A Conversation With Jason Reitman About ‘The Front Runner’ And … Garbage Pail Kids, Naturally

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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.

Jay Carson: A part of that is none of the three of us are drawn to, “Hey, you know that big story that everyone already knows chapter and verse?” We’re not interested in that one. But you know, the little story that almost no one has heard of?

Matt Bai: Like, I didn’t know Garbage Pail Kids existed, I now have heard about that.

Jason Reitman: Do you not even know what we’re talking about?!

Matt Bai: I don’t.

Jason Reitman: Oh, Matt. There’s going to be another fucking article about Garbage Pail Kids. Yeah, we are moving the stock needle on this.

Matt Bai: Are we talking about like collectible cards, like baseball cards?

They’re like baseball cards. It’s a parody of Cabbage Patch Kids.

Jason Reitman: [Pulls out phone] Yeah, this is what they look like. They had these weird cherubic faces.

Jay Carson: They were brilliantly designed, too.

Matt Bai: How many of them are there?

Jason Reitman: Many. I mean, there was a movie. It’s known as one of the worst movies ever made. Now, did you notice the Rubik’s Magic?

In the movie?

Jason Reitman: Gary Hart’s daughter, having the conversation, and she’s folding it?

Oh, yeah, the chain, right? I did notice that.

Jason Reitman: Yeah. That is for only people our age. The Rubik’s Magic really kind of teeters on your age and your understanding of the time.

For the awards campaign you should send out a Rubik’s Magic with The Front Runner printed on it.

Jason Reitman: Does that really get at the heart of what the movie is about?

Matt Bai: Well, it is a puzzle.

Jason Reitman: It is a puzzle. You can fold it and see it in different ways. Never mind, you’re a genius.

And it comes with a little card that says exactly that, with your name on it.

Jason Reitman: Exactly.

Did you talk to Gary Hart?

Jason Reitman: Well Matt interviewed Gary for the book.

Matt Bai: I spent a lot of time with him for the book. I’ve known him a long time. He wasn’t involved in the book, or doesn’t want to influence it, but he sat for probably 20 to 25 hours of interviews.

But with the film?

Jason Reitman: I went to see him, spoke to him, emailed him. I just showed him the film actually a week ago.

What did he think?

Jason Reitman: Obviously, that was a really scary screening for me.

I bet.

Jason Reitman: I brought the print out to Denver. We actually showed it to the whole campaign team. We showed it to Donna Rice. With Gary and Lee (Hart, his wife), they came out of the screening, and we all went for hot chocolates actually. One of the first things that came up was Gary asking, “Do I really talk like that?” And Lee said, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly how you talk.”

Jay Carson: We also took as respectful an approach towards Donna Rice as we did toward Gary Hart…in the writing and making of the movie.

That had to be extremely delicate.

Jason Reitman: And look, frankly, these are women who, at the time, were treated like objects and the butt of jokes.

Sara Paxton as Donna Rice has a line about that in the movie and I’m glad that’s in there. All Donna Rice did was care about somebody and her life was upended for it.

Jason Reitman: Yeah, I completely agree. By the way, that’s why I cast Sarah Paxton. In the role of Donna Rice, obviously there are many ways to cast it. Are you casting it for the person who’s going to be on a boat? Or are you going to cast it for the person whose life is torn out of their hands? And Sarah Paxton was perfect, when you consider the fact that we’re meeting her at the moment that her life has just been changed forever.

What’s Donna Rice like now?

Jason Reitman: She’s been very thoughtful, and sweet, and compassionate. She’s religious. She’s political. And respectful. I mean, this is a person who has been offered a lot of money over the years to sell some sort of inside story and has never done so. I think there’s a kind of inherent decency to her.

I’m out of time. And I just know one day I’m going to read in the trades, “Jason Reitman to option Garbage Pail Kids movie.”

Jason Reitman: No, but if I do an interview with someone else and talk about Garbage Pail Kids, you can be like, “Yo, that’s our thing!”

Yeah, I’d be offended.

Jason Reitman: It is ours, and only ours.

‘The Frontrunner’ opens in theaters on November 6th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.