HitFix Interview: Writer Danny Strong discusses HBO's 'Game Change'
'Buffy' and 'Gilmore Girls' acting veteran talks Sarah Palin and more
When "Recount" premiered on HBO in 2008, a large subset of TV fans found themselves excited about Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary and the rest of the top-notch cast, but what was truly intriguing was that the acclaimed movie was written by Jonathan from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Doyle from "Gilmore Girls."
A few years later, we may still think of Danny Strong from those roles and from an arc on "Mad Men," but that "Recount" Emmy nomination (and WGA Award win) has helped solidify his position as one of Hollywood's busiest screenwriters. He's writing "The Butler" for "Precious" director Lee Daniels and he just signed on to adapt Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" for the big screen.
At the moment, Strong is attracting attention for his script for "Game Change," an HBO adaptation of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's bestseller that has prompted outrage from Team Sarah Palin weeks before anybody in the former Vice Presidential nominees camp even saw the movie.
For "Game Change," Strong took an already exhaustively researched book and went off on a research mission of his own, interviewing all of the people associated with the McCain/Palin 2008 campaign, or at least the people willing to accept his interview requests.
I spoke with Strong after interviewing "Game Change" director Jay Roach, so I think I was able to tailor them as complimentary, rather than overlapping, interviews. Yes, the controversy came up again, but Strong mostly talks about why the Palin story attracted him, how well he feels like he understands the former Alaska Governor and why he's excited about working on a Tom Hanks blockbuster.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: What was the state of this project, the focus of this project before you came onto it?
Danny Strong: Before I got there, HBO had spent about a year trying to develop a Hillary/Obama script from the book "Game Change." They, for whatever reason, decided not to move forward with it. Then Jay Roach came on board and said, "Why don't we take the Palin story and see if we can try and develop a script around that." And HBO said, "Try it." So Jay called me and asked me if I wanted to try it. I said, "Absolutely," because I'd read the book and I'd loved the book and I actually thought that was the best movie in the book. So I said "Yes" on the phone call and then got the job and wrote the script.
HitFix: Do you think that you could have written a Hillary/Obama version of the script?
Danny Strong: I don't know. I'd read it about four months earlier, before Jay had called me, and as I was reading it, I remember thinking that the Hillary/Obama story was really, really hard to adapt into a movie. There were so many primaries. The story turns on all of those primaries and it just is really repetitive. I remember thinking that I didn't know how I would do it. But then when I got to the Palin story, I was like, "Oh. That's the movie!" It's so clear to me that that was the way to do it. Not just because it was the best story in the book to make into a movie, but I thought it would be one of the great political stories of our times. I just thought it was extremely profound and unique and totally fascinating. So could I pull off the Hillary/Obama script? Maybe. I've never officially examined it, but I also felt strongly at the time, and I still feel that way now, that a movie where Barack Obama's the central character in it shouldn't come out until after he's out of office. It would just be really hard to get an audience lost in a story while he's still president.
HitFix: From the outside, how did you see, in broad strokes, what the arc was of the Palin story?
Danny Strong: Well, you need to see the movie. I kinda don't want to say it, because that's sorta giving away the character's journey in the film. But to not give too much away, it's "Pygmalion" story about a local politician who spent most of her career in local politics, who was the mayor of a small town and had been governor for 18 months of a fairly small populated state and then overnight is thrust onto the national scene and how that changes her and how it changes the people who put her in that position.
HitFix: I like that you're being cagey about it, but this really is a film in which everybody knows how the story turns out and nearly everybody knows all of the major beats in-between. So what was the challenge for you of crafting a story that would still surprise people, given that there are no surprises.
Danny Strong: That's why I thought there was a movie there, though. That's the primary difference between the Hillary/Obama story and the Palin story: The story in the Hillary/Obama story that we lived through is equally as interesting as what happened behind the scenes. They're both very interesting, right? But there's a huge portion of that that we lived through. But with the Palin story, what we lived through is interesting, but what happened behind the scenes is so unbelievably fascinating and completely profound that that's why I thought there's an amazing movie here. There's a huge part of this story that is fantastic as a film that we don't know.
