It’s season two of the podcast, and we’re hitting the ground (front-)running. In this episode, our season 2 host Caroline Waxler sat down with THE FRONT RUNNER co-writers Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman.
The film, based on a book by Matt Bai, explores how, in 1988, Senator Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations were derailed after an affair became national news, and chronicles the moment when politics crossed over into entertainment.
Matt Bai is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He’s currently the national political columnist at Yahoo News. Before that, he was chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine. You may also recognize him from his recurring role as himself in season two of HOUSE OF CARDS.
Jay Carson is an international and American policy advisor and strategist. Throughout his career, he’s been the press secretary for Hillary Clinton, a senior staffer for several other elected officials – including President Bill Clinton, and Chief Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. He was also the supervising producer and political consultant for HOUSE OF CARDS.
Jason Reitman is an Oscar- and Writers Guild Award-nominated screenwriter, director, and producer. In addition to THE FRONT RUNNER – which, in addition to co-writing, he also directed – his screenwriting credits include UP IN THE AIR and THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.
OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Season Two of the podcast is hosted by Caroline Waxler. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.
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Thanks for listening. Write on.
Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America, East. In each episode you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between.
This week we’re joined by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman, co-writers of the film The Front Runner. The film, based on a book by Matt Bai, explores how in 1988 Senator Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations were derailed after an affair became national news, and the moment when politics crossed over into entertainment.
Caroline Waxler: So thank you all so much for joining us today.
Jason Reitman: Thank you. [crosstalk]
Matt Bai: Thanks for having us.
Caroline Waxler: I appreciate it. So please tell us the genesis of this film. How did it get made? And tell us about the movie.
Matt Bai: It starts with me, right?
Caroline Waxler: Yes!
Jason Reitman: Yes, Matt.
Matt Bai: This is Matt.
Jason Reitman: It actually does, and it does right now.
Matt Bai: Apparently I wrote a book. This starts with a book I wrote called All the Truth Is Out. It actually starts a good deal before that. At the end of 2002, I was at The New York Times Magazine, I was a pretty new writer there. And I saw an item in the newspaper about Gary Hart being talked about for running for president again. And I remembered the scandal that had taken him down very vaguely, as a college student. And I thought well that sounds like an interesting story.
Matt Bai: And I went and I met him. And I interviewed him, and wrote about him. And found him very compelling in a way I found hard to shake, and found the story troubling, because even though I repeated a lot of the collective wisdom about that moment in 1987, and I’m not proud to say that. I repeated it a little thoughtlessly. Because as I looked back at it, and dwelled on it in the years after I came to realize that we had collectively misremembered a lot about that moment.
Matt Bai: And I was covering presidential campaigns. I’ve covered five as a journalist. And beginning to connect that moment to the deterioration I felt like I was seeing all around me. There was something there I thought was unexplored and overlooked. And I decided to write a book about it, which was a really loopy idea, but you have those, so I did it. And it came out in 2014 and in 2015 Jason, Jay, and I all hooked up and started talking about making this movie, which Jason sort of brilliantly directed and spearheaded, and we all the wrote the script, and we’re really proud of what we’ve done with it.
Caroline Waxler: Great. How did you guys all connect?
Jason Reitman: Email.
Caroline Waxler: Really?
Jason Reitman: Yeah.
Jay Carson: Facebook.
Matt Bai: Yeah.
Jason Reitman: It was going to be a phone call-
Caroline Waxler: LinkedIn?
Jason Reitman: Jay doesn’t actually read his emails so it took about a year, but then-
Matt Bai: I wasn’t the holdup with us connecting!
Caroline Waxler: Seriously, who connected you all, and how did they think to pair the three of you?
Jay Carson: Matt and I-
Matt Bai: It was a conference call.
Jay Carson: It was a conference call, which was difficult because we’re at different agencies, so no. Matt and I have known each other for almost 20 years now, which is crazy. I worked for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000, although ’99 was where most of the primary was. Matt was covering it for Newsweek. We got to know each other so when he told me about the book, I was like, “that’s a movie.” And then I’m going to steal Jason’s part of the story, but then Jason heard Matt’s book on Radio Lab and had the exact same reaction, and before we knew it, we were all three hooked up with a remarkably similar vision for what we wanted the movie to be, which was really cool and has made it an awesome process from the beginning to where we are today.
Caroline Waxler: Great, thanks. And Jason, what sparked your interest when hearing it on Radio Lab?
Jason Reitman: First of all, I couldn’t believe that it had happened. I mean, I was 10 when this happened and I was probably more interested in where the Back to the Future trilogy was heading than American politics. I’d kind of heard the name Gary Hart and Donna Rice, but I really didn’t know the story. So when I heard the Radio Lab and when I went out and bought Matt Bai’s book, full price-
Matt Bai: As well you should have.
Jason Reitman: Matt put a pool in with that money. I couldn’t believe there was a moment in our recent history where the presumed next President of the United States wound up in his alleyway in the middle of the night with a group of journalists and no one knew what to do because no one had ever been in their shoes before. I mean, it felt like a Western standoff in the midst of a film noir. It felt so cinematic. It had all this connective tissue with all the things that we’re talking about today. Gender politics, where does a private life and a public life start and stop, what is the relationship between journalists and candidate?
