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“The Plot Against America:” Philip Roth’s “What If..?” Is David Simon’s “What Now?”

“Staying true to the intent of the book, while also doing the things necessary to make it a viable miniseries, it was kind of agony.”

David Simon (The Wire) has things to say about the current state of politics and democracy in the U.S. In an interview for Salon, he talks about “an insurgent populist, a great hero to many Americans.. [who runs] on a platform of isolationism and xenophobia and barely hidden antisemitism.”

Oh… apologies. That was Simon describing Charles Lindbergh’s presidential bid in his new HBO limited-series The Plot Against America. 

Based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, the show depicts an alternate history where Lindbergh runs a campaign, fueled by bigotry and isolationism, against incumbent president Franklin Roosevelt. “That moment really does echo into this.” Both Lindbergh and our current President, Simon says, argue “xenophobic things about the immigrants, the immigrant class, about people who are a little different than what he thinks is normative, white America, white Protestant America. We have a rise in antisemitism. We have a rise in race hate, in crimes and in human rights affronts on our southern border. We’re separating families.”

Read more: Can It Happen Here? In The Plot Against America, It Already Did

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” John Turturro

However, Lindbergh is a minor character, not the star of the show. Instead, the story plays out through the lens of a second generation, working-class, Jewish-American family living in New Jersey in 1940.  Roth’s novel, Simon told Collider, is “an incredibly astute parlor drama, in which you experienced an American dry run at fascism, from within the lives of a vulnerable cohort… Jewish Americans, suddenly, were having their loyalties questioned and their politics questioned… That was the rhetoric of the moment, of isolationism and of Lindbergh and of America first, which is where that phrase originated.”

Read more: “It Can’t Happen Here:” The Horrifying Power of The Plot Against America

“We’re in the same moment now, but the vulnerable cohorts are people of black and brown skin and Muslims. They are being used as the feared other to drive a nationalism and a latent racism and anti-Semitism,” says Simon.

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” John Turturro

Despite being one of television’s finest writer-producers, Simon felt the weight of adapting the novel. “Roth is one of our great novelists,” he tells Salon. “For the first time I was adapting somebody’s novel and it wasn’t just any somebody, it was Philip Roth. …[T]he truth is every day I woke up feeling like, well, I’m a TV hack and I’m about to do surgery on a novel by Philip Roth. So staying true to the intent of the book, while also doing the things necessary to make it a viable miniseries, it was kind of agony.”

Read more: In the Decade Since The Wire, David Simon Has Produced TV That Matters

Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) and Morgan Spector (Homeland) play Elizabeth and Herman Levin, parents of two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson). Lionel Bengelsdorf, the politically conservative rabbi, who champions Lindbergh and joins his administration, is portrayed by John Turturro (Barton Fink). Winona Ryder (Heathers, Stranger Things) is Evelyn Finkel, Elizabeth’s sister who falls for the power and charisma of Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Winona Ryder

Simon had worked previously with Ryder on his HBO mini-series, Show Me a Hero. “She was very much ready to cast off the America’s ingenue mantle and start acting some hard adult roles,” Roth says in the Collider interview, “and she has the chops to do it, she really does.”

Explaining the difficulty of shooting a period piece to Salon, the producer says, “Everywhere you point the camera is wrong. Just finding a street where there weren’t so many wires, overhead wires that we had to paint out for 1940s Newark… Wherever you point the camera, something is historically wrong.“

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis

Director of Photography, Martin Ahlgren took inspiration from Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank, photographers active during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the golden age of photojournalism.

“The photographers of that period created images that told complicated human stories with authenticity and ambiguity,” Ahlgren tells No Film School, “The photographs have an elegance and immediacy that puts you right in the scene, often by using wider lenses close to the action, with greater depth of field, and framings that present levels of depth that allow us to look around and find multiple areas of interest.”

Watch This: Visualizing The Plot Against America

This webinar brings together cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, 1st AC Adriana Brunetto-Lipman, “A” camera operator Stewart Cantrell, SOC and colorist Jack Lewars from Technicolor Postworks for a conversation on the series. View the webinar here.

“I don’t think the photojournalism of that time was necessarily looking for deep focus, but there also wasn’t this kind of romanticism with shallow depth of field that we see today.” Ahlgren explains that “holding the foreground and background in focus can give intimate shots a larger-than-life quality, including the world, even in more intimate moments.”

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:”

The DP tested five cameras to find the right combination of shooting format and resolution. “I thought going in that the RED Helium was going to be a real contender, because it has a tight pixel pitch making it possible to record on a small part of the sensor and still have enough resolution, but we didn’t think it had the right look for this project. …What won out in the end was the Sony VENICE windowed down to a smaller sensor size at 3K. It’s not to say it’s a superior camera, but for our purposes, with the windowed sensor and higher ISO, it won me over.”

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis

“Principal photography used three different shooting modes on the VENICE – 3K, 4K, and 6K,” writes Daron James. “In 3K, the windowed sensor is about 18mm wide across, which is between Super 16 and Super 35. When Ahlgren felt he could get the desired depth of field with just the aperture, he turned to 4K. 6K was used sparingly to add emotional depth to a character or a plot point. Ahlgren had set of Canon Cine Primes that covered the 6K sensor, so he could dial in super shallow focus when the story called for isolating a character from their surroundings or to create a more subjective point-of-view.

“The main lenses were a set of spherical Kowa Cine Prominar primes from the ‘60s,” Ahlgren tells James. “The thing with most lenses is that they show most of their optical aberrations wide open. Since we were planning to shoot at apertures as high as T16, I was looking for lenses that expressed character at deeper stops. The Kowas have beautiful flares, but they also have this veiling glare to the image when there is a bright source in the frame and it didn’t really change when you stopped them down. That was one of the reasons I liked them, knowing we would be using these deep stops.”

“While the events in the story do not represent what actually happened in history, the cinematographer wanted it to feel like it was very much a possible path for America during that time. “The choices people made or didn’t make back then are very similar to the choices we face today. We wanted the imagery to be authentic and honest, and feel just as much in the moment as any other story told today.”  To read the full interview, click here.

Read more: The Wire Forever: David Simon on the Quarantine Favorite and His Equally Pissed-Off New Show, The Plot Against America

“As citizens, this is our moment. This is our historical pivot. What happens in the next year or two is gonna affect the future of our Republic, if our Republic does, indeed, have a future. It’s that critical. Democracy and freedom, and the freedom that democracy provides, are never entirely won. It’s a daily struggle. …If you stop demanding your own freedom and your own civil liberties, they disappear. This generation of the electorate is now being challenged, in ways that previous generations were also challenged. How we behave, in how we vote, whether we have the capacity to resist, and what we’re willing to tolerate and not tolerate, are essential questions. So, I wanted those questions in the air, after you watch this piece, and I hope they are.”

“There’s something that my father used to say every Passover,” Simon tells Maureen Ryan. “He may have lifted it from somewhere, but he said it every year. He said that ‘freedom is something that can never be completely won.’ There’s never a moment where it’s not under threat. There’s never a moment where it’s perfectly achieved. There’s never a moment where it’s extended to all the people who require and demand that freedom. It’s never a completed project.

“This generation of Americans has now found out how fragile our form of governance actually is, how it relies on people to observe the law and to hold the law in regard and to share in a belief in certain norms and institutions that are above the political sphere,” Simon continues. “Fewer and fewer people now credit that idea. I think this is a terrifying moment. I’m very proud of Plot for basically making this argument.” To read the full interview, click here.

The Plot Against America, is currently running on HBO and is available streaming and on demand.

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