New from Robert Daniels on 812 Film Reviews: Screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson- The Front Runner Interview

Two months ago, at The Toronto International Film Festival, I was lucky enough meet with screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson. Their first feature, The Front Runner had just premiered. Adapted from Bai’s book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, The Front Runner details the short-lived lead Senator Gary Hart held during the 1988 Democratic Primary, a lead that came undone because of Hart’s highly publicized extramarital affair.

Bai, a political journalist, has written for Yahoo! News and was the Chief Political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. Carson, a political operative,  has worked on campaigns for Bill Bradley, Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean, and Hillary Clinton. In many ways, The Front Runner could have only been made through a partnership of the two sides the film examines, journalists and campaign officials. Matt and Jay met with me at their hotel to discuss their film.

Q: So, the Hart incident happened in the 80’s. We’re a decent amount of time from it. Bill Clinton’s and Hart’s campaigns feel like a decade apart…

M: Bill Clinton ran the next election. Four years later.

J: The emotional memory of it, it feels like a decade, right? So much goes on between 88′ and 92′ that it’s kind of the point of our movie, or one of the points. 88′ shifts everything so that 92′ feels like a different generation. In terms of, how you approach campaigns and Presidential campaigns in general. 

Anyways, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

Q: No, that’s fine.

J: My brain too, when we first started working on this. Even though I worked with Bill Clinton for a very long time—I knew exactly when he got elected—I thought, “Gosh, and then it was a while before…”

No. It was the next Presidential election.

Q: Now that we’ve had someone like Trump elected, especially with the Access Hollywood tape, why is this film relevant today?

M: I wrote the book before the movie. I think the relevance is, there are just moments when change occurs. It doesn’t mean that it causes the change. There are moments where everything shifts. 

I think, that is the moment where politicians became celebrities in the popular culture. Treated like celebrities. Entertainment and politics really merged. There are a lot of things happening in the culture to create that explosion. 

To your point about Clinton, and the others who came after, you could look at that—and people do—and say, “Nobody cared about sex scandals after that.” I would turn that around and say, “What kind of candidate succeeded after Hart?” The best way I’ve heard it described, is that there was an absence of shame for the people who succeeded after him. 

Hart reacts to that scandal as much as people would have before, like “None of your business. I’m not here to drag my family in front of the cameras. That’s not what I’m here for.” 

The process we create going forward, after Hart, attracts and rewards a kind of shamelessness. And a kind of willingness to deceive, that I think is not incidental to where our politics is right now. To me, it’s never been a story of we have this scandal, people get used to it, and then we move on. I think it fundamentally changed how we define leadership. And for that reason, it’s a crucible to a really critical moment.

J: After 88′, we ended up on both sides. One of the interesting things about writing this was that I was a political operative. Matt was a journalist. We were, theoretically, on opposite sides of the fence. We talked about Shepard and wolf, depending who thinks they’re the Shepard and who’s the wolf.

M: Not sure I love that, but okay.

J: You can be the Shepard?

Both laugh

But what happens after 88′, is that both sides learn to game the system better, which doesn’t really benefit anyone. Part of what our movie tried to do is to take a look at this from a human perspective. 

There are no bad guys or good guys in our movie. We’re not indicting any of the players. We’re showing humans beings in difficult situations, trying to deal with it. After that, after 88′, the human beings begin to learn to behave differently.

“Well, the guys in 88′ decided to refuse to talk about. Well, that didn’t work.” They got run out of the race in like 4 days. So now, we’ll go on 60 Minutes and talk about it. We’ll say we’ve created pain in our marriage.

There becomes a playbook for dealing with this kind of issue all the way around. Everyone becomes more cynical about the process, as a result. 

M: But you have to ask yourself, to my point, “What kind of politician would do that to their family, would go on 60 Minutes and lie and make their families sit down and lie?

It’s something Gary Hart would never have done, for better or for worse. Maybe he would have been a great president, maybe he wouldn’t have, but that’s a different skill set from what came before. And I think fear goes to the line in the movie, and this is the seminal line, “I tremble for my country when we get the leaders we deserve.” I think it goes to that point. Do you ultimately get the leaders the process demands?   

