Photo: Kevin Parry/ WireImage
Danny Strong
“At the end of our first test screening, one of the first people that raised her…said, ‘I hate Sarah Palin more than I hate anyone else in the world, and at times, I was crying for her.’”
Scripting Sarah
Sarah Palin has dismissed Game Change as a “false narrative,” but Danny Strong explains why one of his goals in writing HBO’s behind-the-scenes look at the ‘08 presidential campaign was to get a liberal audience to root for the former VP candidate.

Written by Rob Feld

(March 9, 2012)

“I literally just said, ‘Yes,’ immediately,” says Danny Strong of when director Jay Roach called him to adapt Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book Game Change for HBO. “You're absolutely right, this is an amazing story, and it'll make a fantastic movie.”

Strong’s first produced screenplay had been HBO’s Recount, also directed by Roach, which traced the events and machinations surrounding the Florida vote recount during the 2004 presidential election. A working actor at the time, Strong had written a number of screenplays that had gone unproduced.

“It hit me that I was writing movies that I wouldn’t go see,” recalls Strong. “I was writing them to try and get a sale, not because they were from passion for what I love to watch as an audience member. So I decided I wasn’t going to write another script until I would personally pay money to go see it.” Off of a 30-minute pitch, he sold Recount to HBO as unproduced writer.

When Roach took over Game Change at HBO, Strong seemed a logical choice for the adaptation. A tome that tells inside stories behind the 2008 Democratic and Republican primary and national campaigns, Game Change devotes some of its final and most compelling chapters to the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain’s running mate. The real Palin and McCain have attacked the film as a “false narrative,” but Strong says he conducted interviews with scores of players involved in the campaign, including McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt, and stands by the film as “the truth of what happened.” The result is a very human portrait of the former governor.

Though he had taken many writing courses as a theater major at USC, Strong began his professional life as an actor, quickly finding regular work. But three years into a full-time acting career, Strong was still looking for fulfillment.

“It's a very difficult lifestyle to be auditioning and rejected on a weekly basis. I wanted to do something else creative to just get my mind off of all that so I wrote a script,” he says. Encouraged by some producer friends, Strong decided to pursue a parallel career as a screenwriter and now, with upcoming projects for Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott and Lee Daniels, and a directorial debut of his own approaching for HBO, he lives with his feet firmly planted in both worlds.

Photo: © 2012 HBO
Ed Harris and Julianne Moore in Game Change.

Acting is a discipline and training that teaches you to find character and the crux of a scene. Do you bring things from that training into your writing?  

Absolutely. My background as an actor is 1000 percent crucial to my current career as a writer because of the way that I not only approach the characters but approach the scenes themselves. People can be very condescending about actors that write scripts but the truth is that the majority of a screenplay is dialogue written for actors to say. Who better to write that than an actor? But it’s not just the training in terms of schools of acting, but reading and performing in so many plays is crucial to the type of writer I am now because I spent 10 years where I was never not in a play. I was either reading a play, rehearsing, auditioning or performing in a play for such a long period of time. When you work on pieces written by the greatest dramatists of the last 2000 years, you are subconsciously affected by the writing, by the structure and the way they use character. Playwrights have to create as much drama as possible sometimes in only one set, which is great discipline. You look at Arthur Miller plays like All My Sons and The Price, they take place on one set. The Price takes place in real time, and it’s as dramatic and powerful as anything I've ever seen. The lessons to be learned from the great playwrights throughout history – Chekhov, Ibsen, Molière, Shakespeare – is absolutely crucial in creating great drama.

So translate that into film for me.  

By great drama I mean the essence of what great drama is, going back to Aristotle and The Poetics. The type of emotion that you're trying to elicit from your audience, whether it be a horror film, comedy, drama, whatever; there are certain things that you need to do with stakes, with character, with obstacles, and objectives, and nobody does it better than those great playwrights. That's why we do the plays over and over again, because they work. Edward Albee is another great example. The lessons of how they elicit these type of emotional responses from the audience with far more limits than they have in TV and film, where you can cut and move to different locations in a millibeat, can be extremely helpful and strangely inspiring.

So how did Game Change happen?  

When the book came out, like anyone else who loves politics I was totally riveted. When I got to the Palin scenes I just thought, Oh my gosh, this is an unbelievable movie. It just beats out perfectly like a screenplay. A few months later Jay called me out of the blue and said, “I've taken over Game Change at HBO, and I’m just going to do the Palin story.” That’s how it came to be.

What was your initial conception for it? Did you name it as something?  

A perfect Pygmalion story. That was the reason why I was so drawn to the book originally, and I said that on the phone call to Jay. There's a story that rises above and is more significant than the characters and events themselves. With the Pygmalion model, we could use this archetype to tell a story that was much bigger than the individuals themselves. It would be a bird’s eye view of the process of how we elect our leaders.

I imagine you did all whole lot of extra research.  

I interviewed about 25 people from the actual campaign.

And they were willing to talk after the book came out?  

Not only were they willing to talk, it was more like I couldn't get them to stop talking. They were so passionate about what had happened during the campaign, they just wanted to tell their stories. In many of their cases they hadn't really spoken to anyone about it. They’d kept it bottled in and it had been several years now, they were just ready to talk. It wasn’t a problem getting these interviews at all. A few people rejected us: Sarah Palin, John McCain, and Mark Salter are the only three main characters in the film that we didn't talk to, but we interviewed almost every other character in the film, and then many other people on the campaign who weren't characters in the film.

How did they view the events in hindsight?  

