Jul 19, 2016
“The Moment of Unreality”: Jeremy Larner on The Candidate (And Much Else)
If you have not yet seen Michael Ritchie’s classic 1972 satire (docudrama?) The Candidate, get that taken care of as soon as possible. (The film plays on Saturday at BAM as part of their “Four More Years: An Election Special” series.) Robert Redford stars as Bill McKay, a quixotic poverty lawyer groomed by a mephistophelean electioneer named Lucas (Peter Boyle) to run against towering Republican incumbent Crocker Jarman (Don Porter) in the California Senatorial election. The two agree to the campaign as a kind of of litmus test for the Democratic Party’s flirtation with post-1968 liberalism—McKay can speak his mind, the line goes, because he and Lucas concur ahead of time that he doesn’t stand a chance of winning. No in-hindsight appraisal fails to identify The Candidate’s accumulated pertinence over the last four decades, but what really sticks is the film’s uncanny ability to take place entirely in what appears to be media res. Beyond the considerable pleasure of watching Redford at the peak of his movie-star powers—McKay is, for my money, the role he was born to play–is Ritchie’s unprecedented skirting of environments at once surreal and endemic to the American democratic project.
Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning screenplay is blisteringly hilarious, peppered with one-liners and gaffes of unmistakable you-can’t-make-this-shit-up vintage. The Candidate throttles McKay (and the viewer) downriver on an odyssey into the dark heart of electoral “optics”, blurring the boundaries between man and candidate with all the paranoid clarity of the era’s hand-racked telephoto lenses. And Larner knew what he was talking about: a veteran contributor to Dissent and The New Statesman, the novelist/journalist-cum-speechwriter worked on the insurgent campaign of senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) in 1968, with ending the war in Vietnam as a stump issue.
What was originally provisioned as a 20-minute phone chat between Larner and myself ended up yawning into nearly three hours of filmmaking and campaign stories alike, youthful disillusionments and revelatory digressions, priceless footnotes and serpentine addendums. The bulk of our discussion is presented below, for posterity—because The Candidate is, for some inexplicable reason, one of the less-sung masterpieces of the New Hollywood 1970s.
Let’s start with a sweeping question: can you tell me about your experience working on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, and/or where it dovetails with The Candidate—if in fact, it does.
When Ritchie and Redford approached me to write this script, they had a few ideas of what they wanted it to be about, and of the ending as well: one of the reasons they approached me was, I was one of the very few writers who had written speeches for a presidential campaign, and a screenwriter at the time as well. We were all very young. So naturally, my experiences with various politicians came into the story; I used some stuff that was directly from the campaigns, but by way of scenes. The Candidate was not intended to resemble Gene McCarthy, and I don’t think he did—he was meant to be a Kennedy-esque liberal. But no doubt he was more innocent than the Kennedys were.
We had a contact with the various political operatives who ran John V. Tunney’s 1970 campaign for the Senate in California, including manager Nelson Rising and speechwriter Mike Barnicle, who later became a columnist for the Boston Globe. They arranged for me to go on a tour of about a week, with Tunney. There are a few lines in the script I took from Tunney, actually—like, “I have a confession to make: I ate all the shrimp.” It’s the pause in between that gets a laugh. And Rising, by the way, was instrumental in finding political locations in the Bay Area, and in supplying political volunteers for many of our campaign extras.
What wasn’t fun was, Barnicle would tell various people he had “helped write the script”. About 20 years later I saw this quote in The New Republic and I hit the roof—he didn’t write a single word. He was on the set because we gave him a small part, which he did very well, and later he was fired from the Globe for faking sources. I have every draft of every script of The Candidate, and I have the final shooting script too. I really wrote every single word, but some of the scenes were suggested to me by Redford and Ritchie—and of course, I was on set, rewriting constantly, and sometimes Redford would summon me to the set because he had found that for him, a scene just wasn’t playing in a certain way. I may have disagreed, but mainly I tried to assume that he was right, with his intelligence and his far greater experience in movies than I had. If I assumed he was right, I could hit something that would make the scene better; usually, to me, that turned out to be true. My rewrites were incorporated up to start of photography. After that, I rewrote the whole movie once… and then every scene the day before shooting. Then I was called on to rewrite a number of scenes while they were being shot. Luckily, cameras have to be reset before every shot, so there were intervals which allowed for rewriting, if necessary. Now and then Ritchie would be impatient to stay on schedule and get the next shot, but Redford would wait until he was satisfied with the scene.
