‘White House Plumbers’ Finds the Comedy Inside a ‘70s Paranoid Thriller

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with HBO, for this edition, we look at how the team behind “White House Plumbers” found a way to marry comedy, history, and the paranoid atmosphere of 1970s political thrillers.

There’s a scene in Episode 4 of “White House Plumbers” where Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson), one of the masterminds behind the Watergate break-in, receives a call from reporter Bob Woodward. It’s the other side of the exact phone call dramatized from Woodward’s perspective in “All the President’s Men” — the 1976 movie about how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting helped bring down Hunt, his partner-in-crime G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), and the Nixon White House.

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“I like to think of [‘White House Plumbers’] as existing almost in parallel to ‘All the President’s Men,’” said director and executive producer David Mandel of this scene. It was the director’s hope that, in showing the antics of what actually happened behind the scenes of the story Woodward and Bernstein unraveled, the viewer would go straight to Wikipedia to fact-check each episode — like whether or not there were three botched break-in attempts at the Watergate before the infamous fourth, in which the burglars were caught.

Mandel wanted to capture “both how dangerous these guys were, but at the same time, what a clown show it was.” That balancing act of how comedy could emerge from a cinematic landscape grounded in historic realism and the paranoid thriller filmmaking of the ’70s (a genre Watergate helped usher in) would be the principal challenge for Mandel’s team. In the videos below, production designer Anastasia White, cinematographer Steven Meizler, and the director himself break down how they achieved this balance.

This Ain’t ‘Veep’

White House Plumbers - Directing - Craft Considerations

Coming off showrunning the last three seasons of “Veep,” Mandel was not looking to step into another political satire — initially, he was aiding two “Veep” writers, Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, in adapting Egil “Bud” Krogh’s memoir “White House Plumbers.” In the midst of the complex story behind the Watergate break-in, there was a simple dynamic Mandel, Gregory, and Huyck believed could make for a great limited series. “They’re subverting the rule of the people,” explained Mandel, “And yet you are also laughing at just some of the very basic facts.”

As Mandel explains in the video above, he began to see how different this would be from “Veep,” which was written and directed with the essential sitcom joke structure of setup and punchline. “[R]ule number one is there’s none of that in this,” said Mandel. “You are shooting it as if it’s a drama, and you allow the comedy to play like the truth.”

While Theroux and Harrelson were attached to the project early on, Mandel knew an important component of finding the show’s tonal balance would be how the casting team — led by Ben Harris, Allison Jones, and Meredith Tucker — filled out the roles around the two leads. In the video above, the director discusses the casting of Lena Headey and how the “royal” presence of the actress who played Cersi Lannister in “Game of Thrones” was the perfect fit for Hunt’s wife, Dorothy.

Through a ’70s Lens

White House Plumbers - Cinematography - Craft Considerations

From the start, Mandel and series cinematographer Steven Meizler saw the limited series as being in conversation with ‘70s political thrillers like “The Parallax View,” “Klute,” and, of course, “All the President’s Men” — all three of which were shot by Meizler’s hero, cinematographer Gordon Willis, who captured a sense of paranoia with his dark, complex images that went against Hollywood lighting conventions of the time.

Those films, as Metzler notes, have a deadly serious tone. One of the keys for the director and cinematographer would be to discover how humor could live inside these often oppressive and atmospheric images. Much of the humor came from the dynamic of Theroux and Harrelson, the way they saw themselves as noble heroes protecting American democracy, and how the two very different men fed off each other to take (often absurd) action.

“It was very much in our language to block scenes having Hunt and Liddy always in two-shot, acting off each other,” explains the cinematographer in the video above. Mandel and the two actors would first establish their characters’ inter-personal dynamic and blocking, with coverage treating Harrelson and Theroux’s two-shot as a single; the camera and audience see their actions and reactions as a single entity, never losing sight of their interpersonal dynamic driving the scene and “the clown show.”

Grounded in Historical Realism

White House Plumbers - Production Design - Craft Considerations

For all the humor and Gordon Willis-esque approach to paranoid darkness, the ultimate success of the tonal tightrope in “White House Plumbers” was leaning into the fact these events actually happened. For production designer Anastasia White, that meant a researched and realistic approach to setting and avoiding what has become Hollywood’s period conventions to signal the 1970s. It also meant that she would need to take all of her research and find a way to reproduce Washington, D.C., in the Hudson Valley above New York City.

In the case of Hunt’s home, this meant finding the perfect location in Poughkeepsie and converting it into a two-floor narrative container that told the story of a man more comfortable in his former career as a spy (as represented by his den in the basement) than the upstairs world of his family, whose problems he doesn’t have time for and can’t control.

As for the political world, in the video above, White breaks down the importance of recreating the grandeur of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (E.E.O.B.). “We don’t know if they are capable when we first start watching,” said White. “But the fact that they are in these grand spaces, it’s [a] contrast that we really wanted to find.” As White explains, in Episodes 4 and 5 after the break-in, the production designer found visual ways to connect Hunt and Liddy’s government work in the first three episodes to the spaces — such as prison — where the two men face the consequences of their actions.


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