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THE FRONT RUNNER

About The Production (Cont'd)
Rice was quickly relegated to being a stereotype in the media and a pawn in the political machinations, but the film approaches her as something much more: a bright young woman whose life and future were upended in an instant. Taking the role of Rice is rising star Sara Paxton, most recently seen as Candy Shaker in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return.

Paxton quickly won Reitman over. "For me, it came down to who could provide Donna with a sense of humanity that's never really been offered her," he says, "to who could embody not only her heartbreak but her intelligence and her desire to be taken seriously. Sara just got all that immediately."

The script's approach to Rice drew Paxton. "I was really excited that Donna was portrayed as an educated, ambitious woman who suddenly became vulnerable to the world when she was swept up in this huge news story she never imagined could happen. I could really relate to how Donna wants to be taken seriously and I think a lot of women will relate to her. She had graduated summa cum laude and suddenly she was seen in a whole other light from who she felt she was. I really wanted to play that character." Paxton was thrown right into the deep end. "My first scene was the scene in which Donna is seen devastated, so that was interesting because then we worked backwards to the boat, when Donna had no sense of what was coming for her," she explains.

Having met Rice, Bai was especially moved by Paxton's performance. "Sara plays Donna with the core decency and sincerity that are true to life-she brought everything we hoped she would," he says. "When you're tired and your feet hurt and your hands are freezing because you've been knocking on doors in Nashua for 12 straight hours, when you miss your boyfriends, your girlfriends, your kids, when you're tired of eating leftovers because we don't pay you jack, you think about the opportunity we have right now and the cost to this great country if we squander it." -- Dixon

As the Hart campaign rapidly descends from riding high to disarray, the brunt is borne not only by Hart and his family but equally by his campaign workers. Young men and women from around the country looking for something to believe in had circled around Hart and his message-ready to sacrifice good-paying jobs, sleep and social lives in order to fight for a different kind of voice in the White House. Creating that team, and creating the rapport of people who spend 16 hours a day in a pressure cooker together, was one of the great joys of the film for Reitman. He says, "Putting together this cast was more like putting together an orchestra, their chemistry and ability to play together was just so imperative."

At the head of the campaign was Bill Dixon, a long-time friend of Hart's and campaign veteran who nevertheless could not right the boat once the rumors about Donna Rice began to sink it (Dixon left both Washington D.C. and political campaigns for good after he resigned from the Hart campaign). Taking on the character is J.K. Simmons, an Oscar winner for the indelible role of the perfectionist conductor in Whiplash, and an actor who so regularly works with Reitman that Reitman dubs him "my muse."

Say Reitman of why he always finds a role for Simmons, "J.K. is that player you know can handle any situation. I don't know another actor who can be as terrifying as he was in Whiplash and then turn around and be as vulnerable or as funny as he can be. I'm just lucky that he agrees to be in all my movies. As Bill Dixon he's the one person in Hart's campaign from Hart's generation, so he's the veteran in the room with all these idealist kids, trying to help them all to become better. It's also a role that reflects the audience, because Bill is asking all the hard questions that we all want to ask."

Says Estabrook, "Jason loves to work with J.K. because he brings a real humanity to whoever he plays. J.K. has this ability to show you what his character is going through and here you really get access to Bill Dixon's leadership and the depth of his disappointment."

Simmons says he'd take any role for Reitman, but The Front Runner riveted him on its own merits. "The naturalism of the script makes you feel you're in the room amid these dryly funny, nonstop conversations full of energy," he says. "It's also not a script that takes sides and that intrigued me."

Although many of the cast members purposely did not seek out their real-life counterparts, Simmons did talk with the real Dixon, in part because he was so behind the scenes. "He's a very accomplished guy, a family guy, and he was really great," says Simmons. "Of course we're not making a documentary and there are many inconsistencies between Bill and me-for example, Bill Dixon has hair. But at the end of the day what I wanted, and what Jason wanted, was to get to the core who this guy is."

Working with the young cast of campaign staffers was also a joy for Simmons. "I found it really refreshing to work with all these young actors who are so great at thinking on their feet," he says. Simmons knows Reitman's filmmaking as well as anyone but he notes this film felt different. "Jason was looser and more open to improvising on this film to get that experience of a room full of people who are all really smart and who all want attention," he says. "It was just a very electric atmosphere."