Did Warners put up any kind of interference?
No. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was very lucky: we never had any feedback from Warner Brothers that I knew of—maybe I had some indirectly. I think the idea was that this would be an small-budget, independent picture, like Downhill Racer. Any movie with Redford was guaranteed to return the $1.1 million budget Warner Bros put up for the picture. Therefore, Redford and Ritchie were given relative freedom—they must have shown some drafts to Warners, but I never took a response directly.
I’m assuming the film was greenlit, the package assembled, if you will, for a release in conjunction with the 1972 election.
That’s why I had to write it in a hurry: they really contacted me at the last minute. In the summer of 1971 I was living in Cambridge, spending a year at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics, Harvard. I was divorced, and my two sons tended to visit me for the summer. I came down to New York; Redford and Ritchie saw ten different writers with experience on political movies, or with experience as speechwriters. I figured I would not get the job, especially because I had kind of long hair and a beard at the time [laughs]. But I figured I was free to say what I wanted to say, and to my surprise they then called me back.
Then they came up to Cambridge, since I couldn’t leave my two little sons, and we worked mostly in my kitchen—I think we went out to dinner a couple times. We worked out the nature of the story, and I told them stories of my experience with McCarthy, some of which I put directly in the script. For example, the moment when somebody hands McKay a Coke and a hot dog, so his hands are occupied, and then slugs him in the face—that really happened to McCarthy!
The “urinal scene”, where the guy walks in and says to McKay: “You’re shit, and you know you’re shit!” That was originally written for Jack Nicholson’s adaptation of my book Drive, He Said. I believe it was shot but ended up on the cutting room floor. I was on the set for most of that one, but had less influence with my old friend Jack. I did learn a lot from rewriting scenes with Robert Towne, who would then take the job of getting Jack to substitute the re-written version. I wrote the first draft and rewrote Jack’s rewrite, but he stuck to his own concept of the movie and had a more fluid style of direction, in which he encouraged much more improv from his talented cast. That was the first script I’d written, and in the course of that movie I got my basic education about screenwriting. I’m sure I wrote my “urinal scene” much better for The Candidate. That, too, was based on a story I heard about Gene McCarthy. I could still go through The Candidate and tell you the origin of every scene, whether real or imaginary. Finally, they were all imaginary.
There were a lot of things I’d observed from McCarthy and other candidates, when I was interested in writing speeches at the time. The nature of the story was easy for me to imagine—especially given my little trip with Tunney in California, which by the way happened between the writing and the shooting. Ritchie had filmed several Democratic dinners—that’s where he got the footage of various political celebrities that appear in the film, like Hubert Humphrey, whereby we were eventually able to dub in Redford giving his huge speech at this dinner. All of that was very skillful.
When you’re talking about this level of revising, does that carry improvisation with it?
No. There wasn’t much time for that – we’re shooting after Thanksgiving in 1971. I had had a month to write the script, but dithered for two weeks, watched political movies and documentaries at local film archives, and wrote a first draft of about 180 pages in the last two weeks of August, throwing in scenes and characters we had not previously discussed that occurred to me while writing, assuming I was giving them more than we needed. This was a great two weeks for me, writing exactly from noon to 3am every day, waking at ten in the morning and running for three miles over two bridges along the Charles River to wake myself up. I kept remembering what Robert Towne had told me the year before, in LA: “The most important thing is your grip on the story. That is the one thing that they don’t have that you can give them, and you must keep repeating it.”
