the vulture transcript

Creating the ‘Buddy Tragedy’ of White House Plumbers

Photo: Phil Caruso/HBO

HBO’s five-episode limited series White House Plumbers, which premiered last Monday, tells the story of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, two wildly different men who followed their hubris and blind belief into a trap they set for themselves in the Watergate complex, where American political history would forever change. Not that anyone seemed to learn anything.

Last week, HBO held a screening of the first episode in D.C., after which I led a conversation with the cast and creators: director David Mandel, writers Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory, and stars Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson. (I had been invited to do so because I’m hosting a podcast HBO is producing about the show.) The group discussed how this particular version of the story came to light, as well as the challenge of maintaining a comedic tone while recounting what was, fundamentally, a tragedy — as Mandel put it, while characterizing the ramifications of the event on the American political system, “There’s a direct line that you can draw from Watergate straight up to the present.” But all that mattered, he joked, was that Bob Woodward, who was in attendance, liked the show.

How did you decide to tell this story?
Peter Huyck: Dave Bernad had the concept for this project. He’s a super producer; you might know him from White Lotus and various other shows. He called us because his dad is a neurologist here in D.C. and he had a patient, Egil “Bud” Krogh. Dr. Bernad kept saying to Dave, “I have a Watergate figure, and his stories are amazing.” And Dave had told us, “My dad pitches me bad TV shows all the time. I can’t get him to drop this.” He went and sat with Krogh, and Bud would tell these very earnest stories about the guys and the break-ins, and he would start laughing and he’s like, “This is a comedy. Nobody’s done this story yet.” Dave knew that we were at Veep, and he said, “Do you guys have any interest in doing a comedic take on Watergate?” I don’t think the words were even out of his mouth before we said, “That’s a fantastic idea.”

Alex Gregory: Then when we did the research, we discovered the tragedy, the human toll that their zealotry took on their families and what they lost, and the scope became bigger in a good way.

Justin, you were attached first, right?
Justin Theroux: Yes — I met with these guys and immediately gravitated towards the material. When I was reading the first script, I kept looking at them, going, “Is this all true?”

Woody, what was your reaction when you were pitched this?
Woody Harrelson: It was great material right away. I mean, these guys are superlative writers. Veep is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

PH: When we all went up to your house to try and convince you to do the part, you said, “Look, I did True Detective and McConaughey got the cool part, the fun part. He got to do more crazy shit.”

WH: It happened twice.

PH: You were like, “It feels like it’s gonna happen again. Is Theroux gonna play all the funny shit and I’m just gonna have to carry the water?” I was like, “No, no. Hunt’s equally crazy. Different crazy. He’s got wigs. He speaks Spanish. He’s a real eccentric character. You’re gonna have fun doing it.” What do you think, now that we’re done?

WH: He still got the best part. But I’m still quite happy to be in the project.

On the subject of how colorful these characters are, where is the line between parody and fidelity to the real person? How did you figure that out? Liddy, specifically, was such a big personality.
JT: Liddy was tough. He never missed an opportunity to get near a microphone or in front of a camera after he had been in jail, so I’m sure you’ve all seen footage of him. And he’s tough because he’s kind of performing the “character” of Liddy. We knew that we had to hit the ground running, so we tried it on the highest volume possible, the lowest volume possible. Dave just kind of rode the knobs on that the first day, and we found our way into it. But there were times where I thought I was doing a very accurate Liddy, and it felt way too big. Then there were times where I felt like I was missing the mark, and it also felt way too big. He’s a tricky character to play in that respect.

WH: I’d say you nailed it, sir.

JT: Oh, thank you, Woody.

Woody, what about you?
WH: I tried doing Hunt closer to what he was. I’m not calling him boring, but I was boring trying to do him. He was very monotone and had a very flat, polished disposition. The night before we started shooting, I was really upset with myself for not figuring this out yet. I just started trying a Patton voice, and I kind of liked that.

David Mandel: The performances are grounded by facts. They’re grounded by the reality of how we shot it. As crazy as those moments are, it’s always grounded in that it’s a real robbery and we’re just playing the real moments. Anytime we ever felt like we’re trying to be too funny, we pulled back, and it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

I always thought of Hunt and Liddy as a has-been and a never-was. That was the weird, dangerous Hunt-Liddy combination. Hunt, specifically — which I thought Woody brought to it — had this sort of a world-weariness, like Death of a Salesman. Like Willy Loman, Hunt is deliberate. He’s slow. He’s seen it all. And he knows some of this is wrong, but he so desperately wants it back. That, to me, grounded all of it. On the flip side, it’s that desire for Liddy, who never was, who is desperate to be famous, which is, of course, the worst thing a spy should be. It’s the desperation that grounds these guys closer to reality. And these guys accomplished it, which I loved.

