The historic events depicted in the political drama “LBJ” happened in Dallas and Washington, D.C. But most of this biopic about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, opening in theaters Friday, was filmed in New Orleans.
For authenticity’s sake, “LBJ” traveled to Dallas to recreate the Kennedy assassination at Dealey Plaza. The production also spent a week in the nation’s capital. Nonetheless, the film, starring Woody Harrelson as the 36th president of the United States, found the majority of its crew and production facilities in the Crescent City.
Acacia Entertainment, a joint venture of the Marksville-based Tunica-Biloxi Tribal Economic Development Corp., and producer Matthew George’s Savvy Media Holdings, produced “LBJ.”
The film concentrates on 1960 through late 1963. During that four-year span, then-U.S. Sen. Johnson loses his bid to be the Democratic nominee for president, becomes vice president when Sen. John F. Kennedy wins the 1960 presidential election, languishes in his inconsequential role as vice president and becomes president when Kennedy is killed in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“We built all of our sets — the Oval Office, the West Wing, the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol — on soundstages in New Orleans,” George said last week. “And there were a few locations around the city that were great.”
Because George, director Rob Reiner and Harrelson enjoyed making the film in New Orleans so much in 2015, they returned in 2016 to shoot “Shock and Awe,” another political drama. George and Reiner are considering bringing another project to New Orleans in 2018.
“It’s got everything you want,” George said. “Fantastic crew base, great resources, great locations. Because the motion picture production tax credit program is stable now, there’s no reason not to return to Louisiana.”
“LBJ” is the second release from Acacia Entertainment. It follows the drama “Wind River,” starring Jeremy Renner and set on an Indian reservation, that’s been a hit with audiences and critics.
George brought the “Wind River” and “LBJ” project to his business partners in the Tunica-Biloxi tribe. Joey Hartstone’s “LBJ” script, like writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay for “Wind River,” impressed the producer.
“The ‘LBJ’ script has Johnson’s authentic voice,” he said. “And it’s not a boring cradle-to-the-grave biopic. It’s about the most traumatic moment in Johnson’s life. He was such a powerful politician before he was sucked into being vice president. We see him at his lowest point — and then everything changes in the blink of the eye.”
Hartstone and Reiner honed an already compelling script to an even higher level, George said.
“The beautiful touches Joey had, Rob and Joey only elevated them after they came together,” the producer said.
Reiner’s 26 films as director include “When Harry Met Sally,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” and “The Bucket List.” He drew an exceptional cast to “LBJ.” Jennifer Jason Leigh plays opposite Harrelson as Johnson’s first lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
In the film, Lady Bird encourages her husband, a brilliant politician who’d been routinely marginalized by Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to seize the moment and make the late JFK’s idealism reality.
“He was vulnerable,” Leigh said in a telephone interview. “That’s what you get from their scenes together.”
For her portrayal of Lady Bird, Leigh, like Harrelson, wore extensive prosthetic makeup about the face and head.
“I looked at a picture of Lady Bird and then looked at myself in the mirror,” she recalled. “I thought there’s no way. But then, within two hours, I was transformed. It’s really helpful, especially when you’re playing a historical character.”
Leigh, an actress who does extensive research for the fictional characters she plays, found a wealth of historical material about the nonfictional Lady Bird Johnson. Recordings of the president and first lady’s phone conversations were especially helpful.
“They are quite intimate,” she said. “They exist and anyone can listen to them.”
Despite being married to a man who spent his life in the glare of national politics, Mrs. Johnson was a shy woman, Leigh said. “She would have graduated at the top of her high school class, but she didn’t want to give the valedictorian speech. So, she let her grades drop just before graduation, and then she was third in her class. Whatever task she was given, she treated it seriously, responsibly.”
Texas Monthly magazine recently suggested Harrelson’s Johnson may be the best of several film and TV portrayals of LBJ in recent years.
“It feels like a performance from the inside out,” Leigh said. “Woody’s performance is so funny and passionate and vulnerable and headstrong. And it has all the contradictory things you associate with LBJ.”
Working with Harrelson and Reiner, Leigh added, was like being a member of a family. “The entire experience was genuinely warm,” she said. “There was also a playful air about it, which you wouldn’t think would be the case for such a serious subject.”