I had watched a number of political documentaries, the Leacock/Pennebaker stuff, Robert Drew’s Primary—and I got some scenes from those, like when McKay’s operatives are having dinner in a hotel room and they all order various kinds of roast beef. The head advance man, as they called them, is trying to tell them about the arrangements for a parade, and finally somebody interrupts him and says, “Hey, wait a minute!” Everything comes to a halt. He says, “Who ordered the medium rare?!” That came directly from Pennebaker. But of course, everything I stole, I modified. I was prospecting for scenes and moments, and a lot of the rewriting went in two directions. One was simplifying the story—I had originally written in an affair for Lucas, but I only knew McKay was gonna be Redford, which was a major advantage—I wrote that character for Redford, obviously, and he told me at one point, “I can easily play a character stupider than myself. But I can’t be a bad guy—my public wouldn’t stand for it.”
I think McKay might have been a shade more idealistic and naive than any real politician. Though, you know, the Kennedyesque liberals tended, at least, to sound idealistic. They had a definite type of speech. The first thing I learned to write on the McCarthy campaign was a Kennedy speech, from Dick Goodwin, right before he left the McCarthy campaign to work for Bobby Kennedy. Dick was less famous than Ted Sorenson, but he was Jack’s other speechwriter when he was in the White House; McCarthy would never have given a speech like that.
So one mandate was simplifying: I had other characters and complicated scenes that were rather rich, I guess if you were writing a novel you’d do it that way, but we just didn’t have room for it. The second thing was the timeline—the story of how a man becomes lost in the campaign itself. And we had to titrate that with the campaign’s actual progress through the primaries, the debates, the changes that were happening. Ritchie in particular was concerned with the timeline, made charts which were helpful at various points, I think you can see those things in the movie itself on a blackboard.
Another big break was meeting this political commercial-maker in New York, David Garth. He made the commercials for Mayor Lindsay, among many others—he was a famous guy in his time. In The Candidate he’s “Howard Klein”, played by Allen Garfield, who was wonderful. We go up to Garth’s office and he gives us a big lecture about how he’s gonna make Lindsay president, which turned out to be ridiculous. But he was very sure of himself, very forceful in his expressions. He was gonna be the political advisor to The Candidate. Anyway, Garth called us the next day reconsidering—he said it would be compromising to him, I guess. But he had talked for two hours with Redford, Ritchie and myself, and I made notes of practically everything he said.
When I heard this news I was delighted. I could make a character of him, which I did, and it solved the great problem of screenwriting: what to do with the exposition? The first rule of screenwriting is, you don’t put the problem into a character’s mouth; people usually know what the conflict is, they don’t sit around explaining it to each other. The story has to emerge naturally, from the scenes themselves. If somebody comes out and says it, it ruins the suspension of disbelief, and most bad movie writing—I’d say about 80% of the movies that are made—break this rule, and they have somebody telling you, “Gee, how will we get to the station on time?” or whatever, and it always clanks against the ear, if you have any experience.
The great thing about Garth’s dialogue was, it was obscene, shocking, entertaining: the exposition came out famously, because Garfield’s character was always the one stating what McKay’s problem was—constantly alarmed and dissatisfied with how the campaign is going.
By the way, David Garth had a front row seat at the premiere of The Candidate. And he invited all his friends, and it turned out that Allen Garfield was wearing, in the movie, the exact same tie as Garth was wearing that day. The imitation was so funny that all his friends were laughing and he came out of the screening saying, “I’m gonna murder that Larner!”
To me this opens up an interesting question about the making of The Candidate: specific toes you/Redford/Ritchie were trying to avoid stepping on? Or aiming to step on?
I don’t think so… Many scenes were based on real occurrences. I had a specific type of person in mind but the part was written for Redford to play; the characters are more or less fictitious creations. My rewriting meant thinking about particular actors, of course. A lot of people turned up afterwards convinced I had based this or that character on them—a beard, in one case. Jerry Brown was convinced I had been thinking of him, another governor’s son, but I didn’t know him until afterwards.
Here’s what I said the first time I met with Redford and Ritchie: I said, to me, a politician was like a movie star. He could lose himself in a character—it’s true of many stars, and was even truer then—who resembles himself, only larger than life, as a symbol of what’s beautiful and what’s true. I was aware, of course, that Redford was that kind of a symbol. As I said this, I thought to myself: “You are now definitely losing the job.”
