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FALL SNEAKS | Man of the Year

What it takes to win the election

September 10, 2006

BARRY LEVINSON, Oscar-winning director of 1988's "Rain Man" as well as hits such as "Diner," "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Wag the Dog," had to pound the pavement for backing on his latest movie.

His off-putting pitch? The political satire "Man of the Year," in which Robin Williams plays a Jon Stewart-esque talk show host/comedian named Tom Dobbs who, on a whim, runs for president of the United States.

"A couple of studios turned it down without even reading it," says Levinson. "I would say, 'This isn't like I am trying to do some really earnest kind of piece. I think it says things, but it's entertaining.' But that alone was enough for some studios to pass and not read it."

Universal finally gave the film, opening Oct. 13, the green light but kept a tight hold on the budget. Levinson shot it for less than $20 million in just 42 days. "It looks like a studio film, but we're probably half -- or even more than half -- below a normally budgeted studio film because of the subject matter."

Levinson and Williams have been good friends since he directed the actor to his first Oscar nomination as the wisecracking, irreverent disc jockey in 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam." They reunited with less-than-stellar results for 1992's "Toys." "I had him in mind when I started to write," Levinson says of his new film.

As with "Good Morning," this film allows Williams to show off his rapid-fire comic timing, especially in Dobbs' television debate with the two main presidential candidates. Though Dobbs has been told to be reserved during the debate, he lets his feelings and frustration about the state of the country fly freely: "If you're representing special interest groups, maybe we should be like NASCAR with the little patches on the back: 'Enron. We take your money and run!' "

Levinson says that most of that scene's tirade was scripted, but he and Williams tried variations on a theme once on the set. "We blend the things together so you can't tell one from the other in the mix with it," he says.

"You have to find a way that it all seems spontaneous. He has such a great mind, you have to find a way to ... blend all of that into the piece and sound like it's off the cuff."

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-- Susan King

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