When The Makers Of CONTACT Pissed-Off The White House - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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When The Makers Of CONTACT Pissed-Off The White House

A disagreement between Hollywood and the White House? Well, that's nothing new...

Released on July 11th 1997, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact, Contact won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and received multiple awards and nominations at the Saturn Awards.

Based on an original screenplay by the American astronomer, science populiser and communicator, Carl Sagan, who together with Ann Druyan (who he later married) wrote a 100+ page film treatment back in November 1980, Contact became rather controversial upon release. Not only did it reveal that all astronauts on NASA missions were given suicide pills (which was denied by NASA but Sagan insisted was true), not only did it stoke debate about the cultural conflicts between religion and science, but it also managed to upset the then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

The reason behind this stems from a real life incident. A meteorite, thought to be from Mars, was found in Antarctica in 1984. Twelve years later, an article by a NASA scientist David S. McKay was published on August 6th 1996 in the journal Science, proposing that the meteorite might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria i.e. proof of life on Mars.

The announcement made headlines around the world, and the following day, on August 7th 1996, the then-President of the United States Bill Clinton commented on this discovery during a press conference on the White House south lawn.

Although McCay's proposal was later disputed, talk about potential life on Mars remained in the press for several weeks. At the time, Contact was already in pre-production at Warner Bros. with principal photography starting in the September of 1996. So this news was very likely fresh in everyone's minds.

During filming, in an attempt to ground the story in as much reality as possible, director Robert Zemeckis included real life news reporters to announce, discuss and comment on the sequence of repeating prime numbers and the building of the wormhole device. These comments from people like CNNs Larry King and Bernard Shaw were specially recorded for the film; fictional reports and newscasts, scripted, rehearsed, delivered and filmed (something which CNN later regretted authorising). But Zemeckis then went one step further, incorporating elements of Clinton's news conference from August 7th 1996 to further ground the science fiction tale and add a sense of gravitas to proceedings.

During the above press conference, Bill Clinton makes remarks that were in places sufficiently generic in nature to allow fragments of his videotaped statement to appear as if be he was ostensibly speaking about contact with extraterrestrial life, congruent with the film's story. The editing is very well done, and if you watch the clip above you can see exactly what was lifted and how it was cleverly edited to make it fit.
"Good afternoon. I'm glad to be joined by my science and technology adviser ...[words cut by film editors]... This is the product of years of exploration ...[words cut]... by some of the world's most distinguished scientists. Like all discoveries, this one will and should continue to be reviewed, examined, and scrutinized. It must be confirmed by other scientists. But clearly, the fact that something of this magnitude is being explored is another vindication ...[film scene performed over recording, with dialogue obscuring Clinton's remarks and creating a gap]... If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far reaching and awe inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental. We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people's future. Thank you."
The edited speech fits very well within the context of Contact, but, perhaps preempting the inevitable rejection, approval of its usage was never sought.

On July 14th 1997, three days after Contact opened in the United States, Warner Bros. received a letter from White House Counsel Charles Ruff addressed directly to director Robert Zemeckis. The letter protested against the use of Clinton's digitally-composited appearance. No demands were made, but the prose called the duration and manner of Clinton's appearance "inappropriate". No legal action was planned either; the White House Counsel simply wanted to send a message to Zemeckis and all of Hollywood that they were not happy and unauthorised use of the President's image was not OK.

The letter also sought to remind Zemeckis that official White House policy...
"...prohibits the use of the President in any way ... (that) implies a direct ... connection between the President and a commercial product or service".
The White House also released the letter to the media and, unsurprisingly, the content and its intention was raised during the White House daily briefing. The then White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, conceded that parody and satire are protected under the First Amendment, but asserted that President Clinton has as much right to protect the commercial use of his likeness and image as the next person.
“There is a difference when the President’s image, which is his alone to control, is used in a way that would lead the viewer to believe he has said something he really didn’t say.”
McCurry could not confirm if Clinton had actually seen Contact or not, but when asked if the White House would be taking the matter further, McCurry bluntly responded,
“We’d advise those in the creative community that there are some restrictions (on use of the President’s image), so that as they are doing their own creative work, they can understand better what those restrictions are.”
A Warner Bros. spokeswoman responded with the statement,
"We feel we have been completely frank and upfront with the White House on this issue. They saw scripts, they were notified when the film was completed, they were sent a print well in advance of the film's July 11 opening, and we have confirmation that a print was received there July 2."
However, the spokeswoman did concede that they never pursued or received formal release from the White House for the use of Clinton's image. It seems the studio most likely sent the print to the White House in advance in an attempt to cover themselves, perhaps as a foresight to the eventual fallout, but didn't overly point out the reasons behind why they were sending it.

There's a chance that Zemeckis may have gotten away with it and the White House wouldn't have taken so much of a stance against Clinton's inclusion but, later in the film, a separate fragment of generic remarks by President Clinton, speaking about Saddam Hussein and Iraq at a different press conference in October 1994, was lifted out of context and inserted into Contact too!
"I would encourage you not to inflame this situation beyond the facts. Let us deal with this on the facts. We are monitoring what has actually happened."
As Zemeckis learnt in that very strongly worded letter, perhaps he should've stuck to the facts as the White House was indeed monitoring what had actually happened!

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