The title of The Front Runner isn’t a thinly veiled attempt to get ahead in the Oscar race — instead, it’s a reference to the film’s subject, Gary Hart, portrayed here by Hugh Jackman, who was the assumed front-runner for the Democratic ticket in the 1988 presidential election.
Based on Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the movie takes a deep dive into Hart’s campaign and the swirl of events surrounding an alleged extramarital affair with model Donna Rice that quickly derailed it. For director Jason Reitman, the film takes place at a moment where “political journalism and gossip journalism drove into the same lane for the first time” — a moment he wants to ponder as possibly the source of what brought us to where we are today in a never-ending cycle of cable news and 24/7 coverage that conflates politics with celebrity.
The Front Runner is poised to be an awards contender, making its festival debut at Telluride and then Toronto in the coming weeks before its Nov. 21 release date. The first trailer dropped earlier this week, and it showcases Hart in crisis, as well as keen commitment to telling the story of the press and, as showcased in the first poster for the film, where things careened off the cliff.
For EW’s annual Fall Movie Preview issue, director Jason Reitman chatted with EW about what inspired him to make the film in a time when the relationship between politics and the press is particularly fraught, what classic films about politics influenced this new take, and why Hugh Jackman was his top choice to play Gary Hart.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai. Were you very familiar with Gary Hart and his story before reading it?
JASON REITMAN: I had never heard of him. I was listening to an episode of RadioLab [an NPR show and podcast]. They did an episode on Gary Hart based on Matt Bai’s book and that was my introduction to the story. From there, I got a copy of the book. I finished reading the book on a plane and immediately wrote out four pages of notes on what the movie would be. It immediately appeared to me as a film.
What was so striking to you that made you immediately sit down and write that out?
Like many people, I’m living right now in 2018 wondering how we got here? In this story, I saw an opportunity to engage questions that I’m grappling with, that everybody’s grappling with, no matter who you are and what your positions are.
It seems like the film really delves into this moment where the press started to move from this more objective entity to tabloid personal interest reporting with a lot of personal bias injected – was that transition something you particularly wanted to study?
Matt Bai’s book did an amazing job of observing this moment where a collection of 12 different things happened. As a result, political journalism and gossip journalism drove into the same lane for the first time. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a journalist right now in 2018, and these journalists confronted with this story in 1987 were confronted with a similar dilemma on how to cover it. We really look at the two different sides of how to approach a scandal as it’s happening — how so many people can be affected by one headline.
Did you get the chance to meet the real Gary Hart and interact with him at all?
I was really lucky. I got to meet Gary Hart, Donna Rice, and a lot of the people who were on the Hart campaign in ’88.
Did you meet him while you were still writing? Or later in the process?
This was a film that I never stopped writing. I wrote it with Matt Bai, who wrote the book on Hart, and Jay Carson, who was Hillary [Clinton’s] press secretary in ’08. We were constantly trying to make the world as rich as possible. It felt like world-building because we wanted the experience of the film to be like being dropped into the ’88 campaign. We were constantly writing details; constantly creating little appendix scenes for everyone on screen. Because of that I was reaching out to the original campaign team all the time looking for more detail.
Why did you feel Hugh was the right choice to play Gary? Do you think his being Australian and therefore slightly outside our political system meant he brought a different perspective or approach to the work?
Hugh is one of the most brilliant and lovely and hardworking actors alive. He’s someone I’ve wanted to work with basically since I became aware of him. He was clearly right for the part. He resembles Gary Hart, and he feels like a politician. What was exciting for me was the process of watching an actor who fearlessly dives into whatever he’s doing. I learned about Gary Hart and the Gary Hart story through Hugh Jackman. He had this notebook on set one day, it was like a three-inch thick notebook, and I said, “What is that?” And he said, “Oh that’s a book compiled by a researcher so I can learn more about Hart.” And I said, “Really? You’re going to read that whole thing?” He said, “This is book one of five.” When I saw it [all] stacked on a table, it was like a foot and a half worth of research. It was an insane amount of research. Whether it’s physicality or fighting or singing or dancing, whatever Hugh Jackman approaches, he does with an immeasurable amount of research and passion.
You often work with actors multiple times. Here, you have Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons to name just two people you’re re-teaming with. What keeps bringing you back?
With Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons, you have two of the finest actors and finest voices of our generation. I love what they do with their voices. I was excited to see how they would push, too, as actors. I think, with J.K. and Vera, it’s two of the best roles they’ve ever played. With J.K., this is my seventh movie directing. If you count the ones producing, it’s like 10 movies or something. He’s clearly my muse. [Laughs.]
Would you say this film shares that similar blend of serious subject matter with comedic tone that most of your films exhibit?
Yeah. There’s definitely a sense of humor running through The Front Runner. A big part of the film is capturing the everyday real life of being on a political campaign or working at a newspaper. There’s a whole lot of actors in the film. There’s kind of 20 main characters in this movie and many of them are comedic actors like Josh Brener and Alex Karpovsky and Tommy Dewey and Bill Burr and Kevin Pollak. They’re all guys who are known for being funny. In capturing the real life of their characters, there’s lots of humor.
Do you think the events of this film fundamentally altered or determined where we are now?
I don’t think I have an answer to that, frankly. I’m more interested in posing this question to the audience. I’ve always felt that movies work best when they serve as a mirror and we see ourselves in them, and I never want to tell the audience what to think. I hope they walk out of the film and delve into hours of conversation about what happened then and what happened now.
Setting aside the scandal that ended his career, in terms of political beliefs, who do you think in politics today is closest to Hart and his forward-thinking platform?
God, I don’t know. Gary Hart foresaw so much. He met Steve Jobs back in the garage. He foresaw the rise of terrorism in the Middle East. He understood the importance of computers and the economic line that would divide the people who knew how to use them and the ones who didn’t. He was smart on so many things. I don’t know who that person would be today. He was thinking 30 years ahead.
You’re a great movie lover and promoter of the film legacy – were there particular films that inspired your work here? Especially since the subject of politics and the press is a favorite Hollywood topic?
The template for this movie was Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, the movie with Robert Redford. That’s a movie we studied on a weekly basis. I’m obsessed with it and Ritchie’s early work. It just put you in the moment like no other political movie I’ve ever watched. It felt hyper-real and funny and had all the accidental moments of real life that we were searching for in our film. We literally would have lunches at the office during pre-production where we would just put it up on the projector and we would sit there and we’d talk about how they accomplished certain things.