RECOUNT. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.
LAURA DERN RECALLS the night of Nov. 7, 2000, as a sleepless one.
"I thought I was going to bed that night, that infamous night, and stayed up all night, as most of us did, and by the morning I had the flu," the actress recalled in a recent phone interview.
"I was completely paralyzed with the flu, with a 103 fever. My whole system shut down, I was just so overwrought," she said.
For many people, the opportunity to revisit the 36 uneasy days between that Election Day and Vice President Al Gore's concession to Texas Gov. George W. Bush may be about as welcome as Dern's flu.
But while HBO's "Recount," which premieres Sunday, is bound to bring back memories of the frustration that engulfed Americans of every political stripe in the late fall of 2000, it's not all butterfly ballots and hanging chads.
There's Dern, for instance, who as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, got to channel one of the most colorful political figures of the decade.
"It's got to be illegal, that I had that much fun" playing Harris, Dern confessed. "I mean, it's sinful I had so much fun."
Though most of the actors in "Recount" were charged with playing real people, Dern's particular challenge with Harris was to avoid caricature.
"She was already a comedy skit on ['Saturday Night Live']. She was, you know, the favorite joke of David Letterman and even Jay Leno, all the nighttime talk-show hosts," Dern said.
"We'd all talked about her makeup and hair and her deer-in-the-headlight facial expressions through the course of that month - so where do you go from there? . . . Even playing it honest is over the top, because she is that person. So everything she did seems extreme. All her gestures were extreme. Her tics, her mannerisms are extreme. It's such an odd thing, so you feel you're overdoing something that you're just trying to stay true to," she said.
For Kevin Spacey, who plays Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore who found himself leading the Gore campaign's challenge in Florida, "Recount" is more of a suspense film than a comedy.
Rather than playing like "some kind of boring polemic political history lesson," Spacey said, it's "a very entertaining thriller."
"It sort of reminded me of when I saw 'All the President's Men' for the first time. You know, not like we don't know the end of that story. But it's about the detail, and about the humanizing of characters and showing how not one thing occurred, many things occurred, confluence of events, different personalities, some with agendas, some who were just quite frankly unqualified for their positions," he said.
"Our electoral process is just not equipped to handle margins of victory so small or margins of error so big."
Political films generally face a tough test with conservative viewers who, not without reason, consider Hollywood a liberal stronghold.
So it was with some purpose that Spacey, who's been active in Democratic politics - he hosted Gore's Tennessee ball for the second Clinton inaugural and has long known Klain - Dern, and "Recount" screenwriter Danny Strong all mentioned, in separate interviews, that former Secretary of State (and Bush strategist) James Baker was planning to co-host a screening of the film in Houston with former President Jimmy Carter.
"And you know why? Because they are both on committees to try to change election laws because even some of the laws that were to [Baker's] advantage in 2000 he thinks should be changed," Spacey said.
It probably didn't hurt, either, that Baker's played by Tom Wilkinson - the British actor most recently seen as Benjamin Franklin in HBO's "John Adams" - and comes off as considerably more forceful than his Gore team counterpart, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (John Hurt).
Christopher has reportedly seen only excerpts of Hurt's performance and is understandably unhappy, given that he comes off in "Recount" as a well-mannered wuss. But then, he may well be the filmmakers' answer to those who find any of the Republican characterizations unpalatable.
In 2000, Strong, an actor for whom "Recount" is his first produced script, was still a recurring player on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - where he played the nerdy Jonathan - and recalls not following the outcome of the election very closely, "because I was pretty disgusted by the whole thing very quickly."
"I didn't understand why there wasn't a statewide recount . . . It seemed to me like the only thing that was fair."
And in setting out to learn and then tell the story of the dispute over Florida's election returns, Strong said he strove for fairness, rather than merely balance.
"I wanted it to be accurate, I wanted the process to be open," he said.
"We sent James Baker the script, to get his notes, we showed him an early cut of the film to get his input. Some of his notes we took, some we didn't. Same with the Democrats. We included some of them in the process, sent them the script, showed them an early cut, included them in the process. We also hired all of the journalists that had written the [four] books I had used as my primary sources on this" as consultants, he said.
After selling the movie to HBO as a pitch, Strong set out in a rental car in Florida and started tracking down subjects, he said.
"I was just cold-calling people, too, and saying, 'I'm going to be in Broward County tomorrow, and I can only interview you at 2 o'clock. Can you do it?' And they would say yes," he said.
In the course of his research, "I got to interview James Baker and [Gore team lawyer] David Boies and Margaret Tutwiler [who worked with Baker during the recount] and Mac Stipanovich, who was Katherine Harris' caretaker. He was fantastic. He just told me everything."
Strong, who'll be putting his newfound interviewing skills to work on his next project, a film about the civil-rights milestone Brown v. Board of Education, said of "Recount" that "we just wanted to get the story right."
"Sometimes facts aren't balanced, you know? Sometimes the truth doesn't have two points of view," he said.
"In this case, there's good and bad on both sides. But the movie isn't ultimately about the parties. The movie's not about Bush, the movie's not about Gore, or who was supposed to win. The movie's about the process. And we the filmmakers think this process was flawed." *