GAME CHANGE is an apt title for what happened in the 2008 election when John McCain, the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America, selected then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his running mate. Even people who see eye to eye on nothing else can agree that what followed was not quite like anything else that had ever happened on the national stage.
The book GAME CHANGE by Time Magazine editor-in-chief Mark Halperin and political journalist John Heilemann encompasses the entire 2008 election, including the Democratic contest between then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The HBO film GAME CHANGE, premiering this Saturday at 9 PM, focuses solely on what happened within McCain’s campaign when Palin was brought aboard.
Starring Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as McCain and Woody Harrelson as McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt, GAME CHANGE comes from director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong, who previously teamed on HBO’s award-winning 2008 RECOUNT, which covered the ballot recount in Florida in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.
Strong, born in Manhattan Beach, California, has a following as an actor – he was Jonathan on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and Doyle on THE GILMORE GIRL, among many credits – has just been announced as the writer of the screenplay of Dan Brown’s novel THE LOST SYMBOL. The movie will see Tom Hanks reprising his role as THE DA VINCI CODE’s Robert Langdon; in a no-degrees-of-separation twist, Hanks is one of the producers on GAME CHANGE, as is Strong.
Strong says in a telephone interview that while he’s delighted to be in the arena of writing political docudrama and bigscreen thrillers, this wasn’t how he originally envisioned his career as a scenarist.
DANNY STRONG: I was writing really high-concept comedies, in the mold of Jim Carrey movies like LIAR, LIAR and BRUCE ALMIGHTY that were really popular at the time that I began starting to write, because I thought, “Well, these are the popular comedies that studios are making. Let me write one and see if a studio will buy a screenplay from me and I’ll have a writing career.” And I wasn’t able to sell any of them. It wasn’t until I kind of abandoned the quest for getting a paycheck and just decided to write about subject matter I was truly interested in and passionate about that I actually was able to finally get a script sold.
AX: The script was RECOUNT. How did you wind up at HBO with that?
STRONG: RECOUNT was an idea I came up with, and I took it out as a pitch, so I pitched it to several producers, hoping that they would take it in to some sort of buyer, although all the producers and my agent and me all understood that the only real home for it was HBO. They were actually one of the few places in town that would even consider making a movie like this. Several of the producers wanted to take it to HBO, and we ended up going with Paula Weinstein and Len Amato, because they’d already made several movies at HBO, and they really understood the material really well, and so with them attached as my producers, I went in and I pitched it to HBO, and they bought the project.
AX: Having already done RECOUNT, did that experience make doing GAME CHANGE any easier?
STRONG: Each script has its own challenges, but we had been down this path before with all the same people – the same director, the same studio – so there was definitely a shorthand, and having gone through the process of tracking down political figures and interviewing them and getting their stories, which I hadn’t done before RECOUNT, it was definitely a smoother process, one that I was able to even get more information out of this time around having done it once.
AX: When you first read the book GAME CHANGE, did you immediately go, “Aha, the story I want to tell here is McCain/Palin” or were you even thinking, “Does this turn into a film?”
STRONG: When I first read it, it was just for fun. It was months and months before I even got the call on the project. Jay Roach had floated the idea to me about doing a movie about Sarah Palin right after the election. We didn’t have any formal discussion about it – he just thought that maybe there was a good movie in that story, because it was such an exciting and unusual event in American politics. And when I read the book, when I got to the Palin section, as soon as I finished it, I immediately thought Jay was right, that this is such a strange story and such an exciting story with these really wonderful characters. I immediately felt like [the McCain/Palin section] was the best film [to be made from the book]. At least, that was the best film for right now. I thought that the Obama/Hillary story would also make a really good movie, but it seemed to me that that story needs to be told after Obama is out of office, that it would be hard for an audience to get lost in the [narrative] of the election of the first African-American president while he was still sitting in office.
AX: When you want to adapt something historical, even after you’ve done all the research, can you talk about the process that enables you to turn it from something like a documentary into a drama?
STRONG: Well, a documentary I think takes you through the facts of what happened, and in a drama, we don’t only want to take you through what happened, but we want to take you into the emotional life of the characters as it is happening. So we wanted the audience to feel what the characters are feeling, and for the audience to experience what the characters are experiencing, [not only] intellectually, but emotionally as well. So it’s definitely a different journey that you’re being taken on when you get lost in a dramatization.
