The Team Behind ‘The Front Runner’ on the Importance of Theatrical in a Polarized Country
By Phil Contrino
Gary Hart’s journey from being the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination to being a punchline on late-night television happened more than 30 years ago, but its impact on our current political environment is undeniable. Hart’s story is presented in a refreshingly objective way by acclaimed director Jason Reitman in his latest film, The Front Runner.
I caught up with Jason, producer Helen Estabrook, and co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson at the Middleburg Film Festival in rural Virginia—a 45-minute trek from Washington, D.C.
You spent a lot of time telling Gary Hart’s story, Matt. As you were writing the screenplay is there something you really wanted to get in but it just didn’t fit?
Matt Bai: We all had so much respect for the underpinning of this true story that if there was something that we felt we couldn’t make it without then we would have agreed on that point.
This story is so cinematic in some ways. There are things that are true that strain credulity that you couldn’t use in a screenplay because they wouldn’t feel real even though they are. There’s a crazy scene in the book of Hart commandeering a Jeep Cherokee and peeling out of a hotel with his wife. If you put that in the movie it would feel like you are making a totally different genre, like a cop chase movie or something.
You wrestle with all kinds of decisions, but at the end of the day I feel there’s nothing that needed to be in the film that isn’t. It’s all there.
Talk about the collaboration process, Jay. Since it’s based on Matt’s book did you ever feel a sensitivity to that or was it an open collaboration.
Jay Carson: It was the three of us [including Reitman] collaborating on the script. Part of the reason that I hope the movie works is that we all felt that we were making the same movie from the very beginning. Matt and I have been friends for 20 years, and the three of us folded together like we’ve all know each other for 20 years. We developed a language really quickly, and we developed a similar vision for the movie. We had a shorthand in three days.
People have asked me about our collaboration a lot and for me it’s two things: you really have to like each other a lot and you have to respect each other a lot. That is really important. But you can respect and like each other a lot, and if you’re trying to make a different movie it’s not going to work.
We talk to a lot of directors about how thinking about the big screen shapes the creative process. Jason, can you talk about how making a movie to be seen with an audience impacts everything in the lead up to actually shooting?
Jason Reitman: This is a movie in which your ears show you where to look as much as your eyes do. So when we thought about the big screen, we thought about this huge pallet where you would be following 20 different characters at once and how do we use the screen to establish this playground.
We sat down to watch The Candidate together and we all found a lot of truth in that film. I don’t know much about politics, but Matt and Jay were commenting about how accurate that film felt. It portrayed a version of running for office that was really messy: people talking over each other and simultaneous conversations about topics that were relevant and irrelevant, which was important philosophically to this film. The question is: How do you do that? How do make these scenes feel big and natural and real. The solution became interviewing the real people, and building these scenes that were interwoven conversations. Once we got to set it became this whole new challenge—one that I’ve never had before as a director—which was how do you shoot that? Normally, two or three people walk into a room, they have a conversation, and that’s the size of it. I was trying to take my hands off the camera as much as possible and let the script and actors do the heavy lifting. I wanted to create rooms that were alive so the audience could follow whatever they wanted. That was the value of the big screen: it provided a sense of watching this big tableau all at once.
There must be some takeaways now that you are taking the movie around to festivals and screening it. What have you learned from watching it with audiences?
Jay: The most fascinating part to me was at a couple of the early festivals where we stayed for a long time. People know who Jason is but they don’t know who the hell I am, so I would walk through the crowd afterward and no one knew they were talking next to one of the writers of the movie, and getting to hear couples, friends, and family get in discussions and arguments about the movie and arguing the positions that we wanted people to talk about. In each scene we wanted to give someone the strongest argument they could make for the position they are trying to take. And to hear people in these crowds at Telluride and Toronto actually have those arguments was really gratifying.
Helen Estabrook: That’s the fun of seeing it in the theaters as a communal experience. We had this funny situation when we showed it to a very small group of people and it was half Baby Boomers and half Millennials, and the Baby Boomers were like “Well I really liked it, but I think the millennials with think this” and the millennials were saying “Well I really liked, but the boomers will think this.” Everyone had an opinion on what everyone else’s opinions were.
Matt: Which is kind of like politics.
Helen: Exactly. Which is why it is fun when people can have their own opinions and can actually experience it together to have those conversations as opposed to projecting what others will think.
And that doesn’t happen if a movie goes straight to streaming. A movie like this needs to have people talking about it together.
Matt: That really is true. If everyone were watching it in their homes, the discussion would be very limited.
Jason: That is the power of the theatrical experience. I think that way too much conversation is made about screen size and sound systems. The real value is the communal experience … the idea that you can laugh and cry with strangers. Particularly right now in 2018, we are all looking to have a political conversation. That is the entertainment of the moment. We don’t talk about The Sopranos, we talk about the Kavanaugh hearings or the mid-terms. We’re looking for a way to have this conversation in a way that’s not shrill. The beauty of a movie is it’s that rare experience that you can have as a collective and then have a really healthy conversation.
Helen: It allows you to talk about relevant issues without being so divisive.
We get a lot of complaints from NATO members that customers are talking about how political Hollywood has become. Do you think there’s a balance between activism and not angering a lot of moviegoers?
Matt: What gets people irritated about famous people and politics is just being told what to think. There’s so much in the culture telling people what to think, or trying to get them over to your side, or speaking to them because they are already on your side, and that’s dispiriting for people.
