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American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
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The Film & MoreBehind The Scenes

Interview with the Filmmakers

Producing Woodrow Wilson involved months of research and writing, weeks of filming, and hundreds of hours of editing. In the following interview excerpts, producer/writer/director Carl Byker and director/cinematographer Mitch Wilson discuss the daunting task of creating a three-hour biography of the 28th President.

Carl Byker

Carl Byker | Recreating History

"The process of choosing what scenes to recreate is one of the most fun parts of the job, because you have these lovely first persons that are a window into these characters. When I read the scene about the night that Wilson becomes president and there are people with torches coming into the yard, I knew that would be something that would work for us. Because weíre always looking for an abstracting element . . . a torch, a fire, a window, glass, anything that can make it seem a little bit more like youíve been transported to a different time and place."

Recreating History
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Carl Byker | A Passionate Wilson 

"One of the most surprising things about getting inside the world of Woodrow Wilson for me was to realize what a passionate man he was. Because the public image was this guy whoís cold and aloof. And in fact, as one academic said, he was a pretty sexy guy. And he had this intense need for the love and support of a woman as well as by all appearances this intense need for sex. He was very attracted to his first wife; they had a great love affair. They wrote each other love letters almost every day throughout their lives . . . Thatís a pretty passionate relationship."

Mitch Wilson

A Passionate Wilson
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Mitch Wilson |  Ellenís Painting Sequences

"There are two painting sequences in the Woodrow Wilson film. One when Wilsonís wife, Ellen, was young, and one when she was older, after her brother drowned. And we shot them two different ways. The first one we shot really light, bubbly, with early morning colors. The second one we shot by the river. I put her in the shade where itís darker, moody."

Ellen's Painting Sequences
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Carl Byker |  Film Projector Sequence

"When I read about how Wilson, after his stroke, watched old newsreels of his past triumphs, I realized that could be the frame of the whole film. It puts you at a moment at the end of his life, but the projections on the wall give you his past life, which takes you back to who he had been. That really attracted me - this complex moment where this complex man was looking at himself. And so I wanted that to be both the start and the end of the film. And Ray Stannard Baker, the writer and journalist, who would sit with Wilson during these showings, made that possible by his very evocative account."

Film Projector Sequence
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Mitch Wilson |  Accurate Locations

"When we go and look for places to shoot for the reenactments that we are going to do, we try to shoot as close to where it happened that we can. I think thatís important. Ö We shot in the house that Wilson grew up in. We shot in the house that he lived in when he was president of Princeton. We shot the house he lived in when he retired in Washington DC. We shot his car, and we shot where he stayed in Georgia."

Accurate Locations
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Carl Byker |  Ending the Film

"One of the challenges of a three-hour film like this is figuring out how to end it. And one of my favorite scenes was the story of Woodrow Wilson, after he left the White House, in a rocking chair being read a letter by his wife about the unknown soldier who never surrenders. We put a lot of energy into shooting this scene and then cut it into the film. But we also had the story of how he wins the Nobel Peace Prize and his former enemies come to visit him. And we had the lovely story of his funeral with all of this footage that very few people have ever seen of his actual casket being carried. So we cut this all together in the film. And the consensus was we simply had too many endings. The film kept ending. And so one of those endings had to go, and what went was the rocking chair, one of my favorite sequences."

Ending the Film
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