(Photo credit – Kevin Brackett – Reviewstl.com)
ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW WITH Director & Writer JASON REITMAN – Chatting about his latest film THE FRONT RUNNER
Interviewers: Kathy Kaiser – Matineechat.com / Kevin Brackett – Reviewstl.com / Dan Buffa – KSDK.com / Tony Mosello – Flickfanatics.com / Lynn Venhaus – Webster/Kirkwood Times & Cate Marquis – Wearemoviegeeks.com
How was your evening at the St. Louis International Film Festival last night?
Jason: It was great…it really was! I love flying into to St. Louis, it brings back this flood of memories from shooting UP IN THE AIR. Literally from the moment I step off the plane, I always wind up walking out of a gate that we literally filmed by. And while they have renovated it, I still recognize the architecture, the lamps, you know. And then I walk past security, where we filmed the whole big security scene. And then the moment I’m driving out and seeing the Hilton we shot at, and the parking spot that used to be a Hertz…and then you start driving through town…thinking, oh yah, there is the apartment building where George lived. It just brings back a lot of feelings…and then of course being here…we shot a really lovely scene here at the Cheshire. And I really love the Tivoli here…it’s a gorgeous theater!
We are ready for you to write and film another film about St. Louis…anything in the works?
Jason: I would love to come back here and shoot another movie, although I’m not sure how it could be the experience I had on UP IN THE AIR. That was just kind of dreamy. You could feel it from the locals that worked on the film, which is not always the case. You kind of get a different sense of the city you are in, by the people that are working on it. Even the background extras on UP IN THE AIR, cared so much about the movie we were making. Obviously, they became very integral in the firing scenes, specifically since St. Louis just gone through a ton of lay-offs, particularly at Anheuser Busch. And those sequences where George is firing people were actually people from St. Louis, and Detroit where we had just shot, who had lost their jobs, and shared their stories, and that became an integral part of the film.
Here at the Cheshire I remember, we were shooting the rehearsal dinner, and we had this kind of wedding sequence, and we had these young girls playing bridesmaids…and I remember they had really fallen in love with the movie making process. Then they had just received their sides for the next day…where we are going to shoot the scene where George goes to Vera’s and realizes she’s married…and I just remember, they were all standing there in their bridesmaid’s dresses, heartbroken, when they realized that George and Vera weren’t going to be together…
Congratulations on this film, and we really loved TULLY as well this year too…it seems to have been a really exciting year?
Jason: It’s been exiting to say the least. It’s been a thrill of year, being able to make two independent films that are not easy to make. And it’s all really came about because of Braun, the Canadian company that financed both of them.
In THE FRONT RUNNER – It was interesting that you didn’t necessarily paint him as a villain, and that you really left it up to the audience to decide if he was a good guy vs. bad guy on the end, was this your plan?
Jason: I don’t really believe in heroes and villains, in real life. And even though I do enjoy movies with heroes and villains, I love STAR WARS, but for this kind of movie, where you are doing real-life, I don’t think you have heroes and villains. I think people are more complicated than that. And certainly, Gary Hart is more complicated than that. He is this really interesting Litmus test for how we view flaws in our leaders, for he was such a compelling candidate for the presidency. handsome, charming, well-spoken, brilliant and prescient, kind of beyond all imagination. But at the same time, he is a human being who makes human mistakes, and they were private ones. And so, it really kind of begs the question of our curiosity, and where a private life meets a public life.
Was Hugh Jackman always your first choice to play Gary Hart?
Jason: Yes, beyond the cosmetic similarities, between Hugh and Gary, he was an actor I have wanted to work with for a long time. I think with the roles he has had for the last 5 years or so, from LES MISERABLES, to LOGAN, to THE GREATEST SHOWMAN have kind of taken it up a notch. I thought Logan was kind of an exceptional performance to take a character over a course of 9 movies in length, and then to stick the landing with such an emotional closing film…it blew me away. And I was familiar with the stories of his decency, the stories of his work ethic…and those all came true. It’s not an easy role. As an actor, you need to identify your characters goals, and their choices…and here was a role, where you were never going to understand that. And it became his job to protect those ideas…and kind of let the audience peak in, but never actually walk in the door, and it’s a very tricky thing to do, and to never judge your character, which he totally manages to do.
Did Gary and Lee get the opportunity to view this film before release?
