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Phil Dusenberry on Candidate Biography Films

July 3, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


NEWSHOUR: You are part of the venerable Tuesday Team. Tell me about the scope of your work

PHIL DUSENBERRY: Well, the Tuesday Team came about when no one ad agency wanted to take on the responsibility for the Reagan campaign, mostly for political reasons. We decided to put together an ad hoc group, sort of an all-star team of ad people, and bring a fresh perspective to political advertising, which had been up to that point kind of on the stale side. And so we put together the Tuesday Team, and gave everybody their assignments, some to create the theme lines, commercials, print ads, whatever, and just worked it right through the White House.

Mike Deaver [Reagan’s assistant chief of staff] was the client. The ultimate client was President Reagan, and it was as simple as that. We had no layers of approval, no levels of a rule to go through time and time again. It was as simple as showing Mike Deaver a piece of advertising we liked; if he liked it, it was as good as done. He would walk in and show the old man, and it was a done deal.

It was a great experience for all of us because most of us had never worked in political advertising before. This was brand new for us. It was sort of therapeutic in that regard. We brought a perspective to it that wasn’t really saddled with the kind of encumbrances that political strategists often have, which means we must cram everything there is to cram into this piece of communication. We believed just the opposite, that less was more, and that something simple and engaging and heartfelt was really the way to go.

NEWSHOUR: Was it more daunting, the fact that it was Reagan and he did have the past as an actor?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: It was a perfect situation. We had an economy that was doing well, interest rates were down, unemployment was down. Patriotism was back; it was suddenly back in vogue, back in fashion. We had a great product, President Reagan, telegenic, a national grandfather. Whether you liked his policies or disagreed with him, you liked him. And we wanted to make that likability factor even greater in this film. So it didn’t matter whether you disagreed with his policies so much as everyone just really gravitated toward the guy, and because he was telegenic.

And then he started with a neat idea, which was for him to tell his story of his time in office, let his voice-over be the narration, let his voice be the narrative that carries you through. Who can tell his story better than he can? And that was the whole idea, that even when he was not on camera, you heard his voice, and that carried you through.

And so we did that, and we brought film-making techniques to the party that had never existed before, I mean a real bona fide script with–we used some top notch film makers, top notch editors, music people. And people did say it was slick, but as I said before, slick translates into really being professional and not looking like, you know, the primitive bio films of the past, which are nothing more than snapshots of a candidate, maybe some home movies glued together with a voice-over. It looks primitive. And we were taking film making, political film making out of the dark ages and bringing it into, you know, what was then the 20th century. And it became a template for the films that followed.

In 1992–in 1998 when Bush did his film, in ’92 when Clinton did his, they took pages from our book. They took snapshots, if you will, from our film and used them, incorporated those techniques, those story-telling techniques, the warmth, the attempts at warmth into their films. And so we were sort of like first on the block with something that people really responded to.

NEWSHOUR: It was a blockbuster in many peoples’ minds. Did you know when you made it that it was that good? Did you anticipate the impact?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: Well, it’s a funny thing, you know. The White House wanted to get a well-known film maker, film screenwriter to do it, and I searched out who that might be. I’ll leave this fellow nameless–and I asked him to go off and write a treatment for us, and I was just going to sort of supervise it. And he came back with an idea that had Charlton Heston touring the White House, showing you where the President worked. That was his idea.

I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to capture the emotional value that we’re trying to create here and the persona of President Reagan we’re trying to communicate.”

Meanwhile, we had three days to go before we were supposed to present this treatment. So I just sat down and wrote my own treatment, and went down, presented it, and they liked it. And went off, wrote the script, and the rest, as they say, is history.

NEWSHOUR: No layers and micro management?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: No, no. In fact, in presenting the treatment to Mike Deaver and all of his people down at the White House, President Reagan came in and asked what we were doing, and we said we were discussing this film. And he said, “Well, I sure hope you’re going to be there when we go to Normandy for the D-Day commemoration, because that’s an important part of this whole thing.” I had no intention of going, but I said, “Sure, why not? That would be great.”

So we all went, Air Force One, the whole thing, and spent a week in Europe shooting. I took a small crew with me, just a cameraman and a sound guy and maybe one other. We shot it all on 16-mm, and that was it, and brought it back and began the editorial process.

What made this film, I think, different from other political films of this kind was an emotional wallop. It made you feel something rather than just believe something about a particular candidate. I didn’t really think that good political film-making, good political advertising should really do that. It should just go beyond the facts and figures that sort of fall on deaf ears, you know, because the audience hears so much of that day to day to day, and that the only thing really sticks, I believe, beyond that is that emotional connection that the candidate can make with his or her audience.

I was in the audience in Dallas when they showed the film, and you could just tell by the reaction from the audience that we did what we set out to do, which was to make an emotional connection with the audience, and I could tell that we had done that.

First and foremost, the primary objective of any film like this is to have the networks pick it up and carry it. There’s a funny story. The Mondale people had done a film, and it was, from what I understand, pretty dreadful, and the networks didn’t want to run it because it was pretty amateurish. And so they rejected it. So when we made our film, the Democrats jumped up and said, “Well, you can’t run their film because you rejected ours.” But NBC liked our film so much, they ran it anyway, in its entirety, which sort of ticked folks off.

Some weeks later I said to President Reagan, “Did you like the film?” I knew he had seen it. And he said, “Yes.” He said, “It made me cry.” “But”, he said, “more importantly, it made the Democrats cry.”