Jackman also raised Simmons' game. Says Gilbert, "One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when J.K. confronts Hugh as Gary. It was likely watch a heavyweight prize fight watching the two of them together. They both bring so much power."

Another key staffer is Hart's scheduler Irene Kelly, one of those put into a position she never imagined-escorting Donna Rice back to Miami while the campaign tries to forge a strategy for fending off total catastrophe. Taking the role, a composite based on several different Hart staffers, is Molly Ephraim, who cut her teeth on Broadway and has been seen in the Paranormal Activity franchise as well as the long-running sitcom Last Man Standing.

The role was an opportunity to explore the ways in which women for many decades subsumed their own challenges when working for powerful political men. Says Estabrook: "What I love about Molly's character is that she is the one who ends up having to do a lot of emotional work for a situation she didn't create, which has so often been the case for women. That's an extremely relevant part of the story that speaks greatly to today and things we're just beginning to confront."

Ephraim describes Kelly as "stuck in the middle-because she believes in what Hart stands for but also finds herself in this strange predicament where she also feels sympathetic to Donna Rice and has to contend with what Donna is being put through by the man she's working for."

One of Ephraim's favorite parts of the role was bouncing off the ensemble. "Jason put together a group of people who were all so funny, which led to great off-the-cuff moments," she describes. But she especially enjoyed working with Paxton as Rice. "We jumped into one of our hardest scenes together on day two and she was immediately in the zone and so moving," Ephraim says. "She has this lovely innocence, yet intelligence and your heart just breaks for what is happening to her."

Hart's fiery young press secretary Kevin Sweeney (who now works as a management consultant specializing in environmental responsibility) is played by Chris Coy, known for his roles on The Walking Dead, Banshees and The Deuce. "Kevin is a 28 year-old out of UC Berkeley who is passionate and loud," describes Coy of his character. Coy, too, loved the process of creating the behind-the-scenes ambience. "We would start talking about the stuff in the articles Jason gave us and the next thing you know, the camera's moving. It felt so conversational and genuine-more so than anything I've ever been a part of."

When it came to working with Jackman, Coy, like many others, was pretty sure it couldn't possibly live up to the legends. "There's a reason they say, don't meet your heroes," he muses. "But Hugh and Jason proved to be anomalies in that respect because they're both so nice. Hugh can do anything better than any of us, but somehow he is humble and made us all feel like we really mattered to him."

Advance man Mike Stratton, whose job was to prepare Hart for public events and press conferences, is played by Alex Karpovsky, best known for his portrait of Ray on HBO's comedy-drama series Girls. What struck Karpovsky is how close campaign workers were with the press covering them at that time. "It was fun to recreate those the days when campaign staff and press would really hang out at the end of the day and throw back a few beers with each other. They got to know each other but they would also exchange ideas with each other and they would grow and learn from that," he comments.

Playing key staffer Doug Wilson, who advised Hart on policy matters (and went on to become assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, making him the highest ranking openly gay official in the Pentagon), is Josh Brener, known for his role on the hit television comedy Silicon Valley. "Doug is the policy wonk," describes Brener. Brenner relished the chance to experience a bit of what it's like to work in the trenches on a national campaign. "There this strange mix of excitement, exhaustion and punch drunk hanging out that seems to be what campaign life is all about," he observes. "It's not too dissimilar from making a movie."

Deputy campaign chairman John Emerson is Hart's right-hand man, a man so good at problem-solving he was known as "Mr. Fix It." (Emerson would go on to work in the Clinton White House and serve as U.S. Ambassador to Germany.) Taking the role is Tommy Dewey, known for the Hulu series Casual. A draw for Dewey was exploring the comedy inherent in political life. "Even though it's a high-stakes game they're playing and it's really stressful, there's a lot of humor in that world. Comedy is a release valve for these guys and a form of camaraderie."

