A presidential campaign isn’t the same as the campaign to promote a television movie, but by smallscreen standards, the press attention for “Game Change” ahead of its March premiere on HBO was about as heated as it comes for TV.
“I think the reaction on the whole was really great,” said Strong of the project that served as a follow-up to 2008’s “Recount,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy. “I think the takeaway a lot had from it was they were pleasantly surprised what a nuanced and at times sympathetic portrayal of Sarah Palin it was.
One might have gotten the sense that reaction to the telepic about Palin’s effect on the ’08 presidential campaign fell along party lines, but Strong contended that wasn’t exactly the case.
“We make these movies, (director) Jay Roach and I, for people who are fair-minded,” Strong said. “Anyone who is fair-minded and wants to have discussion of these really profound, important events will come into the movie and, no matter what party they are, get a great deal out of it.
“People who have an agenda, they’re going to have an agenda no matter what you do. I know that’s what people accuse us of having before they see the product, but when they see it, it’s not really about politics at all, it’s about how we elect our leaders.”
If Strong has any sort of lament, it would be that Palin didn’t offer her two cents when given the opportunity as Strong and Roach were working on the film (joining the hundreds who were interviewed for the John Heilemann-Mark Halperin book the film was based upon and/or the film itself). It’s little surprise that she didn’t, but while standing by the portrayal of her in “Game Change,” Strong said it was a lost opportunity for all concerned.
“I would recommend to anyone who’s ever to be portrayed in a movie, it is always to your benefit to do the interview,” he said. “I just think it makes a difference. … If she had objections to the book, it would have been a perfect opportunity to voice those objections.”
Palin’s participation might have been most useful during the portion of “Game Change” that was arguably the most arresting – the implication that Palin was mentally unstable.
“It was more than inferred by people — people blatantly just saw it,” Strong said. “I think there were a lot of discussions among the staff, trying to figure out if it was just the pressure she was under. Post-partum depression was one theory. I don’t think there was ever a definitive conclusion.
“What we did was, we just expressed the reality of what people experienced, so the film doesn’t draw any conclusion. I think the film (implies) she’s under a tremendous amount of pressure and suffering emotionally, but it certainly doesn’t form a diagnosis or even come close.
“We were always a little concerned about this, because you read about it in ‘Game Change,’ but it doesn’t mean you exactly know how to play it. So in a few cases, we had people who were in the room with her act it out. … They all basically did the same thing. We had first-person reenactments, so that was kind of the level of where we tried to land the performance.”
The biggest change the movie made to the book is limiting itself to Palin’s emergence into the race as a vice-presidential candidate, eliminating the hundreds of pages leading up to her entrance, much of it focused on the Democratic primary fight between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Strong said that the decision to narrow things down to the Palin chapters was one that had been made before he was brought on board the project — but nonetheless, he was already of the same mind.
“I felt that it was a fantastic way to go,” he said, “because I remember when I had read the book five months earlier thinking that the Palin stuff was an amazing film —and also thinking I wasn’t completely sure how to do the Hillary-Obama movie. I knew HBO was working on it, and I was sort of theoretically trying to figure out and I remember thinking that was very hard.”
Strong said the plot points with Clinton and Obama were essentially the same over and over again: A primary would take place, votes would be counted and there would be a power shift.
“What we lived through in the public eye was equally as interesting as what was going on behind the scenes,” Strong added. “They were both completely fascinating. That just concerned me that the story was familiar, as opposed to the Palin story, where what we lived through was really tremendous, but what was going on behind the scenes was unbelievable.”
While Strong’s career does stray from Washington-set drama from time to time — perhaps most notably onscreen, when he played young and somewhat dense ad man Danny Siegel in season four of “Mad Men” — it isn’t straying that far. He has an adaptation of Dan Brown’s D.C.-set novel “The Lost Symbol” in the works, as well as the script for “The Butler,” a Lee Daniels-directed project heading into production that follows the life of White House butler Eugene Allen as he serves eight U.S. presidents.
“What was originally extremely challenging was that it took place over 35 years,” Strong said of writing “The Butler.” “That’s a lot of real estate to cover. You don’t want to just brush through it. You want everything to be powerful and dramatic. It definitely was difficult structuring that script, and I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything that complicated, going from president to president without it feeling episodic.”