News & Politics

A Q&A With “Game Change” Screenwriter Danny Strong

The man behind the “Sarah Palin movie” talks finding sources, working for Tom Hanks, and which Republican hopeful he thinks would make a good movie character.

Screenwriter Danny Strong with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, on the set of Game Change. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

Danny Strong may be from California, but he has a gut feel for the cinematic potential of Washington politics and its many characters. He wrote the acclaimed HBO film Recount, about the 2000 presidential election, and also penned the new HBO political film, Game Change, adapted from the bestseller about the 2008 presidential race. The film is focused almost entirely on Sarah Palin and her national rise as John McCain’s running mate (read our review here). Palin is played by Julianne Moore.

Strong is a native of Manhattan Beach, California, and a graduate of the University of Southern California; he’s also an actor, and has appeared in episodes of Mad MenGilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other shows. Acting, though, has taken a backseat to his writing, and that’s not likely to change. He just signed on to write the screen adaptation of The Lost Symbol, the third installment of the Dan Brown thrillers, the movie versions of which feature Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon. Hanks is also the producer of Game Change.

Game Change will have its premiere at the Newseum on Thursday, with Hanks, Moore, Strong, and other cast members and production executives in attendance. It debuts on HBO on Saturday, March 10. Despite a packed schedule, Strong made time to talk with The Washingtonian about the film.

Before making the film about Palin, did you want to do Clinton and Obama but couldn’t get cooperation?

No. What had happened was HBO had a separate screenwriter trying to develop a Clinton-Obama screenplay. When they optioned the book [Game Change], that was their original concept. After being unable to get it going for a plethora of reasons, [director] Jay Roach read the story and thought it was really good, but that there was a stronger story, the Palin story. They came to me and asked if I wanted to write it, and I said yes. Jay and I worked together on Recount, and we loved working together. I had read the book. I couldn’t help but think how difficult the Clinton-Obama story would be to dramatize in a two-hour movie. Palin’s story was perfect as a movie. Amazing arcs. That’s where the movie was.

You were drawn to her?

Yeah. Absolutely. She’s an amazing character. Extremely dynamic and charismatic. The behind-the-scenes is a one-of-a-kind American political story. She is thrust overnight onto the national political stage, but while she’s becoming a national hero to lots of people, behind the scenes she’s trying to become a national candidate.

What contact did you have with Palin?

We requested an interview, and she denied us. Instead, we read her book, Going Rogue. Some of the best scenes in the movie are from Going Rogue, especially the scenes that tie into Palin’s personal life. It also gave us a strong point of view of how she felt about her advisers. Someone I know who is a liberal Democrat said, “I guess you are going to have to humanize her?” Yes, because she’s human. You want to bring as much depth as you can to the character.

How much of the film is from the book Game Change versus from other sources?

I think the majority of the film is in the book, probably 80 percent. The book is definitely the source material for the movie. Everything else, brought in from our interviews and from other books, makes up another 10 to 15 percent.

Some cynics think it should be called The Steve Schmidt Story [after McCain’s senior campaign strategist]. What are your thoughts?

I don’t see that as a cynical point of view. A good majority is seen through his eyes. We show him getting hired. We show him coming up with the idea [of picking Palin]. I think his arc is definitely as significant as her arc. It’s not a Sarah Palin biopic. It’s the journey of Steve Schmidt and Sarah Palin.

Was he a particularly good source?

He was one of 25 sources. His interview was significant because he was a lead character. The interviews of a dozen other people were consistent with what he told me.

Of the 25 sources from the McCain-Palin team, how high and how low were they on the totem pole?

At every level, but certainly the highest.

Was it a challenge to re-create a character who had become so fixed in many people’s minds by Tina Fey’s comic impression of her on Saturday Night Live? Did that mold have to be broken?

I wasn’t so concerned about breaking the mold. Once you really dig in and start interviewing people who tell you anecdotes about the person, you get a feel for the essence of a person’s experience in a way that isn’t satirical. Tina Fey’s impression was great satire, but it was still satire, taking only an element of Palin’s personality.

Do you get asked often why you didn’t hire Tina Fey rather than Julianne Moore?

It does come up. I think the answer is obvious.

If the film is, as Jay Roach has called it, “an anxiety dream,” is there a particular scene that best embodies what you were trying to achieve?

I think the moment when Steve Schmidt is in the back of the airplane with Nicole Wallace, after they have tried to prep for Charlie Gibson and he has severe anxiety, and she asks why he didn’t ask her certain questions. She says, “You didn’t grill her because you wanted it to work.” Sarah Palin’s anxiety dream is embodied in the debate prep sequence, when she begins to melt down.

Is there anything in the current campaign as yet that seems cinematic?

I’m not sure yet. I think it’s amazing. I am loving watching it.

From a cinematic point of view, who has stood out among the GOP candidates?

Herman Cain was really charismatic. Michele Bachmann, too, and Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Really big personalities. Perry was the most surprising because I knew so little about him.

What is it like going from politics to Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol, and writing for Tom Hanks?

I don’t know. I haven’t started yet. I literally just got the job. It’s really cool to be part of this iconic series. This one is less religion. It’s the Freemasons.

Have you whispered in Hanks’s ear, “We should make a political film together with you as president?”

Wouldn’t he be great? I haven’t done that yet, but maybe on Thursday night.