That same style of camaraderie developed among the cast. "Putting together a working ensemble can be like catching lightning in a bottle," notes Dewey "But that's one of the things that Jason really nailed here. He intuited that there would be a great connection between us all and there really was." "So you get to decide which lies matter and which lies don't?" -- Devroy

As with the campaign staff, Reitman sought actors with strong comic chops to portray the pool of reporters traveling with Hart. They include A.J. Parker, a fictional composite based in part on two renowned reporters, EJ Dionne (then working for The New York Times though now with The Washington Post) and Paul Taylor of The Post. Parker spends an enormous amount of time in Hart's sphere, getting to know the candidate while killing long hours on planes and buses, developing a genuine appreciation of him. At the same time, he's trying to write a full-bodied profile of the man, pushing him on rumors about past trouble in his marriage. In the film it is Parker to whom Hart makes an off-hand comment which was published the same day as The Miami Herald story about Rice-one that will later spur a feeding frenzy: "If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored."

Taking the role is ascending young star Mamoudou Athie, seen in The Get Down and Patti Cakes. "My character doesn't take Hart's remark seriously at all," says Athie, "but it's later used to justify the press pushing the boundaries of Hart's personal privacy. That's when the story on Hart becomes all about entertainment and not at all about policy. And I think you can argue both sides of whether a candidate's private life should be news or not, but it was clearly a moment when things changed in how the press was going to cover politics."

Steve Zissis (Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot) portrays real-life journalist Thomas Fiedler, who worked for more than 30 years at The Miami Herald as an investigative reporter, columnist and ultimately an executive editor-and received the incendiary initial tip about possible ongoing infidelity by Hart. Though young in 1988, Zissis remembers "the famous image of Hart with Donna Rice on his knee" to this day but also notes, "I had no idea about the rest of story until I read this script."

As one of the journalists who invades Hart's personal world believing it's his duty, Zissis appreciates that his character raises questions. "He's on one side of the debate we're still having as to what extent a politician's private life matters. The film raises all those interesting questions but I think it also tells a very human story that is just about all these different people trying to figure out the right thing to do in their position with this explosive event-and not everyone agrees which way is right," notes Zissis. Rounding out the main cast on the newspaper side is Ari Graynor as the Ann Devroy, the Washington Post's deputy political editor, responsible for overseeing coverage of the upcoming presidential race; Mike Judge as Miami Herald journalist Jim Savage, Jonny Pasvolsky as New York Post writer Steve Dunleavy, Steve Coulter as Washington Post journalist Bob Kaiser and Alfred Molina and Spencer Garret as the legendary Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward. To keep all immersed in the atmosphere, Reitman showed cast, crew and extras daily clips and videos of reporters circa 1987, huddling on planes or throwing questions at press conferences. "Everything had to feel alive and that extended down to the cameras, the booms or typewriters each media person was using," he says. "This whole world we're in. None of it makes sense right now." -- Kelly

The locomotive energy of The Front Runner was built just as much behind the camera as in front of it, with the background as important as the foreground. For as much as the film is rife with resonating questions, it's equally just fun, freewheeling, inventive cinema. Reitman and his close-knit crew of longtime collaborators set out to bring audiences directly into the chaos, adrenaline and emotion that characterize both a political campaign and the media scrum that formed around Hart. Leading the team were director of photography Eric Steelberg, production designer Steven Saklad, costume designer Danny Glicker and editor Stefan Grube. Together, they aimed to conjure a kind of quilt effect, as dozens of people, locations and details weave in and out of the larger tapestry, consistently enlarging the picture.

This is the 7th film Steelberg has shot for Reitman, who says, "Eric and I are so of the same brain and the same visual language that communication between us is beyond shorthand. It's just a joy making movies with him. We both had so many ideas for this film and it was a constantly exciting conversation." No matter how well Steelberg knows Reitman, he also knew from the outset this would stand apart from anything they've done. "It was clear that this movie was going to be really focused on the visual experience and using the camera as its own storytelling device. It's the kind of movie any cinematographer would kill to do," he says.

Gratified by the opportunity, Steelberg jumped into the project with both passion and a stream of ideas that twined with Reitman's already intricate vision of the film. The two were agreed that the camerawork would be key to keeping the tension and visual excitement high in a story that mostly takes places in rooms full of people gabbing.