Q: To that point, there’s a line where the campaign manager, played by J.K. Simmons, talks about Warren Beatty and Beatty says that it’s all going to change now. The difference between politics and celebrity. Back in the 1850’s you knocked on the White House door and Abraham Lincoln would literally open the door….

M: Like open Tuesdays. 

But you don’t really have to go to Lincoln. I was reading this book, when I was writing my book, by this guy named Josh Glaser about McGovern. He wrote this weird book about Eagleton. It was about Tom Eagleton. McGovern in 72′.

J: That’s our next movie by the way, McGovern in 72′.

Matt and Jay laugh 

M: You know you could. I’m not saying you should. I’m not saying it’s a terrible story…

J: We’re going to get more and more obscure.

M: Yea, a Tom Eagleton story. That’s not a bad idea.

So he describes the reporters wanting to talk with McGovern—in the heat of the moment—the first Vice Presidential candidate to get dropped from the ticket, and they go down to the tennis courts. They just go down to the tennis court and find him, the nominee.

They just want to ask him a couple questions, so they ride with him in a golf cart back from the tennis court to the lodge where they’re staying so they can ask him their questions. 

I pointed out in my book, I would get arrested if I did that today. I’d probably be thrown off the campaign trail for that.

J: There was also a response on the operative side. Political operatives say, “We can’t let anything spontaneous ever happen. We can never let our candidate interact with voters or the press in a way that’s not staged managed and produced.”

That doesn’t benefit anybody. What we try to do in this movie is tell an understandable story of why.

If you’re the Press Secretary and your candidate got caught in an alley, and future press secretaries got killed for it, your future press secretaries made sure their candidate didn’t get caught in an alley. You over correct for that. 

If you’re a reporter and the operatives have lied to you, you will stop trusting the people who tell you what’s going on from the campaign. And what you end up with is this process, which starts in 88’s and leads to where we are.

M: By the way, none of which makes a movie a truly cinematic and gripping story. All that being said, the thing at the heart of the story, at the heart of the movie…

J: It ain’t C-Span.

M: It fucking happened.

It’s crazy, like that scene in the alley, people don’t remember that it really happened and you don’t have invent very much. 

J: Matt started telling me about his book when he was working on it, so we became real friends. We met in 99′ during Bill Bradley’s Presidential campaign. I was working for Bradley. We became real friends, so we would update each other on whatever projects we were working on. 

He starts telling me this story and I say, “That’s a fucking movie.” Because you’ve got a guy who’s going to be the next President. He’s going to be the next President and 5 days later he never works in politics again. I mean, that’s a movie. You watch everything crumble and fall apart in an incredibly gripping thriller of a story and we just knew that we had something special on our hands. Jason saw it right away.

Q: When did you begin adapting the book?

M: When I was writing the book. We worked on a version of the screenplay over a couple of years. When Jason heard me talking about the book on a Radio Lab program, he went and read it. And if you know Jason *snaps finger* he probably read the book while he was driving. He just got in touch with us. He read the script we had written, a version of it, the project was still going but it had kinda stalled, and he said, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for ya. The good new is you can write, which is a huge relief for me. The bad news, you’ve gotten a lot of Hollywood notes and you’re telling it very conventionally. You really need to tell the story in the book and you need to do it in a creative way.” 

And he had us sit down and watch The Candidate, which he had in mind. We were blown away by it. I had watched it before, but he said, “Do you want the three of us to write it together?”

J: It was a complete joy from beginning to end. We loved working with Jason and we have another project with him. 

One of the awesome things about Jason, whatever he’s working on is whatever he’s working on. Lots of people in Hollywood take on 14 things at the same time and there’s a lack of focus. He was at least as focused on our project as we were. It became all of our project, but he just locked in on it from the first second.

Q: Was The Candidate the only film you used as a basis for the screenplay?

M: It’s funny that everyone keep talking about Altman, which I get, but that never came up. We also watched Downhill Racer. That’s really what he had in mind.