AX: When you are writing the characters who represent real people, how much do rely on what is publicly documented and how much do dramatize?
STRONG: Well, in this case, in order to create the emotion, all we had to do was fully realize what really happened. It was an extremely emotional, challenging campaign for everyone involved, and it was one of those things where we didn’t want to make stuff up that wasn’t true, because we didn’t want to in any way discredit the film, because what was true was so amazing, why would we possibly want to make something up?
AX: Did anything surprise you while you were researching this?
STRONG: Hmm. Someone else asked me that as well. It’s strange, because I wasn’t really that surprised by much. I think maybe I was surprised at how much I thought was happening actually was happening. Does that make sense? It was along the lines of, “Wow.” When I first read GAME CHANGE, I just thought, “This is exactly what I imagined was going on behind the scenes.” And I was pretty shocked that I was actually right [laughs].
AX: Is GAME CHANGE from the point of view of any of the three main characters – Sarah Palin, John McCain, Steve Schmidt – or is it all of their points of view, or is it objectively looking at all of them?
STRONG: All of those things. You’re definitely in all of their points of view at various times. We’re much more focused on Steve Schmidt and Sarah Palin – John McCain is more of a supporting character in the film – but at times you are in his point of view, and at times you’re in an objective point of view.
AX: Did you find yourself feeling more sympathetic or less sympathetic to these people by the time you were done with your research?
STRONG: Always more. The more you learn about them, the more you try to walk in their shoes, the more that you understand the challenges that they’re facing and what difficult circumstances they’re in. Certainly as an outside observer, watching them in press conferences and news clips, you just don’t get that point of view. But you interview twenty-five different people and they tell you many different stories and you get many different sides of the story on these various people and you come to understand them much better and I think you can’t help but be more sympathetic with them.
AX: You said the research process was more streamlined this time around. Did you by then know who to call to start setting up interviews?
STRONG: Well, I did have help, in that a lot of the Republicans portrayed in RECOUNT really loved the movies, and a lot of the [people] in GAME CHANGE are really close friends with the Republicans that are portrayed in RECOUNT, and all the people in RECOUNT that I interviewed felt like they got a very fair shake in the interviews and in the movie. Because of that, I didn’t have a very tough time getting people to talk to me about GAME CHANGE.
AX: Was the process of going through the material pretty much the same as it was with RECOUNT?
STRONG: Yeah. I mean, there was less material. In the case of RECOUNT, I read twenty-seven books about the Florida recount, and in the case of GAME CHANGE, there was GAME CHANGE, the book that we were basing the film on, and then there are really only four or five other books written about that portion of the election. So there was less source material, and less people I needed to interview. Because in the case of RECOUNT, I was covering the Republican side and the Democratic side, and the side of the officials who were at the local level, and the state-level officials, where in the case of GAME CHANGE, I’m just dealing with the McCain/Palin campaign. No Democrats were consulted in the making of this movie. It’s important to know that this film is entirely [the Republican campaign] point of view, from the people who lived it. Everything in the movie is sourced from people who were there. It’s their story.
AX: Sarah Palin declined to be interviewed for your research and a lot of her supporters who haven’t seen GAME CHANGE have recently said they’re pissed off about it.
STRONG: Well, I understand that they’re pissed off if they feel that we’ve portrayed their boss inaccurately, but like you said, they haven’t seen the film and the portrayal is extremely accurate and very fair and perhaps they should hold off judgment until after they see it. They also have come out and said that the book is inaccurate, but the book was not refuted when it came out. Based on the twenty-five interviews I did with all the people that are portrayed in the movie essentially, I found that everyone agreed that the book is extremely accurate.
AX: How do the authors of the GAME CHANGE book feel about the movie?
STRONG: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have been involved every step of the way. They gave me notes on every single draft of the script and have been two of our biggest assets on the project and they love it, full-fledged. They’re as big as you get in political journalism.
AX: Having worked with director Jay Roach on RECOUNT, how did you work with him this time on GAME CHANGE?