To begin they looked not only at The Candidate but also at the Chris Hegudus/D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the runaway success of the Clinton campaign, The War Room. Then, they branched from political films to talk about the work Robert Altman-the acknowledged master of overlapping dialogue and roving cameras-as well as several benchmark films of the 70s such as Three Days of the Condor, Network, All the President's Men and Parallax View.

"We weren't looking to copy any of these films," notes Steelberg. "But they inspired us to look for fun ways to keep The Front Runner consistently engaging and encouraged us to really play visually with the mixed tone of levity and human drama. The more we talked about overlapping dialogue and parallel action, the more we realized that Altman was very relevant to what we were attempting. What's funny is that we were more influenced by 70s films, than 80s films but I think that the 70s is the period of cinema that perhaps best evoked that moment in America before the digital age."

Reitman came into it already certain he was going to shoot on 35mm film. "'I want to shoot on film' was the first thing Jason said to me," Steelberg recalls. "He wanted that imperfect feel, that texture and palette. And even though I hadn't shot on film in 10 years, it was great. We've become so accustomed to a certain way of storytelling with digital that it felt amazing to go back to putting more trust into the camera and to having everyone give their all on the first take. Later, we treated the film to make it even a little grainier and broken down."

Adds Reitman: "We had a general rule to use only tech available in the 70s." Indeed, even the opticals were done to replicate the shake they had before digitization. At one point, needing the classic Columbia Pictures logo, Reitman scanned it off a print of Stripes (directed by his father, Ivan). The on-the-fly camera style pushed Steelberg daily, which he relished. One of the most arresting and complex shots of the film kicks off the movie-a meticulously choreographed one-take that drops the viewer directly into campaign life as Gary Hart concedes the 1984 Democratic Party's nomination in San Francisco to Walter Mondale. The shot revolves around the story of advance man Mike Stratton's severed fingertip, a story Reitman says, "is a strange true story that speaks to the blood these people quite literally give because they so deeply believe in what they're doing."

"The opening had been scripted very traditionally and we could have done it in 5 or 6 shots, but we saw an opportunity to introduce the language of the film by doing the one shot," explains Steelberg. It was not a slam-dunk. "We had to close down a city street, bring in special cranes, create a virtual 3D model and spend a morning rehearsing it," Steelberg elaborates. "It was a monumental undertaking and relatively risky and we didn't know what would happen. We shot one version of it in the day but we weren't entirely happy so we came back again that night, brought back the crane and the period cars and closed down the street again, and got in nine takes. On the very last take the timing was somehow perfect, and seconds after, a huge thunderstorm came in. Getting that shot put us on a high for the rest of the production and set the tone that said, 'we're going to think outside the box in how we tell this story.'"

That creative spark carried over into shot after shot. Another long take with Gary and Lee Hart coming together to have a private conversations in a diner was perhaps even more complex, notes Steelberg, as was a handheld shot of Hart moving out from inside a car, which necessitated the creation of custom-built, small-scale 35mm camera that could be handed from one camera operator to another. But some of Steelberg's favorite shots are also simple ones.

"One of my favorite shots is Gary and the campaign staff on the porch of his cabin. It's not about the camera movement there but about the composition, where you have each character kind of evoking their personality in the way they're standing and it has this almost Annie Leibovitz feel to it. It's a quiet, contemplative moment that contrasts with the more complex moments. That's something we wanted to do throughout the film because that contrast also speaks to Gary Hart and to this entire story."

Throughout, the camera was also embodying Reitman's desire to never judge the characters. "Jason always wanted to stay neutral," says Steelberg. "What that meant for the camera is that every character is treated the same and we didn't do a whole lot of close-ups. We didn't do more close-ups with Hugh than with anybody else. So you never feel the camera is leaning one way or the other."

It added up to Steelberg's dream job. "This film was never about fancy shots and dramatic lighting-it was about what lenses are you using or when are you moving or not moving the camera or how things are composed. This is what cinematographers live for," he muses.

Throughout, Steelberg collaborated closely with Saklad and Glicker so the camera, sets and clothing coalesce. "Steve and Danny served up such exquisite sets and super-rich costumes that it gave my lighting and camerawork so much more work with," Steelberg says.

