- “The Front Runner” delves into the presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart in 1987, which ended when it was reported that he had an affair.
- To give an authentic retelling of the events, director Jason Reitman teamed with veteran politics journalist Matt Bai and strategist Jay Carson to write the screenplay.
- The three told Business Insider how they created the fast-paced, often comedic, look inside the campaign trail.
Jason Reitman knew exactly what was wrong with Matt Bai and Jay Carson’s script the moment he held it in his hands.
“He said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news for you, the good news is you guys can write, the bad news is you’ve gotten a lot of Hollywood notes and you’re telling a more conventional story than it deserves,'” Carson recalled to Business Insider in a swanky hotel room in Toronto sitting alongside Reitman and Bai.
Carson looks back on the moment with glee because it marked when he and Bai realised they had finally found someone in the movie business who had the leverage to tell the story they had always wanted to tell.
Bai’s 2014 book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” is a deep dive into then-senator Gary Hart’s infamous affair that didn’t just ruin his hopes to become president when he ran in 1987, but changed how politics would be covered by the media forever.
Since Bai, the former chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and now Yahoo’s national political columnist, had been writing the book he and Carson – a former political strategist (he was the inspiration for Ryan Gosling’s character in “The Ides of March”) – had been talking about teaming up to write a movie adaptation of “All the Truth Is Out.”
Over the years they made some progress, but as Reitman saw with a quick glance, a few rounds through the Hollywood spin cycle had turned it into a cookie-cutter political drama.
Around 2016, Reitman read Bai’s book and was hooked. In fact, he instantly took out a legal pad while on a flight and began jotting down the story structure for a movie about the Gary Hart scandal.
Reitman got ahold of Bai and Carson and invited them to his office.
“I said, ‘Let’s watch ‘The Candidate,'” Reitman said, referring to the political drama starring Robert Redford. “We watched it and immediately got into conversations about the core idea of the movie we eventually made, which is how do you present a world where a lot of things are happening and it’s the audience’s job to parse through and think what’s important?”
It was the plan Carson and Bai originally had for the story – capturing the frantic pace of a presidential campaign – and by the time the screenwriters left Reitman’s office, “The Front Runner” was born.
Starring Hugh Jackman as Hart, the movie (which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and will open in theatres November 21) is a fast-moving, fast-talking look inside Hart’s campaign for president, which starts with him being the favourite to the White House and three weeks later comes to a screeching halt when, in April of 1987, The Miami Herald runs a story from an anonymous source that Hart is having an affair.
The movie’s look at how the reporters got the story, and how Hart dealt with the backlash, is a fascinating moment in politics as it was new for everyone. This marked the moment when a politician’s personal life was as much on the table for the press as their political views.
Or as Reitman put it: “As a filmmaker, I have so many questions about how we got here, today in 2018, and this moment was one of the first times I thought, ‘Here’s a thread I want to pull.'”
But he wanted the audience to feel what it’s really like to be on the campaign trail, and no two other people know that environment better than Bai and Carson. The challenge, though, was to put that constant chatter into script form.
“It’s like writing non-fiction but much harder in the sense that you’re importing a lot of information without wanting anyone to feel you’re talking at them,” Bai said. “We really didn’t want to do bad exposition.”
Often Reitman, Bai, and Carson would sit in a room and just talk about campaign life. At some point Reitman would love something that came up in the conversation and write a line of dialogue on a white board. That would basically be the starting point for a conversation in a scene, and then the three would flesh it out.
“In the movie, there’s a conversation about where to get beer before the stores close, but there’s another about who is going to Miami, and they both are going on at the same time,” Reitman said. “So, ‘Is this place open? Are you going to Miami? It closes after 6. No, Billy is going. Which Billy? Are you sure that place closes at 6?'”
“With all these conversations crossing one another,” Reitman said, “we had to figure out how do you physically write that on the page so someone reading it doesn’t say, ‘What the f— is going on here?'”
Reitman said the style they came up for the script was having the dual dialogue running parallel, then below that would be the new dialogue that’s brought into the scene, and that was the layout style through the entire 145-page script.
“In a presidential campaign you’re basically cramming two days of work into one day of life,” Carson said. “Everyone talks over each other, we tried to make it feel like that. This movie was PTSD-inducing for Matt and I in many ways.”
And it didn’t get any easier in post production.
To make it so audiences didn’t lose their minds listening to constant chatter for the length of the movie, sound mixer Steven Morrow (“La La Land,” “A Star Is Born”) took the ambitious step of micing every actor in every scene, even the extras in the background just reading magazines from 1987.
Morrow then in post production, almost like Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul character in “The Conversation,” arranged the sound so what is important is heard crisp and clean and will quickly become dull when another line from another character needed to be heard.
“I have video of his fingers on the mixing board like he’s a piano player and adjusting everyone,” Reitman said. “He got to a mix where your ear is going to a place before the camera even gets there. This is not a movie where the camera tells you where to look, this is a movie where your ears tell you where to look.”
With the movie starting to be shown to audiences, it’s clear this is one that will find a lot of attention come Oscar season. But what does Gary Hart think about his past coming back to the fore 31 years later?
Well, Reitman took the movie to Denver before its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and showed it in a theatre just for Hart and his wife, Lee (who just celebrated their 60th anniversary).
“It was the scariest screening of my life,” Reitman said. “We all went for hot chocolates together after the movie and they started talking about the movie just like it was any old movie, which caught me by surprise. They were both impressed with Hugh, and Gary said, ‘Do I really talk like that?’ And Lee was like, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how you talk.’ And then he started talking on a larger scale about what the movie was and what it meant to him. I think he felt that the movie got his story closer to the truth.”
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