It varied for different people but kind of broke into three basic categories: people who were very fond of Gov. Palin, people who were not very fond of Gov. Palin, and people who felt she was unqualified to be President of the United States but personally liked her and found her a compelling and dynamic figure. There are people I interviewed who expressed a great deal of regret about the choice of Sarah Palin. And then there are people I interviewed who thought it was a great pick and the right pick. Steve Schmidt in an L.A. Times article flat-out said he greatly regretted pushing her to be a VP candidate. And then there was an interview recently with Sen. John McCain on the BBC where he did not express that point of view at all, and discussed how helpful she was to him on the ticket, and that his poll numbers shot up after she was chosen and only fell when the financial crisis occurred. So, from Sen. McCain's point of view, and other points of view of people in the campaign, she was picked to help them win and for that purpose she was extremely effective.

In terms of trying to capture the voices of some of these characters, many of whom you spoke to, was it also watching a lot of tape?  

You definitely watch a lot of tape but then it becomes the same process that I would do with any other script. You try and internalize the voices through the research, and once you get going you just let it go and write the script as best you can. After you have a draft or two, in the editing process you can go back, watch some more tape, read some more quotes. A line you wrote here, say of some dialogue for Gov. Palin, you can find some Palin-isms that were similar and infuse those into the line so that it sounds even more authentic. It's an ongoing process of trying to get lost in it as you’re writing, and then in the editing process being more analytical and infusing specifics that can help bring out the authenticity of the characters. If I were to approach it with the fear of how prevalent they are it would cripple me.

This was different then Recount in that there wasn’t all that procedural exposition to deal with.  

So much! Every scene was filled with minutia of Florida election law. That was a major challenge in that project. With this one, there's essentially no exposition.

So you felt the information the audience needed was going to be naturally within the telling of the story?  

Yeah, the exposition very organically laid itself out within setting the stage for the story. Most of the exposition is early on where they are coming up with the VP candidate, and why they need a certain type of VP candidate, and it doesn't feel like exposition because it's actually stuff they have to say in that moment to come to the conclusions that they made. It's what's happening, very immediate and very alive for them. It never felt like exposition, where in Recount, the entire challenge of writing that script was making the exposition dramatic. Game Change is about a few people in crisis. The crisis itself is rather simplistic, but what makes the story so interesting is how profound the consequences are on our democracy. And the research is crucial. I read Game Change several times, and then I read every other book that's out there on this stuff, and there are multiple: Sarah Palin's book, Going Rogue, is a beat-by-beat account of her experience during the campaign; Meghan McCain wrote a book of her experience; and then there were a few books written by journalists, as well, that were all extremely helpful. So you take in all that knowledge, and then there's an endless number of magazine articles on the subject, and newspaper articles that are accounts in real time. Then on top of that you have the interviews with all the members of the campaigns. Then you take all of that information and try and internalize it. I have pages and pages of notes and outlines. Then I sit down, let it go, and try and write the movie. Then I come back to all that source material and information during the editing process.

This might be obvious but tell me about humanizing somebody who became such a political caricature.  

It's actually not difficult to humanize Sarah Palin when you really start to dig deep into the research. You start to interview all these people that worked with her, who tell you stories about what she's really like, and you're getting multiple points of view on the stories; people who really loved her and felt that at the time she got a raw deal and still continues to do so. You start to get to understand someone when you have 25 different people talk about them. When you look at the circumstances of her situation – she'd been governor for 18 months, before that a mayor of a small town, her teen daughter was pregnant, she herself just had a baby, and her son is going off to Iraq – this is all happening, extremely human things that she's going through. It's so important to dramatize those events and show not just the political pressure that she was under, but the human pressure that she was under; not from how stressful her duties were as the running mate but her own personal life had so much stuff going on. Anyone of those things would have been overwhelming for most people. To just have had a baby with Down's syndrome months before you were the vice presidential candidate, when you had never been on a national stage before, it's all extremely dramatic and very much on a human level. Overcoming the caricature was extremely easy.

Did you have a particular fault line with this project where you felt like if you failed in one particular area the whole thing just wouldn't work?  

One of my biggest goals, and Jay completely agreed with me, was if we could get a liberal audience at times rooting for and sympathetic to Sarah Palin in the movie, then we will have succeeded in not only telling the truth of the story but in making the most compelling and dynamic film that could be made from the subject matter. How can we get someone who has extreme bias toward Sarah Palin to come into this film and at times find themselves so lost in her circumstances that they are not only sympathetic towards her but they're actually rooting for her? At the end of our first test screening, one of the first people that raised her hand – her hand flew up when Jay asked for thoughts on the movie – said, “I hate Sarah Palin more than I hate anyone else in the world, and at times, I was crying for her.” Jay and I were just beaming when she said that. Everything we wanted to make happen in this project was literally one of the first responses we got.

How much of this is journalism, and what's your responsibility to a truth, however you define that?  

In a controversial, modern day political story that stirs up so many conflicting emotions in the country, she’s such a polarizing figure, the feeling was it was absolutely imperative to get the story right. The story had to be as truthful and accurate as a film telling of any event could possibly be. The journalistic integrity for the story was at the highest level, which at times can handcuff you as a screenwriter. But in the case of this story, it's so extraordinary and the events are so amazing that we wouldn't want to fictionalize anything that would in any way undercut the truth of what really happened. Why would we want someone to point out something that was fake in the movie because that would discredit its truth, and the truth is so much better than anything we could possibly make up. So we stand by this as the truth of what happened. In the L.A. Times article, Steve Schmidt said that this film is true, that this is the story of what he experienced. There's another quote by Nicole Wallace who's a major character in the film, who said something along the lines that the film captured the essence and spirit and integrity of the campaign. The people that lived this, and other major characters in the film, are standing by it as being truthful and accurate. I was very excited to see that.