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October 03, 2008

Docu man takes on Boogie Man


It's a tale much like "The Talented Mr. Ripley," with political assassinations instead of actual murders, that follows the life and death of an unlikely operative who mentored Karl Rove, helped get Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush elected, and left a down-and-dirty negative campaigning legacy that endures today.

Set to a bluesy soundtrack!

"Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," which opens today in L.A., gives a blueprint on Republican smear tactics that Democrats today ignore at their own peril, said Stefan Forbes, who directed and edited the critically-lauded documentary. It's his first feature, made in a rip-roaring 18 months, and, with zero budget for ads and marketing, he's on his own kind of whistle stop promotional tour.

Forbes, who won't say whether he's a McCain or Obama man, had a chat with Gold Rush about launching into a hostile market for independent films, the measure of success for a micro-budgeted doc, and why he chose to dissect the Darth Vader of politics.

Though he won't have the scratch to campaign for it, Forbes could find himself among the elite docs for major awards consideration, judging from critical raves from the likes of the New York Times, Slate and the Washington Post.

The movie's name, by the way, comes not from how frightening Atwater was, but from his musical passion.

GR: You're opening a serious political documentary at a time when even the lighthearted ones can't get arrested. What, you nuts?

SF: I know there's a lot of gloom and doom, the sky is falling, for indie films. But I'm surprised at the vibrance in the market for projects like "American Teen," "Trouble the Water," "Up the Yangtze."

The audience is really hungry for a well-told story, something that's dramatic and relevant. And if you're a small, nimble company, you can find that audience. It depends on how you measure success -- we're not trying to make $20 million at the boxoffice.

GR: And your election-adjacent timing is good?

SF: The funny thing is, friends in the industry told me to delay the release. They thought it wasn't a good idea to come out this year. They said I should go the traditional festival route, like Toronto. I disagreed because I feel like it's most relevant now. It's a big risk, and it's a total underdog film.

GR: So you can spend some money on media buys, TV ads?

SF: None. We're relying on a smart release plan, positive reviews and feature stories in major national outlets, and word of mouth.

GR: Again, you crazy? Strike that. Talk about why you wanted to profile Lee Atwater.

SF: I was fascinated at how a guy from humble South Carolina roots could claw his way to the top of the American political system. I wanted to find out how he was able to have such incredible influence, which continues to this day, by the way. It's a classic American story.

More on the talented Mr. Atwater after the jump.


GR: After all the research, interviews and time you spent studying Atwater (and speaking to the man himself before his death), what stands out to you the most about his life and legacy?

SF: His playbook is winning elections even after his death. The Democrats still don't seem to understand that. Bill Clinton understood it, and he was able to defend against it. The others -- they ignore and underestimate the Lee Atwater playbook at their own peril. His approach was to keep fouling until the ref blew the whistle -- as long as you're getting away with it, keep going. He wasn't doing it because he was evil, he did it because he knew it would work.

(Editor's note: Atwater was behind the infamous Willie Horton attack ads that effectively destroyed Michael Dukakis).

GR: Were you concerned that audiences would hate Atwater?

SF: As a responsible artist, you can't help but judge when the character does something wrong. The whole Willie Horton thing -- he was associating crime with black men. He knew how to appeal to our worst fears. The film has to be truthful. The last thing you'd want to do is make a wimpy film about a guy like Lee Atwater. He insisted on winning at all costs. He's so American. He was also so charismatic, which makes him so much fun to watch on screen. The camera loved him, and the feeling was mutual.

Read more about the doc here and here. And check its indie theater rollout here.


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Oscar Contenders

  • So "The Dark Knight" didn't make it into the final five after all, never mind that critical and popular support. Let's just call the comic-inspired mega-hit "The Biggest Snubee."

    Here are the best picture contenders in a race that, two weeks away from the Oscars, seems to be a foregone conclusion ("Slumdog") unless there's a come-from-behind possibility ("The Reader" anyone?)

    "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; the politically timely "Milk;" rags-to-riches fairy tale, "Slumdog Millionaire," Holocaust best-seller-based drama "The Reader," and Watergate-era biopic "Frost/Nixon."

    Could "Button" and "Slumdog" split the vote, allowing another film to take the prize? Doesn't seem likely. After having clung to "Button" for months as what we thought would be the Academy voters' top vhoice, our money's now on "Slumdog." Momentum can't be ignored.

    Watch this blog for updates, ephemera and all manner of postulating.

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  • Mmmmm, chocolate Oscar. Not every star will walk away from the 81st annual Academy Awards with a trophy, but if they hit the high-profile Governor's Ball they can have pastry chef Sherry Yard's gold-dusted candy version. Also on the menu from celeb chef Wolfgang Puck is tuna tartare in sesame miso cones, chopped Chino Farms vegetable salad with ginger soy vinaigrette, Maine lobster and caviar. Serve it up! (Getty Images)

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