Back in the Mirror
First-time director Niels Mueller on 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon'
Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon manages the rare trick of not only being the Tadpole screenwriter's directorial debut, but also being a riveting story, anchored not only by real-life events but also by a trio of alarmingly realist-bound performances from Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn. To be sure, Penn gives what may well be his finest, most crackling performance to date as Samuel Bicke, a failed Milwaukee office furniture salesman, husband, and father who slowly, irrevocably snaps and begins plotting the assassination of then President Nixon via hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the White House. His plan, like his life, never quite gets off the ground, but Bicke, who kept voluminous and unsettling home tape recordings of his obsessions, is more than just a mad sad sack. Thanks to Penn's exquisitely nuanced performance, he's Willy Loman for a warped new world order, no longer content to simply exit the stage with a muffled thud when the roar of a jet engine has so much more adaptable fury.
The Chronicle spoke to Mueller by phone on the eve of his film's release and discussed this "mad story of a true man," Penn's stoic support of the oft-beleaguered project, and more.
Austin Chronicle: How did you stumble across the story of Samuel Bicke, footnote to history?
Niels Mueller: I was interested in telling the story of an assassin whose assassination attempt isn't noticed, and I was unaware that an incident of this kind actually occurred in American history. So I had started writing a script on my own called The Assassination of LBJ I picked an assassin whose attempt goes unnoticed and picked LBJ because I was really interested in this period from '63 to '74 that people have written about and described as the decade of shocks to the American system, just assassination after assassination after assassination, right? So, I had this fictitious character who even at that stage was a failed salesman, separated from his wife and child. I had him talking into a tape recorder and obsessing over the American dream, which was my way of getting some voiceover without it just being naked voiceover. ... So, I spat out some loose pages and then did some research, and out of the 10 books I took out of the L.A. public library, one had this very slim chapter on Sam Bicke, which immediately told me that he was a real-life assassin whose assassination attempt wasn't noticed who was a near-match for my fictional character. And, at that point, I took all these historical parallels to my co-writer Kevin Kennedy, and we wrote the script.
AC: For a first-time director, you nailed some amazing talent how did Sean Penn come to be involved in the project?
NM: That was thanks to Alexander Payne [Sideways], our executive producer, who got him to read it. Alexander was a great supporter along the way, giving meaningful notes on the script and helping out immensely. So, he sent it to Sean, and I was worried that we'd have to wait five months to get any kind of answer from a manager who'd ultimately say there's no way Sean's going to even have time to read this thing. As it turned out, Sean was sent the script on a Wednesday, read it Thursday, called Friday to say he'd love to meet the director. I flew out on a Monday to San Francisco, and within the first half-hour of our meeting, Sean said, "Let's make this film." That was in '99, and then a few months later all of our financing fell through. But Sean didn't. Sean is a rare man of his word and was unwavering in his commitment to the project. The film really got made because of Sean's extreme loyalty and commitment to the project.
AC: The film has something of an apocalyptic overtone that can't help but resonate in a post-9/11 milieu, but the script was locked long before that?
NM: Right. I did interviews in Cannes earlier this year I was reading in the French press statements along the lines of "The director claims he wrote the film prior to 9/11," you know, expressing skepticism. So now I always tell them to go on the Internet and type in The Assassination of Richard Nixon plus The Hollywood Reporter, and there's an article from '99 discussing the film in detail.
AC: But what a strange little parallel that is.
NM: Yeah, it's kind of taken on this frightening relevance and resonance. I always thought the film had an element of social commentary to it, but year by year since we wrote it it's accrued this mirroring effect with contemporary society.