This week, Gothamist chatted via the telephone with director Niels Mueller about his first feature film now in theaters, The Assassination of Richard Nixon. With his film an official selection at Cannes this year and starring Sean Penn, Mueller gave us insight into the connections between the fictional story and the real man, his Midwest roots and how much indie directors really know about high fashion.

I was born during the Kennedy administration, in Milwaukee Wisconsin, so people can date me within a thousand days. I went to Tufts University in Boston, which is where I started making short films. In fact, my first project was with my next-door neighbor, Gary Winick, who directed Tadpole and is off doing Charlotte’s Web right now. I had an idea to do a short film on super 8, I asked Gary if he would act in it, which he agreed. So, he had to take of his Fiorucci’s. He was from New York, so that’s what they were wearing at the time.

What are “Fiorooggi’s”?
They’re pants.

Oh! Like F-I-O-R-U-C-C-I?
Right. It was the end of the disco era. He’s going to kill me for saying that. Oh well, whatever. We did this TV series at Tufts, short 20 minutes shows that took place at a hotel where different guests were checking through. We worked with some really great actors, Oliver Platt played the owner of the hotel, and the desk manager and Hank Azaria appeared twice as a guest. Then, I came out to UCLA for film school. Now, I lived in Los Angeles.

Have you ever spent any extended time in New York?
I lived in New York for the longest period, while I was editing Sweet Nothing, which is a film Gary directed, which I had a hand in writing. I was there for about 9 months, in Times Square area. I had a good time. I realized it’s a myth that you can’t live in New York on a low budget. I had an extremely low paycheck at the time, but I managed to survive and have a good time enjoying the city.

In another interview I read, and in the press materials, you mentioned that both you and Alexander Payne are from the Midwest (he’s one of the producers on this film). That locale obviously influences his films a lot. Do you feel that pull in your filmmaking as well?
When people read this script, they said initially that the furniture store, the owner and his son, they read much more like midwestern characters than East coast. That made sense to both Kevin Kennedy my writing partner and I, because he’s also from Nebraska. So our voices might lean more Midwest than East. Some people have also asked me what I’m doing next, and while I don’t know if it will turn out this way but the script I’ve been working on, before the financing for Nixon came through, I’ve been calling it “My Milwaukee Story,” from my hometown, so maybe I’ll end up shooting it there too.

The producers on this film, besides Alexander Payne, are a really interesting mix of people — Alfonso Cuarón and his production company, Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio. Did you find that kind of creative support essential to directing this first feature?
Let me quickly take you through them. Perhaps the most famous of all of the producers, is Jorge Vergara. What’s great about Jorge, he wants to make films that are relevant that matter. He saw Sean talking thoughtfully about his experiences on his first trip to Baghdad and was impressed with how he approached going. He said, “this is a person I’d like to do business with.” His partner is Alfonso Cuarón, they did Y Tu Mama Tambien together. So for me to have Alfonso Cuarón, and he and Jorge were my real hands on producers, I was extremely lucky. It doesn’t happen often that a first time feature director gets to have an established director as a producer. I went over to London with an earlier cut of the film, and I loaded it up on the Harry Potter 3 editing system and I got my notes from my producer that way. There was a point where Jorge and Alfonso might not be able to get all of the financing together and I asked Tobey Maguire [who he had directed in a TV show for Fox, Great Scott], I know Leo is putting together a company to finance films in my budget range, do you think you could see if he’d read the script? We ultimately didn’t use that but he was able to come up with potential gap financing that kept the momentum of the film going. And Alexander’s one of my good buddies from film school. I have a brain trust of people that I can show a script or get input on different cut to which includes Alexander and Brad Silberling, who just did Lemony Snicket. We came up together.

I watched Tadpole again recently, and I was thinking about whether there were any similarities between that film and this one.
If you came up with any, I’ll be just shocked.

Not a lot of obvious one. But I noticed that both of these main characters have this perception of themselves as outsiders. That seems to really drive them. I read in the production notes that you don’t necessarily think that Sam is an outsider to begin with, but as the film progresses it changes for him.
If you look at it, you can probably find comparisons, just because I was involved with both so perhaps there are some sinuous connections. But I’m reluctant to make the comparison because I’m not really the author of that film. It’s Gary Winick. [On] Nixon, I wrote it with Kevin Kennedy and Sean got involved in ’99. Until 2003 when we shot it, it was the three of us moving it along. So I think it’s more separate than connected.

