On April 13, 1987 a young, charismatic, Democratic Senator from Colorado hauled a small caravan of press, aides, and family up to a sweeping vista of the state’s iconic Red Rocks park to officially announce his bid for candidacy of the President of the United States.
“He was the front runner,” explains a title card in director Jason Reitman’s new film of the same name. In less than a month he’d withdraw, his campaign blown to bits, his public image desecrated.
What happened? The Front Runner furnishes you with the what, but is far more concerned, even consternated, over the why. Hugh Jackman is at the center of the story as the senator in question, Gary Hart. As compelling as the clash between Hart’s political prescience and moral obstinance is, it is the tangled, seizing web of media, politics, sex, and family that propels the movie headlong into our contentious, contemporary moment. Among the strong ensemble Vera Farmiga as wife Lee Hart, Mamoudou Athie as Washington Post reporter AJ Parker (a composite figure based on EJ Dionne), and Sara Paxton as the pilloried other woman, Donna Rice, particularly shine.
MovieMaker sat down with Reitman to discuss writing the film pre-Trump, watching it post-Trump, and everything in between.
Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You directed both Tully and The Front Runner, which came out within months of each other this year. How did you juggle shooting those projects?
Jason Reitman (JR): My last feature Men, Women, and Children came out back in 2014, but we wrote The Front Runner in 2015, I shot Tully in 2016, then shot The Front Runner in 2017. It’s funny because I know how things can appear on paper. It’s like I took this nice little break, but if you ask my loved ones, they’d say “No, where the fuck have you been?” Oh, and we made four seasons of television during that period [Hulu series Casual, which ended this year].
There was a funny moment making these movies back to back—it was during a period where The Front Runner and Tully were in AVID simultaneously. One day we needed a shot for The Front Runner we didn’t have, and ended up taking it from Tully.
MM: No way, what was the shot?
JR: There’s a long montage where people are waking up, reading about the breaking affair story, jumping on planes, and calling each other. We needed a shot of a lamp turning on to signal J.K. Simmons waking up before he gets in the car with Molly Ephraim, and didn’t have it. I think it was Stefan [Grube] or Nate [Orloff, editors] who pointed out we just made a movie that consisted entirely of a woman waking up in the middle of the night and turning a lamp on. We just stole one of those shots.
MM: The advantages of never stopping working.
JR: It was funny to call up Focus and be like, “Can I… have this shot?” They were really sweet about it. They basically said, “Hey, it’s your movie.”
MM: Did you come across Matt Bai’s book (All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid) on your own, or was it sent to you as an option to develop?
JR: There is a Radiolab episode about Gary Hart that uses Matt’s research as the spine of the story. I’m a huge Radiolab fan, and it’s where I first heard the story. I was captivated. I mean, Gary Hart was a guy in the mid ’80s saying America’s addiction to oil was going to take us to the Middle East, where we’d face and not know how to fight Islamic terrorism. He told Johnson in the early ’80s and said we need a computer in every classroom because our future economy will be determined by who can use computers and how well. He was prescient about everything, and we threw him out in less than a week because we enjoyed the joke so much. The boat he was on had a funny name.
Gary Hart became this great litmus test for the nation. What do we pay attention to, and what matters? He didn’t commit a workplace violation, he met a girl at a party. He made the kind of mistake that happens frankly in a lot of marriages. We have to ask ourselves what sorts of behavior are we going to put up with in our leaders, and where do his mistakes fall on that range? My co-writer Jay Carson says, “We like to think that before ’87 it never mattered, and after ’87 it always matters, but neither of those are completely true.” We’re constantly searching for what counts.
MM: What are your thoughts on shooting fictional narratives vs. shooting hard facts? Is it harder to work a creative angle around a storyline that’s already pre-determined?
JR: If you think about storytelling at its core, the primary question is what happens. Here, the what is already figured out. The new questions become how and why? We figured out the best way to tell this story early on, and that’s in large part due to the construction of the writing team. The film was co-written by Matt Bai who is a New York Times Magazine journalist, covered five presidential elections, also Jay Carson, press secretary for Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Tom Dashell—we came to the decision that the film would be told from 20 points of view. While Gary Hart is at the center of the story, it’s really about his campaign aides, the Washington Post team, the Miami Herald journalists, Donna Rice, and the members of Hart’s family. How do they all react in real time? How do their collective opinions mirror the variety of ways we approach politics today? The same conversation we’re having on a daily basis in 2018 is playing out in its first version amongst the characters in this story.
MM: Have you gotten closer to what counts after making the film? Or what should count?
JR: I think that’s the conversation we’re constantly having as a country now: What counts? And I think we’re amazed by what counts as a country and sometimes what doesn’t count. Frankly, we’re living in a moment where if you’re someone who experiences shame you’re most likely not in politics, or at least not going to make it. But if you’re a person who doesn’t experience shame, you win the race, you thrive, and we reinforce this system that favors the shameless. MM
The Front Runner opened in theaters November 9, 2018, courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All images courtesy of Columbia Pictures.