“Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” That’s the advice that Sam Rayburn once gave a young Lyndon Johnson. It was also on the mind of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Robert Schenkkan as he crafted All the Way, his drama about LBJ’s first year in the White House. Taking on the legacy of the controversial president was an epic task but one that ultimately resonated with critics and audiences alike. The production set box-office records and in 2014 won the Tony Award for best play. On May 21 the film version, starring Bryan Cranston, premieres on HBO.
Brian D. Sweany: Robert, I was fortunate to see you at the LBJ Presidential Library, in Austin, for both the Civil Rights Summit, in 2014, and the Vietnam War Summit, in April. Did you learn anything about Johnson at those events that surprised you?
Robert Schenkkan: Both summits were fascinating, and certainly a wide range of views was expressed. I learned some things that I hadn’t read or heard before. But in general it seemed to be of a piece. I don’t think anyone reversed my position. It was more of a question of getting a little more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the man and his time. I’ll give you one example. I understood a bit about the relationship LBJ had with the press, but to hear Dan Rather talking with Peter Arnett about the coverage of the Vietnam war and how different it was compared with today was really illuminating.
BDS: Both of those summits were pivoting off events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Johnson administration. It seems that as a result, Johnson is having a cultural moment. Your play has been a tremendous success, and Rob Reiner has a film coming out about Johnson, starring Woody Harrelson. Could you have predicted that when you wrote All the Way?
RS: No, I didn’t. I had been thinking about LBJ for a long time, having grown up in Austin and the Hill Country. But when I started to write this seven or eight years ago, we weren’t really seeing the kind of attention we’re seeing today. Part of it is because there are so many anniversaries related to his administration. Part of it is a certain nostalgia—people are so frustrated with gridlock that they’re looking back on a time when Congress got shit done. And part of it is a factor of time. The national trauma of Vietnam hasn’t healed, but enough time has gone by that people can look at the period with a bit more objectivity.
And I also have to say that my own work has also contributed to this conversation. The play and the film really entered into the national conversation and made people sit up and reconsider what they might have thought about LBJ. Certainly his domestic achievements have been buried under the weight of his foreign policy.
BDS: One notable aspect of this production is the star power Bryan Cranston brings to the lead role. What did you see in him as LBJ that the average person would not have seen?
RS: When we were looking to cast the part, the casting director would ask, “What are we looking for?” And I would say, “We need an actor who can be funny, charming, and charismatic and simultaneously terrifying.” And if you look at Bryan’s career—the balance between Malcolm in the Middle, which is so funny and so broad in its physicality, and then his chilling turn as Walter White in Breaking Bad—he really has all of that as a performer.
That makes him the perfect actor to play LBJ, who had so many gifts—the charm, the wit, the lively intellect. But the public was less aware of those aspects of his personality because, in one of those terrible ironies, LBJ was a very insecure man, especially in comparison to Jack Kennedy. He worried constantly that people would not think he was presidential enough, and so he created this public persona that was mercilessly mocked—very somber, ponderous, weighty. And that was not like the man in private. Everybody describes him as unbelievably charismatic and funny, a dead-on mimic, a great raconteur. It’s fascinating that a man who could be so analytical about the nuances of politics could be so blind about himself.
BDS: He was grappling with being president in the television age, and the camera was often unforgiving of his looks.
RS: It was pretty hard to follow Jack Kennedy in that regard, and particularly under those circumstances. There’s a story of a public speech that he gave, and the stand-up mic wasn’t working. So his press team pinned a lapel mic on him, and because he wasn’t tied to a podium and could move across the stage, he opened up. He was suddenly that guy that everyone knew privately. He just killed it, and the press ate it up. And he came off the stage furious and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
BDS: The critical success of All the Way has been stunning, but I wonder how you think it has translated to film. What did you gain as a writer and director? And what did you lose going from the stage to the screen?
RS: This is a full cinematic translation. We didn’t just shoot the play, nor were any of us interested in that. From the beginning we wanted to make a real movie, so we’ve really moved things around. The film really gave me an opportunity to go back in and do things I hadn’t been able to do in the stage version. For example, we expanded on the LBJ–Lady Bird relationship, which I felt was a little underserved in the play. And there’s an opportunity to explore the nuances of LBJ’s personality and behavior and to give a sense of the size and passion of the social landscape of 1964, which you can only suggest onstage. But in film, you can really get into it. Then there’s just fun stuff! LBJ had an aqua car, and he loved to invite unsuspecting guests for a ride on the ranch, and then he would pretend to lose control of the car and drive it into a lake. I just thought, “Oh my god! That’s so fantastic! We have to put that into the movie!”
BDS: The film also gave you the chance to work with Steven Spielberg again, whom you had partnered with for his production of The Pacific on HBO.
RS: Steven is completely obsessed with politics and history and extremely knowledgeable. So it’s deeply pleasurable to talk with him about these things because he really knows what he’s talking about. His curiosity is very vibrant. He’s such a skilled filmmaker. I always learn when I’m working with Steven. But yet, it’s all about joy for him. He’s not a tortured artist at all. He’s in love with what he does. He feels very happy about it. When you’re on a set in the claustrophobic world of making a movie, that’s a great quality to have in your executive producer.