With this film we had a great cinematic story, we’re not dragging people through a political lecture for two hours. Also—we all made a conscience decision and effort to have people draw their own conclusions and show a lot of perspectives that you can work through. We have a small sample size with this movie so far, but I think people appreciate being provoked to talk about politics without being told what to think. There’s no message here other than we all have a responsibility and we have to think seriously about it.
With the polarization that’s going on in our culture it seems like a Republican would say “I’m not going to see a movie about Gary Hart” just as a liberal would pass on the new documentary about Steve Bannon.
Helen: That’s actually not what we’ve found at all. It’s by design: we’re not making a movie about how Gary Hart should have been president. We are making a movie about a specific time when something happened in America and all of the questions that come into that.
We’ve actually found in our testing that it is not politically divisive. We have conservative audiences interested in seeing the film when they are presented with the marketing materials. Like Matt said, we’re not trying to tell anyone how to think. We’re asking a lot of questions that are relevant to everyone no matter what political side you are on. That was very important to us in the making of the film.
Jason: Matt has said more than once that no matter what side you are on everyone looks at the system right now and thinks it’s broken. The big question is: What is making the system broken and what is the fix? The tricky thing is the conversation in a moment when it’s really hard to have a conversation. There’s a great opportunity in movies. We did not want to make a partisan movie. We wanted to make a complex human narrative. It is about the line between public and private, and the relationship between candidates and journalists, all the kinds of things that everyone wants to talk about anyway. Matt was very prescient when he started pursuing the Hart story, which in its roots talks about all these things.
It feels like there could be a post-credits scene in this movie in which Howard Dean pops up. His story—in which there was a soundbite that everybody latched onto—seems to be a precursor to the stupidity that happens on the Internet. The parallels are fascinating.
Jay: The parallel to me—having been right in the middle of the Dean scream collapse (although people forget that the collapse really happened two hours earlier when we lost Iowa by 19 points)—is the feeding frenzy that can happen with something like that. We all lose our minds over a particular thing that happens. You see that with Hart and Dean.
Jason: We love stories. We are innately narrative people, and we remember things as stories. I think that’s been one of the fascinating things of making this movie. There’s kind of two audience members for this film: someone who does not know who Gary Hart is and doesn’t know the story and there’s the person who thinks they know the story but actually does not know the story. This film is clearly for both of them. It taught me a lot about how people remember things, and interacting with audience members before and after the movie and hearing what questions they have about why the photograph is not in the movie.
So why did you decide not to put the photograph in the movie?
Jason: Because it’s not part of the narrative. The photograph came out over a month after he was out of the race. This was a movie focused on a moment: three weeks in which a man goes from being the front runner and the presumed next president to out of the race and pretty much leaving politics forever. Consumers find the photo entertaining and they want to link it to the story because we are so innately narrative driven.
I want to talk about actually getting the film out into the world. Tell me the story behind the great teaser one-sheet. When I see it in a multiplex I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 70s.
Jason: It’s a movie that takes place in ’87, but in many ways we wanted to stylistically write it, shoot it, and cut it like it was a movie made in the ‘70s. When it came to the marketing, we talked to Damon Wolf [formerly at Sony, now at Lionsgate] and they presented many posters of Hugh Jackman and I said, “Is there a possibility of us getting out ahead of it with something more figurative that reminds us of films that we loved in ‘70s?” And look, sometimes you offer the studios an idea and they say “Thanks, kid” and they move on.
Right, this feels to me like a poster you would have to fight for.
Helen: We didn’t have to fight for it all. It came out of conversations we had. They came back and brought us a number of cool ideas, this just happened to be the coolest.
Jason: There were a whole bunch of figurative posters and this was the best. I love all the little details. I love that the white is an off-white, I love the actual hue of the red and blue, I love that they put Front Runner in quotations, and I love the amount of negative space in it. Most of the poster is white. Who does that anymore? It’s so bold.
Matt: It’s almost like the poster says “Slow down and think.”
Did you always want to release it on Election Day or is that something that came further along in the process?
Jason: It was later on.
Helen: When you’re making something you don’t necessarily think about release.
Jason: Especially for us. We’ve been making independent films for 10 years now, and they are made because we want to make them. They aren’t summer blockbusters that are positioned years in advance. At some point Sony brought up the idea of Election Day and that felt interesting. Honestly, this is what’s funny to us: we started working on this three years ago, prior to this presidency, and I remember thinking “Oh, this is relevant” and my joke now is that I could go with less relevancy.
I think that’s an important thing for people to know. Some people think movies are conceived and shot in a very short time, so they might think you are responding to the 2016 election.
Matt: That kind of drives me crazy. I hear “did you write this because Donald Trump is president” a lot, and the book was out so far ahead.
Jay: We had a script done and we were texting each other on election night going “Holy shit!”
Did you change anything in the script after the election? Maybe play up one element more than another?
Jay: Not in response to the election.
Jason: This is my first time making a movie about real-life events, and so for me it was, “We know what the plot is … it has happened. How are we telling this and why are we telling this?” That’s the question we were asking ourselves throughout the process.
Just as the world shifted under Hart’s feet, the world shifted under ours. Any time we had an instinct—and Helen was particularly great at keeping us honest—to put our thumb on the scale or to push something to the side, we would take a step back and leave this up to the viewer and make sure there are no good guys and no bad guys. These things happened and they felt different for everyone involved. Every person who sees this is going to hook their ride to a different character. Never before in my career have I had that experience, and it’s been a thrill.