NEWSHOUR: Well, some say that the whole election process is not an intellectual process; it’s an emotional one. And I guess in a sense the advertising aspect of that boils it down.

PHIL DUSENBERRY: I do believe that it is. Again, we have to remember that presidential politics in particular is a one-day-only sale, you know. You’ve got one day when people will buy or not buy. And I do believe that when they go in there to pull that lever, they often–while they have their minds made up in some cases, many people do not, and those who don’t are often swayed purely by their emotional judgment. If you bring an emotional component to political advertising and do it very skillfully, you can really make a difference for your candidate.

NEWSHOUR: Of course critics say, isn’t there a bit of dishonesty in the spin, if you will, and don’t we owe it to people to show them more about policy?”

PHIL DUSENBERRY: Well, look, let’s face it, presidential politics, I mean, you have to put your best face forward. I mean, we’re not in the business of showing people off to disadvantage, we’re showing people off to advantage. You know, there’s nothing wrong with being skillful, but sometimes the word “slick” is used in terms of being too polished when you’re presenting a candidate on film or in advertising, but sometimes “slick” translates into good, means professional, means top notch, and I think every candidate deserves that. I don’t think you’re distorting the truth. I think you’re just really putting the truth in its best possible light, and I think that’s what good political advertising is intended to do.

I think over time people are numbed by facts and figures and promises, most of which don’t come true, and I think people are more powerfully moved through a sense of feeling good about a particular candidate, and I think therein lies the difference between the good and the bad of political advertising and political film-making.

NEWSHOUR: Let’s talk about the length of this film. It was 19 and change, like 19 minutes and 49 seconds. If you were to do this again today or if you were to consult with the Bush folks, do you think that the audience can sustain–that’s a long time to have people sitting still. I mean, have things changed since that many years ago?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: Things have changed since then because attention spans have shortened. I don’t think you could expect an audience to sit through 19 or 20 minutes. I think 10 is more like it. You have many more technological advances today in film too that we didn’t have even 16 years ago, new techniques, and new ways of serving up film, and faster, better, quicker kinds of communications that, you know, people can absorb today, whereas they may not have been able to absorb it say even 16 or 17 years ago. So I think these new techniques really come into play, and I do think it all has to do with holding your audience, keeping them rapt, making sure they get the message, and not straying from what it is you’re showing or saying.

NEWSHOUR: What is the challenge for this particular candidate? If you were going to try to package George W. Bush, give advice? And a tangential question, has the Tuesday Team been consulted at all by the so-called “Park Avenue Posse?”

PHIL DUSENBERRY: I don’t think so. I mean, there may have been individual members who have been consulted. I met with the Bush folks some months ago myself, including the Governor himself. I think they’re going at it in a totally different way. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but they’re going at it in a totally different way, and they are tapping into some of the advertising industry sources. Where they will come out, I don’t know, because I have not seen any of their commercials, their ads, their films, whatever. So I have no idea how that’s going to play out.

NEWSHOUR: That aside, just your basic impressions of this particular prospective nominee. Is there any approach that strikes you right off that you might try with this particular person?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: My advice would be to him, I think he has to still find a message. I don’t think he’s found a message yet. I think this race will tighten up between now and November, and I think it really puts pressure on him to find himself a really strong, simple message.

I think in the case of Governor Bush, that message has to really resonate, and no one knows yet really what that message is. You kind of see vague indications of it, but I think it’s got to be clarified as to where he is, what he stands for, what he wants to do. And I think that’s really crucial in any of the advertising that’s done for him, any of the films that may be made about him, because as I say, I think the race will tighten up as we get closer to November.

NEWSHOUR: Let’s talk about Bob Dole. I know that you did the Visa ads post unsuccessful campaign, that everyone had a really good time with, and thought it kind of showcased a new Bob Dole, and it caused many to ask, “Well, where was that Bob Dole during the campaign?” Having covered him on the campaign trail, I think there were kind of two different Doles, pre and post, and you captured that.

What about his film and what about the challenges with that particular candidacy?

PHIL DUSENBERRY: Well, it’s funny. Bob Dole said–I think it was on one of the late night talk shows, someone asked him about his Visa spot, and said, “Gee, you were great in that.” And he said, “You know, if I had only been that way during the campaign, I might have won.” I think Bob Dole never came alive during his candidacy, on film or any other way. He never quite captured the moment, you know.

Winning an election I think is like–I don’t know. It’s like a hit record, a hit movie. You have to capture the fancy of most of the people in order to win, and I don’t think he did that. I don’t think his films did that. I don’t think his commercials did that. He came off as a stiff guy, and he’s really not that guy, but he was somehow made to be that guy. And great film, great film making, real pros, know how to pull that out of you and turn that around, and you know, warm you up. Some people you can only warm up to a certain degree, but I really think Bob Dole had it in him as we saw in our Visa spot. He had the potential to really be a lot more than he actually was during his campaign.

NEWSHOUR: You referenced the Clinton film “A Man From Hope.” Tell me your assessment of that film.

PHIL DUSENBERRY: I thought it was very good. I thought it was good in that it captured not just the candidate, but the person and I think people appreciated that, you know, somebody who came from humble beginnings and rose his way through the–you know, through the quagmire of politics, and it had in and of itself I think a certain sincerity and honesty. It was put together with some very good music. There was a simplicity and a sincerity about it which always works. Even in a technique-loaded world, those kinds of things still are timeless, you know, components of success.