To many, senator Gary Hart, who infamously ran for president in 1988 but dropped out when accusations of an extramarital affair surfaced, represents a moment in modern political history when political operatives and journalists began to develop a contentious, fraught relationship that’s worsened over time. The current administration’s spat with CNN’s Jim Acosta over alleged misconduct during a recent press conference is just one example of an ongoing friction that many say started with Hart’s scandal.
Filmmaker Jason Reitman captures the attitudes and implications of the Hart maelstrom in The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as the charismatic politician from Colorado. Political journalist and former New York Times chief political correspondent Matt Bai (whose book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf, 2015) serves as the film’s source material) and American policy advisor and strategist Jay Carson co-wrote and produced the film with Reitman, each providing a unique perspective on the Hart controversy.
Reitman, Bai, and Carson join PopMatters in conversation to discuss their creative process, the musicality of filmmaking, Jackman’s performance, how movies get the portrayal of journalists and political operatives wrong, the film’s painstakingly detailed production design, and more.
There’s a musicality — a jazz — to the filmmaking and the dialogue in this film that’s apparent from the long opening shot.
Reitman: Movies are rhythmic. There’s an early moment [in the creative process] where you have to kind of identify, alright, what is the rhythm of this movie going to be? I’ve had that since Thank You for Smoking. There was usually a song that I wrote to, and that song would become part of the pulse of the eventual film. With Thank You for Smoking, we used to listen to Steve Winwood’s “I’m a Man”. There’s that opening bass line in that song, and I would feel how Nick [Naylor] felt any time people were coming at him. It put me in the right mood to write.
There was something that happened the first time we played [Dave] Brubeck [“Unsquare Dance”] against the opening shot of this film. The piece that we ended up using in the film has this hand-clapping and this rhythmic jazz, and the movie just kind of crackled and came alive. We shot that on day four and immediately found that music, and it worked. That definitely became part of the nature of the filmmaking.
Carson: We’ve been talking for years about this movie, and we’ve never had this conversation before. And we have talked about everything in the realm of politics in this movie. What I used to say to people who were starting out in politics, when I could see they weren’t getting it, I would take them aside and say, hey, this is jazz, not classical. Things don’t happen at 1:05PM. They happen when the fuck they happen. If you’re not okay with that, you’re in the wrong business.
You’ve got to flow with it, you’ve got to see what the other person is going to do, you’ve got to adapt, you’ve got to move. People that didn’t get it, in my experience, I understood that they were playing [classical, not jazz]. It’s so regimented that they didn’t survive, and they didn’t succeed.
Bai: All writing is rhythmic. [To Reitman]. But until you’ve just said that, I’ve never thought of actually assigning music to something I’m writing. I’m going to go home and do that!
Carson: I’ve never met anyone else that did it. I actually asked a bunch of writers, do you have a song that inspired your script? They say no. [To Reitman] You’re the first person I’ve met who does that.
Reitman: It’s an attitude. It was Hank Williams for Up In the Air. They are these specific moods that say, this is how this character feels. It’ll be a Cat Power song for one thing, a Led Zeppelin song for another.
This film was a collaborative effort between dozens of people, but since I’ve got you three here I’d like to stick with the musical theme and ask, almost as if you were a band, what the dynamic is between you during the creative process? What role did each of you play when writing together?
Reitman: Well, I play drums. [laughs] You actually do fall into roles like you do in a band. Of all the films I’ve made, I knew the least about the subject matter going into this film.
I heard this Radiolab podcast that featured Matt’s book, and the story immediately resonated with me and felt like a movie and spoke to all kinds of feelings I had about the modern moment. But in the writing of the screenplay I felt detached.
When I first got together [with Matt and Jay] I showed this film The Candidate (1972), the Michael Ritchie film, and I said, I think this is the kind of film we should be making. But to make that kind of film, you need to have all of this kind of personal history within the subject matter. This conversation between Matt and Jay — Matt being a political reporter, Jay having been a political operative — was about what it was like being on either side of the line [between politicians and reporters] in a fight that in some ways defined itself in 1987 when the wall went up between journalists and political campaigns. On a good day, it’s like two opposing teams playing a sport. On a bad day, it’s like two opposing armies in a battle.
Matt and Jay, how did you come together?
Carson: We met in 1999. I was working for Senator [Bill] Bradley, who was running for president against Al Gore, and Matt was covering senator Bradley for Newsweek. We became real friends.
There are a lot of useful relationships in politics, although I don’t think those really exist anymore between journalists and operatives. There were people you were “friends with” in politics, but Matt and I actually became real friends and ended up tracking this story [about Hart] together for a while. I think we both had very high hopes for [election cycles], the process that we would be a part of had gotten worse every year and far worse every single [election] cycle. That’s what drew us to this story — how did we get here? How did this get so messed up? We came into this with so much idealism and we ended up in this really broken system. What happened? You have the Gary Hart story.
Bai: In terms of the “band” aspect of writing, I’ve been writing alone pretty much my whole life. A collaboration between two people is tough, and a collaboration between three people can be super treacherous. But it never felt that way. We all respect each other a ton and we all share a sense of humor, which is wildly important. All the work we did together has been fun –there’s really been no difficulty. It was a great collaboration because we all had a similar vision and…
Reitman: We all played different instruments. It’d be tricky if we were all guitar players! [laughs]
Bai: We have complementary skill sets, and we all wanted to make the same movie from the very beginning. All of us. The same movie, within a degree of separation, if that. That will hold you together through anything because you share a similar vision.
