So a few years ago I interviewed Jason Reitman here at the Toronto International Film Festival about his film, Labor Day. We somehow got sidetracked on the subject of Garbage Pail Kids and the entire interview wound up being about the trading card set from the mid-1980s that spawned a terrible movie. Flash forward five years and here we are again, only this time joined by The Front Runner co-writers Jay Carson and Matt Bai (Bai wrote the book about Gary Hart’s scandal-marred run for the presidency in the ’80s that the film is based upon). Reitman starts the interview with a little comment about our prior experience, Garbage Pail Kids are mentioned, Jay Carson’s face lights up, Matt Bai has no idea what Garbage Pail Kids are, and we are off to the races again. (I am here to tell you that there is a lot more Garbage Pail Kids talk that happened on this day that is on the cutting room floor. But I can assure you, it got pretty deep into the lore.)
As for The Front Runner, it’s kind of remarkable that there’s never been a movie made about Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign before. Hart (played by Hugh Jackman) was the no-doubt-about-it frontrunner to be the Democratic nominee who would eventually face off against George HW Bush in the general election. But rumors of Hart’s infidelity started to swirl, then photos were released of Hart with another woman (Donna Rice, played by Sara Paxton) on a boat called Monkey Business and Hart became a nonstop punchline for Johnny Carson. And now here we are 30 years later with a movie about the whole sordid thing.
You can tell Reitman, Bai and Carson took great care with this story. It’s all kind of laid out there and it’s up to the viewer to decide if this is the kind of thing that should have derailed a possible future president. And great care went into the portrayal of Donna Rice, a woman who graduated Phi Beta Kappa but had her life upended for the sin of having feelings for a married man. The Front Runner is the story of how American politics changed after this scandal
But, first, of course, we had to get Garbage Pail Kids out of the way.
Jason Reitman: So what are we going to talk about this time? This is the nature of our interviews, by the way. I should’ve said going in. Nothing’s going to be about the film.
I think it was for Labor Day we spent the entire time talking about Garbage Pail Kids.
Jason Reitman: And it made for such a good article.
Jay Carson: Oh, I love Garbage Pail Kids! Which is your favorite Garbage Pail Kid?
Jason Reitman: First one that pops in your head.
Live Mike, because it’s my name.
Jason Reitman: You’re right. I immediately think of Jason Basin. I immediately think of that. Yeah. Why are we so self-centered?
I think that’s it.
Jason Reitman: I mean, I like Adam Bomb. And it’s the cover of the wrapping and everything.
I was always happy when I got that one because it seemed special because it’s on the box.
Jay Carson: I loved those things.
Gary Hart is a fascinating figure. How has there never been a movie about him before?
Jason Reitman: This was the question that I think we all kind of were asking ourselves. I did not know the story. I was like 10 when it happened.
I was around the same age.
Jason Reitman: But you knew?
I just remember Johnny Carson making jokes about it, like the clip you use in the film.
Jason Reitman: Ah, okay. I just couldn’t believe that it had never … it felt like a movie. Here was the presumed next President of the United States and he winds up in a dark alleyway with three reporters in the middle of the night. The guy who went from being the true frontrunner to, one week later, he leaves politics forever. Inherently dramatic and exciting. And, within it, it contains all these questions that we seem to still be asking ourselves today about what is relevant.
Today it almost feels like nothing is relevant. Things that would end careers before now don’t seem to matter.
Jason Reitman: I’m not sure if that’s true. I think it really brings up the question of shame. If you’re someone who experiences shame, then you drop out of the race. If you’re someone who doesn’t experience shame, then not only do you stay, but you soar. We have a system that’s built to profit those who don’t feel shame and that seems to be a broken system. And the candidates that do feel shame, they do drop out. I’m not a guy who believes in good and evil. This is a movie that doesn’t have good guys or bad guy, white hats or black hats. This is a film that kind of lives within the gray. It’s going to be up to the audience to decide. That seems to be how the system works.
Are you finding people know who Gary Hart is? Or is this story new for them?
Matt Bai: I’ve always found that people don’t remember. And you know, I’ve talked to audiences for years, and it’s directly correlated to the age of the audience. Here’s the interesting thing: If you get a younger audience, they don’t remember. For that audience, I’m really psyched because when they hear the story, they’re kind of fascinated. It’s a really relevant tale. When you talk to older audiences, they misremember. In other words, they remember the moment, but they misremember the key facts, just as I misremembered the key facts when I first wrote about it. So for those people, I think it’s really interesting, too, because they have to then reevaluate their preconceptions.