Q: So just to encapsulate, what is the premise of American Dreamz? Laughs.
PW: Imagine if Dennis Quaid was to play George W. Bush, who goes to be a guest judge on the finale of Pop Idol, which is hosted by Hugh Grant and the main two rivals on the show are Mandy Moore, the all-American girl and a show-tune-loving bumbling terrorist named Omer, played by a newcomer, Sam Golzari.
Q: That's a pretty good way to put it. Laughs.
PW: I finally arrived at it. Laughs.
Q: So tell me, what do you make of this obsession, of 30 to 40,000,000 people every week tuning into Pop Idol or American Idol. What is the crux of the obsession?
PW: I think the crux of it is so intimate. You get to see people becoming a star. And I get to experience that in a tiny way with my films because usually what I do is I have big stars in it like Dennis Quaid or Hugh Grant, and then I put an unknown in the same scenes as they are. Like, Tony Yalda or Sam Golzari. It's so weird to me, and kind of exciting to see whether they're able to pull it off. I know how fun that is for me, so I think that with these shows you get to vote on the winner. You get to see it happening in front of your eyes. There’s just something magnetic about it.
Q: When you were writing this, what were your own viewing habits like?
PW: When I was putting it together, I was watching American Idol obsessively actually. Then my guy got voted off so I was very upset by that. It was pretty much like most people's viewing habits.
Q: And what about Presidential press conferences. Was that part of it as well? Were you watching the news channels a lot?
PW: Well, George Bush, in his first term, was famously quoted as saying he doesn’t read the newspapers. This character in this movie on the morning of his reelection decides to read the newspaper for the first time in four years. And this causes him to have kind of a nervous breakdown. He starts to become obsessed about actually learning about all the stuff he's making decisions on. Dennis Quaid was able to bring a lot of heart as well as humor to it. It started as a send up of the President and it went into weird places after that.
Q: American Idol meets the Iraq war. Do you think the viewing public are ready for something like this?
PW: Boy, I don't know. I think that when I've seen it with an audience they certainly seem ready to laugh at these things. To my mind, comedy can be a really good tool to talk about serious things, because if you can laugh at things then there’s a little bit of pressure released and you can think about them a slightly different way. But, I don’t know if people are ready.
Q: I understand originally that Hugh had reservations about doing this film. What were they? Why?
PW: I think that he had reservations about doing any film period. When I first sent him the script he said, ‘well, I'll read it but I'm not going to do it and don't be insulted because I'm not doing anything.’ And then I think he was quite annoyed that he actually liked it and thought he could do a good job with it. Then I just begged him for a while and he did it.
Q: Wow. Why was he feeling like he didn’t want to do a film? Did it take some finessing on your part?
PW: It took a bit of finessing. I think the thing is, this character is so cynical and that part appealed to him. He has a really biting sense of humor. So, he was really perfect for it.
Q: When you were writing that character, were you writing with Hugh in mind?
PW: Yeah, I was totally hearing Hugh's voice in my head and then trying to be self protective. Laughs. When I sent it to him I was like, ‘okay, if he doesn’t want to do it, who could I ask to do this. It's not a disaster if he doesn’t want to do it.’ But, of course, I would have been crushed.
Q: A major rewrite probably? Laughs.
PW: Yeah, yep.
Q: So tell me, what do you think reality TV has done to the cult of celebrity? Do you think it’s totally turned things on their head and maybe taken pressure off people like Hugh?
PW: I think that it has validated this idea celebrities are just like us. In the old days you used to want your celebrities to be glamorous, but now you want to see them falling out of their car drunk. Laughs. You know, making a mess of themselves. Now, we like to sort of feel that we're all one step away from celebrity.
Q: So that 15 minutes of fame is not so far away?
PW: Yeah, exactly. We want to decrease the celebrities’ 15 minutes and increase ours.
Q: So, about this progression of your career, because it's teen comedy, to sort of midlife crisis, to social political comedy. How have your films changed as you’ve got older, do you feel? Or why do they change?
PW: I guess I'm just preoccupied with different things. In terms of this comedy, in some ways the vocabulary of it is more like American Pie than it is In Good Company or About A Boy, because this is a sort of rollicking comedy, which is very weird because it's the most serious film I've done yet. But I also feel like I have an opportunity to make films that nobody else in Hollywood can get made, because I've had some success at doing comedies. So to some degree it's not really any sort of conscious progression, it’s simply not being afraid of failing.
Q: And what were the studio reactions like when you first submitted the script?
PW: I think they said, ‘boy you better make this cheap and get some big stars.’ Laughs.
Q: Is that what it truly was? Laughs.
PW: Pretty much, not in those exact words, but yeah.
Q: In essence?
Q: Why do you think you actually did get it together?
PW: I think it's really just because Dennis, Hugh, Willem Dafoe and Mandy, decided that they would get a kick out of doing it. That helped me get it made and they all cut their fees, and I'm grateful.
Q: Wow, wow. What was that like, actually directing Mandy Moore in those scenes, because clearly that's not exactly where she came from. However, she did climb the ladder as a pop star. What did you think of her acting abilities before and after? I didn’t realize how great it would be that there was an actual terrific singer in that role, somebody you could believe would win one of those competitions. So, it was the first surprise. The second, and greatest, surprise is that she’s a really terrific comedienne, and an excellent actress. You never know what someone’s capable of when they’re a young actress like that. Now I understand.
Not only did you write the screenplay, you wrote a lot of the songs.
PW: I wrote a lot of the songs with a composer. Laughs.
PW: I guess that's a fantasy of mine. Laughs. They are parodies of the kind of songs that they sing on American Idol, and the kind of songs that they write for the winner of Idol. There’s an anthem, “Dreamz with a Z,” which is the stupid celebration of having a dream, that Mandy belts out.
Q: How did she keep a straight face, and sing those lyrics with such conviction? Laughs.
PW: Well, I wondered how far they were from the songs that pop stars actually sing. She just had an innate sense of how to be funny without winking at the audience.
Q: Willem Dafoe said he had a lot of fun.
PW: He did.
Q: He said he had a lot of fun with the physicalities of that role. How gratified were you when an actor like that will go that far physically in a comedic sense.
PW: It was awesome. Actually, the way that we approached him about the character was we did a computer morph of his face with the top of Dick Cheney's head and faxed it to him. We asked if he would be up for playing this, so he knew what he was in for from the start.
Q: Okay, because he said he didn’t know he was going to be like Dick Cheney. Laughs.
PW: Interesting. Laughs. He wasn’t the first person your mind would go to to play that character. But he's become a really terrific comedian.
Q: It's amazing. It’s very, very good. Now with Hugh, you always seem to write a character that he will drop other things to do. Why do you think you have that ability?
PW: I think because I get a big kick out of Hugh. Laughs. He really cracks me up, so I like to do parts that include his sense of humor.
Q: Okay, thank you very much.
PW: Thank you so much.
Q: So good to talk to you.
PW: I appreciate it.