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‘The Front Runner’ Crew on Bringing 1988 Campaign to Life

For Sony’s “The Front Runner,” which opens wide Nov. 21, director-co-writer Jason Reitman dealt with a very large main cast. The opening shot sets the tone for the movie as it takes in multiple groups of people with different points of view and overlapping conversations. In Robert Altman-esque fashion, various dialogues fade in and out as the always-traveling camera follows Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), his family, his political team, journalists and the public during the campaign of 1988 as it moves headlong into a sex scandal and its aftermath. While this creative approach makes for a mesmerizing experience for the audience, it presented unusual challenges for Reitman’s below-the-line team. Here’s what he said about the crew.

Sound mixer, Steven Morrow 

“Our movie centers on the idea ‘What is relevant? What is important?’ and the audience is often given multiple things to see and listen to. In terms of audio, our approach meant 10 to 20 people miked at a time, on a regular basis. A lot of Steve’s original production mix is in the final product, and that rarely happens in a movie. Just to watch him work the faders is magical. Steve was playing his mixer like a piano; he would bring the faders up and down, feeding us as we were doing it, pointing our ears in one direction, then another.

“Mostly in movies, the camera tells you where to pay attention, but in this movie, your ears tell you. The coffee shop sequence took half a day; it was complicated. It’s not just what you hear but how much. For one conversation about travel, Steve maybe has that at level 4; then a conversation about a press conference, that’s maybe 6; then Hugh [Jackman] and Vera [Farmiga, as Hart’s wife, Lee] talk on the phone and she’s 100% present.”

Cinematography, Eric Steelberg 

“Gary Hart was always followed by news crews, and often in the movie there is a specific drama when the news videographers turn their lights on and off. Eric and I talked a lot about how to use those cameras’ lights as a point of interest, such as the scene in the ballroom with the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. That’s a gorgeously lit room, and the videographers’ lights accented that. Eric and I had a rule for ourselves: Only use technology from the time. We thought about shooting in 16mm, but it didn’t hold for wider shots, so we went with 35mm.

“I haven’t shot on film since ‘Up in the Air.’ I forgot about the sound of a film camera; you hear the sound of the film running through the mag, and it reminds you that you’re rolling. There’s a sense that ‘We’re exposing film now; this matters,’ and that creates an electrical charge through the set.”

Editing, Stefan Grube

“For the really complex scenes, with everyone in the same room talking — and the camera could be anywhere — Stefan assembled them as a collection of ideas. He would go through the dailies and instead of ‘Here’s the master; here’s the close-up,’ he collected moments. He’d say, ‘I liked how he moved his hand; I liked her walking through,’ and he started to assemble the movie like music, a series of beats. And the movie took shape from there. Rarely did we cut like a traditional movie scene. This was a unique approach, and Stefan is an exceptional cutter.”

Production design, Steve Saklad

“We wanted to put the audience within each location, so the production design had to feel rich and used and messy, in the way that life is. Anyone who’s worked on the road knows what it feels like, the way you set up an office in a coffee shop. So all those 1987 restaurants and hotels and buses and planes, they all needed to feel real and the details needed to be rich. And Steve did it. He was most proud of the Washington Post office. The newsroom set for ‘All the President’s Men’ was exquisite; it sets a bar. It’s intimidating, and Steve wanted to crush it. And he did. We had Ben Bradlee’s artwork on his wall, his coffee mug. It was a wonderfully detailed set.”

Production design aimed to show viewers what it felt like to experience the campaign.

Music, Rob Simonsen

“When you make a movie with no good guys and no bad guys, you have to be careful with music, because music always points a finger. Rob wrote a score that never tells you how to feel about a character yet captures the momentum of a campaign. Hand-clapping and piano were two sounds that Rob wanted to explore. He would try different riffs. I’ve never worked on a score this way; it was an evolutionary process where he was kind of riffing on concepts, with the knowledge that percussion and piano were key to the score working.”

Costumes, Danny Glicker

“Danny made a time piece about recent history, which is harder than [re-creating a period] 200 years ago. If it’s 1987 and you make it look 1989, people will notice. When most people think ’80s, they think big hair and bright colors. In truth, colors were a lot muddier, and it’s difficult to make them real, not a joke. I can’t even describe the size of the wardrobe cage. We cast all the background ahead of the shoot; then we gave them ‘jobs’ and taught them how to use their equipment as they’re playing news journalists or still photographers or videographers, and then we wardrobed them. Each of the background actors was given a character and a wardrobe. The mammoth task for the costume department was insanity — just the amount of shoes and shirts alone!”

Casting, John Papsidera

“There are 20 main characters in this film. They were on set almost all the time. There were some actors I wanted to work with and some unknowns, because John has a great eye for unknown talent. I credit John with finding Mamoudou Athie, the actor who plays A.J. Parker, for example. So it was a big mix, but John was able to look at the landscape and understand how all of these actors fit together. This was an ensemble, and Hugh was the player coach, who led by example. For instance, the opening shot was very complicated. We shot it during the day, then had to move it out of the street for three hours because of rush hour; then we moved it all back for a night shoot. We filmed it on Day 4. Hugh wasn’t in the shot, but he showed up, and he set the example. Some days he was the lead, some days he was the background. He made everybody feel like we were all in this together.”

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