Jason: I had spoken to everyone before we started making the film. And at the end the first person who viewed the film was Donna, then Gary and Lee Hart, and their kids, the campaign. I just kind of traveled around the country showing the movie to them. IT was really scary for me. If I told you, we are going to make a movie about the worst week of your life, what would you think. We have found with each of the screenings, is that we have approached this this story that has historically been thought of as kind of joke, a short joke, with the punchline with the name of a boat…and everyone who worked on the movie, approached it with empathy. I think that viewers can feel the sensitivity of the actors. And I think that Gary and Lee Hart particularly felt that from Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga. As did Donna Rice from Sarah Paxton. And, I think they felt my empathy as well, from them going through a harrowing time that they haven’t been able to live down from decades, and for us to treat it with the seriousness that we did.
Was there a reason why you don’t use “THE PICTURE” in the film?
Jason: I can tell you why…because “The photo” came out later. This is one of the interesting things about the Gary Hart story. The Gary Hart story plays with the way we remember things. If you ask people who know the story, they will tell you “He told the press to follow him around “. Which was not exactly the case. And, then they will say “and he left the presidency because of a photograph” …which was also not the case. He left politics, and weeks later the National Enquirer bought this photograph and published it, but he was already back in Denver, out of the race, and had already made the speech that we show at the end of the film. But we don’t remember that. And what I find interesting about that, is the way our curiosity works, and the way we sum up stories in our head. There is something complicated with that. There is something to the fact that we take this moment, which is groundbreaking moment between celebrification and politics, and instead of thinking about what changed in that moment, and how that put us to the road where we are today…we think of it as, a name of a boat, and a photograph, all because we enjoy the humor and curiosity of it. It’s like I check my phone each morning, and there are side by side stories about the midterms, and right next to it is a story by Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson breaking up, and they are from the same source. They are both from THE POST, and they are given equal weight. And I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault, we are the ones clicking it. So, I’m kind of asking the audience…what is it about our curiosity, that allows us to gloss over something important, because we love the sorted details.
Obviously in today’s political society, scandal runs rampant. What made you decide that it was time to get this story out on film?
Jason: Great Question! What’s interesting is that we wrote this script in 2015, during the Obama Administration. Before the presidential election and we already thought that it was relevant then, which gives Matt Bai’s precedence in writing that book and understanding that there was something happening. While we were shooting TULLY, as we made these films back-to-back, the presidential election happened, and it now required oddly a lighter touch on the film, because the relevance was kind of obvious…as a Director and filmmaker you always have to think about the relationship between the film and the viewer. Whatever baggage they are bringing to the table. And the lens through which they are seeing the film. And that lens really changed over the last couple of years…it changed during prep, during shoot, during edit, it just kept evolving. Like today it evolves again, like literally this morning I saw the story about the termination of Jim Acosta’s press credentials, and it changes the movie again…
Were there any liberties that you had to take from a creative liberty aspect in making the story and film flow?
Jason: In the end, you are making a movie, and you have to kind of hold to the emotional truth more than zeroing in on all the facts. Oddly, we did focus on a lot of facts throughout it though. There is a lot of detail work, and frankly, a lot of that those things had to happen, so that the Gary Hart scandal could happen. But we try to weave in those details so you only notice it if you are looking for it. When you think about it…what all happened during the Gary Hart Scandal? The movie starts in the inside of a News van, which is where round the clock coverage began… And then we incorporate the “Where’s the beef” quote that Hart made in 1984, and that just happens to be playing on the TV, as you are pulling out of the shot. And then when we hear about the super delegates, that allowed Mondale to take the candidacy over Hart in 84, and you are overhearing this from two reporters talking about it in the background. We are feathering in an incredible amount of detail – down to Sweeney allows Trippi to borrow his car, which is a Jeep Wrangler…and that is the kind of detail that matters to no one but me, in the making of this film. And then we combine a couple journalists into one part – AJ Parker who is an amalgamation of two real human beings – E.J. DeYoung of the New York Times, who interviewed Hart, and was told “follow me around” and Paul Taylor from the Washington Post who asked Hart “Have you ever committed adultery”? We wanted one through line of a journalist, a journalist who you could really empathize with. Who was struggling with the concept of “Is this a relevant question for me to ask?”, and “Where do we go from here if I ask this question?”, so we created this amalgamation of the two, so we could build the relationship from “Follow me”, to the adultery question…
You were able to put a lighter touch on a tough subject…How did you approach getting that kind of feel for this movie?