This is where my experience with McCarthy came into it: I would write a speech, hear McCarthy deliver my words as part of his stump speech, and see the response he got from it. He’d say things that enabled people to cheer themselves by cheering him. I thought a campaign was like drifting downriver on a raft, where everything is beautiful: then you begin to hear the roar of the falls up ahead, but it’s too late. You go over the falls, you lose yourself, you become eternally confused by the difference between yourself and who your public thinks you are. And it’s a disarming, dissociative experience. And Redford played that very well: the better McKay gets at campaigning, the more he loses himself.
Everybody thinks the scene in the back of the car was ad-libbed, when he starts making fun of his own stump speech. I love it—and, it’s the scene people remember from the movie. The night before we shot it, Redford called me up and wanted to talk about it, which happened frequently during the shoot. He said, “Larner, this scene doesn’t make any sense—the whole movie doesn’t make any sense! What are we trying to do here?” I don’t think he misunderstood the movie, I think that was the reaction of an actor who was afraid, mid-shoot, that he was making something incomprehensible for an audience. I said, “Bob, not only is this the climax of what we’re doing with this movie, but you’re gonna do it fabulously—it’s gonna be so appreciated that you’ll forget it was ever written, you’ll think you improvised the whole thing!” And that’s kinda what happened.
There were two speechwriters for McCarthy: me, and a guy named Paul Gorman. Now, campaigns are tough on speechwriters; McCarthy had his own characteristic problem with them which I understood at the time, and I still do: he was a good editor and a good writer who didn’t feel totally comfortable with saying words other people had put in his mouth. Even as we disciplined ourselves to write in the style in which he talked, there was always a little bit of tension about that. And the speechwriter has his own tension with other parts of the campaign, because everybody on a campaign is also on their own campaign, which could turn out good or bad for them. Both campaigns come into conflict—I hope the movie catches a little of that. When Redford did the scene, he hit the ball out of the park.
Gorman and I, after a long day wherein we got an early-morning wake-up call so we could fly to the next city with McCarthy, hear his speech that night, then write the next speech before sleeping—so that McCarthy could edit it, and I could rewrite on the plane next day while Gorman flacked it to reporters… we would wind up a bit spacey in the wee hours. I would bounce on one bed in my underwear satirizing McCarthy’s speech, with Gorman bouncing on the other bed doing a great imitation of Bobby Kennedy contending with me, to an audience of whoever else was still awake. And that’s where I got the concept of McKay making fun of his own stump speech.
The movie is as good as it is due to this unique working arrangement.
I think so, yeah. I can’t compare it with much else, but almost every scene was pretty well hashed over between the three of us before it came time to shoot. And then of course, a lot of changes at the last minute—you realize, I’m sure it’s true of anything, but a script written without any particular orientation to the location—once you arrive there, with a particular group of actors, by the time I caught on to that, I really wanted to make sure that I visited every location. So I did a lot of rewriting. Much of the criticism or commentary was based on the need to compress, and keep filling in the continuity—it was a constant concern that the movie didn’t make enough sense, and a lot of people on-set didn’t understand it.
A publicist from Warner Brothers was tasked with writing a behind-the-scenes book about the movie. He not only didn’t understand the script, but he wrote in his book that it didn’t make any sense—he got a lot of actors and people on-set to agree with that. I was constantly explaining myself; it made sense to Redford and Ritchie, I always thought, but then again I was always reminding them of where the scenes fit together, and it was a constant concern of theirs to make sure the scenes did. Having to constantly defend myself on-set was another reason I was surprised to get the Oscar. But the idea for the movie pre-dated the script. When Redford and Ritchie approached me, McKay would be the son of a former governor, trapped into an uncomfortable position, and surprised when he wins. Kind of like me winning the Oscar. The idea of him getting lost in the process was my particular contribution, and it oriented me toward every scene. The trickiness of the script required shooting out of chronological order to ensure, as nearly as possible, that the scenes conveyed the changes in the central characters, subject to the political process, which is a dislocation for you if you go along with it.
