different from much of Mandel’s prior works, he says, “It wasn’t as different as you think.” He explains, “I think sometimes because ‘Veep’ was so funny… [viewers] would forget some of the stakes and what Selina went through and what she did… We always felt we were doing tragedy.” As to how the tragedy of “White House Plumbers” unfolds, the Emmy winner reveals, “There’s a plan to the five episodes where the first episode is by far the goofiest… but that drama, that tragedy comes at you like the shark underneath and grabs you.”
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