Poltical strategist and ''All the King's Men'' executive producer James Carville discusses why Robert Penn Warren's power-drunk Willie Stark still speaks to us today

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated September 22, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: James Carville: Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic.com

Political strategist James Carville, aka ”The Ragin’ Cajun,” has steered winning electoral campaigns on four continents, most famously Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Now, he finally shares his insights on Slick Willie and the impeachment. No, not that Slick Willie. Carville is also an executive producer on All the King’s Men, Hollywood’s third go-around with Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story about Willie Stark, a Southern politician who courts controversy as well as voters.

JAMES CARVILLE: Goddamn, this is a lot of work. When a political campaign is over in November, you would get so depressed because everything is over. And I’m already getting depressed about all of this going away. Even though it’s tiring and running around. As they say in New Orleans, 500 restaurants and five recipes. There’s a thousand people asking you the same five questions.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My apologies in advance… What drew you to Penn Warren’s book?
I was interested in politics and I was from Louisiana. My grandfather was on what they call a police jury. It’s like being a county commissioner. My dad had a general store and he always made the parking lot available for politicians. I probably read the book when I was like 16 or 17, and I thought it was just very layered. And it was also a story that I could understand because it was about something I knew. Locally. But I’ve always been more driven by the elements of the story than the fact that it was about politics.

Is there something to Willie Stark’s theory that good comes from evil? Is that a deal we all have to come to terms with?
Yes, of course. Sometimes the right thing gets done for the wrong reason and sometimes, unfortunately, the wrong thing gets done for the right reason. One of the things I’ve noticed in politics, that I find mildly amusing is, we tend to go to motive. We say, ”Well, he meant well.” Well sometimes, poor judgment is a reason to vote people out of office. But we like a narrative and it’s hard to have good people always doing the right thing or bad people always doing bad things. Sure, if it’s Nazis or Al Qaeda or Mother Teresa, that works out. Unfortunately, most of us fit somewhere in between.

In the story, idealism is not exactly a virtue. As someone who’s been in those trenches, do you think idealism has any real value in today’s politics?
If you didn’t have some sense of idealism, then what is there to sustain you? Which is one of the reasons I’m not sure how I feel about Willie, a pure pragmatist. But the movie doesn’t ask you to like him; it asks you to think about it. I think it would have been a terrible book if Willie had been this heroic man who had no desire but to help people, you know what I mean?

Do today’s politicians need a little Willie Stark in them?
I think you need a little. You have to have sharp elbows if you want to change something. When I think of this film, the thing that I most enjoy about it is the searing relevance it has. We didn’t know this when we started, but an important part of the film is the shoddy materials in the school. Thank God no one in the 21st century would put shoddy materials in a levee, now would they? Okay? When you sort of think about the whole battle over how much power Stark was wielding, thank God we’re not having an argument in this country about power and its limits. You know what I mean? You think about impeachment. You think about participation: ”You don’t vote, you don’t matter.” Penn Warren comes out of his 1946 novel and literally slaps you across the face.

How has your experience been as an executive producer?
I was in Toronto, and I made the point that on this entire project, I’ve never seen any backbiting and jealousy. The studio never lied to me. Everybody did what they said they were going to do. The cast, we all went to dinner together. I don’t want to do this again because I’m not naïve — I know that I had a one in a thousand experience. And I just don’t want to ruin it.

Speaking of one-in-a-thousand experiences, it’s quite a cast: Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, James Gandolfini, Anthony Hopkins, Patricia Clarkson….
And Kathy Baker, Jackie Earle Haley. Freddie Forrest. There were no shoe clerks in this poker game. Anywhere.

Did you have any discussion with the actors about their characters or their accents?
The question of accents is an interesting one. Most people don’t realize that in New Orleans, someone like Tiny Duffy spoke in what you would refer to as Brooklynese, so [Gandolfini’s] accent was actually perfect for that role… The people at the Landing, the southern aristocracy, would’ve never spoken in what you might call the NASCAR drawl. In fact, they would’ve been horrified by it. And Patricia’s from New Orleans, so she sounded just like a New Orleans city girl would’ve. So people [who criticize some of the film’s accents] just don’t understand that and the nature of acting.

The film is acknowledged to be based on Louisiana 1930s governor Huey Long. Is he still a beloved figure in your homestate?
I think he was actually a very polemic figure. He obviously was a man who was consumed by power. I think Long probably ran more on energy and staying at things and accumulating. They had this thing called the doodad box where all the state employees had to pony up a certain amount of their take to the cause, which was basically the bottom of Long’s pocket. There’s a statue of him on the capital grounds, and my family — we were a little bit of Bourbons — would say, ”Can you believe those stupid people [who supported him]? Some of them out there were waiting for him to rise on the third day.”

Not every story has to have a moral, but do you think King’s Men has one?
Time brings all things to light. The film doesn’t draw a conclusion for you, but it revolves around the question of power and how’s it used, and how it’s abused. And how it evolves. The more I think about it, sometimes, it leads to the wisdom of the Framers, who were very concerned about Power. How to split it up. I do think that somehow or another, the book and the film ask you to think about that.

You’ve been very out front in the marketing of the film. Any similarities between this and running a political campaign?
It’s quite a different endeavor because in a campaign, a candidate is a person. You never know what they’re going to say. I mean, I guess you don’t know if an actor’s going to throw a telephone or something, you know what I mean? Get caught screwing the hotel maid or something.

Any suggestions for Arnold in California?
He’s proved himself to be pretty resilient. He came in one way and he ended up another way. I don’t think entertainers are any more or less successful at politics than other people who come into it. Reagan was the head of the union and he had written a lot before he started running for office. So he wasn’t just some actor who had decided to burst on the scene. I think Schwarzenegger’s story is not typical but atypical. Watching him, it’s amazing how he’s learned to adapt.

All the King's Men (Movie - 2006)

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 120 minutes
  • Steve Zaillian