As the campaign veteran on the shoot, was there ever a moment you were on-set, everything’s dressed, cameras are about to roll, and you’d have to say “This isn’t right?”
It wasn’t me—if you asked Redford that question, it happened a lot with him. Once he was in character, he’d realize that a scene wasn’t quite right, and he’d wanna change something, and he would call on me to do it in a hurry, either the day before or on the set itself. Occasionally in the middle of the scene, he’d call me to the set—he was constantly open to second thoughts. And then, y’know, you end up with too much material and you cut it—and we were awfully good at doing the political stuff.
The political stuff?
As in, my one regret about the picture is some of the personal stuff I wrote in—about McKay’s marriage, for instance, the stuff Redford said he liked best about the script, after the initial draft—we weren’t as good at doing that, so it was lost. It doesn’t come through as good in the film as it could have been.
Ritchie, amazingly, would let his screenwriters sit in on casting, which we began in New York almost right away… and continued later in California. Great fun for me, especially when I had to read lines with the actors auditioning, and obviously I learned a lot and got a chance to test lines and scenes… It continued during shooting, and I was sometimes commissioned to go out and find minor characters, and bring three candidates to the set. Sometimes Redford & Ritchie argued about casting in front of the actors involved, since time was rushed. There were 128 speaking parts. I interviewed twelve ladies for the part of the woman with whom McKay had an affair, but failed to find one that fit his instructions. Redford did pick one of the twelve the next day, from a crowd of extras on the set. I had written scenes for her, but he insisted that the woman have no lines, and to my surprise, this seemed to work.
It’s very difficult to create a real-feeling movie about campaigning. I had never seen one that I believed. I like A Face In The Crowd, or Capra’s State of the Union. What’s the one with Jimmy Stewart?
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington?
Right. I saw all those in a couple of weeks before I wrote The Candidate, although I saw A Face in the Crowd afterward. But Mr. Smith, State of the Union… I mean, they’re fantasies. Nobody could deliver a speech like that, but it makes for wonderfully satisfying entertainment.
Well, in the Hollywood movies about politics—as opposed to the political movies, and this is certainly less clear after the 60s—the politicians onscreen are almost always saintly upgrades. Maybe not The Best Man, or The Great McGinty.
That’s a great one. Well, I’m glad you said that, because it’s true—although I feel A Face In The Crowd is the closest thing we have to a movie about Donald Trump: a non-political person with a psychopathic gift for projecting themselves as a politician. Have you seen it lately?
It’s been a few years, but it’s been on my mind, inevitably—American demagoguery.
Right. I probably would not have written a political movie about a winner, but that ending was given to me, and I turned all the story toward that. The irony of The Candidate is, he wins—but in the process, he’s completely lost himself in the campaign. In the beginning McKay says he’s suspicious of campaigns because they end up as a series of lies, and he doesn’t wanna be a politician—he’s happy with what he’s doing. But he’s the son of a governor.
Talk a little bit about the decision to cast Melvyn Douglas? While not a victim of the blacklist outright, it seems there’s a little meta-history going on—his wife, Helen Gaghan, was a California congresswoman who coined the term “Tricky Dick” and all that…
Well, Nixon got his start running against her, I believe. He smeared her as a red, which I don’t think she was at all—but again, not intentional. Douglas was just wonderful for the part. When he says, “Son, you’re a politician now!” It’s one of my favorite lines.
I used to joke that I came up between takes and stuffed food between his teeth, because that detail absolutely powers his delivery! McKay looks completely baffled when his father says that. He’s really kind of spaced, at that point. There’s a scene where the character based on Mike Barnicle says, “Bill, I understand exactly what you’re trying to do”—he thinks McKay is completely calculated in what he’s saying, but McKay is completely mystified by this, left nonplussed.
Ritchie is underappreciated in cinema culture to begin with—Downhill Racer got a Criterion DVD, but it’s amazing how many people haven’t seen Prime Cut or Smile… They’re films with a signature.