Jason Reitman: And I reached out to these two gentlemen sitting next to me, I still call them “gentlemen”-
Caroline Waxler: As you should.
Matt Bai: Despite knowing us.
Jason Reitman: And we had immediate chemistry, which, by the way, is not an automatic, and any writer who’s listening knows that, that finding a writer partner, I mean, it’s like finding someone to date. It’s tricky. You meet and it can easily go off the wrong course, you can immediately feel like you’re making different movies, you could be just people who don’t get along. And there was this immediacy. I remember they came over to my house and we watched Michael Richie’s The Candidate, and there was just this crystallizing moment where I saw both of them light up.
Jason Reitman: You’ve got to remember, I’m not a student of history, this has never been part of my education, and here I am now with one guy who wrote for New York Times Magazine, covered five different presidencies, another guy who was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean, I mean, people with rich histories already in each of their professions and understood this world way better than I will ever understand it. And as we all watched The Candidate together, I’m watching them light up and see things on screen that they recognized as true. From that moment on it became, “how can we make this movie feel as real as humanly possible, to drop the audience right there on the campaign trail?” Whether on the bus, they’re in the plane, they’re on a newspaper floor. And in a story where we already knew what the plot was. The plot had happened, it was a real story. It became, how do we tell this and how can these two guys bring as much truth to it as possible?
Jay Carson: And when Jason showed us The Candidate and we saw that he wanted that to be our North Star in terms of the breaking and writing of the story, and ultimately the making of the movie, there’s this incredible sense of relief with Matt and me because we were like, not only is it Jason, who’s made some of our favorite movies, but we knew we wanted to make this movie in a way that was the way that we’d been talking about making it, because we’re often frustrated with the portrayal of a business that we spent collectively almost 40 years in. And Hollywood, where the politics often takes on a one-dimensionality, the characters take on a single dimensionality in too many stories. And when we saw that that’s the version that Jason wanted to do, we were like, “Oh, thank god. He totally gets it and this is gonna be a great process.”
Caroline Waxler: What was that writing process like?
Jay Carson: Really natural and really easy. I mean, Jason’s right. We all got along right off the bat, we all wanted to make the same movie. And we kind of just invented our process that worked for us.
Jason Reitman: There’s a lot of kicking around anecdotes at the beginning, because we knew we wanted to have all these overlapping conversations. We built the general outline, kind of kicking it back and forth, but then it became, “how do we layer this?” And “how do we make sure that there are always three people talking at once?” I think that what we found throughout the process, writing, shooting, cutting, was that if it felt like it wasn’t working, usually the reason was because only one thing was happening.
Caroline Waxler: What do you mean three things happening at once?
Jason Reitman: Three conversations. Three pieces of action. This is a story and a film that is asking philosophically, what is important versus what is entertaining? What matters? So we want to ask the audience, cinematically, okay, if we throw you three conversations happening at once, which one do you want to listen to? If we give you three things to look at on screen, what do you want to watch? And that starts in the writing process and it starts with filling these conversations out with a combination of innocuous conversations and things that really matter. Things that really kind of reflect politics today.
Matt Bai: It’s fine to say you want something to sound real. We all knew that. For me certainly, coming at it not having done screenplays, having come out of the world of journalism, it’s a question of how do you make something like this feel real? And often working with Jason I find it’s like, I think for Jay and I, it’s like having a PhD seminar. He said to us early on, “there’s a bunch of things going on in a scene. There’s what’s going on and there’s what’s going on over there and there’s what’s going on under the surface.” And it was a way of thinking about the scenes as we worked on them, that you had to have multiple layers happening because if you wanted it to feel real, it had to be kind of chaotic but also you had to be able to follow it, and as Jason says, ask yourself what you should be following. And that’s a real writing challenge.
Jason Reitman: And then just one process point because we are at the Writers Guild. We didn’t use track changes as we wrote this. So when we passed the script back and forth, there were no stars running down the side of the page saying, “I can’t believe Jason cut that scene or put this line in” or “What was Matt thinking removing this brilliant thing I had on page seven?” And when you take out the track changes, it takes a lot of the ego out of it, so if you don’t notice it’s missing without a star pointing it out, then it’s probably a change for the better. And it ended up, we all got along really well but writers have egos, and so as we’re passing it back and forth without that, it made the process even more smooth than it already was.
Matt Bai: Yeah, now I remember actually every word that I wrote that was taken out and I’m pretty bitter about it, but I’m trying to keep that submerged.
Jason Reitman: Lots of double dialogue, double dialogue constantly running down, simultaneously, and sometimes we would cut scenes and we would just keep that as appendix pages knowing that on set we would still hand them to people. I found that more often than not, we would be handing additional appendix dialogue to characters on set. On set we’d have all actors miked, and our mixer was playing the mixer like a piano because it would have sometimes 10, 12, 15, we even got close to 20 people miked at the same time, and he would literally just be live mixing what would eventually be the final mix of the film.
