Matt Bai and Jay Carson know what they’re talking about when it comes to politics. Sure, they’re screenwriters now, but their backgrounds are in fact, not fiction. Bai literally wrote the book on Gary Hart, while Carson was a senior staffer for some of the most influential politicians in America. They brought a specific view to “The Front Runner” and co-writer/director Jason Reitman. The team of Bai, Carson, and Reitman have crafted something unique. It’s a film that is both timeless and timely. Furthermore, it’s the rare political work that asks you to make your own decisions about a controversial figure.
In addition to our interview with Reitman (found here), we sat down with Bai and Carson for a chat as well. We discussed Bai’s book and the origins for “The Front Runner,” as well as the final result itself. Carson has a background working on “House of Cards,” so while that wasn’t hit on, it’s further proof that both men can walk between fact and fiction with ease. “The Front Runner” is a fascinating movie and hits theaters right after Election Day, on November 7th. Be sure to check it out!
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: Congrats on the film. Sort of an obvious question, I guess, but why write this book? Why make it into a movie? And even before that, why Gary Hart?
Matt Bai: My wife might want to hear me answer that question too! (Laughs) I interviewed Hart for the first time, met him at the end of 2002, I was at the New York Times Magazine. There was talk of him running for president again and I was like, well that’s weird. I remembered him from college. I went to interview him, was kind of struck by him as a compelling figure. Wrote a story which was a good story, and a true story, but an incomplete story as I came to sort of understand it. There were things that were misremembered about that event that I had kind of also contributed to being misremembered. It kind of haunted over the years afterwards. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience. I just felt like I hadn’t quite gotten to the whole thing.
And then I was out there covering presidential campaigns, and there was something about the deterioration of that process that I was connecting to what had I missed about, but I came to understand, wasn’t as we remembered it. And then I just decided I wanted to do a book. I don’t get a lot of book ideas. Actually this is the only book idea I’ve ever really had. I wrote another book, but it wasn’t my idea. It was sort of like, I want to do this. It was kind of nutty, you’re not the only one to think that. But I did the book, it came out in 2014, paperback in 2015.
And then Jay [Carson] and I started talking. He had started getting into screenwriting. I was doing the book, we started talking about making it into a movie, we were working on it, and then Jason [Reitman] heard about it. He thought it’d be a great movie and called me up. We all sat down, the three of us, and just kind of had a mind meld. Jason had a creative vision for it, had us watch “The Candidate,” and he just had this great vision for it. We loved that. We all wanted to tell some unusual and true story around this moment, this compelling character, and we were off. So, to answer your question I spent a chunk of my adult life contemplating Gary Hart, and now Jay has spent a chunk of his adult life contemplating Gary Hart.
Jay Carson: Thanks, pal!
MB: But I don’t regret that. I don’t regret one moment.
JC: I don’t either. I mean, Matt first told me the story, I was so gripped by it. I was ten years old when it happened. I remember it happening. I followed politics, even as a ten-year-old, as hard as that may be to believe. I didn’t remember the details of it but when Matt laid the story out for me it was so compelling. I just thought, “That’s a movie. That is a movie.” I was drawn to it as a movie because it is such a gripping and compelling story.
Looking back on it with some perspective over the years, I was certainly also drawn to it because of, you know, the heartbreaking experience I had in politics, and getting to work that out on the page in some way, and going back into a moment when everything in American politics changed, and created the world I ended up working in for over fifteen years that was a pretty crushing place to work.
JM: You literally wrote the book. And it’s nonfiction. What happens when you have to start figuring out what to make up for a film?
MB: It’s funny because I could see that being an issue. I understand the question, because I would have it too. I could see that being an issue for a nonfiction writer, or someone in Jay’s position, although he was making shit up all the time. I have never had that issue… I love movies and fiction and I’ve always believed that true stories are not the same. True stories that are 100% true don’t work. You’re not making a documentary.
So what was important to me, as someone who invested so much in this story, was that the essential truths and the emotional truths were there, right? That whatever you had to invent or whatever conversations it would be necessary to imagine, that a story would hang on a series of scenes that were really cinematic and true, because a story had to have that, and that what made it essential and important and transformative would be preserved as true as it was. You didn’t change anything that changed the real arc of the story.
And fortunately for me, Jay and Jason felt that same conviction as strongly as I do. We all wanted to tell a true story and we all wanted to make a good movie. So, I think we negotiated those two things in a way that I am proud of, because there’s an awful lot that’s true or adapted from one conversation to another in that movie, and there’s a lot of places where we made good storytelling decisions so that it’s a really gripping story about a really compelling character.
JC: The story itself, as I said a minute ago, like part of the reason this was such a great movie to write was that when Matt told the absolute 100% true version of the story. That’s when I was like, “that’s a movie!” So, we were working with really good stock. We were working with an incredibly compelling story from the get-go. There’s not a lot of license you have to take when you’re working with a story that’s that good.
MB: Have you seen the film?
JM: I have, yes. Loved it.
MB: Thank you. So you get a lot of what we were trying to do to lay out all these different perspectives, so that you can see the story from wide angles and consider different dilemmas that different characters were involved in. That was kind of taking the book to another level, in a sense. It was saying so many decisions were made that went into that story, how do we illuminate all of them for people and the way they reverberate?
