Category:scott sforza, wh producer

Over at GreenCine, David puts the Reagan TV movie in perspective; it doesn't sound like it's worth going to the mat for.

And instead of reading the 213-page script, I just rebought Joan Didion's NYRB article, The Lion King, and I'm glad I did. I say rebought, because it's also included in her collection of essays, Political Fictions, which is sitting in a box in our storage unit.

Didion's got an agenda, sure, but she backs it up with a screenwriter's eye for wicked detail and dialogue, and a relentless slog through the quagmire of firsthand accounts. She reads the right wing's literature, so you don't have to.

Here's a timely but damning excerpt she pulls from Donald Regan's memoir, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington ["585 used copies available, starting at $0.01"]

As President, Ronald Reagan acted on the work habits of a lifetime: he regarded his daily schedule as being something like a shooting script in which characters came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot was advanced one day at a time, and not always in sequence. The Chief of Staff was a sort of producer, making certain that the star had what he needed to do his best; the staff was like the crew, invisible behind the lights, watching the performance their behind-the-scenes efforts had made possibleÖ. Reagan's performance was almost always flawless. If he was scheduled to receive a visitor at ten o'clock, he would finish whatever else he was doing at 9:58, clear off his desk, clear his mind of whatever had gone before, and prepare himself for the next scene.

The CBS hacks were criticized for putting words in the president's mouth. Didion shows us that's not their real crime; Reagan's "accomplishments" are his speeches, and his texts must be approached with enough infallible literalism to make an evangelical Christian proud. But this is also where he's vulnerable; he who lives by the word dies by the word.

What Reagan demands, it seems, is a "making of" movie which hews tightly to the accounts of his crew. A Player, an 8 1/2 a Jour et Nuit, an Irma Vep, or an Adaptation, even. [A Project Greenlight? That'd hurt too much.] This isn't a network TV movie, or even a cable movie; it's DVD, with a pile of bonus disks.

October 31, 2003

Sforzian Backstabbing

Scott Sforza et al's now-controversial Mission Accomplished banner from Bush's tailhooking speech on the Abraham Lincoln

Since before Elizabeth Bumiller came up with the term for the Times, I was a fan of Sforzian Backgrounds, the news-manipulating slogans created by Scott Sforza, a key member of the White House's advance scenery and production team, for just about every public appearance of George W. Bush. [After giving up hope for a commentary track from Sforza himself, I wrote my own interpretive post for Bush's trip to Africa last July.]

And yet this week in a rare press conference, when he was asked about one of his Sforzian Backgrounds, Bush said, " The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished. I know it was attributed some how to some ingenious advance man from my staff -- they weren't that ingenious, by the way."

Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall is rightly shocked, shocked, that Bush is trying to pin the background on the military. I hope the unsigned report in the Times is a placeholder for an impending Bumiller story. In the mean time, I'll call George W. on his transparent lie: his advance men are ingenious. [And they were behind the banner.]

In her first report on White House stagecraft, Bumiller reported that these advance men spent days "embedded" on the Abraham Lincoln staging the speech. "Sforza and his aides choreographed every aspect of the event."

Sforza positioned the audience/crew in the background according to their uniform color:bright turtlenecks on the fighter wing (a favorite Sforzian spot, by the way), Army standard [thanks, Dan!]Navy service khakis in the front row. And to help them blend in with the troops, he put Bush's Secret Service detail in Top Gun-style bomber jackets rather than their typical G-Man suits. Meanwhile, Bob deServi, the White House cinematographer, went the extra mile, turning the aircraft carrier around in order 1) to show a background of open sea and not the nearby San Diego skyline, and 2) to get the "magic hour" light just so on his boss's face. The banner is instantly recognizable as Sforza's--and the White House's--ingenious vision.

The real question here is not who put up that banner, but why is Bush dishonestly and unfairly harshing on his loyal soldiers for it, both in the military and in the White House?

Related: Sforza's version of Out of Africa
Whitehouse Stagecraft: Is this going to be on the DVD?

White House stage manager Scott Sforza better enjoy the attention while it lasts; when the Republican convention rolls into Manhattan next September, er, 1th, they'll be stumping in front of a George Pataki-crafted backdrop, construction of the foundations of the "Freedom Tower" on the site of the World Trade Center.

What that Tower'll look like, and even where it'll be, are still TBD; these are, frankly, irrelevant details. The NY governor doesn't care what gets built by whom, just that construction starts in time for something impressive to be visible behind the GOP dais. And if it means locking two utterly incompatible architects with diametrically opposed visions in a room until they agree to work together, so be it.

Bush in Africa, with Sforzian foreground, image:reuters/yahoo.com

While looking through Yahoo News for a linkable photo of those elephants protesting George Bush's abstinence-driven AIDS program funding, I was happy to find that African Bush has the same production design team as White House Bush and Crawford Bush.

Sforzian Backdrops is the term NYTimes reporter Elizabeth Bumiller coined (and I latched onto) for the made-for-TV-and-only-TV sets and wallpapers that White House image czar Scott Sforza deploys whenever Bush (and the White House press corps) goes anywhere.