Jason Reitman: You know traditionally, you mic the two people who are kind of your focus on camera, and on other takes you mic the other people, and then later on the final mix you kind of find your levels. This was watching kind of a maestro work, our production mixer, Steve Morrow, who was balancing all this different dialogue at once and in real time, kind of trying to figure out for himself, “okay, you need to hear a little bit more of this conversation, a little bit of that conversation, all right, I want to start,” he knows the camera is about to pan right, so he’s going to start filling in a little bit more of the conversation that’s happening to the right. And it was kind of a wonder to watch in real time.
Matt Bai: And doing it so pleasantly, too. That’s the thing I never got over. [crosstalk] Never seemed under pressure.
Jason Reitman: And I mean, he had just done A Star is Born and had just done La La Land. What he does with music is incredible, what he does on big special effects films. I mean, I remember having a whole conversation with him once about, “How do you mic a car for a car chase?” And he just started talking about all the different mics he put around the car so that when they get to the mix, what they have is real. They don’t have to fill it in all fake.
Jay Carson: Jason also had us on set for the entire movie, which is a real testament to Jason. And I hope we made the movie a little bit better by being there, but our writing process did not end when we had the shooting script. Jason would look at us in the morning and say, “I got six guys standing just behind the main action. I need two pages of what they’re going to say right now.” Or “Pick a topic,” or “go in there,” or “we’re shooting right now. Jay, Matt, walk in and talk to these guys about what they’d be saying on these phones.” [crosstalk]
Matt Bai: He would go and tell the phone bankers, “Right, this is actually how you, I want some votes at the end of this. Go phone bank.”
Jay Carson: Yeah, so that was fun and it was cool to be a part of it literally from the beginning to the end of the shooting.
Caroline Waxler: And that’s unusual.
Jason Reitman: Unless the set made them nervous then I knew they weren’t there yet. The sets have to get real enough that the newspaper floor or the campaign actually have to give either of them PTSD or we haven’t done our jobs yet!
Jay Carson: It was PTSD-inducing. Some of those campaign offices felt so real. It was like an archeological dig on the desks. I would be like, “Okay, the top layer is all real stuff but I’m going to look…” and six layers down would be the right date and phone bank lists actually from New Hampshire from the year, and I was like, “OK, I’m scared. I’m going to walk outside.”
Caroline Waxler: Kudos to your props person.
Jason Reitman: The whole department. I mean, this is, a lot of people I’ve been working with since Thank You for Smoking, my costume designer Danny Glicker, my production designer Steve Saklad, my DP Eric Steelberg, who I’ve known since I was a teenager, so we’ve kind of developed a career of films together where we’ve explored different styles, but never anything like this. Never a real movie. I mean, that was the big challenge I think certainly for me. I’m not sure you guys felt this as much. But this dedication to truth, dedication to the real people we knew who would be eventually seeing this film, people who lived through these experiences, who were going to be watching the screen and kind of ticking the accuracies off as they go.
Matt Bai: Well, it’s funny. You grapple with that as a journalist. When you’re writing long form truth obviously, you think you’re always in your head, you’re thinking, “Am I being fair because someone’s going to read this, their life’s going to be affected by this. Am I representing them well?” I think the fear when you adapt something into a screenplay is that you lose that. I mean certainly for me, I didn’t want to make a movie or see anybody make a movie about this that was simplistic, heroes, villains, someone’s brilliant, someone’s an idiot, and here’s your message, take it away.
Matt Bai: I think the complexity of that story, I didn’t want to see get lost and none of us wanted to see get lost, and so I think that’s the thing. As much as I was used to that, that was important for me to keep in the process. And one of the reasons we all worked together so well is that for me, for Jason, for Jay, for all of us, it was just really important to preserve the complexity, to not be talking at people, to not be expository, to not be hitting people over the head but to actually ask people to think and make up their own minds and have their own debates. And that’s a hard thing to do when you tell a story, to present a bunch of perspectives so that people have a hard time knowing how they should feel. But it was our goal from the very beginning.
Jason Reitman: There’s something that actually kind of occurred to me this week that I hadn’t thought about since we were writing, that Matt’s book does kind of an incredible job of setting the stage of this story. He has chapters dedicated to, okay, why now? Why here? Why this story? Why Gary Hart? And he would just kind of outline each month in 1987 and talk about the technological changes with satellite trucks and cell phones and things like that. Or the way that tabloid journalism had kind of driven into the lane of political journalism, and moved from print to TV with shows like Current Affair.
Jason Reitman: And what we faced as writers was, “all right, how do we get all these details into the script without it feeling like were spoon-feeding the audience?” Without it feeling like we were going, “You see? Look! They have these trucks now!” [crosstalk] And characters talking about it. And that’s the thing that I think frustrates us, I’m sure it frustrates you guys, when you’re watching a movie that’s so clearly going, “Look how these people were and look at this and this should make you feel this way.” And so we tried to design these ways where details would almost seem as though they were accidental, where if you were watching the movie it really felt like you just happened upon them.
