In late 2003, after almost a decade as an assistant director, I got a chance to direct my first feature film, a helicopter-chase picture with plenty of pyro and not so much coherent dialogue. But then someone forgot to tell someone else to talk to Billy Bob, and the film evaporated, just like that. I didn’t take it well: many nights drinking, many nights drunk. So when the voice on the phone said that someone important wanted to meet me, I didn’t ask any more questions, just headed over to Chip’s Coffee Shop as I was told.
The President was dressed down, way down, in a worn-out denim jacket, mustard-colored cords, and a fishing hat. He also had a three-day growth of beard, and while the disguise was not a spectacular one, no one else in the diner recognized him. He was sitting at the counter, balancing a salt shaker on a mound of salt. I took the stool next to him and said, “Are you Marvin?” That was the code name the voice on the phone had instructed me to use; I later learned it was the President’s own choice, after the cartoon character Marvin the Martian. (When I say later, I mean about twenty seconds later, when the President told me. Then he laughed at his own joke. “Marvin,” he said. “Now that’s a real knee-slapper.” Then he slapped his own knee.)
When he spoke next, it was in a whisper—although I should say that it was the loudest whisper I have ever heard, far louder than normal talking. It was like he didn’t get whispering. “My name is George,” he said. “But I’m Marvin in here.” He balanced the salt shaker again. “I ordered us some pie. I know you love pie. Don’t ask me how I know. I just know. Let me ask you something. Have you heard about my manned Mars mission idea?”
“Only what’s been reported in the—”
“Shhh,” he said. “No talking. Just nodding.”
“Well,” he said, “ever since I announced it, I’ve been getting the business from the press. They say it costs too much, that it’s too much trouble, that the country doesn’t need it.”
“So I’ve been thinking,” he said. He took a pencil out from behind his ear and handed it to me. “They say that the Mars mission will cost at least $500 billion. Do you know how many 0’s there are in a billion?” I waited for him to continue, but it was rapidly apparent that this was not a rhetorical question. I nodded again. “You can tell me,” he said quickly.
“You mean how many zeroes?” I said. “Nine.”
“And,” he said, raising his voice to a deafening whisper again, “how much would it cost you to pull off a manned Mars mission?”
“I work in movies, Marvin.”
“Exactly,” he said.
A cold chill went across the base of my neck. Either that or someone had opened the meat freezer.
“Do we understand each other?” he said. “How much would it cost to make the best Mars movie?”
“I could do it for a hundred million,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Now minus that from the bigger number.”
“That leaves four hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred million dollars.”
Our pie came. It was a whole pie. “Imagine this is a whole pie,” the President said. “If what you tell me is right, then we can save almost all of this pie if we make the Mars thing as a movie instead of actually sending people there. And we can use the rest of the money to fight terrorism and improve the nation’s public-school systems.”
“Hear me out.” The President snapped his fingers. The waitress came over and lifted up her apron. There was a black handgun tucked into her waistband.
It was as a result of that conversation that I directed the film Manned Mars Mission. We filmed on location outside of Sedona, Arizona, and the President was present for most of the two-week shoot, albeit in his Marvin disguise. It was a fraught production. For starters, it was difficult to conceal its existence; we told anyone who asked that we were filming a Taco Bell commercial. In addition, I had to convince the President that it was a bad idea to use a recognizable performer like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film, even though I agreed that he had “kicked all kinds of red-planet ass” in Total Recall and probably was “a real-deal expert on the place.”
A few more points of interest about the film: The spots of “Martian blood” found on rocks were not in fact real Martian blood, but rather a mixture of ordinary tap water and green food coloring. Not much of our budget went to that. Most was spent building the life-size spaceship and creating fossils of “Mars dinosaurs” at the President’s request.
While I see now that my participation in the film was ill-considered, I should say that at the time I actually believed that the billions of dollars saved would be reallocated to education and homeland safety. I was not aware that much of the remaining money would be spent erecting a gigantic solid-gold cowboy boot outside the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, complete with a diamond spur. This whole sordid episode has left me even more disillusioned than I was right after I lost the helicopter-chase movie. To be perfectly honest, these days I cannot even look at a pie.