While Gary Hart probably isn’t a household name anymore, he was at one point, the front-runner from the Democratic Party and the suspected next president in the 1988 U.S. presidential election. Until he ultimately withdrew his campaign from the race after his extramarital became public, forever altering the line between a public and private life for candidates, and the dynamic between politicians and the press in matters of private affairs.
The Front Runner, the newest film from Jason Reitman, whose past works include Juno, Up in the Air, and Tully, tells the story of this seemingly over-looked event in history. Based on the book All the Truth is Out by co-writer of the film Matt Bai (Reitman and Bai also collaborated with Jay Carson during the writing process) the film follows the Gary Hart scandal of the 80s, shining a light on the unfoldings of the event and the effects it had on the future of American politics.
We recently sat down with Reitman to discuss his motive for making the film, the challenges that came with building a story with so many characters, and his own takeaway from it all.
I read that the film was conceived before the 2016 election and before kind of everything we’re currently experiencing right now. So what attracted you to this story and this project, at that time?
I don’t remember this when it happened. I was ten years old when the Gary Hart scandal happened. So my introduction to the Gary Hart story was through this radio lab piece that came out three years ago. And when I heard it, I couldn’t believe this had happened, that there’s this moment when the presumed next president wound up in his alleyway behind his house in the middle of the night with these journalists and nobody knew what to do because no one had been in their shoes before. And that in less than a week someone went from presumed next president to leaving politics forever. It had all this connective tissue to all of the things we’re trying to talk about today. Gender politics. What is a public life, what is a private life? What is the relationship between journalist and candidate? How that changed from something I didn’t really recognize, which was a moment when candidates and journalists just spent time together, socially to a moment where that would never happen. Like a press secretary managed every second of the day, only letting out the most manicured statements. So it just seemed to speak to all the questions that I have right now and that everyone seems to have on their mind. But you’re right. It happened in 2015. We wrote it in 2015. So obviously two major events happened while we were developing and then making the movie. First, the presidential election and then while we were shooting, the Me Too movement. And so a film that already felt relevant as we were writing it was increasing in relevancy and also morphing in relevancy as we were making it.
You co-wrote it with Matthew Bai, the author of the book, and Jay Carson, who’s worked in politics. How was that collaboration process?
Kind of incredible. Matt Bai wrote for New York Magazine over 5 presidencies. Jay Carson was the Press Secretary for Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean and Daschle. Actually, Jay Carson is the guy the Ryan Gosling character in The Ides of March is based on. So it was a thrill because we were making this movie and I’m not a student of history. I’m a student of movies. I grew up on movies. So having these two guys who know all the answers, anytime, you don’t have to Wikipedia anything. You just have to say, hey how did this happen? Or, what is this job like? Or what is it like when this happens at a newspaper? Or on a campaign trail? And they know the answers and can give you real-life experience. So what you want to do is make a movie that isn’t a history lesson, but rather, an experiential film. To feel as if you were dropped in the mix of the campaign, or onto the campaign plane or into a newspaper office. And it needed to feel as accurate as possible and kind of as loud and messy as real life can be. And that came from their real-life experience.
On that note, the perspective of the press versus the perspective of the political campaign. How tough was that to balance narratively and technically, having all of these characters?
Well, that was the thrill of it honestly, to make a movie with 20 main characters. The opportunity to work with actors I’ve always wanted to work with. Like life goals, work with Alfred Molina. Check. Kevin Pollak. Check. And comedians like Bill Burr and directors like Mike Judge. All these people I’ve wanted to work with I got to work with on this. Because a lot of them were based on real people, we could kind of fill those characters with the details of those real lives and then it became more of a writing challenge. How do we write dialogues for all these characters to be said simultaneously? And then that fell upon the shoulders of my poor sound mixer, Steve Morrow, who is absolutely brilliant who was micing everyone, every day and live mixing all of their conversations. That wasn’t done in post, that was actually done on set. So you wind up with this kind of soundscape where you’re forced to make a decision as an audience member what you want to listen to. Almost like you’re in a crowded room. You have to listen to one conversation and it kind of echoes the philosophical question of the film which is what is important? What do you actually want to listen to?
And from that, what did you kind of hope to highlight with the relationship the press had with the political campaign in this story specifically?
What really interested me was there used to be this moment where the press and the politicians socialized. They had this human relationship which was important. It allowed the press to know who these politicians were as human beings and this is the moment where the wall goes up. Because of that, the journalists don’t have as much of sense to who these people are. But I was interested in the pressure on the shoulders of journalists to tell the stories that voters seemed to be interested in. And that’s never been truer than today. Today, you wake up, you check your phone, you look at the news app, and you just go “fuck.” And then you see there’s an article about the midterms and it’s right next to an article about Arianna Grande and Pete Davidson breaking up and they’re from the same source. Right? And it’s impossible to see how one is not weighed any stronger than the other. Because consumers are going, yeah we want to know about Arianna Grande and Pete Davidson. There’s this quote in the movie that comes from Ben Bradley in real life that he said to David Frost during an interview a couple years after this, where he said this thing of if TV is covering it, and if other newspapers start covering it, how do we not cover it? And I’m really interested in that question about how do editors get to define what is actually newsworthy, and how do journalists get to define what questions they think are important to ask. And when we are asking about adultery, what are we not asking about? And is adultery such a hot topic that it makes it so that we don’t talk about other things in general? I think to that extent the responsibility kind of falls on all of our shoulders.
At what point in the process did you talk with Gary Hart and how did that help this film, if it did in any particular way?
I met him early on. It was nice to just kind of get a sense of him as a person. I thought it was the decent thing to do as the person making the movie about the worst week of his life. But at the end of the day, I feel like it was the research that gives a sense of who he was. And Hugh Jackman did more research than any actor I’ve ever met in my life. The hardest working actor I know. I mean he had 5 notebooks on Gary Hart. He read everything. He knew speeches that weren’t in the movie. He knew talking points that weren’t in the movie. There were scenes that we would just throw him in and he didn’t know where the questions were going to come from. There’s the press conference at the end and literally, we put an X on the floor and said when you’re ready just walk out to the X. And questions started coming and he just had to be ready. He just became Gary Hart and that was the research.
In addition to this film being released this year, you also had Tully release earlier this year as well. Two very different films. Thinking about those two as well as the rest of your career, how do you feel that you’ve grown as a filmmaker with all of your projects that vary in their subject matter and themes?
Hopefully, they just echo the way I’ve grown as a person. I think my first films were probably slicker and I’ve tried to just mature a little bit and take my hands off the camera. I’ve always been interested in human beings but my interests have probably changed as I’ve changed. I know even with just my work with Diablo in itself which has so far been a trilogy about the concept of growing up. Being a pregnant teenager, versus being a woman who’s wrecking another marriage, to being in a marriage that’s gone kind of cold and quiet. I can feel Diablo and I growing up. So I’d have to imagine that I’m just seeing life through the eyes of a tree with more rings.
The Front Runner is out in theaters nationwide on November 21st.