BDS: You mentioned that you had been thinking about LBJ for a long time. As I recall, your family has a connection to him.
RS: I think of myself as an adopted Texan, and I had lived there since I was two years old. My father was hired by the University of Texas to come to Austin and set up what would be the first public television and radio station in the Southwest. His first job on arrival was to go to then Senator Johnson and get his permission—any television and radio station would have been a direct competitor to LBJ’s media empire. I’m pleased to say LBJ not only gave his permission but later, as president, signed into law the bill that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
There’s a story of an invitation we received to visit the LBJ Ranch, and my family drives out there in a station wagon, which gets stuck in the mud and Johnson comes out and helps get our car back on the road. It sounds apocryphal to me, but it’s been told enough in my family to be accepted on faith. I was too young to remember any of this, so I asked my oldest brother, Pete, who is a lawyer in Austin, if he remembered it, and he said, “Oh, yes.” And I said, “What was he like?” and he said, “I don’t really remember Senator Johnson. What I remember of the event is how incredibly respectful our father became around this strange man.” Which in its own way is probably a more revealing anecdote about LBJ.
BDS: What is your relationship to the Johnson family today? They are vigilant protectors of the administration and its legacy.
RS: I think they’ve been very generous with me. I know they’re not always comfortable with what I’ve written, and they have on occasion shared their concerns about this or that, which I always take very seriously. I think they play very fair with me, and I like to think that I have with them. It cannot have been easy to grow up in that family, and I have a profound respect for Luci and Lynda and their families and how they have really tried to honor and promote their father’s legacy. To host the Vietnam summit, I think, “Wow, that’s really grabbing the bull by the horns.” I’m sure there were many challenging moments for them, but I thought they were extremely gracious and generous about it. That’s been my experience with them.
BDS: All the Way captures an exhilarating moment in the Johnson administration, but of course, as the administration moves forward, the country begins to pull apart over the strain of Vietnam and riots in the cities. How have you handled that?
RS: The sequel to All the Way, which is called The Great Society, had its world premiere a year and a half ago also at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It received a very warm review in the New York Times, and we are working right now to bring it to New York hopefully in the 2017–2018 season. It does pick up where All the Way leaves off, November ’64, on the heels of the landslide election victory. And the penultimate scene is in March ’68, when LBJ shocks the country by going on television announcing that he will not be running for reelection. In Shakespearean terms—and Shakespeare very much has been my model for both plays—it’s the full turn of the wheel: the man who had nothing and then aspired to the crown and seized the throne. And then he has to relinquish the crown and step away, largely because of circumstances connected to his own hubris. I say All the Way is drama, and The Great Society is tragedy. I do think there is a tragic quality to LBJ. The domestic policy was what was important to him, what was dear to his heart, and what he felt knowledgeable about and secure in. Not foreign policy. He was not a foreign policy expert, and I don’t think he would have ever considered himself one. He goes into Vietnam with his eyes open as early as 1964. You can listen to his phone conversation with Senator Richard Russell in which LBJ complains loudly that he doesn’t know why we’re there. He doesn’t see the point. What’s more, he doesn’t see any way to win, and he doesn’t see any way to get out. This is in 1964. He not only stays the course, but he doubles down and doubles down and doubles down. He would later say, “I always knew if I left the woman I loved, the Great Society, for that bitch of a war, it would ruin everything I ever wanted.” And it did. The fact that he knows that that’s what’s happening even as he can’t help but make those same decisions over and over again is tragic. And of course it was tragic for the country and for the 50,000-plus Americans who lost their lives and the million-plus Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians who lost their lives. The loss, the waste, is just staggering.
BDS: What do you think Johnson would have made of Donald Trump?
RS: I think Donald Trump is kind of an outlier. We have a long history of demagogues in this country—Huey Long, Senator Joseph McCarthy. And of course, Lyndon wrestled for a long time with Governor George Wallace, who was the first demagogue to successfully transfer the covert, entrenched Southern racism into a language that would resonate with blue-collar workers in the Midwest and the Northeast. It’s all a nod and a wink, but Trump’s really playing on one of the sad, enduring notes of the American character. Wallace only gets so far down the road because he is a Southerner and it’s impossible to escape that. Richard Nixon will pick that up in what becomes the Southern Strategy. This will become codified even further, and that’s sort of the way it’s been for fifty years, with the Republican party making that appeal, that dog whistle type of approach without actually saying it. When you talk about the president of the United States’ birth certificate or whether he’s Muslim, that’s part and parcel of the George Wallace thing. What’s interesting about Trump is that he had shed the niceties. He’s embraced the darkness. He’s done this interesting jujitsu move of embracing this and claiming it and taking pride in it. I think LBJ would have regarded Trump as a formidable competitor—he was much too shrewd to have underestimated someone like that—but I also think he would have looked forward to taking him apart.
BDS: Now that you’ve covered Johnson, what has captured your attention as a writer?
RS: My next project is a feature film that will be out in November called Hacksaw Ridge. It’s directed by Mel Gibson, and it’s a war story unlike any war story you have ever seen, about the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. In my copious free time I’m writing a movie for Robert Redford to direct about the Manhattan Project, and I have a couple of other plays in the works, including a children’s play. It’s a wide range of subjects and genres and platforms. I’m having fun. It’s a good time right now. It’s a really good time.