Jason Reitman: So just the opening shot of the movie. You open inside this satellite truck. Already point at the technological change. The first thing you’re hearing and seeing is this “Where’s the beef?” quote which is kind of a notable moment in the life of Gary Hart that we didn’t want to stand on it, but it needed to be out there and how do you make it feel as though you’re just kind of randomly receiving it? It doesn’t play. At first it’s rewinding, and then it’s fast-forwarding, and then it kind of finds its place and it plays, and by the time it’s playing you’re already kind of pulling out of the van and looking at something different. You get to a newscaster and he’s doing a broadcast from the national convention and he’s immediately interrupted and you’re already hearing another-
Jason Reitman: Broadcast from the national convention and he’s immediately interrupted and you’re already hearing another conversation and that conversation is a random conversation about a golf cart. So, it’s this kind of layer of details that we know the audience needs to hear to get the full scope of the story without us going, “Now listen to this. This is important.” This is something that Matt and I … And that’s why we were so excited when Jason showed us Michael Richie at the beginning because there’s this thing, and writers don’t make this mistake that often in other forms. But for some reason in politics the thing ends up being the thing. But the thing isn’t the thing in politics anymore than it is on set. And so, I’ll describe this to people. I’m like, no one ever says please bring me pages 7 to 12 of the script because the lead actress needs them right now before shoot 13 of the …” It’s like, hey can you get the stuff for her ’cause she’s super pissed right now and you gotta get her the …
Jason Reitman: You’re always using pronouns for everything. Everything is shorthanded and that’s how it actually works in politics too. That scene from the candidate there’s a huge event that they’re planning but they’re all fighting over what their lunch orders were. That’s what it feels like in campaigns and it was great to have Jason pushing us to … We’d be riffing on stuff and you’d hit a part in a story and he’d be like, “Wait. More on that part. Go deeper into that, I’ve never heard that kind of thing before.” And we’d go deeper in that and that’s a lot of the stuff that ends up in the movie.
Jason Reitman: My favorite thing would be when they would write a scene and I’d be like, “I have no idea what this is. This needs to be in the movie.”
Jay Carson: Yeah, that’s true.
Caroline Waxler: So, so much of the movie felt … It just put me back in that year. And so, how did you, aside from your book, what were the other ways you researched the movie? What were the other pieces of source material?
Jay Carson: Oh my god I went on Ebay and I bought so many magazines from 1986 and 1987.
Matt Bai: Yeah, some of which we probably have in duplicate because I have them from doing the book. Although I lived through it, too. I was a little older than these guys, but that’s a big difference in years when you’re looking back at a period and you were a college student for [inaudible 00:17:00]. [crosstalk]
Jay Carson: That’s a big difference for just anybody. That’s a fairly big number.
Matt Bai: Yeah, I do lose a lot of their cultural references. It’s true.
Jay Carson: You knew what he meant, Back to the Future? With the whole [crosstalk 00:17:11]-
Matt Bai: I’m sorry, what?
Jay Carson: Were you too old for this?
Jason Reitman: But little things, like, I remember going through those magazines from ’87 and thinking about, “Oh, that’s right. That’s when Sonny Bono decided to run for Mayor of Palm Springs.” That was a moment, I remember that happening. [crosstalk] “Oh, that’s when Stevie Wonder wouldn’t play Sun City.” Little things like that that you remember clocking just kind of whipping by you on the news, but immediately put you back in the moment. Yeah, who did win the World Series that year? And who was the most notable athlete? What was the most famous commercial on television? All those little details paint a picture.
Jason Reitman: And the 80s are particularly difficult because when we think of the 80s, we think of hair and neon colors and this kind of Wedding Singer version of the 80s and we knew that we needed to explore a different version of the 1980s. So how do you present that without getting lost in the kind of MTV bumper version?
Jay Carson: It’s not that everyone isn’t wearing parachute pants, they’re just wearing them under their regular outfits during our movie.
Jason Reitman: You don’t like these parachute pants?
Caroline Waxler: I was so struck by the signs. I mean, you had all the details so right. I mean, the signs that people were holding out in the first signs, the ERA signs, the “Keep abortion legal,” stuff that translated to today.
Jason Reitman: There’s also footage. I mean, that’s the thing is first of all, we edited in a lot of real footage from the time into the movie so that’s interspersed, but that also presents a challenge because once you put the real stuff in, you really got to match it, otherwise it becomes pretty obvious when you start cutting to your own shot footage. But everyone was dedicated too.
Jason Reitman: I remember during prep, we would have lunch every day in a conference room kind of like the one we’re sitting in right now, and we’d have a projector on the table and we would just screen movies from 1987. Now some of them were political films to kind of give a sense. I mean, The Candidate was obviously a big one for us. We watched all the obvious ones. We watched Primary Colors, we watched All the President’s Men, we watched the documentary about the Clintons, The War Room. But then we’d watch Working Girl. We’d watch what was the great-
Caroline Waxler: Wall Street was that then?
Jason Reitman: We didn’t watch Wall Street for this.
Matt Bai: Downhill Racer was another one.
Jason Reitman: Yeah, Downhill Racer. Broadcast News. Broadcast News is a film where you could just watch pedestrian. You can watch cars. You’d watch … inside their office, the way they taped cable along where the wall met the ceiling. What was the furniture like? What were the lamps like? How did people wear their clothes and their hair? And it would give you kind of a sense of reality.
Caroline Waxler: The details were extraordinary in this movie.