J: We had all seen, and it was really fresh in our minds, but I watch All the President’s Men, at least once a year. It’s the movie that gets the newspaper world right. It’s my favorite movie. Bill Goldman is my favorite screenwriter and so we talked about All the President’s Men a lot. But The Candidate was the seminal point to say, “Hey, let’s do it like it happens in the real world.”

M: The two rules [Jason] gave us: Tell it real. Tell it authentic. It had to be real, and because it was going to be real, it was going to be chaotic. There were going to be a lot people coming in-and-out. It was going to be hard to follow, at times.

And Jason, it’s more his point than ours, but I love the way he talks about his vision, he says “The whole movie is asking you what’s relevant and what isn’t.” With the style of the filming, you have to figure out what you should be paying attention to all the time. There’s sort of a meta thing going on. There are so many conversations going on, so many people. The movie’s always asking you what matters and what doesn’t. I love that because the symmetry of that is really cool.

J: We also worked in that business for a really long time and we get really annoyed at movies and tv shows where the editor of the paper begins to talk and everyone in the newsroom silences. And he gives a long four page speech about…

That doesn’t fucking happen.

And so, we don’t have those moments in our movie. There are a few times where people speak from podiums, because that’s what happens in the real world. But anytime you’re in an office setting, there’s crazy stuff going on. The only time you get anywhere close to that is when J.K. Simmons is talking to the staffers about the importance of this campaign and the pizza guy walks in, in the middle of this, and he’s like, “Can someone pay the pizza guy?”

Real life is always happening in campaigns and in newspapers.

M: There’s also the newspaper scene where the National Editor keeps going around asking if anyone wants gum, “Gum, gum, anyone wants some gum?” And Bradley says, “Yea, I’ll take that gum.” Some of that was ad lib. I think there was a controlled chaos to the way Jason would let people play with it a little bit. 

Q: The amount of rapid fire dialog, with conversations happening on top of one another. 

M: And if you pay attention—because I’m proud of this—the danger you run into there, there are so many characters, they can all sound the same.

The more you write the characters, the more they take on lives of their own. For the most part, they all have their way of saying things. People have their own personalities. And I think, it’s hard to experience from another person’s perspective, I think it comes across. Even if you don’t know everyone’s name or exact job, it’s like, that’s the woman who communicates a lot with her eyes, that’s the guy who says, “Fuck.” You get a sense for who they are.

Q: One of the major relationships in the film is between Hart and the press. How it goes from the buddy-buddy relationship to antagonistic. Considering the current climate, where the President is screeching about the media, what thoughts were there that this might be a bit touchy?

M: We were done with the shooting script by the time Trump was elected President. There was no influence or thinking in the moment. But actually, to the contrary, I think all of our reactions was, “Wow this adds to our story.”

Jason was texting me, I was on a tv set election night, “We’ve gotta make this movie right now” because we had been talking about this idea that the process had become so trivialized and broken that you could entertain your way to the presidency. Trump, in many ways, is the end point of what began. We’ve had good moments, President Obama doesn’t fit into that lineage. But I do think, it’s not a direct line, but a zig-zaggy line, that directs you to this collision of politics and entertainment. 

J: We started working on a movie on how the political system was broken. We were working on it a while ago. Trump got elected and we were all looking at each other and went, “Yep! It’s broken.”

But your journalist question is an interesting one because this movie is not an indictment on journalists. The system is fully broken. We all bear some responsibility for that. Every single one of us. Every operative that’s lied to the reporters and built walls around their candidate deserves responsibility. The voters deserve responsibility. The journalists deserve some responsibility, but the movie is no way an indictment of journalists.

In fact, we try to see the journalists as human beings who are stuck in a really difficult situation for the very first time, trying to figure out what to do. 

Q: Like AJ

J: Yeah, those are human beings, but there’s not a right choice. Whatever they do, somebody is going to be mad at them. Something is going to be wrong with it. We try to tell it from that perspective. We don’t let anyone off the hook, but we also don’t point the finger and say,”Well, those are the good one and those are the bad ones on either side.”

M: It’s funny, we’ve gotten that question a couple of times. We got it today at a forum when someone said, “You seem to have a negative point of view on journalists.” Which catches me off guard because I don’t know what that point of view could be. I spent 11 years at The New York Times and I was a Crime Reporter at the beginning of my career. I’m still working as a journalist.

