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Having earned two Emmy Awards for HBO Films’ “Recount,” which depicted the 2000 presidential election, director and executive producer Jay Roach was no stranger to politically-oriented films. On the heels of “Recount,” Roach was captivated by the 2008 presidential campaign, especially the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate. Continuing his fascination with how our country elects its leaders, Roach pitched the idea for a film to HBO in 2008.
Meanwhile, Playtone, a frequent HBO production partner, had optioned the New York Times bestseller “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.” Playtone was drawn to the authors’ coverage of the election and how the writers handled the candidates within it.
“The book was a character study on many levels,” notes executive producer Gary Goetzman. “We like to get into people’s heads and know what they’re thinking about, know why they do things, know why they feel things, and ‘Game Change’ had several movies in it.”
Written by two of the country’s leading political journalists – Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for TIME magazine, and John Heilemann, national political correspondent and columnist for New York magazine – the book is considered to be the definitive account of the 2008 electoral campaigns, going beyond the headlines for an intimate portrait of the candidates.
The authors’ unprecedented access to the players, their wide-ranging research and the subject matter itself gave the project a compelling veracity that has become a signature of HBO Films. Consequently, HBO, Playtone and Roach joined forces to bring ‘Game Change’ to the screen.
Zeroing in on the human drama recounted in Halperin and Heilemann’s comprehensive book, Roach was especially intrigued by the process through which Palin was chosen for the ticket and her dramatic emergence as the “game changer” for McCain’s beleaguered campaign.
He explains, “The story of how John McCain and his advisors chose Sarah Palin to be the vice presidential candidate is compelling, and was compelling for everyone who watched it. There were a tremendous number of people following that story, every single detail, because it was an unconventional choice. I remember seeing the rollout speech and wondering how she got there and, ultimately, what led to the decision to choose her.”
Danny Strong was the unanimous choice to write the script following his collaboration with Jay Roach and HBO on “Recount.” In addition to the book “Game Change,” Strong, known for his extensive research on political subjects, conducted first-person interviews with the players privy to the behind-the-scenes events and reviewed news, magazine articles, speeches, rallies and other events surrounding the campaign.
Roach notes, “Danny and I share an interest in what makes good government work. We are fascinated by the notion that government is a fragile thing and people’s faith in government is also particularly fragile.” Like Roach, writer and co-executive producer Strong was also intrigued by Sarah Palin’s meteoric rise, from a relatively obscure campaign for governor to a spot on the presidential ticket of a major political party 18 months later.
Strong observes, “We landed on Sarah Palin as the person to center this story on, because we wanted to explore why someone who was never on the national stage would want to run for office and be thrust into the national spotlight, literally overnight. Essentially, this is a ‘Pygmalion’ story with a really great arc, from where Palin starts to where she ends up.”
At the heart of this story is the personal journey of Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who had previously fostered several successful election campaigns. Hired by McCain for his renowned winning approaches, Schmidt viewed the selection of the vice presidential running mate as McCain’s last chance to catch Obama.
After watching Obama’s inspirational speech in Berlin in July 2008, Schmidt understood what was needed to secure the election win. The McCain campaign not only needed a dynamic moment to rival Obama’s growing star power, but they needed to win back the independents, bolster the Republican base and significantly pick up the female vote.
Consequently, Schmidt believed Palin, who had an 80 percent approval rating in Alaska, to be the transformative figure he needed and the fitting piece to appeal to women and contribute to the maverick label. Strong explains, “In the film, we see Schmidt transition from the guy who starts off as the true believer, the guy who says this is what we need to do to win, to the guy at the end who now rethinks everything he thought before.”
Eventually, Schmidt begins to recognize Palin’s inexperience and sees the repercussions from his bold political maneuver. The film’s stellar cast had access to an abundance of information about the events and their characters.
Cast in the role of Sarah Palin, four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore drew on a wealth of resources, including Palin’s own biography, “Going Rogue: An American Life.” Says Moore, “There is a tremendous amount of documentation on Palin, and all of it is available on You Tube: her interviews with Couric, Gibson, Sean Hannity, Charlie Rose, the debates, the Republican National Convention, and various speeches and appearances throughout the country.
I read her biography, books that were written about her and the election, listened to her voice endlessly on my iPod and worked with a vocal coach. I basically immersed myself in the study of her, and attempted to authenticate her as completely as possible. It was tremendously challenging to represent someone so very well-known and idiosyncratic, and so recently in the public eye.
Obviously you want to be as exact as possible physically, as well as attempt to inhabit them emotionally. It is impossible, of course, to actually become that person, but I had to somehow capture her essence and let her exist in the story we were telling. And I depended very much on my director, Jay Roach, who was an amazing partner to me.”
Two-time Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson, who plays Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior campaign strategist and one of the catalysts behind the selection of Palin as McCain’s running mate, observes, “The concept of playing such a character during a pivotal moment in American politics, coupled with Danny Strong’s phenomenal script, really piqued my interest. It was an amazing campaign, which was certainly historical, but in a sense, it was the birth of a phenomenon.”
In his preparation to play the Republican presidential candidate, four-time Academy Award nominee Ed Harris took advantage of the plethora of footage covering McCain’s speeches and interviews, in addition to reading McCain’s bestselling memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.” Discussing the character, Harris notes, “John McCain is a complex guy with a great sense of honor and duty, which is in constant conflict with his political ambitions. It is more than interesting to really take a look at who Palin was during that time and at what might have been.”
Also central to the story was Nicolle Wallace, a senior advisor to the McCain campaign and former White House communications director for George W. Bush. Working with Steve Schmidt, Wallace was responsible for prepping Palin for her major television interviews. Sarah Paulson, who plays Wallace, describes her character as a “consummate professional, even-keeled, calm, smart and articulate, capable of handling herself in even the most fraught situations. She was forceful in making her points behind the scenes when needed, while still maintaining her undying support for the campaign.”
Says Roach, “I want the audience to experience the film as one would a drama, not just a retelling of something historical. One of the challenges in making a film like this is facing the fact that you’re not making a documentary. You’re not just trying to capture every detail of every event that occurred. You’re trying to tell a story that hooks people, and makes them care about what the characters are going through, and makes them think harder about what’s at stake.”
Danny Strong adds, “This story is a classic piece of Americana. It’s the story of a woman who’s a governor in Alaska for 18 months and finds herself almost a heartbeat away from being president of the United States. To me that’s a really rich and very American story, which says a lot about our political system. I think this is something very much worth telling as a movie.”