Straight from the Hart: Interview with ‘The Front Runner’ screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson
Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Weiner—in the past three decades, allegations of extramarital affairs or sexual improprieties committed by all these men were fair game for reporters. Yet once upon a time, politicians from Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy hid similar skeletons in their closets that some in the press were aware of, but never reported due to a long-held sense that such topics were off-limits. What changed? The answer is Gary Hart. In 1987, the Colorado senator was leading in the polls for both the Democratic presidential nomination and the general election. That is until a team of Miami Herald reporters broke all journalistic precedent by publishing a front page story about Hart’s alleged affair with a blond model 21 years his junior. From that moment on, everything changed.
Hart’s story comes to the big screen with Sony/Columbia’s The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Hart and J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon. The screenplay was co-written by director Jason Reitman (known for directing Juno and Up in the Air), journalist and Yahoo News national political columnist Matt Bai (author of the book All the Truth is Out about Hart), and former Hillary Clinton spokesperson-turned-screenwriter Jay Carson. Boxoffice spoke to Bai and Carson about the story’s modern-day parallels, their collaborative writing process, why they changed the title of Bai’s book, and whether to let their children see the movie.
The three lead characters in your screenplay are Gary Hart, his wife, Lee, and campaign manager Bill Dixon. After the recent successes of both The Post and Spotlight, why didn’t you decide to structure the story primarily around the journalists?
Carson: We were trying to tell a multifaceted story that drew you in to all sides of this crisis. We wanted the audience to get to see it from the journalists’ perspective, so we take you there; from the candidate’s perspective, so we take you there; from the spouse’s perspective, so we take you there; from Donna Rice’s perspective, so we take you there. We made a conscious decision not to lock in on one journalist or one candidate—one person who is a classic protagonist and a good guy. There are no good guys or bad guys in our movie, they’re just human beings put in really difficult situations, having to make really difficult choices.
Bai: This is a little different for some people; it may be a little jarring or confusing. Because you have journalists who embody the best of my profession, but then also whose behavior raises legitimate questions. We’re really asking you to consider all the different perspectives and to reflect a little. I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, 11 years at the Times. My wife’s a journalist, my friends are journalists. This is not by any means an indictment of the decisions the journalists made. But we ask political operatives to reflect a bit, we ask candidates and voters to reflect a bit, and we ask journalists to reflect a bit on their decisions and the consequences. I think that’s different from the movies you mentioned, because we’re not telling a morality tale or lionizing anybody. We are asking a lot of questions in this film about decisions everybody’s made and the consequences those have had through the years.
How did you choose to portray the Hart/Rice relationship in the screenplay? Because although virtually everybody in America assumes their relationship was sexual, both of them have continued to deny it, even decades later.
Bai: Just to be clear about it, primarily their response has been that it’s not anybody’s business. Hart said there was “no relationship.” How he defines that is his question. I don’t think that they’ve denied, so much as declined to talk about it; that would be a more accurate way to put it.
Carson: The point of the movie is that the event is not the crux of the issue. There are a lot of other issues going on. We deal with it in that way in the movie. Both in the visual and audio style of the movie, we give the viewer a lot of choices of what to pay attention to. We very rarely lock on one person. There’s very rarely a tight shot on one character for a long period of time, because we’re giving the audience a choice of what’s important. The event in question is obliquely referred to, but we’re giving the audience the choice. Do you think that’s absolutely central to the story? Great, you can focus on it. But it’s your choice as a viewer.
Why did you decide to go for an R rating here?
Carson: We made the world feel true to life. People use a lot of bad words in the real world. In order for that world to feel real, fortunately or unfortunately, people need to talk “real.” Fortunately or unfortunately, some people have really foul mouths in that world. So we wrote people the way that they actually sound. As a result, that’s the rating. But the content and the themes of this are well over the head of a 13-year-old anyway! We’re asking people to grapple with big human conflict, big geopolitical conflict. This is not a 12-year-old’s movie, having nothing to do with sex scenes.
Bai: To Jay’s point about making the world feel real, I’m trying to decide whether to let my 13- and 10-year-old kids be able to see this movie. On the one hand, there’s a lot of profanity. On the other hand, they hear me on the phone all day long. The world may be so real that it doesn’t matter!
Matt, your 2014 book about Hart was titled All the Truth is Out. Whose decision was it to change the title to The Front Runner?