Carson: We knew what the movie was. Jason had a creative vision for what he thought it should look and feel like, and once you have that leader of the band and you all buy in, then you’re all working with the same purpose.
The film isn’t manipulative regarding your personal stances on the Hart scandal and what it says about today’s political climate. The story is very open to interpretation. Have you spoken to people who have seen the movie and have had an unexpected reaction to the story? Someone who was alive during Hart’s campaign and perhaps even voted for him might have a completely different response than, say, a millennial.
Bai: I think the range of reactions is shockingly diverse, which we love. I think I’ve heard every reaction, and every time we do a screening, I learn something new. It’s like, how did you take that away [from the movie]? A gentleman last night, whom we met in Mill Valley, he started talking about the movie and teared up. It felt so poignant to him in the moment, and he feels strongly about [America’s] politics.
Reitman: And then literally the next person you talk to will be raging. The Hart story is an interesting PH test. I found that immediately after I heard the Radiolab podcast [I Don’t Have to Answer That, 26 Jan 2016] and read Matt’s book and I started to talk to people in my life about it, I noticed the range of reactions to his story, how people felt about him, and his place in our history. The more diverse [the reactions] got, the more excited I was about the potential of a movie.
There are something like ten main characters in this film.
Reitman: At least.
Right! I wonder how crucial the casting of Hart was, because Hugh Jackman has to stand up to some terrific performances but also act as the center of gravity for the story as well. He could easily get shown up by any of those other actors but he’s really the rock of the ensemble.
Reitman: Hugh is such a formidable actor. He can kind of go toe-to-toe with anybody whether he’s fighting, in an argument, dancing, singing… he’s proven his ability in every format. The thrill is surrounding him with twenty actors and knowing he’s going to go toe-to-toe with all of them. What’s it going to be like when he has to “dance” with J.K. Simmons, or Vera Farmiga? And with a lot of these new, younger actors who get to have important scenes with him?
At the core of it is an actor playing an enigma, which is really tricky. As Hugh would say, acting is driven by choice. It’s driven by goals. The hardest thing you can do is play an enigma, someone who we’re desperately trying to understand but will not let us in.
Bai: You mention the casting of the movie, and this is one of the three dozen things that speaks to Jason’s sensitivity to the world and talent as a filmmaker. This was yet another moment where you start to see who we’re casting coming through [the set], and it’s one of the very few things I’ve been a part of that’s set in the world of politics that’s been, like, these people feel like they’re from the real world.
Carson: Journalists are funny. Journalists are interested and interesting. There’s a banter that goes on between them but they usually get cast as these super serious college professors. Campaign operatives are funny and profane and drink and curse and are also usually interested and interesting. They often get cast as serious, on a mission, and monastic. That doesn’t work either.
When the movie came together and we started seeing these people in these roles, I thought to myself, Jason really gets this. You walk onto set and it felt like a campaign. The people who are playing the roles are the kinds of people who would have been doing those very roles in a presidential campaign.
One of the most striking things about The Front Runner is the attention to detail paid to the set and costume design. It felt like the ’80s. The way the shirts fit, the curtains, the knick knacks on the office desks.
Reitman: I’d never worked on a movie that had as much attention to detail as this one required. I’ve worked with the same crew for a long time. Some people go back to my first film, Thank You for Smoking, and some people, like my cinematographer, go back earlier than that, back to my short films in high school. It’s exciting when we all get together to make a movie and I watch all of the people around me, whom I’ve grown with, have to take leaps in their career to step up to the requirements of the film.
Production design… this is a film where the world needs to feel real. It’s a wild, messy movie, and you’re supposed to feel like you’ve just been dropped into these actual locations. It cannot look like a fictitious newsroom. It cannot feel like a fake campaign office. It has to be alive and crackling and real and of a moment that’s not right now, but recent enough that we will know if it’s done incorrectly.
The McDonald’s wrappers have to be the right ones. The stacks of paper and bumper stickers and crap that’s filling up everyone’s desks need to feel real and to feel real in an archaeological dig way. They have to go inches deep– you can’t just scrape off the surface and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel real anymore.
The extras need to know how to use their equipment. They need to know how to use their video cameras and their typewriters. The sound guys need to know how to hold their boom [mics] right. They were taught how to use this equipment, and they were shown supercuts of people in the ’80s on planes and at press conferences so that the world would feel real. That was made off the backs of people doing 24-hour days, seven-day weeks in the costume cage, which had thousands of shoes and belts and…
Bai: A football field of [stuff from] the ’80s.
Reitman: While I’m proud of the [production and costume design], I didn’t put in the sweat labor to make that all feel real.
Carson: I would test it sometimes, especially in the campaign headquarters. I spent a sad amount of my life in campaign headquarters. When I walked [onto set], I was just blown away by how real it felt. It was really PTSD-inducing for me to be in these campaign offices. Jason says archaeological dig. I was like, okay, the surface of this [set] looks good. Day four or five in there, I start digging around in the desks and it’s down to what’s inside the drawers. No one’s ever gonna see this stuff. Things fifty feet in the background were real. Then I really started to freak out.
Bai: I got fooled several times thinking I was in a real place when I was actually on a set.
Reitman: Danny [Glicker], our costume designer, is known for putting things inside the pockets of the actors. If they happen to reach inside their pockets, they’ll find things that relate to the scenes that they’re in.