Danny Strong, screenwriter of "Game Change," HBO's new film about the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, is a familiar voice on the phone. It's one you'd recognize from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," in which he played perpetual punching bag Jonathan Levinson, or "Mad Men," in which he was nepotism beneficiary Danny Siegel.
Recently, Strong's been carving out a name for himself offscreen. "Game Change" is adapted from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book of the same name and marks his second collaboration with HBO and director Jay Roach. Their 2008 TV movie "Recount," which also explored recent politics, nabbed Strong an Emmy nomination and he's now set to adapt Dan Brown’s novel "The Lost Symbol" for the big screen. I got a few minutes to speak with him about writing Sarah Palin as a character and about how he sees her nomination as representing a turning point in how we elect our political leaders.
Has Sarah Palin or anyone in her camp actually seen "Game Change"?
When they held their big press conference, they said they hadn't seen the movie. I don't know if they've seen it since, but they released a video that's like a trailer. Everything in it — her stunning convention speech, how good she did in the debate, bringing McCain's polls even with Obama's — all of that’s actually in ["Game Change'], so I'm guessing when they made it they still hadn't seen the movie. It was not a refutation of the film, it was a promotion of the film.
In addition to "Game Change," Palin's already been the focus of two documentary features, which is a lot for a relatively short career.
It's amazing, isn't it? I think it's a testament to her accomplishment. Who in American culture in a three-year period has had a dramatic film and two docs made about them?
What is it about her that makes her such popular subject for film?
At the heart of it, it's the great American story. A person no one had heard of, with humble roots, who overnight almost becomes the vice president of the United States. It's a real everyman journey that strikes everyone in their core, whether they hate her or love her.
The film presents the divide between being a politician and being a celebrity — how do you see Palin's nomination marking a shift between one to the other?
I think it codified it, made it clear that star power can get you really far. It probably inspired some of the candidates in 2012 that ran. My guess is that Bachmann, Cain, these extremely charismatic individuals were inspired by Sarah Palin and the popularity and crowds that she got, the sense that they could achieve that as well.
What would you say revisiting this story has to teach us as we head into a new election cycle?
It definitely asks the audience: What do you value in a leader? What do you value in a president? Is it charisma, star power, or is it something else? And it also challenges the process of how we elect our presidents, as the campaign turns into more of a reality show or popularity contest than a qualified discussion of the issues.
As a VP candidate, Palin had a huge popular appeal while also bewildering plenty of others who couldn't believe she was being taken seriously. What are the challenges of writing someone representative of such a divide in perception? How did you look to bring empathy to the film's portrayal of her?
The divisiveness isn't a concern in terms of how to write the character. The goal is to just write her as truthfully as possible, to explore the person with as much depth as you can. People are going to bring their own perceptions to the movie, but our goal is to just show them the truth of what we believed happened.
As far as sympathy and empathy, I think that comes from the same thing — as truthfully as you can, dramatizing the circumstances of her position, what she's going through and the pressure she's under. And of course bringing in all of the other factors — pregnant teen daughter, newborn, son going off to Iraq, two other kids to take care of, all the while being lampooned and attacked by the media, and having to answer questions in front of the entire country and not knowing the answers — it's extremely dramatic. That's what drew us to making the movie. There's so much to this story.
What's the draw of dramatizing recent history like this film and "Recount"?
They're really dramatic stories, the stakes couldn't possibly be higher. They're so relevant to the lives we live today. We're dealing with issues that we're confronted with in the news and trying to bring a bird's-eye view to what these events say about American society, politics and media today.
There was never a moment where I wasn't going to include them in the script. Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live" is a major part of the Palin story, because she in many ways solidified a perception of Palin in the country. You can't tell the story without those sketches.
A lot of that impression rested on simply lifting direct quotes from Palin's speeches and interviews. Did that affect your process of writing her as a character, that she's so easy to caricature?
Once you start researching her, interviewing people who've interacted with her (some of them very fond of her and some not so fond) and reading her book, you get a much fuller portrait of an individual than you do from how she's perceived in the media. There's a fully rounded, living, breathing human being beside that news image we get of her.
Having spent so much time researching her and putting her on the page, what are your expectations for her political career to come?
When she resigned as governor of Alaska, I assumed she didn't want to be president. It just didn't make sense. If you wanted to be president, why would you do that? It's such a negative political thing to do, if your goal is to get the next higher-level job. I'm not sure. She's a huge media star with influence amongst a group of people within the Republican party, though I'm not sure how big that group is. I think she'll continue to have a very lucrative career as a Republican media figure.
"Game Change" premieres on HBO on Saturday, March 10 at 9pm.