On the surface, “The Front Runner” is an out of left field project for Jason Reitman. Then again, have any of the man’s films seemed like obvious choices for him to helm? The writer/director has made a long and successful career out of picking material that doesn’t resemble what he’s done before. Nominated for multiple Oscars, Reitman has never rested on his laurels. Now, he’s found a timely subject, hitting the political world with “The Front Runner.” Reitman has, with the possible exception of “Up in the Air,” never gone for the overtly timely subject matter. Here though, he displays great aptitude in linking the past with the present.
It was a pleasure to sit down with Reitman and discuss not just “The Front Runner,” but some of his prior works too. As one of the few big fans of “Men, Women & Children” (review here), this was a treat. He was frank, funny, and incredibly easy to talk to. His latest work is one of his most interesting projects, so it was fertile ground for discussion. We went off on a number of tangents, but came back to his new film, which is what is focused on here. Take a look below and be sure to see “The Front Runner” when it opens right after Election Day on November 7th.
Joey Magidson: Congratulations on the movie.
Jason Reitman: Thank you!
JM: One of my favorite movies a few years back, number two of the year actually, was “Men, Women, & Children.”
JR: Fuck off. That’s not something I hear every day. (Laughs)
JM: It felt like it initially was solidly received at Telluride and then the buzz just evaporated at Toronto.
JR: You know, filmmaking is a complicated endeavor as far as why you make something, how you make something, the feeling as you make it, as it kind of releases and then also, five years after it. “Young Adult” came out and no one understood it and it got zero affection, and then within five years people would say that was their favorite film of mine. All the time.
JM: I think for you, a lot of times people want what you previously did, especially if it has an actor or a writer you’ve previously collaborated with. “Young Adult” wasn’t “Juno” and “Men, Women, & Children” wasn’t “Up in the Air.” I still maintain that those are some of your best, even if I’m in the minority “Men, Women, & Children” specifically.
JR: Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that. I’m glad that you liked it. I’m still very proud of it and I’m thrilled obviously with that cast who all have kind of gone on to do huge things.
JM: To be fair, I also really liked the book.
JR: It’s a killer book.
JM: Chad Kultgen gets a bad rap because if you don’t read his stuff carefully, it can sort of seem like it’s meant for bros, you know?
JR: Yeah, it can be mistaken for pure misogyny when there’s actually kind of a thoughtful approach to humanity in it.
JM: It may be silly to ask, but why Gary Hart?
JR: Uh, look. Um. It’s so funny, because I look at him and I think he fits really naturally within the heroes of my films. Complicated human being who made a complicated decision who cannot be easily seen as a hero or villain, whose experience sheds light onto all of our experiences. My story is three years ago I listened to this Radiolab episode, which was my introduction to the Gary Hart story. I was kind of too young to experience it at the time, and went out and I bought Matt [Bai]’s book and like the few things I’ve ended up making into a film, I just immediately saw it as a movie. I couldn’t believe it, the next President of the United States was in an alleyway in the middle of the night behind his house with a bunch of journalists and no one knew what to do. It just felt like a movie. The more I looked into it the more it had all of this connective tissue with all of the questions I had about 2018.
JM: It really feels like he was the first to get caught up in the public really caring about what a politician did with their private life. It wasn’t just if they did their job, but they wanted to know everything. He just figured the latter wouldn’t apply if he did the former well.
JR: And people care about this now. That’s kind of the big thing. There was just this shift in kind of what we wanted in our leaders and what flaws we needed to know about. And you’re right. For a guy who was prescient and could see around corners, this was an amazing blindspot that he did not shift from. So, of course it brings up all of these questions about what are we looking for in our leaders today, you know? And the questions we’re asking for and the flaws that we’re looking for, it literally just plays out every day in the news.
JM: It’s very much a movie for now. And then, in terms of the craft, this isn’t your first adaptation of a book, but how did you figure out exactly what the story would be?
JR: This is a very different process for me. I got to work with two really smart guys. One, Matt Bai, who wrote the book, who, you know, covered five presidential elections for New York Times Magazine and other outlets, and then Jay Carson, who was the press secretary under Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean.
JM: They knew how the sausage was made.
JR: Yeah. That’s exactly the kind of details that I wanted. So, unlike before, where there was a more filmmaker forward approach to the other films, this was a sense of lets create this world, and then we’ll throw cameras into it and they knew how to add all this detail from their own lives to make these rooms come to life.
JM: Even from the start you see and hear that, with the jargon. If you don’t follow politics, you might be momentarily confused. You literally drop the audience into the middle of the action.