Ritchie had a very naturalistic style—he was not known as an actor’s director. I think that’s part of it—he didn’t fit into the auteur tradition very well, but he technically did a lot of interesting stuff in this movie. He’d have a TV going, and put stuff on later that would resonate in the movie. Some of Ritchie’s crowd shots—like when McKay gives his first speech, he’s a bit awkward and clumsy and honest about what he’s saying, and… it’s not clear that he’s gonna be a big hit, but he does have a certain charm. He kinda wins the audience, confusing and disorienting himself in the process—but it’s a start. Halfway through the speech, some of the lights go off and a voice calls out: “That’s it, we’ve got all we need!” The television cameras are clicking off, and they’ve got their soundbite for the evening. That moment was Ritchie’s doing. He went from Harvard to shooting television, and his style used a lot of closeups as TV directors will do—Redford was constantly insisting on an establishing shot or a long shot. I, myself, like that too—so Ritchie would sometimes perfunctorily add one, which we’d end up using. But he was very into the techniques of closeup photography suggesting a larger environment—and very good at using a few people to suggest a large crowd. You double the people you show by shooting closeups, taking different angles, et cetera… There may be some stock footage and then it seems like you’ve zoomed to a closeup when, in fact, that’s the part shot on location.
I think Ritchie’s supreme accomplishment in the movie is making a lot of moments both dense and loose—without the master, the big crane shot to set up the scene, so on. It’s hard to imagine a studio film toeing the line between documentary and narrative shooting languages so well.
That’s exactly what he was trying to do. Practically all of the movie was shot on location—I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Did you and Ritchie have any disagreements on the narrative? Or, on the spot?
I’d say nothing major. There was a creative tension between him and Redford, even though they’d worked together before, and well—sometimes I think it’s a little secret of moviemaking that the director either reassures people and says more of what the movie’s got going on, or he doesn’t explain much and people are mystified. It is power, in that way—Ritchie was in the latter group, not out of any aggression or anything, but he didn’t have time for long discussions about what he was doing. And he would kind of confer with the editors almost immediately after a scene was shot, to give some sense of how he thought it would cut together. I never was privy to those conversations but I think they were very important, because Ritchie moved on to his next film while Redford did most of the final edit.
Redford was much more of a fussbudget about details. He might have wanted a few more shots on a given scene, which is not so unusual for an actor or a star, to want to make sure a good version of every scene was shot. Ritchie had a kind of breeziness to him: he knew what he wanted and he was ready to move on once he got it. He was not exactly meticulous about scouting locations—he had a lot of trust for his set designer. All of that could drive Redford nuts, because Redford had a ripe imagination for everything that could go wrong!
In the sessions with the three of us, they first said they wanted me on the set because they didn’t want arguments between the two of them. They wanted a third party, but obviously I was not as experienced in filmmaking as either of them, and my agreement didn’t necessarily convince anybody that he was right or wrong. There’s a subtle interplay of pressures, and a definite pecking order—if Redford thought one way, it didn’t much matter if I happened to think the other. If Ritchie agreed with my side of the argument, then we might have been covered. I knew that if Redford was dissatisfied with the way a particular scene was written, then I was to immediately assume he was right, and take it from there. This movie wouldn’t have been what it was if the writer wasn’t allowed on set, and it’s unusual in that regard: writers are not usually allowed on set. Another way in which current television is an improvement—a showrunner gathers a group of writers to collaborate with, discuss everything, the writer’s room and so on. It seems fairly collaborative, collegial—I wish I had come out of that era. I would love to be in that room—or at least, I think I would.
Some moments are just as stunning to behold today as they must have been in 1972—like when McKay is trying to film a commercial at an inner city hospital, and he gets taken to task by these old ladies who see the photo-op for what it is… I mean, you could imagine this happening to any candidate, in any circumstance.
