Director Jason Reitman on THE FRONT RUNNER and SLIFF award – Interview
Director Jason Reitman, whose new film, THE FRONT RUNNER, about Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential run, was recently released, was honored at the 2018 St. Louis International Film Festival. Reitman attended SLIFF to receive the Contemporary Cinema Award. He spoke to a round table of film journalists the day after receiving the award. All questions have been combined and the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Questioner: “How was last night for you (when Reitman received the award and his new film THE FRONT RUNNER was previewed)?”
Jason Reitman: “It was great! I love flying into St. Louis. It brings back this kind of flood of memories from shooting UP IN THE AIR. Literally from the moment I step off the plane, I always wind up, you know, walking out of a gate that we literally just filmed right by. While they’ve renovated (the airport), I still recognize the architecture, the lamps, and I pass this security where we did the whole big security scene, and then the moment I’m driving out, I’m seeing a Hilton we shot at, and the parking spot that used to be the Hertz. And then I start driving through town, and I say, ‘You know, that’s the apartment building where George (Clooney) lived, and it’s just …(laughter)”
Q: “That was one of the best scenes, where he (Clooney) goes on a rant with Anna Kendrick, defending Lambert airport.”
JR: “Oh, thank you. And then of course, we’re here. We shot a really lovely scene here at the Cheshire, and so, it brings back a lot of memories. And I really love the Tivoli here, it’s a gorgeous theater and where we had the screening last night.”
Q: “Congratulations on the award!”
JR: “Yeah, that was really cool.”
Q: “We’re ready for you to write another one, to come to St. Louis to shoot.”
JR: “I’d love to come back here and shoot a movie! Although I’m not sure how it could be the experience I had on UP IN THE AIR. That was just kinda dreamy, and you could also just feel it from the locals who were working on the film, which is not always the case. I’ve shot – this is my eighth movie I just made, and you kind of get a different sense of the city you’re in by the people who are working on it. And particularly even the background extras in UP IN THE AIR, cared so much about the movie we were making. Obviously, they became very integral in the firing scenes, you know, they would. St. Louis had just gone through a ton of lay-offs, particularly at Anheuser-Busch. In those sequences where George was firing people, we ended up using real people from St. Louis and Detroit, where we also shot, who had lost their job and shared their stories, and that became a real 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 gals who were playing the bridesmaids roles who were local. I remember they really fell in love with the whole process of making the movie here, and they loved the film and liked what were making. And I remember they got the sides (lines) for the next day’s shoot, and the next day we were shoot the scene where George arrives at Vera’s, and finds out she’s married, and I just sort of remember that these young girls in their bridesmaid dresses looking at the sides, heartbroken, and coming up to me and saying ‘What? They’re not going to be together?’ They were heartbroken. It was really lovely.”
Q: “About THE FRONT RUNNER, it interesting how you didn’t necessarily paint him, Gary Hart, as a villain but you didn’t, you know… you really left it up to the audience. I wanted to know what the thought process was, you know, you told the story, put the information out there, but you didn’t really spin it, at least in my opinion, either way, as either bad guy or good guy.”
JR: “Certainly. I mean I don’t believe in heroes or villains in real life. I do enjoy movies that have heroes and villains, I like STAR WARS, but for this kind of movie, a movie about real life, I don’t think you can have heroes and villains, I think people are more complicated than that. Certainly Gary Hart is more complicated than that , I mean, he is this really interesting litmus test on how we view flaws in our leaders, because he was such a compelling candidate for the presidency. Kennedy-esque, handsome, charming, well-spoken, brilliant and prescient – kind of beyond all imagination. At the same time, he’s a human being who made human mistakes. And they were private ones, so it really kind of begs the question of our curiosity, and where a private life really kind of meets a public life.”
Q: “Hugh Jackman was this incredible choice for this role. Was he your first choice, did you have to have him in this role?”
JR: “Yeah, I mean, beyond the kind of cosmetic similarities between Hugh and Gary, he’s an actor I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time. Particularly in these last five years or so, with this run of Les Miz and LOGAN and THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, he’s just kind of taken it up a notch. I thought LOGAN was kind of exceptional performance, to take a character over the course of nine movies and stick the landing with such an emotional closing film, [it] blew me away.
I was familiar with the stories of his decency, stories of his work ethic, and those all came true. It’s not an easy role [Gary Hart]. Acting is kind of built upon…the first thing you learn as an actor is you kind of need to identify your character’s goals and their choices, and here was a character where you were never going to understand that. It became his job to protect those ideas and let the audience peek in but never actually walk in the door. It’s a very tricky thing to do. And never judge your character, which is particularly tricky in this movie as well.”
Q: “He can do so much. A performance I liked, that doesn’t get a lot of credit, is PRISONERS.”
JR: “Oh, yeah, he’s great.”
Q: “He takes that role to a new level, while making you draw your own conclusions about being a parent.”
JR: “Yeah, yeah, and knows how to keep it at a slow boil. It’s really hard.”
Q: “I think that’s what I liked about this performance too, you don’t necessarily love him by the end of the movie but you don’t hate him either…. I also wonder, did Gary and Lee [Hart] watch it?”
JR: “Yeah, you know, they did. I had spoken to everyone before we started making the movie, just out of decency, you know, ‘hey, I’m Jason, I’m the one making the movie, here’s my phone number,’ but yeah, when we finished the film, the first one we showed the movie to was Donna [Rice], then Gary and Lee Hart, their kids, the campaign, Tom Fielder from the [Miami] Herald. They all saw the movie, I just kind of flew around showing it to them. As you can imagine, it’s terrifying to turn the movie, walk out of the theater and let them sit there. It was really scary for me, You know, if I told you I was going to make a movie about your life, [and] let me pick the worst week. (everyone laughs)
So, however, what kind of happened with each of the screenings is we’ve approached this story that has historically kind of been thought of as a joke – you know, a short joke with a punchline of the name of a boat – and everyone who worked on the movie approached it with empathy. I feel like the real people can feel the sensitivity of the actors, and Gary and Lee Hart particularly felt that for Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga, as did Donna Rice from Sarah Paxton. And I think they felt my empathy, in opening up a really harrowing time they have not been able to live down for decades, and treat it with the seriousness that we did.”
Q: “In the beginning, you did not use that photo – I was in the news room and that photo came over – but you did not use that photo.”
JR: “Yeah, and I can tell you why – the photo came out later. This is one of the interesting things about Gary Hart’s story. The Gary Hart story plays with how we remember things, and if you ask people who know the story, they will tell you a couple of things. They will tell you ‘well, he told the press to follow him around,’ which was not the case. And then they’ll say ‘he left the presidency [race] because of a photograph, and that’s all.’ That’s not the case. He left politics and weeks later, the National Enquirer bought this photo and published it. At that point, he was back in Denver, out of the race and has already made this speech we show at the end of the film. But we don;t remember that.
What I find interesting about that is way our curiosity works, and the way we sum up stories in our head. And there is something complicated about that, there’s something to the fact that we take this moment, which is kind of a groundbreaking moment as far as the relationship between “celebrity-facation” and politics, and instead of thinking about what changed in that moment and how that put us on a road to today, we think of it as a name of a boat and a photograph., because we enjoy the humor of it, and we enjoy the curiosity of it. Look, I wake up every morning and check out my phone app, the news app, and often there is a story about the midterms and right next to it, there is a story about Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson breaking up. And they’re from the same source, they’re both from the Post, and they are given equal weight. I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault,we’re the ones clicking it. And so I’m kind of asking the audience, what is it that our curiosity allows us to gloss over something important because we enjoy the sordid details.”