I thought Sean Penn gives just a terrific performance in the film. Everyone in it is really wonderful, but he in particular is really great.
Thanks, I think this is as great a performance as he’s given.

Were there any particular parts of his character that you were instructing him to draw out? Aspects of the way he portrayed the character that you felt involved in?
I wouldn’t use the word “instruct.” I would say, well let me put it this way. When I first met Sean he had the script in front of him and he taped it saying “you’ve done a lot of my work for me.” He felt that the script was very well written. He felt that the character was on the page, in both dialogue and in the description in a very detailed fashion. We got together for four years without it really being about talking about the character. We’d be getting together to talk about the financing and we’d end up talking about the character and the story. This is the benefit of the financing falling apart for so many years, it gave us the chance to know each other and build the kind of trust that only comes with time.

When you work with such a great cast, I would imagine a certain amount of the work is done for you, as a director.
When I directed my student films, or a little bit of television directing, or some regional small commercials, many times you felt like you had your hands on the steering wheel and you were steering from side to side. Here, you just have your little pinky at the bottom of the wheel, moving beautifully. We started the shoot with Sean Penn and Don Cheadle, two of the best actors on the planet. What a great way to start a film, after struggling to get it made.

I thought that scene with Michael Wincott [who plays Sam’s older brother, Julius] is really wonderful. That was the moment that I realized Sam must be Jewish because it’s obvious from his dress that Julius is Orthodox. Was that a part of the script, a conscious decision as a part of his character?
That’s a detail from the character’s real life, so we wanted to keep it accurate. The one reason that it was important in the script, though less important in the finished film is that the scene which followed, which is based on an actual incident from the real Sam’s life, is that Sam sat Shiva for his brother. Mourning his death, even though he wasn’t dead, but because he was no longer going to be in contact with the brother. We cut the scene, because we didn’t need it, so then that detail became less important.

I noticed there are some details that you are drawing from real life, but then there are things you chose not to do, such as the spelling of his last name is different. Why some choices and not others? Was there a structure to what you chose to include or not include?
I respect people’s privacy, and there are reasons of privacy that we chose to go with the “Bicke” spelling. So, I’d love for you to use that, I would be appreciative. We’re telling a story that’s a little known footnote to history. At the end of his life, the real Sam Bicke became very heavy. I didn’t feel it necessary to cast someone who looked like that. Sometimes in a film, you move away from surface truth to get to a deeper truth. Let me give you an example for what I mean by that. In between working at the tire store and applying for an SBA loan, I’m guessing that Sam worked at another tire store. So why did we move away from a surface truth? On his tapes, he talks constantly about this segment of society that he feels disconnected from. And namely, he wants to be a self-made businessman. So by choosing an office furniture store, we’re able to have cliental that’s indexical of the society he so much wants to be a part of, the self-made man. The broad strokes of the story are all true. Ultimately, I think we’re very true to the spirit of the story we told.

Share a personal (and hopefully interesting) NYC taxi story.
The first time I went to New York was with Gary Winick, coming down from Tufts. In the Midwest, it seems like, on the surface anyway, a much more polite society. Here was Gary screaming around at the cabs, “hey!” It was so alien to me. Hailing a cab, a really difficult notion. I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed impolite to me. In fact, there’s a scene in 13 Going On 30 that I gave Gary, where Jennifer Garner is having difficulty hailing a cab, “Oh excuse me.” That was sort of my approach to cabs the first time. That’s my cab story, it’s not inside the cab, it’s outside.

9 pm on a Wednesday night — what are you doing?
Probably thinking about, should I go out and see a film? Should I go have a drink? Or should I sit home and do some work. Or should I sit home and read. I usually end up doing one of the last two. On a Wednesday night? Probably stay home.

What’s the most expensive thing in your wardrobe?
Gary Winick factors back in. Gary bought himself a very nice leather jacket that was too big for him, so he gave it to me. That’s a good friend. It’s my Dolce and Gabbana leather jacket.

Describe that low, low moment when you thought you might have to give up movies for good?
I would pray for that moment. It’s such a struggle to try to get a foothold in the film business. I would pray at night, please let me wake up and want to do something else. It’s not a failure to walk away from filmmaking. If you can walk away, that means you’ve found something else you can feel good about doing, that you can feel passionate about. I couldn’t find anything else. Now, I’m glad that I stayed with it, but I would have been happy to have been released from the prison of my passion for being involved in something that was so elusive for so long.