HitFix: You begin with a book that was already very well researched. And you conducted dozens more interviews. Why did you feel it was necessary for you to redo the research process or to reexperience the research process?
Danny Strong: Well, for one, because I personally hadn't experienced that process. I needed to talk to these people, first off: Is the book accurate? The book is anonymously sourced, famously so, so I wanted to dig in to see if it stands up, even though I was pretty sure it would, because people didn't refute the book when it came out. It was so hot-button and I would assume they would have, if people had major problems with it. And then second off, to continue to explore these things to get as much nuance and depth about the subject matter as I possibly can. We just wanted to get the story right and I felt like in order to do that, I had to go talk to the people myself.
HitFix: When you talked to people, were there aspects or details or shadings from the people that people now wanted to refute?
Danny Strong: Nope. No. There were things that people wanted to elaborate on. Out of my 25 interviews, there was one who said that the book was all lies and just wanted to refute the entire thing. Now there were parts that people wanted to talk about. I went out of my way to speak to Palin aides who were extremely loyal to her and extremely fond of her. They would not refute the book, but they would say, "There's another story here that people don't talk about and there were all these great times" and I would say "Please, Please. Tell me about these great times." And I think a lot of the positive aspects of Palin in the movie are dramatized from those interviews.
HitFix: The one person who wasn't going to call it all lies, I assume you aren't going to tell me who that was?
Danny Strong: Oh, he's already publicly done it. It's Randy Scheunemann. How 'bout that? Yeah, he's already attacked the book as all lies and the film as all lies, etc.
HitFix: What is his truth?
Danny Strong: He doesn't refute the specifics. His truth, or what he says, is just that the entire narrative that Palin is quote "an ignoramus" is false, that she's as brilliant a woman as he's dealt with, or maybe not "as he's dealt with," but a very brilliant woman who's extremely knowledgeable of all of these issues that people accuse her of not being knowledgeable of.
HitFix: OK, so you've done all of this research. You've read the book, talked to the people, read Sarah Palin's books. How well do you feel like you "get" Sarah Palin at this point? And how much is an understanding of Sarah Palin essential to the goal of this movie?
Danny Strong: The movie's not a Sarah Palin biopic, right? It's the story of the 2008 election, specifically told through the pick of Sarah Palin as the VP and what happened in the campaign after she was picked. Obviously we tried -- and by "we," I mean me, Jay Roach, Julianne Moore -- to get to understand her with as much depth and complexity as we could. But could I write a psychological profile of her? Yeah, maybe. But I wouldn't stand behind it as, "Well this 1000 percent accurate." What I do understand, I think pretty in-depth, is what happened to her psychologically during the campaign and what the campaign did to her and not just to her, but to Steve Schmidt, to John McCain and to all of the other staffers that I interviewed. So I would certainly want to limit my expertise on the issue to the 2008 election.
HitFix: We also know what John McCain sounds like in interviews and in public. We know what Sarah Palin sounds like in interviews and in public. How did you go about deciding how they sound like in private?
Danny Strong: You just try and get their voice down the best that you can. You read as much about them and in both of their cases, they've both written books and have read those books on audio tapes. So you listen to their audio tapes and you just do the best you can?
HitFix: Is that more challenging or was that easier than on "Recount," when you were sort of putting words into the mouthes of people who, for most viewers, we only know them in passing?
Danny Strong: I don't know. I find that the character work is the same in fiction as it is in non-fiction. In fiction you're creating the characters, but you want to try to create as distinct and unique a voice as possible. In non-fiction, these people actually exist, so you're trying to create the voice as close to how they are in real life. All you can do is just kinda do as much research as you can and then go for it.
HitFix: Does that mean you're saying that "Recount" was, if not more fictional, more based on a fiction-type process?