It’s kind of a family drama in addition to being a vaguely slapstick buddy comedy, right?
AG: Yeah. In a way, Hunt’s family drama mirrors what Nixon was trying to do in terms of trying to stop any perception that the country was in chaos. He was trying to clamp down on demonstrations, the Pentagon Papers. He wanted to preserve this sense of law and order, and Hunt was doing that at home with his kids. He really wanted everything to seem stable, and it wasn’t; it was spiraling out of control. So the more he tries to clamp down on his kids, the worse it gets. And the same with Nixon.

JT: The phrase we like is buddy tragedy.

AG: One cool thing Steven Meisler, our phenomenal DP, did was switch between handheld and dolly shots when we went from seeing Hunt at work to seeing him in the world of his family.

Can you explain that in layman’s terms?
DM: We’ve talked about Hunt’s desire for his universe to look right, but it isn’t; it’s rotting in a thousand different ways even before he gets involved in Watergate. We use handheld there — it’s not a documentary, it’s not Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s not Veep, but there’s a frenetic energy to it. There’s something uncomfortable about it. You’re there with the camera. Then everywhere else, when Hunt is immersed in the rest of the world, there’s a sense of order. The camera is on a dolly, moving smoothly. I don’t want viewers to think about it, but it’s there, bothering you in an interesting way.

What do you make of Liddy and Hunt’s relationship? It changes over time, obviously, but big picture, what was that working relationship?
JT: Liddy’s personal objectives were vastly different from Hunt’s. You’ll see as the series progresses that it’s the tragedy of two families. You could make an argument that it’s the tragedy of one family, which would be the Hunt family. Liddy’s life really took off once he got arrested. It just became a hockey stick, and it’s sort of well known that he refused to break, refused to turn himself in. I mean, he was sitting in prison, and it must have driven him crazy that he got pardoned by Carter. He was ecstatic to be serving his time. He was able to be a martyr for Nixon and take this bullet, you know?

He sort of was the beta version of Roger Stone or Steve Bannon. He was going into the courthouse and having fun doing little press conferences before he walked in. Once he got out, he was the definition of shameless. He parlayed that into a career where he was doing the lecture circuit and a radio show, and today, there are people who have been arrested and sentenced, and although they haven’t served at any time yet, they’re on podcasts and they’re following his playbook. He was one of the first people in the media age to co-opt his infamy into dollars and cents. Now we see that playing out all the time.

David Mandel, Woody Harrelson, and Justin Theroux at U.S. Navy Memorial Theater in D.C. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for HBO

Woody, what do you think of their relationship? What do you think Hunt made of Liddy?
WH: Well, at first there was a competitive thing — he didn’t want him running the program. There’s also a sense that he’s just this young punk from the FBI, not as seasoned. Then slowly, you see a shift take place. You see it in that scene where he’s talking about his kid and the therapy and such. They become good friends. Things get a little unhinged later, though.

AG: Hunt’s son described them as teenagers when they were together. There was a lot of roughhousing, and they were just giggling all the time. They were having a great time doing all this nefarious stuff. At one point, they were actually plotting to kill the columnist Jack Anderson. They were going to put LSD on the steering wheel of his car and hope that he would freak out and crash his car and then the coroner would find LSD and blame it on him. Then they were going to do something they called “aspirin roulette,” where they’d put a cyanide pill in a bottle of aspirin in his house. But then they realized his children might get it, so that was maybe a step too far. We had to cut all that out, but that was really them.

That all fits the tone of the series. David, how did you land on this intricate mix of comedy and drama?
DM: It’s there in the history. You cannot help but laugh when you read about guys breaking in and Cubans pouring pills on the ground. It’s an inappropriate laugh, like a giggle at a funeral, and that’s kind of what we’re going for. It’s a very, very funny tragedy. That’s what it felt like to us the entire time. At all times, you are very aware that laws are being broken. The trust of the American people is being damaged, and yet you go, Huh, that’s kind of funny.

AG: This show was meticulously researched, and the closer we got to the truth, the sillier it got. Like if you see Felipe de Diego and Bernard Barker with the wigs breaking in, they actually wore those wigs breaking in, and they did wear jumpsuits. All that happened. So it’s not like you can really soft-pedal that and make it somber. It’s absurd. When we were trying to articulate the tone of the show, Dave mentioned Boogie Nights, and all of a sudden it clicked. That movie inhabits what feels like the real world, but it’s also a world where you have a guy throwing firecrackers in a room while they’re having a conversation. It’s a strange movie in that it never leaves a certain tone. You have these scenes with two guys that are coked out of their minds trying to play rock music, and they don’t know how to sing or play music or they’re arguing about who owns tapes, and it’s hilarious. Then you have scenes where Julianne Moore is losing her child because she’s a sex worker and she’s sobbing, and the movie is grim, hilarious, silly, sad, and action packed. And it all just kind of exists in this world.

