Film

Interview: Jason Reitman on Making The Front Runner Like It’s the 1970s, and the Media Now and Then

Although many may not remember the details, Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign was something of a milestone in both politics and the way the media investigates candidates’ private lives. Hart was the people’s candidate; he genuinely cared, and tended to brush off requests for photo shoots or anything that reeked of publicity that wasn’t about the issues. He was also a bit of a womanizer in a time when many politicians were as well, but no one cared and certainly no one discussed it. Back then, there was an understanding between journalists and elected officials that something so personal was off-limits because it was irrelevant to the campaign.

With Hart, however, the combination of a juicy, anonymous tip about an alleged affair with a woman named Donna Rice, and an on-the-record challenge for reporters to follow him (to prove how boring his life was) proved disastrous. (And for the record, they were already following him when he issued the challenge.)

The Front Runner

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Director Jason Reitman’s latest film, The Front Runner, is an account of the final weeks of the Hart campaign, as it crumbles slowly under the scrutiny and changing face of the media, as they go from dealing strictly in facts to running stories based on rumors and speculation. It was the beginning of what we think of now as the commonplace way to cover campaigns and the lives of elected officials. But as Reitman’s film makes clear, though journalistic integrity didn’t go down without a fight…it did go down. Hugh Jackman does outstanding work in the film as Hart, with Vera Farmiga as wife Lee, Kaitlyn Dever as daughter Andrea, J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon, Sara Paxton as Donna Rice, and Alfred Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Along with screenwriter Diablo Cody, his frequent collaborator, Reitman has tackled the teenage years in Juno; young, single grown-ups in Young Adult; and parenthood in Tully earlier this year. In between, Reitman also directed Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air and Labor Day. This interview with Reitman took place recently in Chicago, where we discussed the modern relevance of Hart’s downfall and what it was like to play the film for some of the parties featured in it. Enjoy…

In the opening title card of the film, you say “A lot can happen in three weeks.” Were you at all hesitant to include that, because it’s almost a little too funny right off the bat?

I think the movie is funny. Of course, I think all of my movies are comedies. But it’s all perspective, right? Certainly, I want the audience to know that, while this is a thriller, there are certainly laughs in it. There are funny actors—you’ve got Bill Burr, Kevin Pollak…

You’ve got the entire staff of the Miami Herald populated by funny actors.

Well, there’s comedians throughout the movie. The campaign trail has Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Tommy Dewey—there’s literally comedians everywhere.

But you have all of the guys in Miami, as if to indicate that they weren’t considered legitimate press at the time.

I’m not sure about that. Kevin Pollak is a fairly notable character actor. And Steve Zissis is often a dramatic actor. The main guy is as much a dramatist as anybody else. I think the idea was that the Miami Herald felt like they were on the outside, and they describe themselves as much. At the time, if you weren’t the Post or the Times, particularly on that Hart campaign, when they were starting to limit the availability, you could really feel on the outside. Simultaneously, they felt this push, this drive, that centers on that year. These journalists felt it was their responsibility to examine who the politicians were as human beings, and this was the first time they went down this road.

It’s strange to watch a film where the scandal isn’t fed to the press by the other side. This was through a tip.

It’s a combination. There’s this Lee Atwater story that just came out a couple weeks ago in which it seems that the guy literally running the Bush campaign, in fact, did set this all up. But yeah, the Herald got a tip from a woman in the middle of the night and followed it and really took us down a new road in this country.

I find it fascinating that the Post newsroom depicted here are some of the same people from the movie The Post, and you can’t help consider how far they’ve come—or fallen—in less than 20 years, in terms of the type of journalism they had to start diving into.

That’s the interesting question, and I don’t lay any fault at the Post. We’re all responsible. What Ben Bradlee says in the movie is something he actually said in real life to David Frost in an interview later: “If the rest of the country is going to cover this, how are we not going to cover it?” Once their hand is forced, how do they choose what news is relevant?

It’s a credit to Hugh Jackman’s performance, that he plays Gary Hart as a guy who is baffled by this sequence of events. He seem downright confused for most of the movie. Was he naive or overly idealistic about what politics should be?

I think he was genuinely confounded by how much people wanted to know about his personal life. We have to remember, as of 1987, there was a real line between your public life and private life, and he had a real relationship with people of the press. He socialized with them. They were his friends, and there was an understanding about what is relevant and what is important and unimportant. I’m not saying that was accurate for then or what is accurate for now or right for now, but he had an assumption that “We know each other. You know what’s important to me. You know what’s important to this country. Why are you asking me about this?” In his interpretation, he would say, “If you need heart surgery, do you care about your surgeon’s marriage?” That would be his approach. Someone today could make the opposite argument: “They aren’t a heart surgeon; they’re a president, and as a president, perhaps your marriage does matter.”

For him, he really didn’t understand the question. What’s surprising is that a man who is so prescient about everything else about where this country was going as far as the Middle East, Russia, our education system, computers and their impact on the economy, who said things like “America’s addiction to oil will take us into the Middle East where we will be embattled by Islamic terrorism”—he was saying this in the mid-’80s. How could he be so prescient and not realize what was happening right before his eyes? It comes down to a question of character. He had character, he believed in what he believed in, and when people said “You need to answer this question,” he said “I’m out. This is not the game I’m going to play.”

