May 21, 2019

‘The Front Runner’ Director Jason Reitman: Born to Tell Stories

Jason Reitman Photo by Eric Charbonneau

In 1987, Colorado Senator Gary Hart appeared to be a shoo-in as the Democratic Party’s 1988 nominee for president, until his campaign imploded over a rumored extramarital indiscretion with Donna Rice. The scandal, and the media’s role in it, is the subject of writer-director-producer Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman as Hart, Sara Paxton as Rice, and co-starring Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons and Alfred Molina.

Born in Montreal and raised in Los Angeles, Reitman, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated “Up in the Air,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “Young Adult” and “Tully,” is the son of director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”). In a conversation with the Journal, he talked about the movie and his personal influences, both patriarchal and Judaic.

Jewish Journal: What inspired you to make the film?

Jason Reitman: I co-wrote the film with Matt Bai and Jay Carson in 2015 prior to the election, before Trump and #MeToo, but it really felt relevant even then. I wondered, “How the heck did we get here?” I looked for moments that put us on a trajectory, and this story had all the connective tissue of the questions that we’re asking today: Gender politics, the relationship between journalists and candidates, and the line between public life and private life. 

JJ: You spoke to both Hart and Rice. What did you come away with?

JR: A reminder that they’re human beings. They’re two very private people who had a very public moment. I showed them both the film before we played any of the festivals and they said they found the empathy that they were looking for all this time. Donna Rice was an ambitious, smart young woman who was treated like a blonde on a boat instead of a human being. I wanted to confront the audience’s presumption of who they thought she was and force them to think about what was taken away from her and at what cost.

JJ: Do you find it ironic that a rumored indiscretion ruined Hart, but so many politicians get a pass today, including Trump and Kavanaugh?

JR: We have a system that favors the shameless and inevitably that’s the kind of candidate we get. When it’s all about sex, we often ignore other subjects. This was a moment in which a newspaper staked out a presidential candidate in the middle of the night at his home, a moment when a tabloid story became a political journalism story, whether it was right or wrong.

JJ: What do you hope the audience takes away?

JR: I’ve never thought of myself as a director with a message. I’m a director with a bunch of questions. [I want the audience to ask:] What is important versus what is entertaining? What is relevant? How do we talk about gender politics and our relationship with the media in a way that matters? 

“My father is the first Jewish father in history to say ‘Don’t become a doctor, become a filmmaker.’ He’s the first person I show my scripts to and my edits to.” – Jason Reitman

JJ: Did you always plan to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a director?

JR: I certainly grew up on movie sets. But when I went to [New York’s Skidmore] college, I was pre-med. As the son of a famous director, the idea scared me. It was my father who convinced me to try. My father is the first Jewish father in history to say “Don’t become a doctor, become a filmmaker.” He’s the first person I show my scripts to and my edits to.

JJ: Your father was born in Czechoslovakia, the son of Holocaust survivors, and your mother converted to Judaism?

JR: Yes. A lot of his family was sent to Auschwitz. Very few survived. I feel like it’s almost impossible to be a young Jewish person and not have some sort of miracle in your background. We feel lucky because we somehow survived an atrocity. We all carry that with us. It’s who we are. My father has visited the town he escaped from when he was 4 -years -old. There’s a miraculous story of escaping under the floorboards of a boat. Then at a border crossing, they had to prove they were Jewish refugees to enter the country. My grandparents pulled my father’s pants down to show that he was circumcised. That’s how they got in. Howard Stern referred to my father’s circumcision as his freedom pass. Thank God for the bris!

JJ: How has being Jewish influenced your life and work? 

JR: We’re storytellers. Our heritage has stayed alive by virtue of our ability to pass those stories from generation to generation. We tell the Passover story as a thriller –—that’s why it exists today. And that’s how I see the world. My humanist side all comes from being Jewish. I went to Hebrew School, Temple Sinai. My daughter is very aware of her identity. We celebrate holidays, but we’re not observant. 

JJ: What’s next for you? 

JR: I’m always writing. I haven’t figured it out exactly. I’ve had two movies come out in the last six months and my head is still spinning a little. I’m ready to stop for a moment, maybe pick up a book for the pure joy of reading. I recently read “The Big Sleep” for the first time and I think I need to go through all of [Raymond Chandler’s] books now.

JJ: Do you have any other goals?

JR: To enjoy life in the moment a little bit more. I feel lucky that I get to wake up and tell stories every day, making movies with some of the most talented people around. But when I started, I was so concerned about getting the project done and putting it out into the world that I never stopped to really enjoy what I was lucky enough to do. Starting with “Young Adult,” I started to think about stopping on set and watching these performances in real time, be in the moment. I’ve tried to do that more on set and in my life.

“The Front Runner” is now in theaters.