Bai: We all talked about it. My only regret is that we’re re-titling the book, which as an author is much more painful than as a screenwriter. The title came from a Yeats poem; it’s a very literary reference that Hart recites at one point in the book. It’s a lovely title that my wife came up with, and I’m very attached it to it for a book. But you’re not going to use a poem in a movie title, not in a way that feels natural and real. I think the reference would have been lost. All of us came around in the end.
How certain is it that Hart’s front-runner status prior to the scandal would have lasted, either for winning the party nomination or the presidency? Neither of our last two presidents were the front runner for their party’s nomination on the day they announced.
Bai: That is true today, certainly. But in 1988, if you had the kind of numbers that Gary Hart had going into that campaign, you would have been a very formidable favorite. It was very rare that someone with that much of a hold on their party’s nomination process was upended, at that time. No one can say for certain. But The Front Runner is an entirely accurate title. The idea that he would have been the nominee is a pretty strong one.
Talk about your relationship as co-screenwriters. How did you guys work together? Did both of you write each scene, or did one of you write one scene and then the other would write the next one?
Bai: We’ve known each other a long time; we were close friends before we started co-screenwriting, so there was a very comfortable collaborative rhythm to it. Everything we write, we pass it back and forth. Someone will do a bunch of scenes, then get busy or get stuck and hand it off to the other person. We talk about it constantly. We don’t use Track Changes, we don’t litigate the changes. Our rule with each other is “If you didn’t notice I changed it, it was probably worth changing.” It ends up being such a collaborative process that we don’t even know by the end who started what scene. It’s always fun because we’re always laughing. I think that helps the process too, the fact that we have a lot of fun doing it.
Carson: I totally agree with that. It’s enjoyable. We’ve been friends since 1999 and that really helps. We’ve also been on opposite sides of the fence, so we know how to be tough but respectful to each other. Neither of us lets the other get away with anything, but there are no axes to grind with either of us, because we are actually really close friends. We enjoy it. And as Matt says, we pass it back and forth so often. We don’t do a Frankenstein approach, so it’s not like I write something and Matt writes some and we stitch it together. Someone starts it and writes until they stop, then the next person gets it and does a pass, then it keeps going so there’s a continuity of voice and feel throughout. We’re similar but bring slightly different approaches to it.
Bai: We should note that there were three of us. We sort of dragged Jason [Reitman] into our way of passing it back and forth. It was probably new to him, but it all melded so seamlessly. I learned an awful lot about screenwriting working with him. I’m sure Jay would say the same. The three of us had a really great collaboration. We are three people who could work together really, really well.
Carson: We’re actually doing another project with Jason after this one. We can’t say what it is yet! But it worked so well, we’re doing it again.
AT THE MOVIES with Matt Bai and Jay Carson
Bai: I have a vivid memory of going to the movies with a buddy of mine in elementary school when going to the movies was a really big deal; there was no other way to see a movie. Watching the movie Airplane and practically falling out of our chairs in hysterics, at 10 or 11 years old. To me, that is my most vivid memory of the transformative power of movies. It’s not any of the great dramatic movies that I saw after that, which I love. Just the pure joy of watching something that as a little kid I found absolutely hilarious.
Carson: Mine is seeing Back to the Future, the first one, at the Riverside in Macon, Georgia. A very similar experience to Matt: just being absolutely floored by it, completely brought into the world, blown away by the character, by the story. I grew up in a little town, felt weird and isolated and trapped. You hear people tell this kind of story at the Oscars, but I just felt transported out of my town to a place that was exciting and fun and with a ton of possibilities. I probably went back and saw that movie in the theaters 15 times, convincing every relative and friend I could possibly find to take me back to that movie. I still remember the air-conditioning; I remember the theater, the big comfortable seats. It was really great.
AT THE CONCESSION STAND
Bai: For me, absolutely popcorn. I’m a purist on this. I always have popcorn. And as my wife would tell you with no small amount of irritation, although we’ve been going to the movies together for more than 20 years, I do not start the popcorn until the actual feature presentation begins. And I don’t care how long that takes.
Carson: I always get popcorn, but my favorite snack is peanut M&M’s. I literally get popcorn every time I go to the movies, whether I want it or not. But I’m 41 now, so I don’t get peanut M&M’s every single time, because I go to the movies a ton. I reward myself for finishing a writing project by going to see two or three features in a single day. But if I were 21, I would get peanut M&M’s every single time.