And we can find it funny now, but in turn what we’ve gotten is candidates who will say anything, who don’t give a shit, and a completely indecent president, congressmen and senators who will flip or pretend they didn’t say things, say whatever we want to hear. It really makes you question and wonder if this is so laughable that we pushed this guy out of politics in less than a week.

The Front Runner

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I was 20 years old when this happened, in college, in journalism school…

You were steeped in it!

I had professors saying “Pay attention to the news right now.” This is burned in my brain, so it’s surprising to me that even people your age don’t really know this story. Is that troubling in any way?

Well, that’s why we wanted to make the movie. That’s what’s fascinating about his story. People fall into two categories: they don’t even know who Gary Hart was—and by the way, I was in that category—and then people who think they know who Gary Hart was. In their head, they’ve slotted him into a small category: a boat, a photograph, and a woman named Donna Rice. And they’ve lost the larger picture and significance of who he was and why he left politics.

I remember his story, but what I was truly fascinated by was Donna Rice’s story. She’s really the one that no one bothered to get to know. And when she lists off her credentials, we realize she is far from the dumb blonde that she was portrayed as.

And you have to remember that on the cover of Time [it’s a] large photo of Gary, small photo of Donna. And by the end of the scandal, it was a large photo of Donna and a little photo of Gary Hart. And it shows where our interest was. We liked the story, as a nation, of a boat and a blonde, but she was a real human being—a complex, ambitious woman whose life was taken from her. We as a country haven’t taken responsibility for 30 years.

I love how you capture the importance of the “Tonight Show” in terms of telling us what the big stories of the day were and which ones were okay to make fun of.

And I’m for humor; I’m not against humor, by the way. If you want to make fun of it, great, but we also have to think about what’s relevant.

It sounds like you reached out to everyone whose stories you’re telling here. Who did you reach out to and who has seen it at this point?

They’ve all seen it at this point. I reached out to almost everybody, not to give them a script but just to say “My name is Jason Reitman, I’m going to be directing this movie. If there’s anything you want to share with me, share it with me. Anyway I can make the movie more truthful, let me know.” Just doing the decent thing: “I’m make a movie about a very tough moment in your life. I’m the guy; here’s my info.” There was certainly trepidation because this is a story that’s been mishandled over the years.

Certainly, in the light of 2018, it raised all kinds of question about gender dynamics, and how journalists have never been under more pressure than they are in 2018. It brought up a lot of questions. By the time they saw it, the general feedback was that the movie had a lot of empathy for them and treated them as human beings, particularly Donna Rice, who has felt she has not been given that kind of decency and empathy for years.

You said when you were doing press for Tully that you wanted to tell more female-centric stories. In that light, I watched this movie and realized that it’s really about Lee and Donna, as much as Gary. You seem to value their opinions and reputations almost more than anybody else’s.

When you watch the movie, two things become obvious by the end: it’s a frenetic, messy movie that stops twice. It stops when we meet Donna—the whole movie is the camera moving and all these sounds and hearing three conversations at once, and then you meet Donna Rice, not on the boat, but in the aftermath, and for the first time, the movie stops and the soundtrack goes quiet, and you’re just with the woman who has lost everything. And then it stops again, when Lee Hart arrives in New Hampshire to talk to Gary, and it’s not an accident; it’s a moment to stop and listen to their voices.

That opening sequence is fascinating because of all the layered conversations, and you’re not sure what to listen to, and it’s an interesting metaphor, because in that moment, you didn’t know which voices to listen to, who was the important one.

Exactly.

Other than the current state of journalism under fire right now, why do you think this story is so important to tell today?

We’re all trying to figure out this moment. Everyone alive is looking around going “How the hell did we get here?” Everyone is trying to figure out, what were the seeds that go us here? It’s an impossible question to answer, but I remember when I heard the Hart story, I remember thinking “There’s a thread here that takes us to 2018.” And frankly, we need opportunities for conversations that are not as shrill as they are on Twitter right now, and 1987 acts as a kind of prism through which we can have a conversation about these ideas—the relationship between journalists and candidates, between public and private, gender dynamics and gender politics—these impossible conversations that everyone feels nervous talking about. You bring it up in casual conversation and you tiptoe in, worried you’re going to offend somebody. Here, through this older story, you can really just start talking.

You shot this on film. You don’t always do that, do you?

No, the last one I shot on film was Up in the Air.

Did you want this film to look like it’s of the ’80s?

Even more of the ’70s. All of our technique was ’70s. The North Star for this film was Michael Ritchie’s film The Candidate, in its shooting style, sound, the music, the cast. What we constantly pushed was “Only use technique that was available in the 1970s,” even in the general way we shot things, and it was great to shoot on film again. Yes, the aesthetic is beautiful, but there’s an electricity. When a digital camera is running, nobody knows. You push a button; it’s silent; nobody gives a shit and it could run for hours. When you roll film, it’s like you’ve lit a fuse, right? You get 10 minutes; on a short mag, it’s under four minutes. And everyone can feel it, and you can hear it, literally, rolling. You can feel the cast and crew get electric because of that.

Best of luck. Good seeing you again.

Yeah, that was fun. Thanks.

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