For Saklad, an early edict was to embrace the messiness. "Part of the fun of the movie is seeing all the hidden workings of a campaign, so we have rooms where cable are hanging and people crammed into offices with phones going off and the camera always struggling to find its way through crowds and equipment," Saklad describes. "For me, the challenge was planning so that Jason could point the camera in any direction spontaneously and there would be something interesting there."

He was also recreating a world of payphones, satellite vans and telex machines that a decade later digital devices have erased. Verisimilitude was everything for Saklad and Reitman. "Steve created an exceptional level of detail in every inch of the set and that's what makes it come alive," says Reitman. Like Steelberg, Saklad's list of favorite moments is lengthy, but starts with the opening shot. "That was the one great plum we all wanted to nail. We felt we had to evoke everything, from the exact satellite trucks to the camera booms that were in use then, as well as source some of the actual protestor signs from 1984. It was a thrill to have all those layers."

Another thrill was recreating Hart's cabin in the prophetically named area of the Rocky Mountains known as Troublesome Gulch. "That cabin still exists," notes Saklad. "And Jason was fortunate enough to get a tour of it by Gary during prep, so we had great photos of the real place. We also had some research photos from 1987 so we were able to see the interiors and even the gate where all the news vans collected. We were really careful to replicate that look exactly as it showed up in the old photos."

Some of Saklad's biggest challenges came in building two different newsrooms from scratch, contrasting the iconic old-school newsroom of The Washington Post with a more modern vibe at The Miami Herald. "To emphasize that contrast we made The Herald a little bit more hip and glamorized than it was, a little more Miami Vice, introducing glass and shimmery gold," says Saklad. "But for The Post we did pretty spot-on replica of what you see in All the President's Men-except, importantly, a decade later it's more worn-down and worse for wear."

Saklad designed the interior of the Hart campaign headquarters in three phases: "First, we see the office in its infancy before they really moved in; then we see it full flowering where every surface is filled with papers, binders and cables. And then, we do something that you didn't actually see happen in reality, where we bring in this sort of new look for the campaign. We liked the idea of seeing all the new graphics, posters and banners arrive in the last week of April for a campaign that will never get any further."

Throughout, Saklad's team was on the hunt for vintage vans and taxis, as well as 80s-style desks, cubicle dividers and IBM Selectric typewriters, the workhorse of the day. Saklad also undertook a particularly unusual search...for vintage food wrappers. "We wanted to have all the offices lined in fast food wrappers as they really were," he notes. "It became huge a search in our department for items like those waffled containers for 80s Big Macs, Dunkin Donuts boxes and period Frito-Lay packaging. These items were gold to us because they give you that reality of people who live at their desks."

That lived-in feel was equally essential to Danny Glicker's work. Glicker faced a gauntlet given the film's dozens of characters, spanning all ages and backgrounds, but he too was driven by the chance to create a dense background for Reitman's storytelling. The 80s intrigued Glicker for very specific reasons. "What I loved was the chance to explore the 80s as the very beginning of the modern world that we live in now. It had to feel like the final hurrah of a time before we were all wrapped up in the speed and confusion of the 24-hour news cycle. The world was becoming more complicated and immediate, so you see traditional style just starting to merge with the more streamlined."

In his 4th outing with Glicker, Reitman asked more of him than ever. "Danny and I talked a lot about this idea that it's easier to make a film set in 1587 than in 1987, because we know what 1987 should feel like enough that the detail has to be even greater to feel real. He created an honest but visually compelling version of how people looked going to work in 1987. It was such an enormous job that our wardrobe cage was like an entire floor of a department store. The area for shoes and belts alone was impossible to navigate. Even though you might not notice all the details Danny and Steve conceived, down to what the extras wear and the props specific to their characters, it all adds up to make it feel realer than real."

Another 80s reality was also a significant influence on Glicker's work in the film: by the mid 1980s the share of women in the workplace was the highest it had ever been (it peaked in the year 2000) and fashion was reflecting the shift. "You were seeing women in boxier silhouettes with shoulder pads and also blousier looks," says Glicker. "There was this really interesting dynamic happening that was almost an identity crisis because some women's fashion was hyper-feminine while some was hyper-business-oriented. So in the film, you see the men in very classical looks but it's really the women's fashion that is kind of defining the cultural moment-which is right in line with the complicated questions about gender politics and social politics that the movie explores."