Jason Reitman: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely. Jay, your background in politics. I mean, you’ve seen it since that period and just the combination of celebrity and politics and the way it’s covered. I mean, looking back at this period of Gary Hart, what are your thoughts?
Jay Carson: It’s just gotten so much better every year. I saw the look of terror in your face. You were like, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jay Carson: I came, there were two things that drew me to this movie right off the bat. Matt told me about this book he was working on and I said, “that’s a movie.” And that’s just the writer in me. I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s a great movie. I want to do that as a movie.” But then the political operative strategist, whatever you want to call it in me, that had been doing this for quite a long time, I did three presidential campaigns, lost all three including one that was totally un-losable?
Caroline Waxler: Which one?
Jay Carson: It was the 2008 Hillary. I was her press secretary in 2008, so we lost. I … entered politics with about as much idealism as a person could have and left it really completely broken, brokenhearted, broken in every way, and I wondered why this process I went into with so much hope was so messed up, and how did we get there? And when Matt started to tell me the story of the book, I thought, “wow, this a moment that encapsulates how we got to this process that has become so terrible.”
Jay Carson: And it was a way for me, from a personal standpoint, to explore that, to explore that in the writing and to find different layers and levels of it. And as writers, that’s what we should be doing when we’re working on a project that’s the right thing for us to be doing, is exploring that. How did I get here? Why are we here? That’s something that I had the privilege of getting to do with these two amazing guys, and it really helped me because they pushed me at every turn.
Caroline Waxler: And do you think Gary Hart’s situation opened the door for the media covering political scandals in a different way?
Jay Carson: It did, but it changed the whole process. So we really tried to portray everyone in this movie as human beings, and so we don’t point a finger at the journalists anymore than we point a finger at the operatives or the candidate or the voters, honestly. The whole process changes in this period and yes, the way that these scandals are covered is different, but this is really interesting because Matt was a journalist, is a journalist, for a long time. I was an operative for a long time. When you’re writing a screenplay, I don’t just get to write the operative lines, I have to write the journalist’s lines. And I had to write the operative lines and say, “Wow, that was kind of a shitty thing to say, but that’s exactly what I used to say to people.” And I had to say, “Wow, that journalist has a really good point there.”
Jay Carson: And so it was a way to explore all sides of the issue, and sure, it’s different, but it made me a lot less judgmental, actually, about the way that people do the job. Not less judgmental about the process at large, which is really messed up, but the individuals doing it. It made me a lot less judgmental about the individuals who do the work.
Caroline Waxler: Has Gary Hart commented on the movie? Has he seen it?
Jason Reitman: He has. I mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of pressure I think we all felt about the movie about real people. And I think there is something different about between journalism and a movie, in that if you’re writing journalism, you need to get the facts right. In a movie, you need to get the emotion right. You need to really capture how something feels. Each person’s going to have a different version of events, clearly, and particularly in the midst of a scandal that happened so quickly in which the world is shifting under everyone’s feet, and everyone kind of remembers it a little bit differently.
Jason Reitman: So you have to somehow get at the heart of what it feels, and it is terrifying to then take that movie and show it to Gary Hart and his family and his campaign and Donna Rice and Tom Fielder and all these people who lived through it who’ve all seen the film now.
Caroline Waxler: Not together?
Jason Reitman: Not together, although-
Matt Bai: That would have been something.
Caroline Waxler: Some screening.
Jason Reitman: That would have been … amazing. First person to see the film was Donna Rice.
Caroline Waxler: What did she … and you all portrayed her so well in this movie, and it was so nuanced.
Jason Reitman: Thank you for saying that. And look, we are cognizant of the fact that this movie was written by three men and it is a movie that deals particularly with gender politics. And I need to kind of single out someone who really had an enormous impact on this script who’s not sitting here right now, who is our producer Helen Estabrook. Someone I’ve worked with since Up in the Air and I think if you enjoyed the complexity of the relationship between George Clooney and Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga in that movie, that goes back to conversations that Helen and I have been having about gender since we’ve met.
Jason Reitman: She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and she challenges me on my thoughts and makes me a better writer, and I think in this case made us all better writers because this is a film about what it’s like to be the one woman at the newspaper speaking for your entire gender, it’s about being the one young woman on a political campaign having to speak for your gender, also having to … this one young woman who was tasked with bringing Donna Rice back to Florida and is confronted with the reality that she’s been sacrificing her entire life to get this man elected and now has to see that through the lens of this affair. It’s a movie about Lee Hart, Gary Hart’s wife, who is angry and is upset and is heartbroken by an affair but feels as though she has to share that with the public somehow, and by her opinion doe snot belong to them. This is her pain.
Jason Reitman: And then Donna Rice, a young woman who was smart, ambitious, educated, and whose life was kind of ripped out of her hands. And one thing I think we all felt, I know I felt, people would ask me “what are you doing next?” And I would say “I’m doing the Gary Hart scandal as a movie.” They would say, “Oh, Monkey Business. What was her name? What was that blonde’s name?” And they would talk about her like she was an object and the woman I got to know was not an object. The woman I got to know was really thoughtful and has been unfairly treated for 30 years. So I think we all would talk about that responsibility. It was certainly a conversation that we would have with Helen, who really informed us on those scenes and those characters.