STRONG: The process was, I wrote a very extensive scene by scene outline, and I showed him that, and then I wrote the first draft, so I didn’t give it to him in the middle of the process – I never give anybody the script in the middle of the process. I just don’t find it helpful, because I still don’t really know what I’m doing until I’ve finished it and gone back and edited it, so I don’t really want input until I have a draft. And then once I have that draft, I give it to Jay, and the producers at Playtone, and it just becomes a normal development process, where they give notes, they give it to the studio, the studio will give notes, then I do a rewrite and then it’s like, rinse, repeat. I call myself during that period a human piñata.
AX: Using the piñata analogy, what if anything got whacked out of or into the script during the process?
STRONG: Well, it’s tough to say, because it’s endless [laughs]. The amount of scenes that come and go, it just never ends, and it doesn’t end even into production. And once you shoot the movie, it doesn’t end, because then you have the editing process, and sometimes whole scenes get cut out while you’re editing. So I look at it as the story starts as a giant block of clay, and then the entire process, from starting to write the script through shooting the movie through editing the movie, is chipping and chipping away until you have a statue.
AX: Did you have input into the casting on GAME CHANGE?
STRONG: Yeah. Jay Roach and HBO are the ones casting this film, but I’m also the co-executive producer of the project and worked very closely with Jay through pre-production, production and post-production. I’m involved every step of the way, but I’m certainly not casting people. Jay is casting people and HBO is approving his casting choices. But I’m certainly a voice in the process, I’m just not the deciding voice.
AX: Were you pleased with the casting choices?
STRONG: Love them. Just love them. I think on all those parts in this movie, the actors were great. I don’t think we could have done better.
AX: Are you still working on BROWN VS. THE BOARD OF EDUCATION, about the integration of public schools?
STRONG: Sure. That project’s still going. I have multiple different projects happening.
AX: Besides that and THE LOST SYMBOL, what are you working on?
STRONG: I just wrote a murder mystery [working title THE BUTLER] for Warner Bros, and I’m going to write a big inspiring sports movie for Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer.
AX: Do you find it easier or harder to write fact-based people who are still among the living, as opposed to inventing characters from your imagination?
STRONG: Well, it kind of goes both ways. It’s definitely much more limiting [when] you’re so bound to what actually happened when you’re doing these modern-day hot-button political stories. As opposed to a fictional film, where you can just make up wherever you want the story to go. But the flip side of that is, if you’re actually making a movie about a true-life modern-day political subject, what happened must be so fantastic that you think it warrants being made into a movie. So you have all sorts of really great, exciting events that you get to dramatize. And if the events aren’t there, that’s when I just decide not to write that story.
AX: Now, do you think you might eventually do something about the 2012 Republican nomination process?
STRONG: I have no idea. Everyone’s been asking about that, which makes perfect sense. I know I would love to do another one of these movies with Jay and with HBO. It would be great if we could have some sort of trilogy. But I think we’re not going to know if there is a movie there until the election is all over. I mean, you look at the one we just did, GAME CHANGE, and you have this unbelievable eighteen-month-long process, and we thought the best movie t[to make] takes place in the last sixty days with a person who hadn’t been involved in the entire process until those sixty days. So until it’s all over, I just can’t say.
AX: You don’t know what the ending is yet.
STRONG: Yeah. Or it could be that the entire movie is based on the v.p. pick of this. It’s an amazing primary, extremely exciting to watch.
AX: Are you doing any acting?
STRONG: Yeah. I just shot an episode of GREY’S ANATOMY.
AX: How was it coming in as a guest star?
STRONG: So much fun. The best. I’m so busy with the writing projects and it’s great to just take a couple days off and jump into a TV show. I usually don’t do it unless I think the part’s really good, so it’s just a lot of fun for me and it’s great to get my mind off the projects for a few days and do something else.
AX: Is there anything else you would like to say about GAME CHANGE?
STRONG: Steve Schmidt, the [campaign manager played by] Woody Harrelson, saw the movie and said, “This is a true story of what happened.” And I think that’s a testament to the painstaking efforts we took to make the film as accurate and fair and multidimensional as possible. So it was really gratifying to hear that someone who lived the experience – the film is essentially told through his eyes – felt like we truthfully executed what he had lived through.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with GAME CHANGE screenwriter Danny Strong