That's why he especially enjoyed designing for the characters of Donna Rice and Irene Kelly. "I always felt the heart of the movie is the scene when Irene and Donna have their heart-to-heart, because I think what the film is really looking at is all these people trying to figure out where they fit in the world before, during and after these events. From a visual standpoint, I loved the idea of seeing these two smart, ambitious, independent women who each have a very different worldview sitting across the table. They're very simple looks really for each of them but it was important for each of them to stand out."

Though Glicker didn't go for slavish historical accuracy in every outfit, he did recreate some of Hart's original looks, especially the tie he wore both in announcing his candidacy and ending it. "That tie becomes very important in his trajectory," muses Glicker. Glicker loved how Jackman and the rest of the cast took made each article of clothing part of their personas. He summarizes: "We painstakingly sourced, created and built fabrics from the era but the most important thing we did was to try to create looks for the actors that would just feel real, lived-in and add to their performances."

Once production wrapped, a whole other layer of the storytelling began as Reitman began editing with Stefan Grube, who first worked with Reitman on Tully, and preparing the score with Rob Simonson (Foxcatcher). "The editing was so key to this film and Jason and Stefan did a beautiful job of pacing the film so there are moments of lightness and also moments that are so poignant," says Gilbert.

Adds Reitman, "This film was an enormous editing job. Up until this movie, I've always been very precise about shooting. But here, I had to let things be more wild, let the camera find the moments. So Stefan and I had a lot of work to do, breaking that all down and putting it all back together with a rhythm that's very distinctive. Stefan identified that rhythm very early on and he also did an incredible job sourcing original news clips, not just news clips of Hart of but of news people setting up cameras, fixing their hair, making flubs, so we were able to integrate it all naturally into our footage recreating these real moments. Then Rob came in and gave us one of the most beautiful scores I've ever had. Rob really took that note from 1970s filmmaking to approach the music in a different way. Both Rob and Stefan together helped create that rhythm we associate with the 70s and adds to the hyper-real feeling of the film."

With so many pieces combining to make the final film, everyone involved was thrilled to see it all come together as Reitman had hoped: forging its own 1987 universe while reflecting on current times. Aaron Gilbert says, "Everyone knew this film was not going to be an easy endeavor but somehow that inspired people to work even more closely and more passionately. I think the result is one of Jason's best films. It started with a wonderful script and continued with a cast and crew that really delivered."

Helen Estabrook watched as a film that started out complex grew even more complex as each person added their skills and insight. "We always knew this film was going to take in many, many layers-and that it would not be a movie about one thing, but about a lot of things," she says. "What's most satisfying is that in every frame of the final film there's so much going on, yet it's never telling you what to think. Instead, it's bringing you deeply into this situation and leaving you with questions you want to talk about."

After suspending his campaign for president and retiring from the United States Senate, Gary Hart restarted his law practice, serving as a strategic advisor to major U.S. corporations, and as a teacher, author and lecturer. Since then, he has been one of America's most reliable and analytical advisors on international relations.

As co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, Hart warned that the United States was at risk of a terror attack as he helped to oversee the most comprehensive review of national security since 1947 and proposed a sweeping overhaul of U.S. national security structures and policies for the post-Cold War new century and the age of terrorism.

Hart was most recently invited by John Kerry to serve as the Secretary of State's personal representative in Northern Ireland, and was chair of the International Security Advisory Board of the Department of State, vice-chair of the Secretary of Homeland Security's Advisory Council, chair of the American Security Project, the Threat Reduction committee at the Department of Defense, and co-chair of the US-Russia Commission.

Hart was president of Global Green, the U.S. affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev's environmental foundation, Green Cross International. He was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the U.S.- Russia Investment Fund; a member of the Defense Policy Board; and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was co-chair of the Council task force that produced the report "America Unprepared-America Still at Risk" in October 2002. Senator Hart was a member of the National Academy of Sciences task force on Science and Security.

The author of 21 books, including four novels, Hart has been recognized as a Visual Fellow at Oxford University and as a Lecturer at Oxford, Yale, Yale Law School, and the University of California.

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