Caroline Waxler: Speaking of monkey business, I noticed you didn’t do that iconic photo. You didn’t recreate that. Why?
Jason Reitman: I should say Donna liked the movie. That was all a roundabout way … I never said that, sorry. [crosstalk] So Donna, Gary, everyone who I mentioned felt as though the movie had empathy for them.
Caroline Waxler: Good.
Jason Reitman: And that I think is the most important thing. Are there … would one person say one thing was accurate versus another is inaccurate? Totally. But what they felt as though this story has been kind of wrapped up as a joke for 30 years, and Matt was the first person who said, “Wait, this isn’t a joke. This is an important moment. This is a moment where a lot of things shifted.” And we’ve never stopped and thought about this, the fact that this wall went up between journalists and candidates where they stopped spending time, real time together, where you got to know these candidates as human beings. This is the beginning of a conversation about gender that has spun out of control, and thank god you did. But they saw the movie as, oh, the filmmaker’s clearly had empathy for them as human beings and didn’t see them as a joke, which is all they feared going into the movie, that somehow we were going to make some salacious piece about a boat.
Caroline Waxler: And reduce it to a caricature.
Jason Reitman: Yeah. Sorry, the photo.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, why did you neglect to recreate what happened in that photo on screen? Because that’s the thing that stands out to me about that time period, I just remember Donna sitting on Gary’s lap, him wearing the Monkey Business shirt.
Matt Bai: I remember it too and I actually, the photo just never goes away. I think I said in the book, the boat just sails on in the public mind. It’s … you can’t Google, you can’t get anywhere near it without [inaudible 00:27:14]. But this is a story, this is a large way of answering your question, which I will, it’s a story that is just so misremembered, I think in part because in that moment in the 1980s, the mid-to-late 1980s where you only had a couple of TV stations and a couple of national newspapers and imagery was so important, it was possible for something to just get solidified in our sort of cultural memory, whether it was true or not. And it’s impossible to shake.
Matt Bai: And there’s a bunch of things about this story, that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting hopefully for people is what you know of it, if you remember it, you misremember it. And the photo is one of those things where if you go out in the street and you remember Gary Hart and if you found 50 people who remember this scandal, 49 of them will tell you he was driven out of the race by a photo, but he wasn’t. The photo actually didn’t surface until several weeks after he gets out of the race. So it actually doesn’t figure into the story. It’s not really a piece of the story, and it’s why it’s not there.
Matt Bai: In the same way that most people will tell you Gary Hart said “follow me around” and the media tailed him. That’s not entirely true either. He did say that, but he said it to a single reporter and the quote doesn’t actually come out until after the reporters have decided to go and literally follow him around and stake him out at his home and end up in this alleyway with him in this incredible, true-life confrontation. So there’s a lot about the moment that I think is just collectively misremembered, the photo being one of them, and I think it’s one of the … hopefully one of the fun things, one of the joys for people who remember the moment in seeing this in addition to having it hopefully make you think about where we’ve come as a country in our political process, is just revisiting something that you thought you knew but didn’t.
Caroline Waxler: Speaking of our country and the political process, how did you pick this time to release the movie?
Matt Bai: How did we pick this time to release the movie. You mean this time as in this year?
Caroline Waxler: [crosstalk] Because I notice you finished writing the movie a couple of years ago, right before-
Jason Reitman: Yeah before [crosstalk]
Caroline Waxler: The election, yeah. So how did you-
Jason Reitman: Well, that’s the funny thing, right? I mean, so, film releases kind of have a natural process where they just kind of funnel in on a date. But really what I would single out is when and how we responded to this story. Matt was kind of clairvoyant in his ability to kind of see where this story was going and how it was going to reflect where we were in 2018 and Jay was next to the party and I was frankly late. But it all made us feel something. Feel something that was frankly coming true before our eyes. We live in a … we live in a moment where we all wake up the same way. We wake up, we look down at our phone and go, “Oh fuck!” And we’re all trying to figure out this moment. Well, what the hell’s going on? And it often feels like, how many decades are we away from really understanding what the hell is happening right now? And we’re looking for seeds. We’re looking for threads to pull on.
Jay Carson: And we’re looking for seeds. We’re looking for threads to pull on, and there’s something about this story, this story that is misremembered or not remembered at all, that gives us a prism to talk about these ideas. Why certain people run for politics, why certain people don’t run for politics. Why people who experience shame drop out of the race, but people who don’t experience shame stay in the race and thrive, creating a system that favors shamelessness, and look, I think, we all go see movies for the same reasons. We make movies for the same reasons. We have questions, and we go see them because we want films to challenge us, and we wanted to create a movie that did not cross the finish line, but rather passed the baton to the audience, encouraged them to cross the finish line themselves.
Jason Reitman: That is the coolest thing we’ve seen in the early showing, I think, is I think for all of us to see people literally come out of a theater arguing, or thinking, or even just kind of talking to each other, or just sort of dazed, but actually trying to process how they feel about a story. There’s just too much in I think all of our life. In politics, in journalism, in films. There’s just too much of people telling you what to think all the time, and seeing people try to work that out for themselves because you’ve given them something to think about is incredibly gratifying, I think.