DM: What I love about movies like that is that it’s often … I don’t wanna say stupid people, but maybe unimportant people, going about their days with extreme ambition. In Boogie Nights, they’re not going, “I want to make a porn movie,” they’re going, “We are trying to make the best movie we can.” There’s something that loops us back to the true believer that is at the core of the Watergate story and that still resonates to this day. We see this true-believer thing that is destroying our politics, their enthusiasm for doing the wrong thing. They truly think they are saving the country. It’s desperation plus vicious enthusiasm. And that’s part of the tragedy of Watergate.

I kept thinking about the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading while watching this, because besides the zealotry, there’s also this narrow self-interest, right? They want to make money, they want to be important, they want to have proximity to power. Do you see them being motivated more by selfish desire or more by true ideological belief?
DM: I mean, I think they’re glued together. I don’t think money has anything to do with it. It’s all about proximity to power, and I think that ties together with this sense of, We’re saving the world.

AG: The million dollars represents how much mayhem they can cause. It’s not so much about pocketing the money. It’s Look at the shit we can do with a million dollars. And I would say that misguided zealotry is also the life of a Hollywood writer. We’re true believers in whatever we’re doing, so we relate to characters like that — people trying to make the impossible happen.

PH: What you will see in episode two is their vision for how they’re going to spend the million dollars, and it is insane. In the end, they were only given a green light to break into the Watergate, but they were going to set up a sex boat for the Democratic National Convention in Miami with hookers and hidden cameras. That was a big part of the pitch to the acting attorney general, John Mitchell. And then they were going to kidnap protesters and take them to Mexico and maybe kill them. They had this elaborate plan, and it was probably five pages of dialogue.

JT: It was seven.

Can you talk a bit about filming in D.C., which you did for Veep as well?
DM: It’s complicated. Every place we were, it was always like the government owns the building, the parks department is in charge of the street, and the police are in charge of where the cars go. So at any given time, three people have to agree that you can do it, and yet you can only ever get two of them on the phone.

But we had some secret weapons. We were shooting one day at the National Airport. It’s a very big scene in the fourth episode, and we were told, “You can be here, and you have to get in at 8 a.m., and you have to be done by 11 a.m.” It was okay except planes are landing and trains and buses are going by ruining takes. The head of the airport is watching us, and right around 11, we were like, “Have you ever met Woody Harrelson? How would you like some pictures with you and your entire family with Woody Harrelson?” And he turned the charm on. We were there until almost noon.

PH: We shot a lot of what you see also in Albany — and Albany doesn’t care. They literally gave us the entirety of downtown, like, “How many days do you want it? You can have downtown for a month, it doesn’t matter.” One night, we all went to a bar, and every department started showing up. We’re all blowing off steam. Then we hear the fire chief is here. We’re like, Oh, we’re getting shut down. The fire chief walks up and goes, “I heard Woody Harrelson is here.” Woody and his body double were behind the bar serving drinks like it was Cheers. Then the police department started showing up to party with Woody, which is what happens when you hang with Woody. And then they gave us rides in cop cars with drinks and joints back to the hotel like they were Ubers. Five-star service in Albany.

You were shooting all of this through COVID. It was a very long process, and it was also in the shadow of Trump. What was that like? Seems like there are a lot of obvious parallels.
DM: You go back to the research and you see Nixon, the war on the press, you see them talking about the media, and maybe they’re not exactly using the words fake news, but they are using words that you can’t help but go, Ding! I recognize that, I recognize that, I recognize this, I recognize that. Go back to true believerism, too. There’s this unfortunate idea of, Oh, we had Watergate, we solved it, and everything was okay. Then we had Obama and racism was solved, so thank gosh. We as Americans constantly do that. So the constant echoes of Trump were there without us having to do anything.

Now, we didn’t know this would be coming out so close to a former president being indicted in a courtroom, but it’s there for the taking. Ultimately, a bunch of people went to jail, and I’m sorry to say, but a lot of the No. 2’s and 3’s and 4’s that were in the Nixon administration, they all just kind of moved up a rung. To me, it’s there because Trump isn’t an aberration. There’s a direct line that you can draw from Watergate straight up to the present. We don’t want to ring that bell too hard, but we want you to hear that ring.

Creating the ‘Buddy Tragedy’ of White House Plumbers