Over the weekend I picked up the new DVD of Ron Howard’s film Frost/Nixon. As noted last week, this has a number of interesting extras.
One of these is a seven-minute short about the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, featuring former Library Executive Director Rev. John H. Taylor (though his ecclesiastical status is omitted from the subtitle identifying him) and Acting Executive Director Kathy O’Connor. Despite its brevity, this extra is sure to bring many a new vistor to the Library; it features such major highlights as the replica of the White House East Room (though I didn’t spot the room with the life-size statues of the leaders RN knew).

Another extra compares footage of Michael Sheen (as David Frost) interviewing Frank Langella (as President Nixon) with the actual Frost-Nixon interviews from 1977. It’s especially interesting to see the way in which Langella, while varying considerably from RN’s phrasing, somehow remains faithful to the spirit of what was being said.

The making-of featurette, lasting 25 minutes, includes a lot of useful and informative material. If you watch it with the subtitles on, you’ll spot an amusing moment about halfway through: Matthew Macfadyen, in a voiceover, begins talking about his performance as Frost’s producer John Birt. But the subtitles identify the speaker as John Taylor. This extra also has the one typo I spotted in the subtitles: a reference to the “Houston Plan” (though the correct spelling appears in the subtitles to Frost/Nixon itself).

This brings us to the feature. It includes a full commentary by director Howard that’s full of fascinating detail. He emphasizes, time and again, that the film was shot on a limited budget and on a very tight schedule. He observes that he made the most of existing places to shoot, rather than trying to put together expensive sets: for instance, it was a fortuitous happenstance that the Beverly Hilton Hotel, at the time the film was made, had been redecorated in a sort of retro-1970s style in keeping with the period depicted in the film (when the hotel was used as the Frost team’s headquarters).

It turns out that the scene in which Sheen (as Frost) pitches the interviews to executives at the three networks was not in the original script and that the decision to film it was made nearly on the spur of the moment, when shooting was almost over. Howard says the set representing the networks’s offices (the same room in each shot, with posters of TV shows on the wall changed to represent CBS, ABC and NBC in turn) was put together in a matter of hours and that Sheen improvised his dialogue,as he did with the scene where he pitches his series to Weed Eater honchos.  (The director praises Sheen’s performance, incidentally, for reasons akin to those I cited in my previous posts about the movie.)

Howard goes to some trouble to explain his use of dramatic license in four scenes. Regarding the controversial sequence in which RN drunkenly phones Frost, Howard insists that since RN was reported to have made such calls from time to time in the wee hours of the morning during his Presidency, and since the scene had been an effective one with the audiences who saw Peter Morgan’s play, both he and Morgan felt it should be included, despite the fact that no such call ever happened when the interviews were being put together.

Howard also acknowledges that the line “when the President does it, it is not illegal” was lifted out of the context in which it was spoken in the original interviews (a discussion of the Huston Plan in 1970) and inserted by Morgan into RN’s reply to a question from Frost about the Watergate events two years later. Again, the director argues that the dramatic effectiveness of the scene justifies this license, though Howard’s tone suggests he doesn’t completely feel on sure ground in this claim.

The third example of license Howard mentions is the scene in which Frost shows RN footage from the Vietnam War. Although such footage was inserted by Frost and his producers into the original broadcast of his interviews, the President did not see this material on monitors, in the way depicted in the film. Howard, again, argues that the dramatic point made by having Langella see the footage justifies this departure from the historical record.

After these weighty examples, it’s a bit startling when, in the concluding scenes set at La Casa Pacifica overlooking the ocean, Howard mentions that dramatic license has been taken again, but in a way that would not be that easy to spot: because the “Western White House” was not available for these scenes by the end of shooting, he found a nearby house which had a similar view of the Pacific and shot there.

This sets the stage for Howard to mention that there were several endings shot for the film, focusing on Frost’s gift of the Italian shoes to RN. In the version shown to early audiences, the President puts the shoes on and walks around in them. This elicited a very favorable response at the previews, but Howard was wary of this reaction (because he thought that it depicted RN abruptly shedding his introvert’s persona and so wasn’t true to character) and finally concluded that the way to go was to conclude the scene as it now appears, with RN simply taking the shoes out and looking at them. Because the shoes were absent from the long shot Howard wanted to use to close his feature and there was no time or money to do retakes, the footwear was inserted into the image through computer-generated imagery.

There are a lot of other interesting details in the commentary. I’ve seen the film three times so far but, until Howard mentioned it, didn’t realize that most of the figures in the background of the audience shots when RN is speaking to the audience in Houston were actually plastic dummies (a trick the director says he picked up when filming the Madison Square Garden scenes in Cinderella Man).

And people who immediately recognized the name of Patty McCormack, who plays Pat Nixon in the film, as that of the actress who won an Oscar nomination at the age of eleven for her unforgettable performance in The Bad Seed, will be interested to know that no such bell rang with Howard; it was not until an assistant mentioned this to him after McCormack finished her audition that he recalled that role. “Of course, I’d be the last person to hold being a child star against her,” quoth Opie. There’s a lot more in the commentary, which is nearly worth the price of the DVD in itself.

There are also about 25 minutes of deleted scenes, primarily featuring Langella delivering longer excerpts from RN’s resignation speech and his August 9 East Room remarks than appear in the finished film. The actor’s expressions just before he begins his resignation address, and as he concludes the East Room speech, are just as superb and moving as his acting in the interview sequences, and it’s unfortunate they couldn’t be included intact in the feature. All in all, this is a superb package, and it’s a relief – especially since this DVD is sure to be seen by high school and college students interested in the events it depicts – to hear Ron Howard identify and acknowledge the departures he made from the historical record.