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Interview: ‘Gaslit’ Director Matt Ross on How the Watergate Scandal Feels Quaint Compared to Today

Speaking with director Matt Ross at times felt more like a conversation between two parents concerned about the direction of this country than any interview of which I have ever been part. While discussing Ross’ exemplary work directing Gaslit, he also touched upon many of the current woes we are currently facing as a nation. It was an eye-opening exploration of the parallels between one of the biggest scandals to rock the nation, Watergate, and today. At one time the scandal was considered the biggest to ever rock our nation, and now, as Ross points out, it almost feels “quaint” in comparison to today’s unrest.

“It was a way to talk about the shifting climates in our country politically, what had happened, certainly in the last four years,” when explaining why he took on the series. “It’s a different country, and I don’t think the Watergate crime, and what happened there with the Nixon administration is directly correlated in every way. I think it was a different time and obviously, in some ways, it’s almost quaint compared to what’s going on now. But yeah, but it was a way to talk about complicity and about truth.”

Gaslit is a modern take on the Watergate scandal which centers around the many of the lesser told stories and characters of the historic events. It explores the events through many different sets eyes, painting a picture of the scandal and the era unlike any told before. This is not a textbook approach to the subject, it provides a rich, more human perspective of the events.

Much of the series views them through the prism of two marriages, the Mitchells and the Deans. Julia Roberts plays Martha Mitchell, wife of soon-to-be-disgraced Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn). Martha helps blow the lid off the Watergate, a scandal which her husband is deeply involved. Betty Gilpin and Dan Stevens play the Mo and John Dean, another central character in the Watergate hearings. We watch their romance grow all while the intertwining and choking vines of the scandal creep throughout.

Ross spoke about highly about the impressive ensemble assembled for Gaslit. He helped them to zoom in on their roles with textural work helping each actor truly understand who these characters were as people. When asked specifically about Roberts brought to the project, he expanded, “Julia is very emotionally acute. You kind of don’t catch her acting, you don’t catch either of them acting (Roberts and Penn.) But that is to say, she’s a gifted film actor, because I think she really experiences the moments.”

While the series does take its subject matter very seriously, Ross also explained that there are varying tones to it that deliver a fuller picture of the scandal, even moments of humor. “I think that gets to the heart of what we were trying to do with everyone, which is, ‘what is their perspective?’ And how can we how can we really mine it for in a non-judgmental way for truth?” He went on to described from where some of the humor of the series derives. “This is funny because Dean (Stevens) is in a situation where there’s, he’s navigating a shifting morality that we can see it’s funny, but you we don’t play it as funny. We play it as as his discomfort and his desire to navigate it in an authentic way,

The series and Ross have much more to say about the events and the ‘characters’ of Watergate. Both those familiar and unfamiliar with the scandal, will find plenty about Gastlit immerse themselves into. The history, the players, the intrigue, the musics, styles and vibe of the era – all make for prime viewing in a series whose subject matter is just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.

You can listen to my conversation with Matt Ross in its entirety below. It is a fascinating discussion where he touches upon many subjects all through the lenses of the series. Be sure to check his work on Gaslit over on Starz.

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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Screen Radar and Awards Circuit. He has conducted celebrity and red carpet interviews with some of the industry’s biggest names. He is a graduate of RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.
Email: filmsnork@gmail.com

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