Behind the scenes of HBO’s new Watergate show White House Plumbers: ‘it’s a really funny tragedy’

 (© HBO)
(© HBO)

There’s a moment in HBO’s new show White House Plumbers that really has to be seen to be believed.

The two protagonists, E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, are outside the office of psychiatrist Lewis J. Fielding. They are wearing wigs, glasses and outlandish costumes; Liddy is faking a limp. To gather information, they are posing as tourists of the local area, taking photos of each other posing next to Fielding’s car, office and even parking space.

Naturally, those pictures end up in the hands of the CIA – and so begins the entire Watergate saga.

Batty as it seems, it really did happen; in fact, very little about the show has been made up. The show follows Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and Liddy (Justin Theroux) as they try their best to get the then-President Nixon re-elected, and end up sinking him instead. As the show says, “no names have been changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty.”

“The tone is really one of the most unique things about the show. And it honestly comes from the source material,” director David Mandel says. “I like to say it’s a really funny tragedy. And that’s honestly what it was. We didn’t write jokes. There aren’t any jokes.”

Instead, Mandel (who has worked on shows such as Veep, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) says the comedic elements come from the absurdity of the situation Hunt and Liddy find themselves in, in their misguided attempts to protect the President they see as a hero.

“On the one hand, this was a horrific abuse of power by the Nixon administration, by two guys who broke the law,” he explains, “and yet, as horrible and as tragic as the story is, when there are these moments where you can’t help laughing and you almost sometimes can’t believe you’re laughing.”

 (© HBO)
(© HBO)

“I think it deserves to be comedic,” says Lena Headey, who plays Dorothy, Hunt’s wife. “The fact that women alone in that time period are expected to do all these things to stay in marriages… that’s ridiculous in itself, and then you pile on top of that the political f***ery that went on that was sort of celebrated by some and to see it outed like this, I think is wonderful.”

Over the course of the show, Dorothy has to put up with Hunt’s mad plotting, his strained relationship with their children and his highly questionable taste in spying partners.

It mades for a toxic mix – and indeed, Harrelson also didn’t much like his on-screen character. “I didn’t think he was a very good person, but it was fun doing it and it was fun being teamed up with Justin; it was always a lot of hilarity,” he says.

“My character was heavily documented in his own life is because he was a bit of a showman,” adds Theroux. He’s understating it rather: in the show, Liddy is said to be a fan of Adolf Hitler and carries a pistol around at all times.

He is also behind the bonkers Project Gemstone, a multi-strand operation designed to sabotage the Democratic presidential run with tactics including cocaine, strippers and bugging. Naturally, each of these operations is named after a different gemstone, running the gamut from Ruby to Topaz (though ultimately only Opal, which involves bugging the Democrats’ campaign offices, gets the green light).

“The things I found sort of loathsome about Gordon Liddy the man, I really over the course of the filming started to fall in love with, because I think you have to kind of love your character in order to play them. You can’t judge them while you’re playing them,” says Theroux.

With such over the top characters, the pair explain, things could sometimes get a little rowdy. “Dave Mandel had to keep us a little bit in line so that we didn’t go too broad sometimes. Because both of us will go over the top, if he leaves the opening for that,” Harrelson says.

“Yeah, Dave was really good at adjusting the volume knobs down,” Theroux adds, while Headey confesses that while there are a “lot of rules” on film sets. “When you go old school, and you’re all of the same era, there is definitely mischief. And definitely, you’re allowed to say and do certain things, and no one gets offended… it was fun to return to.”

Set as it is in the Seventies, this is very much a period drama. The show’s costumes, cars and interiors all reflect the tastes of the era, much to the chagrin of Theroux. “The 70s is probably, just me personally, my least favourite decade of clothing,” he says.

 (© HBO)
(© HBO)

“Because it’s made with so much plastic and it’s so hideous. So with all respect to the costume designer who I thought did a fabulous job sourcing all the clothing… it felt like you were wearing a plastic bedsheet half the time and we were shooting in summertime, so I was constantly sweating mortar shells.”

“Then the cars, we learned, aside from belching enormous amounts of smoke out of the backs of them, are very unreliable in the 70s. Constantly, we were having to push cars into parking spaces, because we couldn’t get the car working.”

Fifty years on from the plastic and scandal-ridden Seventies, is Watergate still even relevant? Mandel insists it is – more so than ever, in fact.

“I think in [America], a lot of people have forgotten… I think we tricked ourselves into going well, now everything is fine. And I think what we’re seeing are these abuses of power, unfortunately, maybe systemic, and I’m sure it’s not something we really want to talk about too much.”

For Mandel, the system is broken, and people like Liddy and Hunt – who operated, essentially, as the President’s henchmen – draw uncomfortable parallels with today.

“I think it’s an incredible lens [through which] to look at what’s going on in America right now, where a lot of people have, I think, made the mistake of going, ‘It’s never been like this before.’ You know, I think something sometimes you hear about Trump is, ‘Oh my God, he’s doing things no one’s ever done before. He’s breaking the norms’.

“No, he did it louder. He did it a little more obviously, and with a lot less tact, but you can draw a direct line from his presidency, right on back to the Nixon presidency.”

All episodes of White House Plumbers will be available from May 30 on Sky Atlantic and NOW