Bush on a dais from Survivor2:Africa, image:state.gov

And that anywhere includes Africa. It's at once comforting and disturbing to see how consistent the White House's approach to image manipulation construction manipulation is. To feed the media's appetite for novelty and at-a-glance recognition of purpose and place, Bush's advance team repeats the same components and adapts them, with unintentionally revealing effect. [Go back for a quick refresher on the formal Sforzian image vocabulary if you need it.]

Take, for example, Bush's speech at an AIDS Support Centre in Uganda. Sforza & co. went for a theme of low-tech authenticity, simple materials and visuals. AFP's Luke Frazza captured the window & kinte cloth curtain background; the elaborately "found wood" Survivor-meets-Frontierland dais; and a "local" wallpaper caption as bare-bones as PowerPoint allows, Arial-on-white, no 3-d shading. Meanwhile, the one that "came from" the White House, the one with Bush's "own" message on it, is rendered in proper First World 3-D

Bush, with a background of freshly scrubbed African orphans, image:Reuters/Yahoo.com

That other Sforzian favorite, the Human Wallpaper, shows up, too. (For other shots, see the Yahoo slideshow.) Since the 2000 Republican convention, Bush has been photographed regularly in front of rows of non-white people. So to let viewers know that these black folk are in Africa, an advance team stylist dressed the orphan choir in leopard skin. The Africa-as-imagined-by-Texan-administration look feels like a Sixties-era Tarzan movie, translated for a drill team competition on ESPN2.

[related link: Elizabeth Bumiller profiles White House photographer Eric Draper, emphasizing how official photographs reflect the administration's bias. Totally different from professional journos' biased-by-the-administration's- stage-management images. Totally.

on the set at the Waco Economic Forum, image:whitehouse.gov
Shoot the conference title from this preset camera position;
state seal and flowing flag when allowed to shoot head-on. images:whitehouse.gov

Sforzian Backgrounds. So that's what they're called. At least that's what Elizabeth Bumiller's NYT article calls those glib slogan-filled, PowerPointy, made-for-TV backdrops that show up behind Bush whenever there's a camera around. They're named for Scott Sforza, a former TV producer, who is finally getting credit/scrutiny for his tireless work behind the scenes in this White House's quantum leap in visual image control.

Sforza spent days "embedded" on that aircraft carrier, prepping for Bush's staged arrival. "Sforza and his aides choreographed every aspect of the event," Bumiller writes. White House cinematographer (yes, there is one) Bob deServi gets credit for angling the ship just right and timing the spectacle so they can take advantage of "magic hour" lighting [a recurring subject here].

It's about damn time we get a Making Of piece. The best DVD's now are full of this stuff. Hell, I just saw Making the Animatrix on MTV2, a meta-meta-program on a meta-meta network. (making of animated spinoffs of a movie; spinoff channel for videos for songs. Please keep up, people.)

For the screamingly obvious manipulation/staging of these images, it's pretty inexcusable that we've had to wait this long for someone to report on it. (OK, ABC buried one mention.) I mean, Scott Sforza only has 25 Google hits, and just one ancient credit on IMDb. If some premium cable channel offered a Sforza commentary track for all Bush's appearances, I'd definitely subscribe.

Seeing the errant boom mike in one shot of What's Up, Doc? was my first realization of the filmmaking process White House DP Bob deServi: "You want it, I'll heat it up and make a picture."
Surprisingly, though, the White House website has tons of media-critique-ready photos which unintentionally (?) reveal the machinery behind these made-for-TV-and-only-for-TV images. The bird's eye view of Bush's Waco Forum shows the press getting their White House-designed shot, complete with Sforzian Backgrounds. And check out this photo from a beautifully lit deServi production of Bush and Putin in St Petersburg, which has a boom mike hovering in the foreground.
DiServi's speed dial is mostly floodlight rental agencies To light this shot, deServi shipped floodlights from the UK

And this pic captures the elaborate staging elements imported to Romania for White House Productions' biggest (pre-tailhook incident) show, a 2002 Bush speech in Bucharest's Revolution Square. (Sforza even put up a little "Romania" banner, just in case you didn't recognize that other flag.)

The sheer volume of photos on the White House site reveals another Sforza favorite, what Bumiller'd call the "men without ties" background, for those ops when a giant slogan just won't do. He used it at Tailhook, when he put soldiers Skittles-colored turtlenecks in the background. Last month, in an uncrowded but well-draped Boeing factory, Sforza had Boeing workers perch on top of an F-18 to be seen listening to Bush's Iraqi progress report. Looks a lot like last August at the fair, where he arrayed some farmers on tractors and bales of hay. But not so fast. Sometimes, he uses the "men without ties" wallpaper-style, and sometimes he actually puts them into the Sforzian Background. (Note: the last one has stock photos so nice, Sforza used them twice. Check out the SB in this elaborate 3D setup for conservative conservatism, which looks to mean "black people in front.")

So, with this media manipulation thing, just like with that whole neo-con American Empire thing, the "run by and for corporations" thing, the "we need and may use new nuclear weapons" thing, with this supposedly secretive administration, there's actually plenty to see. It's not that no one cares. It's just that the White House makes it so easy to not report it.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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