Like many Americans, R.J. Cutler has been glued to the news ever since Donald Trump defied the pundits and captured the presidency. On a nightly basis, the documentary filmmaker behind “The War Room” will channel surf to catch up on the latest Twitter missives, staff feuds, cabinet secretary scandals, and intimations of Russian collusion all emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“People are so caught up in the stories of what’s going on in the White House,” Cutler told Variety. “After the election happened, I started waking up at 3 a.m. to listen to ‘Morning Joe’ and not falling asleep until after Brian Williams finished his broadcast. I’ve always been drawn to politics, but this story is taking place at such a hyped up level.”
If only, Cutler thought, he could listen in to the drama unfolding in the Trump orbit. That germ of an idea is leading to “The Oval Office Tapes,” the filmmaker’s inaugural foray into podcasting. It’s also the first venture of its kind for Blumhouse Television, the small screen arm of the company behind “Get Out” and “The Purge.” Though the studio made its name in horror filmmaking, it is branching out into other genres, particularly when it comes to television. It is planning shows on a range of political topics including adaptations of Gabriel Sherman’s “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” the story of Fox News founder Roger Ailes’ rise and fall, and Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” an examination of Steve Bannon’s alliance with Trump.
“We’ve been exploring stories that are not just about the monsters under the bed, but the things that keep us up at night,” said Marci Wiseman, co-president of Blumhouse TV. “The current political environment has certainly lent us a lot of those type of stories. It’s been something of a happy accident for our brand even if it’s not a happy accident for the country.”
“The Oval Office Tapes” imagines a world in which Omarosa Manigault-Newman isn’t the only one secretly recording the leader of the free world. What if that soccer ball Vladimir Putin gave to President Trump at the ill-fated Helsinki summit was covered in microscopic microphones? And what if, Cutler and his team posit, President Trump insisted on keeping the ball in a place of great honor in the Oval Office? Add to that the tapes that the president’s attorney Michael Cohen made or the ones that Omarosa has been shopping around and there are a number of different ways that Cutler’s team could have theoretically found audio.
The 10-episode series is going into production this month and will launch in September and will be presented on a weekly basis. It will be a pulled-from-the-headlines saga, but one that will present a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of Team Trump.
“The thematic core of what this show is about will be what ever is driving that week’s new cycle,” said Jeremy Gold, co-president of Blumhouse TV. “We’re going to really think about not just the latest scandal, but what’s the story that’s the engine of events.”
Actors will portray the main cast of characters, Cutler said. Casting of key roles, which will include everyone from Trump allies to members of the “fake news,” is currently taking place. If all goes well, Blumhouse envisions “The Oval Office Tapes” one day inspiring a similar type of television show. As it stands, by keeping it as a podcast, Blumhouse can gauge audience interest for a fraction of the cost it would take to film something.
“The Oval Office Tapes” will be released via Cadence13, the podcasting network that counts Goop, Recode, and Vanity Fair among its podcasting partners. The company hopes that the venture will be the first of many such partnerships with Blumhouse. At a time when podcasts such as “Crime Town” and “Comedy Bang Bang” have gone viral and roughly 67 million Americans consume at least one podcast a month, Cadence13 is trying to stand out from the pact by offering higher class production values and aligning themselves with household names.
“From our standpoint as a premium focused network it’s very attractive to be aligned with one of the hottest production houses in Hollywood,” said Chris Corcoran, Cadence13′ chief content officer. “The finish project will speak for itself, but I think this is going to redefine the podcasting landscape.”
Casting is currently underway and the show’s backers say the material will not be satiric. It will presented in a straight-forward fashion, much in the style of “The West Wing.” Nor will it have an overt political message.
“This will be an authentic dramatization of what might be going on,” said Wiseman. “People can draw their own conclusions about whether or not these folks should continue to be running the country. We have a point of view, but that will not be front and center.”
To fashion the story and find the right tone, Cutler and his team have been devouring hours of tapes recorded by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (we all know how that turned out!). They’ve already mocked up scripts based on previous scandal-filled Trump weeks, such as that time the president threatened to rein down “fire and fury” on North Korea.
“This White House is operating at a level that’s almost beyond belief,” said Cutler. “Its behavior is startling, shocking, and unprecedented and it’s all happening on a daily basis.”
As a filmmaker, Cutler has impressed audiences with his ability to gain access to the seats of power and to document the American political system in action. “The War Room,” for instance, provided an insider account of how Bill Clinton’s campaign deftly snuffed out controversies and drove the news cycle, outmaneuvering George H.W. Bush’s camp en route to an upset victory. It was an impressive feat of reporting.
Once again, Cutler has surrounded himself with collaborators with journalistic chops. Scott Conroy, a reporter and the author of “Sarah From Alaska,” will serve as show runner and will co-write the episodes. Conroy also has worked as a screenwriter, having created and run the Verizon Go90 series “Embeds.”
Producer Trevor Smith, and Mary Lisio, EVP Alternative and Non-Scripted Programming at Blumhouse Television, previously worked with Cutler at the director’s label Actual Reality Pictures. Chris Dickie, VP of Development at Blumhouse Television will also oversee the project.
Cutler seems alternately excited and horrified by the chaos and spectacle engulfing Washington. As a storyteller he seems to relish the drama unfolding. As a citizen he’s concerned.
“We can sense history playing out before our very eyes,” said Cutler. “We’re not at the beginning of the story and we’re not at the end. We’re somewhere in the middle. It’s clear that whether Donald Trump’s term ends in 2020 or continues for six more years, his presidency will have changed the definition of America.”