One last Thursday, Creative Director Chantal Smith sat down with actor Jon Hamm and writer-producer John Mankiewicz outside Studio 525, Chelsea, to give them a taste of the party space for the premiere of their new docudrama, “The Big Lie,” debuting the following night at the Tribeca Film Festival. Hamm wore aviator sunglasses, a brown denim jacket and cuffed jeans; Mankiewicz wore a suit with no tie. two intrigued. Smith gestured towards the entrance, which would be carpeted in red and surrounded by lights. “It looks glamorous from the outside, but you’ll quickly find out that not everything is as it seems,” said “The Big Lie,” in which Hamm plays an FBI agent, is set in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, among blacklisted writers and directors struggling to make a film about the theme of workers’ rights while being treated as political subversives what. Hamm’s character, via suave duplicity, attempts to stop them.
“The Big Lie” is a podcast, on Audible. “All of these shapes are breaking down and realigning,” Hamm said. (The once film-only Tribeca festival now encompasses many genres, including virtual reality.) Smith led them down a hallway, amid noisy set construction, describing the space’s upcoming features. : vintage anti-commie propaganda, audio of HUAC testimony, markers suspended above the head, theatrical fog. Hamm suddenly spotted a friend and greeted him with a hug that seemed ready to take off. “It’s our manager, Aaron Lipstadt,” Mankiewicz said.
Next: an FBI office, with mid-century typewriters and a trench coat, and which, like a Sterling Cooper office, was also a bar. Clippings and photographs of film industry leftists were laid out like a murder board, bound together by tangles of string; Hamm looked at a diagram titled “How to Detect a Lie”. The first episode of the podcast, broadcast in the next room, would be augmented with star projections evoking the Griffith Observatory; a game of shadows; and screen images that failed to make a movie from a podcast. After a preview, Hamm praised the shadow cast. “Sounds very cool, guys,” he said.
In a green room, Hamm lay down on a couch. “I run with fumes,” he said. “Five countries in four days, doing the ‘Top Gun’ thing.” Hamm, Tom Cruise’s foil in “Top Gun: Maverick,” had recently attended premieres on an aircraft carrier (Cruise arrived by helicopter); at the Ritz in London (with members of the British royal family); at Cannes ; etc The podcasts, he said, had a certain appeal: “You don’t have to buy three hundred cars and populate Hollywood Boulevard. It’s all in your head, isn’t it?
“The Big Lie” is set in the midst of the making of the 1954 film “Salt of the Earth,” a neorealist drama about a 1950 zinc miners’ strike in New Mexico, written by Michael Wilson, directed by Herbert J. Biberman and produced by Paul Jarrico, all of whom were blacklisted by the film industry for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “Salt” was seen as particularly dangerous to his pro-worker bent. In 1997, Jarrico, then eighty-two years old, offered Mankiewicz an idea for a screenplay: the story of “Salt”, from the point of view of an FBI agent. It sold as a movie, and soon after Jarrico was honored at an industry dinner at the Academy in Beverly Hills. “It was the fiftieth anniversary of the blacklist. He was the one who restored everyone’s credits,” Mankiewicz said. “They reconstructed the story of Paul HUAC testimony, which was fantastic. While returning to Ojai, he had an accident with a car and was killed. Jarrico’s wife, Lia, asked Mankiewicz to write the screenplay.
Mankiewicz, grandson of Herman (“Citizen Kane”) and son of screenwriter Don, is a longtime television writer and producer; he met Hamm on “The Division,” a Lifetime crime drama, in the early 2000s. “I was the token guy,” Hamm said. At the time Mankiewicz approached Hamm about “The Big Lie,” Hamm was starring in “Mad Men.” He liked the script. “But I was, like, ‘Well, he’s a guy with a hat who smokes cigarettes and drinks – that’s kind of my day job.’ The audio, and the current era, present it in a different light: “the power of the big lie,” and the pandemic, and the climate of the big shutdown. Hamm pointed his thumb east. “We’ve got this for granted now. But go to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory monument and know what working conditions were like before the unions, right?”
Calling the podcast “The Big Lie” had received some pushback after Jan. 6: “There’s the other Big Lie in the news,” Mankiewicz said.
Circa “Mad Men”, Hamm watched the BBC documentary “The Century of the Self”, which highlighted some salient concepts about Freud, propaganda, politics and public relations: “He talks about hitting those centers of pleasure, of feeding that ego, of giving people what they want: creating the itch and selling you the balm. It’s Don Draper, basically. This idea of the big lie is a story as old as time. And it’s It’s a remarkably effective way to get people to do what you want.
“And you can attach the big lie to stories and songs,” Mankiewicz said.
“Woody Guthrie on one side, Toby Keith on the other.”
“This side doesn’t have good music,” Mankiewicz said.
“Don’t say that at a Nascar rally,” Hamm said. ♦