Danny Strong: No, because I was able to do a tremendous amount of research on "Recount" and interview almost all of those characters on the screen. So "Recount" to me, is as accurate as I think "Game Change" is.
HitFix: How early into the process did you realize that you needed Steve Schmidt as the center or the fulcrum for the story?
Danny Strong: After I got that phone call from Jay Roach and he said, "Do you want to do the Palin story?" and I said, "Yeah, I do. Lemme re-read the book and lemme get back to you." I re-read the book and just on re-reading the McCain portion of the book, I just instantly knew that Steve Schmidt was going to be the lead, that the film was going to be through his eyes. I think a lot of that also had to do with the "60 Minutes" interview he did when the book came out. I remember watching that interview and just being blown away by how candid he was about Gov. Palin and how regretful he was and just how unusual that is. I don't think I'd ever seen someone in politics talk about someone else within their own party that they worked with so candidly and shown such regret. It just seemed like this was the stuff that movies are made of, a character like this.
HitFix: And how open was Steve Schmidt with you guys?
Danny Strong: He was one of 25 interviews.
HitFix: But not more than that?
Danny Strong: No. He was not a consultant and he didn't have any other kind of relationship other than that he was just one of our many interviews. There's been some discussion that the portrayal in the book and the portrayal in the movie is his side of the story and I disagree with that. The stuff he said in his interview was consistent with at least a dozen other people. It wasn't one side versus someone else's. It was what we perceived to be the truth from many different points of views.
HitFix: Obvious this movie is very political, insofar as it deals with the political process, but how did you want to approach the ideological side of things?
Danny Strong: Well, there really isn't any. It's not a partisan film. It's not an ideological film. You don't come out of this film talking about the abortion issue or stem cell research or anything. It's not what we explore whatsoever. It's about the process of how we elect our leaders.
HitFix: Sure. But that was obviously a choice you had to make in the process, since it's not like there wasn't an ideologically-driven side to the 2008 election.
Danny Strong: Yeah, but the film doesn't explore that. So yes, it was a definite choice. The same goes with "Recount," which was not about whether Bush should have won or whether Gore should have won. It was about the process of how we count our votes. And this film is about the process of how we elect our leaders and what qualities do we value in a leader and how our presidential elections have become more like reality shows than a substantive examination of the issues of our times.
HitFix: I talked to Jay Roach about the movie and he talked about how the script had a theatrical quality and could almost have worked as a play. Was that a part of your intent/approach?
Danny Strong: I think there's definitely some truth to that, yeah. It's funny, because we didn't even really talk about that, but it's really just a couple of characters, right? Three or four characters who are just in crisis and and trying to resolve this crisis.
HitFix: "Recount" premiered seven years after the events it depicted and this is premiering less than four years after. Do you think the reduced window makes a difference in terms of reflection and introspection?
Danny Strong: I don't think it makes a difference as far as how our approach was. It's a very contained event. It's an event that I feel like happened long enough ago and people I interviewed, there was enough time that had passed where I felt like people were comfortable candidly talking about it. I feel like we were able to tell the story. If we were to make this movie in four years or six years or ten years, I think that it would still be fundamentally the same film that we made today. Now as far as how people perceive the film, yes, it may be perceived different in a longer period of time. The events of the past two weeks, there was pretty hot and heavy political discussion over the politics of the movie, which I think may not be the case if this film was made in six or seven years. But in six or seven years, people may not really care about this movie.
HitFix: The controversies and push-backs of the past couple weeks, how have they compared to what you presumably expected?
Danny Strong: I don't think it's too far off from what I expected. It happened sooner than I expected, because it happened a couple weeks before we came out and I just thought it would happen closer to the actual airdate, because that seems like a better strategic maneuver. But hey, what can you do?
HitFix: When you see something like that trailer that Palin's people put out, claiming things that weren't in the movie, even though everything in her trailer was in the movie, what goes through your mind? Is it like, "Oooh, she fell into our trap"?
