Entrée is everything in documentary filmmaking and often what
makes for excitement is infiltrating the enemy camp. We had been shooting
our Al Franken film for about a year and were at the Republican Convention
in New York City. Al had just finished his afternoon Air America show
and was looking for trouble. Ben Wikler, his producer, announced that
they were going to a party at the Four Seasons Grill given by Lally
Weymouth, the daughter of the late Washington Post publisher
Katharine Graham and a senior editor at Newsweek. The word was
Dick Cheney would be there as well as a lot of Republican bigwigs. Did
we want to tag along?
At the door there was a table of gatekeepers with a guest list. Somehow
we breezed by on the coattails of Al’s celebrity. Of course, Ben
wasn’t on the list, nor were we, and 50 yards later we met up
with a bouncer the size of two Al Frankens. He didn’t believe
Al had been invited. “I’m on the list,” Al said with
his best disarming smile. “No you’re not,” grinned
back the bouncer. “Yes I am,” replied Al, still smiling,
clutching his tie. This went back and forth until Al dared him to check
with Lally Weymouth. “Yes he’s on the list,” she said
with a cool smile. As a result of this distraction, we all slipped in.
The party was a mother lode of Republican celebrities. Henry Kissinger,
Newt Gingrich, Alan Keyes, Bill Kristol, Republican convert Ron Silver,
William Safire, Senators Ted Stevens, John Warner and Alan Simpson,
to name a few. No Cheney, but that meant less security. This was not
a media event and there were no television crews. Al had two overriding
interests: free food and bumping heads. For all his notoriety, he seems
to take almost no interest in generating press. He never interfered
with our shooting, but also rarely looked out for our filmmaking interests.
For us, the trick was to keep up.
The food wasn’t great so Al concentrated on finding targets. He
spotted Alan Keyes, who is from Maryland and was running for the Senate
seat in Illinois against Barack Obama. “I’m working on my
impression of you,” Al said with the kind of outsized pride he
takes in his own work. “Do you want to hear it?”
“Sure,” says Keyes.
“You said that Hillary Clinton was carpetbagging and no way would
you do the same thing,” he started. Then, in an excited high-pitched
rant, finger stabbing the air, Al became Keyes: “No I am not,
and thank God I am not imitating her. I was called by the people of
Illinois to stop the slaughter of unborn babies.”
“What do you think?” Al asked, no trace of irony, grinning
like a boy who had just performed a magic trick.
“That’s pretty good,” Keyes said without enthusiasm.
“Keep working on it.” He then back-stepped into another
Over the course of that evening, Al did his dead-on Kissinger impression
to Henry Kissinger and attacked C. Boyden Gray, founder of the ultra
right-wing Committee for Justice, for not picking up his dog’s
poop. “You dick!” he shouted in the noisy room. “You
asshole. You shouldn’t be allowed to have a dog.” One of
Al’s peculiar talents is his ability to haul out insults with
a smile on his face and not provoke a fist fight.
Later on, a young Newsweek editor came over to offer Al a T-shirt
with a picture of Dick Cheney leading a goat with the face of President
Bush over the caption “My Pet Goat.” Al was delighted. “You’re
the best, man,” she said. “You made me laugh when I was
really, really freaking out.”
As we were leaving, Al ran into Charlie Rose of The Charlie Rose
Show. “Is this your own crew? Charlie asked.
“This is the Pennebakers, they did The War Room.”
“Is that right? What’s the storyline? Franken takes New
“We don’t know yet,” Al said confidentially. “They’ve
been following me so long that if nothing happens at the end, I’ve
got to kill someone. It might be you, Charlie.”
“You mean you would reach across the table and strangle me?”
“Yes. Would that be a good ending? It’s like the Pennebakers
say: ‘Al seemed so sane for a year, but we need an ending.’
So I tell them: ‘I’m on Charlie Rose tonight,’ and
they say: ‘Kill Charlie, that’s a good ending’.”
Charlie Rose looked a little bewildered. “Good night, Charlie.
I won’t kill you.”