Jason Reitman is heading to a panel in an hour to talk about his latest film. It’s 8am at the Salamander Resort, and we’re grabbing a few minutes while we can, to talk about The Front Runner. The film is based on the true story of Democratic candidate Gary Hart, who was the frontrunner of the 1988 presidential race until a scandal forced him to drop out.
Hugh Jackman stars as Hart and Reitman recreates the authentic vintage look of the era. I spoke with Reitman along with producer Helen Estebrook, screenwriters Jay Carson and Matt Bai who wrote the book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.
What are your first memories of the Gary Hart story?
Matt: I might be the only one with that memory.
Jason: Matt, tell us what it was like.
Matt: I was reading about it. I remember consuming that and the feeling of shock. The thing that lived with you if you lived through that moment was how big of a political figure he was. What I remember was this feeling of this giant being taken down so quickly and so swiftly and becoming a joke and disappearing until many many years later when I had the opportunity to go and talk to him and it just him and me sitting in an office. There was no staff and no one ever came. It was the weirdest because that’s what happens when you’re flushed out of public life.
Why has Hart’s story taken so long to be told?
Jay: We asked ourselves the exact same question. I think all three of our reactions to it. I know Jason and mine reaction when Matt told us the story, we asked, “How was this not a movie?” Honestly, why? We needed someone like Jason to tell the story and then Hugh Jackman to see it as a movie. This is not a $350 million movie with people in capes. You needed someone with their vision.
Jason: It’s been interesting for all of us to watch people react to it and to be constantly confronted with it when it happened in 1987 and how those memories grow in our brain and change over time. A perspective on what life was like over 30 years ago seems suddenly so relevant in how we think of the world today.
One thing I loved was the details of the era and shooting on film. What was that like, to shoot on film stock for this?
Jason: This is the first movie that I shot on film since Up In The Air. I grew up on film. I grew up on my father’s sets, in editing rooms. It’s funny because it felt like such a ubiquitous media. I think of my childhood and it’s a lot of times in editing rooms which physical reels of film everywhere. It was in every single room. It was funny, in my own life to be back on a set where it could suddenly feel really special where we were loading the cameras. Younger people who hadn’t experienced it would watch the changing of a film mag because it was a unique experience that to find people who knew how to change film mags correctly, we’d have to look to LA and NY and find people and fly them in.
We wanted the film to have a vintage quality to it. Not only because we were portraying 1987 which was an endeavor the entire crew was involved in. The cars, the hair, the clothes, the equipment. Also in the camera technique, it was something we challenged ourselves with, how can we use a technique that was available in the 70s. That was the work we were trying to emulate, the work of Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie and films like The Candidate that were visual inspirations for the film. What I noticed on set was on the films that were shot on digital, no one knows when the camera is rolling. It’s a button you press it, it’s silent. nothing changes on set when you roll the camera. When you roll film it makes a sound and you hear the sound of the film rolling through the mag and the gears. When you see it rolling on a film set, it’s like you lit a fuse. There are only ten minutes of film in a mag. The small mags have around four minutes, but everyone knows you’re burning a precious commodity, one that they don’t even make that much of anymore and we have to get this done. That electricity finds its way into the cast and crew and that alone is reason enough to shoot on film.
It just creates this great texture on the screen.
Jason: It’s inherently beautiful. Ask any cinematographer alive and they’ll tell you that as we go to 2k, 4k and 100k there is no medium that captures as much information as that 35mm film. It remains our best format.
You talked about Hugh Jackman, was he always the first choice for Gary?
Matt: My take is he’s incredible.
And so was Vera.
Jason: Throughout the process, you go through a list of whiteboards filled with names wondering who’s going to be in the movie. Hugh’s name came up immediately. It became more of a question of will he say yes?
Helen: I don’t think we had any idea. We knew it was a great idea creatively but we had no idea what a great decision it was in the making of it. He is such a hard worker and he’s such a generous spirit. To have him as number one on your call sheet it creates such an amazing environment for everyone to work in because he sets the tone.
Jason: Everyone looks to the number one actor and decides how they’re going to behave. Some days you show up and you’re the star, some days you show up and you’re the extra. There are 20 actors in the film, everyone is on set every day and everyone needs to know that from day one that sometimes you’re going to be sitting in the background reading a newspaper or having a very innocuous conversation. Every actor saw Hugh do that from day one.
Jay: Jason, Helen and Hugh really set the tone on set. It’s the most joyous experience from day one until the day we wrapped. Every day was fun to be on set. It felt like we were always laughing and having a great time, the cast and crew felt like it was a campaign. It was really great.
I’d like to talk about the score and conversations you had about the music and working with Rob Simonsen.
Jason: It’s the second time I’ve worked with him. We worked together on Tully and we had such an amazing experience. It’s a tricky film because music tells us how to feel. In a movie when you’re watching this film thinking who is the hero and how am I meant to feel about it? That’s the question the audience asks. So, music suddenly takes on this job of restraint because anything Rob does musically is going to point us in a direction. We tried a lot of things and there was something about using that first song, the jazz piece with the drums, piano and hand clap. There was something about it that was electric that echoed their stories about what it felt like to work on a campaign and be in the midst of someone who was running for president. It also didn’t tell you how to feel.
We started this process that I’d never done before. We’d have recording sessions and we’d bring in percussionists and a pianist, and we’d try ideas. This was not about the theme of the movie and we’d try ten variants. We were searching. It was a thrill to watch. It was a thrill to be at Capitol Records in the middle of the night. Rob would lay ideas and play clapbacks. Some of the best percussionists would come in and ask Rob, “What do you think of this sound?” Literally, it was just different blocks of metal and they’d tap it with a mallet to try all these different things.
Rob would sometimes say, “That’s so menacing, not for this movie.” [laughs].
Everything about this film was about creating organic landscapes, and when it came to the music, it was no different. It was how do you create an organic soundscape.
The Front Runner screened at Middleburg Film Festival as the Saturday Night Centerpiece and will open on November 6