JM: It was interesting to see how so much of the dialogue, whether they were direct quotes or not, they fit so seamlessly into the story.
MB: I guess the test for us was, did it feel real from our experience in the world? If it didn’t happen, could it have happened? This was a constant test we put ourselves through, our script through, all of us. Does it feel like the real world that we know?
JM: You’ve also been in that world, so that helps!
JC: We always asked ourselves that. Like, what would happen?
JM: The fictional version of this always has an affair, etc. It goes one step too far. I liked that there are no movie characters in this.
JC: Yeah, thank you for saying that. We really set out for that to be true. And you know, what you’re describing is, when we don’t have original specifics, our brains, all brains go to cliché. Because that’s what fills in the blank. And so, when you do have a lot of original specifics, which thankfully we did, thanks in large part to Matt’s reporting and both of us having lived in that world for a long time and honestly Jason pushing us to go there. Like, let’s go real, let’s go specific. We hope there’s not a lot that feels cliched because we were pulling from the absolute reality of what was being said and how people talk and all this sort of stuff.
MB: Yeah, and we’re really cliché-allergic. I am, even in my journalism writing, there’s nothing that I like less in journalism than the stock phrase. I always tell writers don’t give a single line away. Don’t throw in the towel on a line and just do the thing you’ve done a hundred thousand times before. So, I think we brought the same sensibility to this where we don’t want it to feel like the thing you’ve seen 1000 times before. We want it to feel real and sort of inventive.
JM: I never got to ask Jason, both writing the book and making a movie, what does Gary Hart think of this all?
MB: He was supportive of the book and he was mostly cooperative and he doesn’t want to influence. He believes, he’s a writer himself. He cares about the integrity of the process, he didn’t want to do any influence.
JM: Just don’t make things up.
MB: Yeah. He gave me time and he had trepidation about going through this whole story again and he was very supportive. Jason has talked to him since the movie came out, I have not. I introduced the two of them and they get along great, and Hugh [Jackman] has spent a bunch of time as well and, leave it to Jason, but what I think he said is they all saw it together and they went and had hot chocolate and talked and it sounds like Hart was mostly enamored of Hugh Jackman. He thought he had done a great job and thought it was a good movie. Whatever else they talked about, I don’t know. I’ve been considering how ugly this moment was for him and how much attention is being paid to it through the book and now the movie, you know? He’s been great in terms of not complaining and not involving himself or demanding to know what was being said or written. His feeling is those pieces went out the way they are.
JC: We tried to portray him as a human being in a really difficult situation. As we also did with Donna Rice and Lee Hart and with Tom Fiedler, we try to get into all of those perspectives and show those characters as people, who are trying to do their best in a difficult spot. Usually when you do that people will give you some credit for trying to well rounded person.
JM: He’s heard it all before too. Like, the scene of the late night comedians mocking him must have been the worst moment to sit through.
MB: Yeah, I think you’re right, and I think that was the worst moment in real time. It’s interesting when you go back and look at it, because the moment was so caught in our collective memory and misremembered in a lot of ways, people involved in it were also sort of boiled down to stereotypes. So, one of the things for the book and in particular the movie, you know, we thought a lot about was who was Donna Rice? What did she go through in that moment? What was Lee Hart? She wasn’t just the prototypical betrayed wife. That was a complicated marriage. She went through something that no one had gone through before. There are a lot of people in this film experiencing something in the satellite age that no one had ever experienced and having to figure out in real time how you navigate that. They were never really seen as whole people in that moment. So, reimagining them and what they went through and giving you a sense of their perspective and their flaws and their decisions, that was really fun and I think ennobling thing to do.
JM: He’s always been lumped in as just another horny politician.
MB: It’s easy to stereotype but we try to really run away from that. We really wanted people to be whole and the world to be real, so you have a sense that you’re seeing something different that made you think. That’s what we hoped for.
JM: Has this experience made you want to write more scripts?
MB: We’re writing more scripts! We’re working on a bunch of stuff.
JC: We’ve got a feature that we wrote on spec, Scott Free is producing, that we’ve got a big star attached to. We’re developing a TV show together. And then we do projects on our own too. We don’t do every single thing together, but we do a lot of stuff together.
MB: And we’ll do something with Jason also.
JC: Yeah, we’re developing a project with Jason too.
MB: He’s not sick of us, but we’ll make sure he gets sick of us.
JC: Yeah, no better test for collaboration than that we’re voluntarily doing another project together.
JM: He definitely has a loyalty to him, working with the same actors and actresses in multiple films.
MB: Well it works in reverse. I think we all feel loyalty to him because he’s a creative genius and he’s fun to work with and he’s an upright guy.
JC: Yeah, we’ll all drop anything to work with him because he’s a pleasure. Both of these things are really rare in Hollywood. It’s an absolute pleasure on a personal front and the product at the end of the day is something that you’re really proud of. I mean, find that ten more times.
MB: It’s true. Jason calls me and asks, do you want to help me paint a room? I’d be like, sure! I’ll get on a plane!
We would like to thank Matt Bai and Jay Carson for their time in speaking with Awards Circuit.