It’s not uncommon to take a politician to task, but Treat Williams has been frank with one about the art of screenwriting. When Robert Mrazek, former member of the House of Representatives for Rhode Island, approached the acclaimed actor about starring in a film he’d written, called “The Congressman,” Williams didn’t mince words.
“It looked like what it was: A very good story written by a guy who had not written much dialogue,” Williams tells us. He liked Mrazek’s story, in which a pol named Charlie Winship, currently drowning in scandals, finds rejuvenation when he treks out to a remote part of the country. But it needed a good punch-up.
“I told him exactly where things were too drawn-out, too preachy. You can’t teach people about politics in a movie. You have to make it character-driven,” he recalls. “And everything I said he agreed with. He was very open to this being a collaborative effort. He had no ego about it. I have to give him credit for his lack of protectionism.”
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Williams was particularly adamant about tweaking a scene where Charlie and his wife split. “Originally she was just berating me the entire time for what a s—head I am,” he explains. “I said, ‘I don’t see this as just an attack. I see this as a poignant goodbye between two people who at one time had something very special.’” So Williams and his co-star in the scene, Jayne Atkinson rewrote it. “It was really great teamwork on our parts to get the speeches and the scenes the way we wanted them.”
The end product, being released in a few dozen theaters across the nation before a VOD release later on, is very character-driven and deceptively light. It gets in a few political digs, including a subplot in which Charlie becomes a viral pariah after he refuses to stand for or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“What’s important to me is it’s a comedy. It’s not a political drama. I don’t think anybody needs a political drama. We have it 24-7 on TV,” Williams says. “This is the most bizarre political period in American politics.”
Mrazek co-directed “The Congressman” with Jared Martin, both of them first-timers. Williams, by contrast, has worked with scores of great directors: Sidney Lumet (“Prince of the City”), Milos Forman (“Hair”), Sergio Leone (“Once Upon a Time in America”) and Steven Spielberg (“1941”). He wound up helping Mrazek out a bit on the front, too.
“I told him to read Sidney’s book,” he says, referring to Lumet’s “Making Movies,” his classic how-to on directing. “That is a bible. You can put that in your pocket and read the chapter on where you put your camera and how you set up lights and how you rehearse actors. Sidney said it’s not rocket science. It’s just sweat and hard work.”
Helping out was something Williams was happy to do. “I’ve worked with some really awful directors. But I’d rather work with an inexperienced director whose heart is in the right place than a terrible director who’s a narcissist,” he says.
Williams talks memories of when he first made the transition from stage to screen. One of his first big roles was in Forman’s “Hair,” from 1979 take on the previous decade’s hit show. “We weren’t very good film actors. We didn’t understand film,” he recalls. “He would do take after take, and he wore us down till we stopped trying to act and started behaving.”
He says it took him about 10 years to find the right way to approach directors when he disagreed with how they wanted him to perform. “When a director is adamant that I do something a certain way that I don’t like, I’ll say, ‘I’ll do it that way. I’ll give it to you 100 percent. But let me have a take where I do it my way. I think in the editing room you’re going to like what I do better, because you don’t know this guy as well as I do. I’ve got him mapped out,’” Williams explains. “Nine times out of 10 they use the take I said would be better. They may want more and bigger, then they go, ‘Oh, I’m so glad Treat gave me a more muted version.’”
One early experience Williams found relaxing was a film that today is little-known: 1976’s “The Ritz,” based on Terrence McNally’s hit show about a mobster (Jack Weston) who finds himself in a gay bath house. Most of the cast was brought over from the Broadway show (also including Rita Moreno and F. Murray Abraham). They were great actors, Williams says, but they insisted on repeating the performances that slew audiences on-stage.
“When you’ve got actors who’ve got their laughs down, who know where their laughs are, they’re not changing a thing,” Williams says. That annoyed the director, Richard Lester, of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Petulia.” “Richard was like, ‘Then what am I doing here?’” Since Williams was a newbie to the material, he and Lester got to find jokes together. “I love trying out crazy s—. Richard was like, ‘Oh, Treat’s a comedian, this is great!’ We had a blast coming up with all that stuff.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge