The new HBO movie Game Change, directed by Jay Roach (Recount) and starring Julianne Moore as an in-over-her-head Sarah Palin circa 2008, is based on the No. 1 best-selling book by New York Magazine’s John Heilemann and TIME’s Mark Halperin — but just a slice of it. While their Game Change offers a comprehensive look at the historic ‘08 election, including the Obama-Clinton and John Edwards sagas, Roach’s adaptation zooms in on Palin and the 60 days between her selection as John McCain’s running mate and Election Day. Heilemann sat down with Roach ahead of tonight’s premiere to discuss why Roach made Palin the focus of his movie, the casting of the film’s three stars (Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Ed Harris), and the ever-present shadow of Tina Fey.
Some people have wondered why, of all the potential stories in our book to make a movie about — Obama versus Clinton, John Edwards, etc. — why you chose the Palin narrative. But you found that arc compelling from the moment McCain put her on the ticket.
I could not get away from my television for at least three straight weeks, first wondering who McCain was going to pick and then, when he picked Palin, thinking, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” I couldn’t talk to anybody who didn’t bring it up. It was on everybody’s mind. I hadn’t seen a political event or a moment in politics in my life, really, that had galvanized people, electrified them, as much as that moment did. And I have been fascinated for many years with spin doctors — political consultants, strategists — and the fact that a lot of what goes on in politics has nothing to do with the candidates; that many of the people managing the message and in some cases pulling the strings are these operatives. I immediately thought there must have been some long talks in some rooms that were very tense to get to that decision. I went to HBO right away and said, “I wish I was in those rooms. This should be our next movie.” I actually didn’t know at the time that you guys were already talking to HBO about optioning the book.
Which we hadn’t even written yet. But yeah, we were. Because we had this crazy idea of having a screenwriter embedded with us as we wrote the book so a movie based on it would come out not long after we published.
Ah, yes. I remember hearing, “The guys want the movie to come out at exactly the same time as the book.” And I said, “Well, you know, it takes a long time to make a movie!” [Laughs.]
We live in a world where if someone doesn’t call us back in two hours, that’s moving slow. And Hollywood is like, “We’re moving really fast!” And what they mean is you get a call back in a week.
Yeah, when the guy gets back from Barbados.
So it wasn’t until spring of 2009 that HBO announced that it had optioned the book, and we initially started heading down the path of doing the Obama-Clinton story, with a screenwriter assigned to that.
And I agreed to pursue the Obama-Clinton one with them for a while. But I’ll be honest with you, I remember thinking at that time, “Well, okay, maybe, but I still think the Palin story is a tighter story and to me a more compelling story.” But on the other hand, the Clinton-Obama story is amazing, and if the script can show that it can be done, I was open to it. Then, sure enough, the script came back. It was very long. It was really well-written and good and interesting, but it was very long. And even at 160 pages, I could tell it was really more like 240 pages. It was, I felt, both unwieldy as a two-hour thing and also super-expensive. I didn’t see a way to let archival footage help us tell the story, because the big events weren’t things that would have been covered in the primaries. Whereas I knew in the Palin story, some of the biggest moments were the convention, the rollout speech, the rallies, the debate. Anyway, [the Obama-Clinton story] just looked beyond the scope of what I know how to do.
Then in the spring of 2010, HBO came out with “The Special Relationship,” about Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. And Hillary was a character in that, too.
And in that film, there were private moments with the two of them in their bedroom. And people know so much already about Bill and Hillary. You know, Primary Colors had already been made and was inspired by their story. I just wasn’t sure [the Obama-Clinton story] was gonna be as compelling as we wanted it to be. So I started lobbying again to go to the Palin story, and by then, another huge thing had happened: the interview on 60 Minutes with [McCain chief strategist] Steve Schmidt. And that was an epiphany and became instant imperative for me, because here’s the guy who’s one of the main proponents of putting Palin on the ticket and one of the guys who said, “We gotta rush it but we can do it.” And here he is months later saying, in effect, I wish I could go back and do it over again because I would’ve done it differently. And that just blew it wide open for me. That’s the story. That’s an incredible arc. That’s a soul at stake. This is one of the defining criteria for movies I try to get involved in, especially dramatic ones: that the audience wants to be on the edge of their seats, that someone’s soul is at stake. I felt like Schmidt, in the story, was at a dilemma point. Win at all costs. Take a risk that not only risks McCain’s victory in the election, not only risks McCain’s reputation for all time, not only risks how the Republican Party is going to be perceived from now on, but also risks some aspect of the country’s well being by choosing someone who’s not necessarily qualified to be suddenly commander-in-chief. And so, it just seemed like not only the story in the book that I was interested in, it seemed like one of the great political stories ever. I just said, “This is it.”
I remember having a conversation with you that summer that made a lot of sense to me, as someone who writes narrative nonfiction. And I had similar conversations later with [Game Change screenwriter] Danny Strong. You guys emphasized how it was a tight narrative, taking place over just 60 days from her selection to Election Day, with a clear resolution and a limited number of characters, all set within one campaign. You talked about the two chapters of the book where we dealt with her, about the big set pieces, and how the narrative beats were already there.
Danny and I talked a lot about that, when we saw that you captured the themes and framed the questions so clearly and suspensefully. I remember all of us had some talks about what the implications might be. I definitely knew it would be an issue for people that we only focused on that section of the book. And it’s good that we’re talking about it now because I hope it clarifies why we went that way and how impossible it would have been to do it, in my opinion, any other way.
Once we settled on the McCain-Palin story, one of the obvious big challenges that presented itself was casting. I mean, who on earth is gonna play Palin?
We knew the film would come under tremendous scrutiny because of Tina Fey. It sounds silly to say that, but taking on a interpretation of Palin would be hard enough without Tina, because Palin is such a unique person. But Tina had created a kind of a pop-culture persona that a lot of people loved. We lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out who could do it well and we poked around a number of ideas. Danny pointed at Julianne Moore on the list, and I said, “I’m just not sure, physically;” I honestly had an imagination problem. Then another guy — Bob Iger, the head of Disney — came up to me at an Oscar party and mentioned Julianne again. So I went back and looked harder, and I had a guy Photoshop the glasses and the hair on to Julianne’s face. I was completely sold on the idea that she would be the perfect actress to play it, just from her talent, but until I saw that composite, I wasn’t sure. But when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my God. What are we doing? She’s it.” And we never looked back.
I felt exactly the same way.
Part of why it mattered so much to get someone like Julianne is that she has the ability, like all good actors, to have her heart and soul accessible to the audience. I thought, “If we’re gonna take this on, we have to commit to not matching Sarah Palin, but interpreting her at such a level of quality and sophistication that, one, we can’t be accused of some sort of hit-piece version of her, and, two, the audience is invited to empathize with her, and is actually convinced they should, and goes with it.” Julianne is that kind of actress. She’s in a class with those people — the Meryl Streeps — and we were so freaking lucky to get her. The other tough one for me was McCain. I only had one name. If Ed Harris had passed, I don’t know how we would have pulled it off.
I remember those conversations where we were all saying, “We gotta get Ed Harris to play McCain.” And then, “Well, if Ed Harris is not available, who else could we get?” And the answer was, “We gotta get Ed Harris to play McCain!”
And even he has a kind of gaunt, sculpted look all the time. But I had a sense that if he just put on a little more weight, there’d be enough of a physical match, and I just knew the intensity, the unpredictability of a lot of his characters, the kind of combustibility, if you will, and the sense of humor, all would really work. Ed is a really funny guy, and so is McCain, but in an off-center way. And there were so many overlaps that it was just, “Okay, I can’t do this unless we get him.”
And luckily, he was free. And then you get to Woody.
I’d gotten to know enough about Steve Schmidt through your book and through the interviews, especially the 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, that I wanted someone who could be that intense but also kind of ironic and dry and likeable. I found what Steve Schmidt does to be very compelling and his predicament to be very suspenseful throughout the story, but I think he’s kind of an intellect. And Woody comes across as being kind of aloof and surfer-y, but I’ve known him for a while and he’s a smart dude. So he brought so much to it too, and got Schmidt’s body language. All three of them needed so little directing. They kind of make it just, “Okay, I’ll stay out of your way, but I’m over here if need me.”
Step back for a second to Julianne. As I understand it, there were some other actresses who were considered but were a little freaked out (a) by competing with Tina
or (b) the potential of becoming a target of the right — perfectly reasonable concerns. But Julianne wasn’t fazed. Her attitude was, This is an incredibly great part and an incredibly interesting person and an incredible challenge. Her attitude was not to shy from that but rise to it, embrace it.
She’s admitted that after she committed to it, she thought to herself, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” But I also heard her say, “This is what acting is about. If you’re not willing to jump into something that could be this meaningful and immediate, what are you doing this for?” She compensated for the peril by turning up her processes; she shut down everything else in her life. I would see her in the hotel during the weeks of prep, just wandering around with the earbuds. I had said, “Don’t just read Palin’s books, listen to them.” Because I had listened to them. I had listened to especially Going Rogue, and I had a much better understanding of Palin than I would have otherwise. Then Julianne started memorizing all of her speeches, so that once in a while she would come in and say about Danny’s script, “This is good, but what if I say this instead?” And she would say the exact thing Palin had actually said in an interview or a speech or whatever. It was stronger in a way because it was unimpeachable. People might say, “Wait a minute, she could answer better than that.” No, that’s actually how she did answer, and this is actually what she said; Julianne memorized it in her prep.
One of the things I learned in being part of this project — the first movie I’ve been involved with — is that actors love Jay Roach. And you made the point that these are all extremely high-quality actors and you just sort of let them do their thing, and that comports with what I saw on the set. At the same time, we don’t want to be falsely modest here. You did do some directing! So on Julianne, when you did have to be a director, be a little more assertive, what kind of direction did you offer?
It’s funny. They weren’t typical directions because she was so on it — she knew what she was doing — but she was sometimes so committed to mimicking Palin that the spirit and charisma of Julianne Moore was getting a little too buried. So I would sometimes say, “That’s great. We got that take. It’s a perfect match. But I would love for you to take your dialogue coach’s notes out of your ear, out of your head, and just live it. Be it. Imagine this predicament and what you’re up against right now, and how these people are judging you, or whatever the predicament was.” Julianne was very aware, for example, that Palin, during her speeches, didn’t smile as big as Julianne did. And that sounds trivial, but to her, if she caught herself doing that, when I would do one of those takes, she’d say, “No, I can’t smile that much. That’s too much me.” And I’d say, “Okay, then go back.” So we did multiple takes sometimes where that was the tug of war. And to be honest, she was right that she was going to be under this kind of constant comparison, both to Palin and Tina Fey, which is one of the reasons that moment in the film where Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin is watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin is one of my absolute favorites. It’s such a triumph for Julie doing what she does, and it’s very, very different from what Tina does. I think the audience is going, “Oh I remember that!” And also they’re laughing again at the Tina Fey thing, but they’re feeling something about what Julie’s doing.
It strikes me as a risky thing to do, because it’s so meta. You have people watching it and the first-order thing within the movie that you’re trying to accomplish is that you want them to feel sympathy for Palin as she cringes at seeing herself publicly mocked that way. And Julianne conveys that extraordinarily, and for a lot of audiences it’s a moment when you feel great sympathy for Palin as she shrinks in her seat, watching this thing happen.
It must have been humiliating. Can you imagine? Getting mocked that effectively.
But the second thing is, it risks taking you out of the movie, because it leads you to compare Tina’s performance with Julianne’s, so you’re judging the actresses rather than just being caught up in the movie.
That’s another level on which I like for an audience to be experiencing a movie, which is to say, “Oh, right, that’s someone pretending; I should turn up my critical-thinking mechanisms.” I like breaking the spell the audience is under a little bit. That’s what’s weird about that moment: You’re simultaneously engaged in the actual story and you’re feeling the meta thing, and the objective thing, too — from connecting to people on an emotional level, on an almost spiritual level about what the story means and also to go at it on an intellectual level. If it’s works the way I’m hoping it does, it’s a rare victory for the film and for our process if we pull that off.
What turned out to be harder about making this movie than you expected?
It’s always daunting, I learned in Recount, but maybe even more here. This is a character-driven movie. Recount was character-driven, but it was also very plot-driven. There was a lot of technical exposition that had to be done about the electoral process, what the issues were, what is a hanging chad. I’m very proud of the hanging-chad sequence. After the film, people often came up and said, “I never really understood what the chad issue was, but now I get it.” In [the Game Change] process, I wanted to deliver a character study in a very high-pressure situation, and yet we were still burdened by facts. We had to deliver the truth. We had to deliver an authentic telling of the story. It’s a dramatization, it’s not a window from a time machine that you’re traveling through the actual tour of that moment. But we are saying it’s a true story. We’re making a deal with the audience. And to do that while simultaneously aspiring to an almost Shakespearean style of storytelling — not quality; I’m not Shakespeare. It was very difficult to commit that heavily to a character-driven story while knowing no one’s going to care if it’s a great character story if we don’t get it right from a factual and a historical point of view. That was a lot to try to pull off simultaneously.
Danny went back and did a lot of research. And you went along on some of those interviews. So there’s two different elements to that, it seems to me, are interesting. One is that Mark and I did 99 percent of our interviews for the book together, because there is a huge difference between reading the transcript of an interview and reading the transcript of an interview you’ve sat through. Because when you read the transcript in the second case, you remember how the person sounded when they talked about it and what their emotional emphasis was and what the things were that they leaned into and the things where they were just answering in a pro forma, perfunctory way. So one thing is, from the director’s standpoint, what you gained from doing that. And the second thing is, it must have just been kind of fun for the political junkie in you to be able to go and talk through all the campaign shit with these people.
Absolutely. In terms of the story they experienced, for one thing, but also for me, as I’m starting to think about how’s this going to come together and who’s going to say what that’s going to help me explain to the actors what mattered to this person during that thing. So it’s not just what the facts were, though Danny and I were of course very interested in that. But I also wanted to know, in their minds, what’s the accurate way to depict what mattered to them at that time, and what challenges they faced in achieving their objectives. Because that’s what actors want to talk about: What did I want at this moment? And why couldn’t I get it? That’s really a lot of what acting is about. And to be able to ask people questions on that level was important: Why would you have done that? What made you do that? Who pushed you this direction and who objected to that argument? And that was incredibly valuable in terms of telling the story, but it was also tremendously interesting to me personally. Because I’m an anxious person, and one of the things I’m anxious about is our political system. I’m anxious for my children and I’m anxious for the country, because it’s fragile. I got a sense of it with Recount. We were on the edge of something. When you have a loser of an election not accepting that they lost, you are in a something like a third-world country situation. And it’s a powder keg, because it doesn’t take much to set off people’s distrust for the process. And so this is therapy for me in a way. Ask hard questions about why can’t we do this better? Where are the Abe Lincolns and George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons of 2012? What’s up with our process of choosing leaders? And if, by the way, if I’m one of those guys, I’m not running for president now because it’s become such a screwed-up process.
We have a name for that: It’s called the freak show.
I think of it as professional wrestling, and it doesn’t feel like the ideal that it was or that it’s supposed to be. I know it hasn’t always been the ideal; even the Founding Fathers had their troubles, but there is an ideal version. We’ve gotten close to it from time to time, often in times of crisis — in world wars, after 9/11 — where we’ve actually gotten to a place of trying to figure it out together. But now is not one of those times, and 2008 was not one of those times, as I think we show pretty clearly in Game Change.