Danny Strong: It's funny you say that. I don't think she fell right into our trap. I just felt like these people obviously haven't seen the film, because everything they put in that trailer is exactly in our movie, almost beat-for-beat. I just was confused by the strategy and I was kinda confused by them holding a press conference and attacking the film so brutally when everyone in the press conference admitted they hadn't seen it. I don't know. I've just been a little bit confused at the response. It's a response based on having not seen the film, and it feels like it undermines their attack for after they see the film, because they've already been attacking it so hard already. I just felt like they would have had more credibility had they waited. They made their decisions and they certain got notice. I think it gave us a lot of attention, which maybe they wanted to. I can't completely read the situation, to be honest with you. I can only just respond to the things people point out about the film. They put this trailer out about the movie saying, "This is the true story..." and it was like, "Well, that's funny, because we think it's the true story, too. That's why we put it in our movie."
HitFix: You obviously have also had a long and successful career acting as well. How much did that set the foundation for your writing career? And when did you know that writing was a direction you wanted to go?
Danny Strong: You know, I always kinda had an inkling that I would be writing. When I was in college, I was a theater major. I was in the acting program, but I went out of my way to take a bunch of writing courses, too. I took screenwriting and fiction writing and theater writing. It wasn't until I was 25 or 26, about three years into my acting career being my full-time jobs, that I decided to start writing for various reasons. But I think it's been unbelievably helpful and I think my acting completely informs my writing. When "Recount" came out, one of the ways people were trying to discredit the film was, "You know, this movie was written by the guy from 'Buffy.'" And that was always so funny to me, because I was like, "My acting background is literally the biggest advantage I have as a writer." It informs it so significantly.
HitFix: And when you've worked with people like Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino and Matthew Weiner, have you been hands-on in picking their brains?
Danny Strong: No, not really. I think their influence on me has been from just their talent and from just working on their amazing scripts, the same way that I was so greatly influenced by working on the plays of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and Ibsen and Brecht. That's all I did for the first 10 years. I think that Joss and Amy and Matt Weiner's just a genius. I think actually all of them are geniuses. They're just such monster talents. I did "Buffy" from when I when I was 23 to 28 and that's a very influential period. That's right when I started writing, too. So I wouldn't be surprised if Joss very subconsciously had an effect. But I never had discussions with any of them about writing. Actually, Matt Weiner and I have. We met on an Emmy panel, because we both Emmy nominees for writing that year. But the point was that I was already an established writer by the time I started working with Matt. But I have to say that "Mad Men" is probably my favorite show of all time, so ever time I watch an episode, I feel like I'm in writing school.
HitFix: You mentioned your acting informing your writing, but do you think that your writing has helped your acting at all?
Danny Strong: Yeah, I think so. I think what has really helped the acting is just not having to act for my rent or to make my insurance. Now, I'm much more relaxed and I think it makes the work much better, because I've just taken a lot of pressure off of it. I'm also much more selective about what I'll actually act in now, because I don't need it to pay the bills now.
HitFix: You just signed on to adapt Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," which seems like a detour or a change-of-pace for you?
Danny Strong: Does it seem like that to me? I think I can easily see how someone would think that. I've been writing other things, they just haven't been made. I wrote a thriller for Warner Brothers last year and I wrote this big sci-fi movie for Warner Brothers. I've worked on a variety of things, so it doesn't feel that way to me, personally, but it makes perfect sense that it would be perceived that way.
HitFix: What excites you about that project?
Danny: I just think it's going to be totally awesome. I love being a part of this huge global franchise. I think the books are amazing. I think the movies are really cool. I've just always been a fan of the character of Robert Langdon. I love the concept of a hero at the center of a very dangerous thriller who does not have a gun and is not a tough guy and is the hero because of his genius and uses his brilliance to get him through the mystery. I like the fact that they take on or explore concepts that are pretty profound and pretty significant and that they deal with issues bigger than what your typical thriller takes on.
"Game Change" premieres tonight (March 10) at 9 p.m. on HBO.