Jason: It starts at the very beginning. It starts from the screenplay, where we decided look if we are going to be asking the philosophical question what is important? What is relevant? versus what is entertaining, then we need to be making the audience answer that question from the beginning. So, we decided to have three conversations at least within each scene, which means you can’t focus in on one conversation, and you are forced to pick a conversation that is relevant to you. You are forced to choose, what is important to me? What is relevant to me? What character seam relevant to me? There is the script as it was written, and then we would right additional pages. Or we would take magazine articles from 1987 and ask cast members to read this, and this is now your dialogue and explain what you just learned to him. And everyone was wired. Usually shooting a movie you would do two shots in singles, and mic people who that are on camera, and you don’t mike people that are off camera, and you mix all of that together in post. Steve Marrow, our mixer, who is brilliant, and who just did A STAR IS BORN, and LA LA LAND and who I have been working with since THANK YOU FOR SMOKING…He miced everyone and all mics were up on every shot. So, he was live mixing the movie, a process that is usually done in post, he was doing on the fly playing his mixer like a piano, balancing these conversations and overlapping them. So even, as you are watching on set and listening on the headphones, you were already getting that conglomeration of ideas. It comes from the actors being brilliant too. It’s a very educated cast. This is a cast where we had two Princeton Grads, two Harvard Grads, and Yale Grad, and an Oxford Grad. From someone who had never finished College, I was rather intimidated by the level of education from this cast. And it comes from, my relationship with my DP, which goes back decades. And my relationship with my first AD work which goes back decades. No one talks about the 1st AD’s work, but the first AD is the person who makes a scene feel real. All that organized madness comes from him and the background actors. We had talked about the amazing background actors we had here in St. Louis, had we also had amazing background actors in Atlanta on this film. We cast all the background actors in prep. And they were given roles that they had throughout the film, they were wardrobed in prep for the entire film. For instance, if you were a sound man, or camera man, you would be taught how to use your equipment in prep, you were given your whole wardrobe for the film. And then the day of shooting, you would be shown a super cut of footage of journalists in the 80’s, or if you were on a plane that day, you would see footage of journalists on planes that day. Usually as an extra, you are asked to sit here and read this newspaper. But during this shoot, everyone was moving and everyone was given purpose, and they were there the whole time, creating a real family feel throughout the set.
Did Robert Altman have any influence on your work?
Jason: Yeah, totally. If you are trying to do this thing that I was describing before, you can’t help but to look at this work, the way he mixed innocuous dialogue with important dialogue, leaving you to search for the value targets in every scene. But I will point to Michael Richey, as kind of an even larger North Star on this film, like his first three films – DOWNHILL RACER, THE CANDIDATE and SMILE, there is an electricity to those films, and I knew we were making a thriller like these. I mean this is a movie about a guy who on day one is going to be president, and less than a week later, he is out of politics forever. So, there is a thriller mentality to it, and I think the electricity of Richey’s films became our North Star to give this film a similar feel…
What do you think draws you to the people who you expose us to in your films, that most film makers shy away from?
Jason: These are the types of people I want to spend time with in real life. I like complicated people. I like how exposed their flaws are. From the moment I read the book, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, I loved Nick Naylor. And I knew I wanted to spend time with him. And I knew I didn’t want to spend time with the guy from the Lung Association. And I do have a very weird Marvel Universe of characters – between a tobacco lobbyist, to a pregnant teenager, to a guy who fires people for a living…to the complicated characters from this film, who are all trying to do the right thing in the midst of a scandal, when there is no right thing, and the world is shifting under their feet. It’s interesting to be making a movie about the world shifting under the characters feet, when the world is shifting under our feet, literally by the moment. A film is a growing thing, that changes with what is happening in our world. The movie is always a relationship between the audience and the screen. It has less to do with what I want to say, and way more to do with how you interpret it. And the way the movie follows you out the door when you leave the theater. So, I make movies because I have questions, so I need characters that have questions. I don’t believe in heroes and villains. I think they are kind of boring. I think they are simplistic, and I like people who are complicated and are trying to figure out life as much as I am. I usually go into a movie with more questions, and I come out of it with even more…