Caroline Waxler: So you as a journalist, how do you feel about telling stories as a journalist and as a screenwriter now? How does it change? In what ways? Do you prefer one medium over the other, and how can you tell stories differently in each medium?
Matt Bai: Well, it’s a very different thing, and I’m a big believer in the idea that the stories you tell will change you. They make you think in different ways and think about stories in different ways, so for me, I love to learn different ways to write, different ways to tell stories. I never tried to stay still for too long. I went from newspapers, to news magazine to feature magazines for 10 years, columns, books, and now this. So yeah, I’m always trying to learn what I can about new formats. I think movies are an incredibly powerful format for this moment in particular, relative to others because I think people are just so inundated with information and distrusting of information, and getting slanted information, and even in the sources they trust, I think there’s now a tilt in my industry toward the applause, wherever that applause may be, whether it’s right, whether it’s left. There’s a natural human tendency to follow the applause and to not challenge people to revisit their own preconception or facts.
Matt Bai: When you’re writing a movie, as Jason says, it’s the emotional truth. You’re on an emotional level, and you’re not burdened, I think, by all that. You’re trying to connect with how they feel about things and asking them to reflect, and I think a story like this one, which is so compelling, which has a compelling character at its core, which has so many perspectives and so many cinematic scenes that are true to life. I think evokes feeling for people, emotion about where we are at this moment, in a way that a work of nonfiction has a hard time doing.
Caroline Waxler: Thank you. Jay, given your background in politics, when making this movie, and I know you worked on House of Cards, what kind of things did you keep in mind, or what did you bring to it, what perspectives?
Jay Carson: I think all of us were trying to make it feel and be as real as possible. I think part of what I was interested in in this movie is, said this before, but the portrayal of the people who do this work as human beings, three-dimensional human beings who are put in really difficult, pressure-filled situations every day and try to make the best decisions they can make. Because that’s mostly what I saw when I worked in Washington and when I worked on presidential campaigns, and so just the portrayal of every single one of our characters as people who were born and will die and have a mother and a father and sometimes relatives, and we don’t see that that often. There’s a hero, and I met zero heroes in my time in Washington. I met people who did heroic things, but I did not meet a hero, a through and through, old-school hero, and I wanted to make sure that we showed that in this movie, and it wasn’t tough working with Matt and Jason, because they were after the same kinds of things because I think that’s just good writing, so.
Caroline Waxler: Was it difficult? For all three of you, was it difficult portraying Ben Bradley? I know he’s been portrayed in so many different movies. I mean, that’s a challenge, and how did you go about writing Ben Bradley?
Matt Bai: I think that challenge is mostly Jason’s in the trying to envision how that character would feel, who could bring that character to life. I mean, I think it’s because the public imagination around that is so frozen in a moment in some ways.
Jason Reitman: Yeah, you can’t help think of it, Robards and Hanks. That said, he serves a very specific idea in this movie, and that is the question of how much control does the newspaper have about, over the story, and something that Matt really kind of figured out in his book right from the get go, which is this moment where all of a sudden if … this is something that Ben Bradley said. If TV news is covering something, and if other newspapers are covering something, how does the Washington Post not cover it? And at that point, do they control the story? And that’s never been more evident than today, in terms of clicks. If something is getting clicks, how do you not write about it, which is a dangerous idea. We end up perhaps writing about candidates that we shouldn’t write about as much because they’re just clickable. And look, you wake up again. You open up the news app, and there’s a story about the midterms or about the Kavanaugh hearings, and it’s right next to a story about Ariana Grande breaking up with Pete Davidson. And they’re both being published by the Times or the Post.
Caroline Waxler: With equal weight.
Jason Reitman: With equal weight. They’re side by side, and at that point, wait. Are we reading entertainment? Are we reading news? What is relevant? What is important? They’re being presented as though they are of equal weight, and how do we not follow them as that kind of narrative? We don’t wake up and talk about the Sopranos episode anymore or the Mad Men episode. We talk about politics. That is our entertainment now, which is a dangerous idea because then we just start seeing these people as characters, and we’re following them in a drama through which we … Look at Game of Thrones. Look at its success, and clearly we enjoy being punished as viewers, and we are in a kind of equally punishing narrative in this country.
Matt Bai: For that reason I love Alfred Molena’s Ben Bradley because this is a bookend to the Ben Bradley story, in a sense. Everyone remembers the Watergate Ben Bradley, the Robards, hero, and he was a hero. But at the same time, 12 years later, he plays this role in a sort of less heroic story that everybody kind of forgot, and he plays a very conflicted role. And so you have a very different actor, a very different portrayal, and a very different moment, and I think it does in some ways, right? There’s like a … I don’t know what the word is. Like a mirror image, but this is the other side of Ben Bradley and the era that he lived through and where it lead after those years where we remember him as sort of stuck in this heroic moment, and it’s more complex, and it feels different, and the role feels different.
Jay Carson: Yeah, we hope we brought an additional complexity to this role that people think they already knew, and know.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely, and you being a journalist, I know that-
Jay Carson: My god, I am.
Caroline Waxler: You are, and special care was taken in the portrayal of journalists as well as I noticed a couple cameos. John Meecham.