JR: I think even if you follow politics. I think the whole point is to make you go Whoa, I’m in a room I don’t recognize, and I’m not with Gary Hart. I’m with all these other people trying to understand Gary Hart from the outside while also trying to parse out, okay, they’re having a conversation about where to buy beer, they’re having a conversation about schedule, they’re having a conversation about whether Hart’s going to do this event or not, and as an audience member hopefully I’m going to try to figure out what conversation am I supposed to be following here?
JM: This is the world that you’re going to be in. I like when a director trusts their audience to catch on.
JR: All that stuff is there for the person who can parse it through. I mentioned that we live in a moment where we’re always trying to figure out what is relevant. What’s the important information, so that’s what we’re trying to do as a film too from just a technical standpoint. Get into the practice of trying to figure out what is the important information because the question that we leave you with is “what do you think is important?”
JM: That was really interesting to me and I honestly did not expect that. You could make a movie that demonizes him. You could make a movie that paints him as a tragic hero. You kind of leave it as a choice. Which one do you like? I wonder if that could throw some people off, not having a political slant?
JR: And that frustrates the shit out of me. I’m tired of films telling me how to think, and I prefer to be given that challenge as an audience member. Certainly people have their perspectives on Gary Hart. When I would tell people, oh I’m making a movie about the Gary Hart scandal, invariably the response was “Oh. Uh. Monkey Business. Who was that girl? What was her name? Donna Rice! And that photo!” It was kind of interesting how dismissive they were of this woman whose life was, like, stolen from her. And this week, in which the guy who was going to be our President left politics forever. I kind of knew what you just said, like, going in people are going to expect one kind of film. They’re going to expect a salacious film, and we have to say from moment one, that’s not the story we’re telling here.
JM: That movie has been made.
JR: Yeah, and who needs that? I’m much more interested in the audience. I’m much more interested in what is that conversation you have on the way home when you realize the person you just watched the movie with has a totally different perspective on Hart’s relevance.
JM: Yeah. And then something else, I don’t know if it was a different challenge for you, casting. People sort of know what Gary Hart looks like. When you can look at a picture and then use that, did that impact who you had in mind?
JR: A little bit. Gary Hart was a tall, broad, handsome looking dude.
JM: So, half of Hollywood?
JR: (Laughs) I think cosmetically Hugh Jackman does look like him, but more importantly I was going to make a movie about a flawed human being who had made mistakes and I wanted the actor to have an inherent decency to him that you feel underneath the surface, and there is no human being more decent than Hugh Jackman.
JM: You do kind of immediately like someone that he plays.
JR: I think if Hugh Jackman ran for President he would win. But, of course in the past Hugh has played all of these kind of, all of these roles where his heart kind of beats out of his chest. Whether he’s Logan or whether he’s P.T. Barnum, he’s just such an emotionally expressive actor, and here was a part where he had to play an enigma, where he was a guy who we desperately wanted to understand but he was keeping us at arms length and not completely letting us in, and that was the challenge for him, and that is what excited me as a director, to watch him kind of navigate that.
JM: At the same time, you’re also a pretty loyal director. You do a really good job of not only bringing back the same actors and actresses, but also giving them really great roles. Like, Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons have been amazing for you in the past, but I love that Kaitlyn Dever is in this.
JR: She is so talented.
JM: She needs to work more.
JR: She’s going to have her time. I’m with you. I think she is a, she has a huge career ahead of her, particularly as she becomes like a grown up. Once she’s 30 and beyond. She’s an exceptional actor. Have you heard her singing?
JM: Yeah! From the “Tully” soundtrack.
JR: She’s amazing.
JM: I loved that. And it really did show the loyalty I was talking about. Plus, it fits for this movie, with so many little moving parts, having a familiar face as shorthand.
JR: I have a feeling that the audience, even if they don’t know the names will recognize, oh that’s the guy from “Silicon Valley” or that’s the guy from “Girls.” For me it was this opportunity to work with, like 20 actors I wanted to work with from heroes like Alfred Molina all the way down to Molly Ephraim who I had seen in a play and I was like, oh I need to work with this girl.
JM: Now that you’ve done two movies in one year. You’ve had a full year. Does that change what you look to do next?
JR: What do you think I should do next?
JM: I remember there was a Nick Hornby thing you were going to do that sounded interesting…
JR: Oh yeah yeah.
JM: I really like the darker stuff you do.
JR: So what do you consider “dark me?”
JM: Well, “Men, Women, & Children” definitely counts.
JR: (Laughs) That’s what the world had been clamoring for! (Laughing)
JM: If you were to ever adapt Kultgen again, his book “The Lie” is probably his best.
JR: Oh, I’ve never read “The Lie.” I know what it is though.
JM: Or something more like “Up in the Air” again.
JR: Got it!
JM: Honestly, I’ve yet to dislike something you’ve made.
JR: Aw, that’s really sweet!
We would like to thank Jason Reitman for his time in speaking with Awards Circuit.