J: Matt’s wife is a journalist.

M: I was with her for the screening. I said to her, or she said to me, “I don’t think you can construe that as anti-journalism at all.” So, I don’t know. That was certainly nowhere near our minds, an indictment on journalism. But I do think, the thing with our industry, the self-critical reflection thing is hard. I think we react to it more, now that we are under attack. I’m under attack all the time. We react to it a little bit differently. But I do think, as Jay said, this is a movie that asks everyone to take a little bit of a moment.

“What have you brought to this? What have you done to create the process we have?” And journalism certainly isn’t exempt from that. So the dilemmas that the journalists in the movie face are real and complicated. 

 J: Like, to the concept of grey in our movie, there are no white hats and there are no black hats. No one rides in and saves the day. No one rides in and ruins the day.

M: Maybe that might be strange and frustrating for people.

J: It might be. Part of what we’re trying to do is start a discussion about that. Pre-Gary Hart, you couldn’t ask anyone about their personal life ever in any situation. Post- Gary Hart, you must ask everyone about their personal life in every situation. Neither of those is right. We are self-determining human beings. The fact that it was verboten beforehand didn’t make any sense and the fact that it’s 100% guaranteed now doesn’t make any sense. Can’t we have some judgment about when the candidate talks about it and can’t we have some judgement about when we need to ask about it?

That’s one of the examples of where our movie is, to the extent that we make an argument to use our judgement in different situations. The voters uses their judgment, the staff uses theirs, the candidate uses their judgement, the journalists use theirs. 

Q: With respect to the book, how much did you interview Hart and what was his overall involvement with the whole process?

M: The book, very much. Though it’s interesting with Hart, he’s a writer himself. He’s written novels and he has an old world idea about this, his attitude, even with the book from the start, “This is your project. Not mine. I don’t want to influence it and I don’t want to know.” So, that sort of gives you an idea. But I interviewed everyone for the book. 

With the movie, we all had a conscious thought, “We don’t want it to be influenced. We don’t want it to be someone else’s work. It’s ours.” And there are so many perspectives, and then you want to be able to reflect them all. He was aware we were doing it. His aides were aware we were doing it. Hugh [Jackman] met Senator Hart, spent a couple days with him for research, but nobody ever saw the screenplay. Ever.

The first time anyone ever saw the movie, including Donna Rice and the Harts, was in the last 10 days or so. And they’ve all reacted very positively, which is great, but nobody ever saw the film. And I think Jason has offered the journalists involved to see the film, as well. I don’t know if anyone has taken him up on it, because we’re journalists and that’s how we are, but I think it was well handled. Everyone was aware of it, but no one got to take part in it. 

J: The Donna Rice scene, being the first of the real people portrayed to have seen it, was important to all of us. Part of what we tried to do in this, is showing the complexity of the situation. Show the complexity of the women caught in the situation too. Like, Donna Rice just became a one-dimensional character to everyone in America who had heard of her after this. 

M: The same with Hart

J: We tried to say, “Hey, he has more dimensions to him than just a Monkey Business photo” where she’s sitting on his lap. By the way, the woman sitting on his lap is a human being who went through a fucking meat grinder in 1987 that redefined the rest of her life. Let’s get a look of what it’s like to be her. Look at what it’s like to be the woman on the campaign staff who had to put a knife in her back and the woman reporter who was pushed to cover it and decided not to. So we tried to have that perspective in there too, and that existed for a long time in our screenplay. It was part of telling the multi-dimensional story that we wanted to tell.

Q: There’s also the scene where AJ asks him female colleague why she hates Hart so much.

M: A lot of that was Helen Estabrook, who’s an unbelievably great producer who kept reminding us, all three of us guys, to make sure that comes across. With the newspaper and with Helen, there was always a voice asking, “Is that sharp enough? Have you thought about that? Have we thought about that woman’s perspective enough?” That helped a lot and I think made the movie that much better. 

I want like to thank both Jay and Matt for taking the time to speak with me. The Front Runner opens in theaters November 16th. 

The Front Runner is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): 2018.

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