Jay Carson: Yeah, John Meecham shows up as-
Caroline Waxler: You were in there.
Jay Carson: Debate moderator. I am very barely. I don’t want to get a following of any more guilds. No, I’m definitely in there.
Jason Reitman: There’s a dancing reporter who looks a lot like Matt Bai.
Jay Carson: I would tell you, you know, since this comes up, and I don’t think anyone will find it, even people who know me. Jason said to me on set in this bar how are you at dancing? And I said horrible, I don’t like it I’m not good at it.
Jason Reitman: Always a dangerous question.
Jay Carson: And he said perfect. And they made me change into this horrible ’80’s outfit and come out and dance poorly, which comes naturally, and a little drunkenly. They took pity on me I think, I had an actual this much of beer, but then afterward I said as soon as I could, can I change back? Can I just go back to my normal place in producers village? And I did, but then when I came back to the set they said they need you back in your wardrobe, they’re not done yet. And I honestly, 100%, I said to them stop this. This is not funny anymore, we’ve all had our fun in that day. They all started yelling at me and it turned out of course, it was true. Jason had decided he wanted to do more of the dancing-
Jason Reitman: Yep.
Jay Carson: I had to go back and get the ’80’s costume on.
Jason Reitman: I get my coverage. Matt’s actually wearing that to the premier tonight.
Jay Carson: It is some kind of initiation thing that I hopefully passed, you know I think that’s what it is.
Caroline Waxler: With flying colors.
Matt Bai: You know Chris Backley was in Thank You for Smoking, a long list of authors who have been in the movies.
Jason Reitman: It’s mercifully short and hazy.
Caroline Waxler: It is terrific. So as is the movie, so thank you all so much for joining us today.
Jason Reitman: Thanks for having us.
Caroline Waxler: You can really appreciate it and everyone should see the front rover-
Jay Carson: They should also see the front rover.
Caroline Waxler: Everyone should see the front runner and it will bring about many discussions and everyone will have an excuse to dive into the history books and maybe buy an old magazine from Ebay.
Matt Bai: That was the perfect moment, by the way because all we were looking for in this movie was things like that. Flubbed lines, [inaudible 00:39:41], it’s the moment of Hugh kind of knocking his head on a light. There’s actually footage of reporters in the movie flubbing lines that we use. Old footage from the ’80’s, so you couldn’t have done that better.
Caroline Waxler: I did it on purpose.
Jay Carson: Jason asked for like one more take, that alley way scene. It was a cold night in Savannah, and Jason asked for one more take, the alley way scene. For different reason, but it’s the scene where the journalist drops the notebook, and we look at each and we’re like well that’s it. And it’s the one that’s in the movie because people drop notebooks in real life, so.
Caroline Waxler: And they flub lines. Is there a particular scene that translated well from page to screen, and why?
Jay Carson: I mean the alley way-
Jason Reitman: The alley way we did-
Jay Carson: I think, I don’t know about you guys, when I heard about that alley way scene, that was just so cinematic that it burned into my head and-
Jason Reitman: That was the moment, I find as a director, there’s a moment where any story that I’m hearing suddenly becomes a movie to me. And it just starts to play in my head. Whether I’m reading a book, or hearing a podcast, or reading a newspaper article. There’s this crystallizing moment, and I can literally just see the movie in my head. And that was the alley way. The rarest of things happened on this shoot. We got to finish with that scene. That never happens. Usually, you have this important scene and it’s week one and no ones found the rhythm yet. It was literally the last thing we shot on the film. Last night we’re in Savannah, and Hugh Jackman was just completely dialed in, as was Steve [inaudible 00:41:16], and Bill Burgh. And we got to finish strong with this scene that I think is now kind of the identifying scene of the story, and the identifying scene of the movie.
Caroline Waxler: The scene is so iconic, now it is replacing the monkey business shot, for me, of the Gary Hart story.
Matt Bai: I hope so because I think it’s a lot more significant, and I think it’s a really important scene for-
Caroline Waxler: It’s huge.
Matt Bai: I mean I overstated, but I think that’s an important moment for the culture. I always thought it was an important moment for our politics. And it’s funny because when I went back and revisited and discovered and thought about it in terms of a book, I had the same reaction you did Jason, I thought, you know, you hang a book on this and I always thought it was incredibly cinematic and it’s funny to hear people now say, they say to us frequently I can’t believe this was never a movie. And, you know, sometimes it’s cool when you find something that’s so obvious in retrospect, that people get it. And I think now people get how important and how cinematic that is, it really just came to life on screen.
Caroline Waxler: It’s so smart of you to write this book, so smart of you to identify it as a movie, and for you to choose to make it. I mean, it’s really incredible and I can’t believe I hasn’t been done before.
Jason Reitman: Thankfully it hadn’t.
Caroline Waxler: So thank you guys so much.
Jason Reitman: Thank you.
Matt Bai: Thanks so much.
Caroline Waxler: Congratulations.
Jay Carson: Yeah, thank you.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is the production of the writer’s guild of America east. Tech production and original music by Stockboard Creative. You can learn more about the writer’s guild of America east online at wgaeast.org, and follow the guild on social media at @wgaeast. And if you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.