That’s the ad Klein is recutting, and it gets a laugh when he freezes the frame at a point where Redford is looking just ridiculous—which is not that easy to do! It becomes very evident they’re cutting this from the POV of how McKay looks. And it becomes clear that he’s botched the whole thing; these women are trying to tell him off. But Klein is able to cut it so the commercial looks pretty good, and the same thing goes for McKay’s walk through Watts, where he’s sidetracked by a black man who rushes up and says, “What about my dog!?” Redford told me that happened to him on a movie set in New York. He was quite surprised that I made it into a scene for this movie. He told me many other stories, he was a good observer of the incongruous things that happened to him.
Or the scene where McKay and some TV cameras spot some little black kids playing basketball in the park, rush to get a shot with them, and the kids take off running when they see the white grown-ups coming toward them.
I really saw that happen one day. I’m very sensitive to the gap between the human beings we are and the grand actors we are taken for—especially when we have a little power. A candidate who might win, or a movie star…
I’m a little more jaded now than I was when I first saw The Candidate; it seems entirely possible that McKay is harnessing the campaign to say whatever he wants—because, according to Lucas, he’s gonna lose. There are other times it seems he’s trapped in his own rhetoric, his own catchphrases.
Your whole personality, your ego goes on the line, whether you like it or not. Lucas promises him he can say whatever he wants, but of course it turns out not to be true; they have confrontations about it. I mean, McKay has to say certain things or he’s gonna look like a schmuck!
Riffing on this politician-as-celebrity thing: are there grounds to interpret McKay’s character as a kind of auto-critique on Redford’s part?
Well. You could look at it that way—there’s no doubt Redford is a more calculating, intelligent person than McKay. But on the other hand, McKay is Redford, and in some ways he resembles other characters Redford has played. I don’t know about self-critique so much as just drawing on the same qualities, but maybe those were more directly challenged by the part—I think it was a good role for Redford, but I’m prejudiced.
When Redford is engaged in politics, he comes off as very idealistic—his big issue is the environment, and it’s a transcendent one, on which any thoughtful person could agree. If he doesn’t always have to be on the side of the angels, I think he’s shrewdly aware of which side the angels are on. He takes risks, but he has a very good sense of what he can get away with. Redford is, naturally, a more complicated person than any he could play. I think given the right circumstances, he could have been elected to any office—with me as speechwriter, definitely [laughs].
To use a belabored phrase: if McKay is a kind of “empty suit”, does that mean he couldn’t have actually won a campaign in the real 1972? I mean, documentary verisimilitude factors heavily into the design of the movie…
Well. Since the character is a liberal, I didn’t have to be highly aware of the difference—you know, I followed Ronald Reagan around California in 1970, and I wrote a piece about Reagan vs. Jesse Unruh. I got to know Unruh pretty well; I got to see a lot of Reagan in action, I knew what he would say, and I tried to project that into The Candidate’s incumbent senator, Crocker Jarman. McKay, a lot of the things he says are more or less my views, or Redford’s. Real political life is gonna present itself, and there’s more to it than just making an artful speech. Right? So I didn’t have to think too much about McKay’s viability.
The Candidate was an ideal setup for me. As a speechwriter, you’re always contending with the fact that the candidate won’t say the best lines that you write. Later, I wrote speeches for Redford the environmentalist—and there were things I wrote for him that he wouldn’t say, understandably, because the moment he says them, they’re “his.” He has to live with it. But the guys in the movie would say anything I wrote—Redford himself would contend with me, much like a real politician, but with far more urgency, because his contention was based on his conception of McKay’s character, and somewhat on his actual public standing as a star. Understandably. He wouldn’t say something because he just didn’t wanna say it, or perhaps also because it didn’t give him a feeling of what McKay would say. Whether you’re writing for a movie or a real politician, you’re always trying to capture what you yourself may believe, but through another person’s agency.
Believe me: it’s far more gratifying to write for actors than for politicians. If it’s Redford, he’ll express his doubts very articulately, in a way that could make the speech, or the movie, even better. But it’s interesting—he was far more circumspect as himself than he was as Bill McKay. And writing those speeches for him in person was far more difficult than The Candidate.
So McKay’s opinions—which is not to say, his positions—are not without merit, even if they become warped in the process. For you to tell me McKay’s leanings came directly from Redford, Ritchie or yourself opens a good question: how is the screenplay engaging those attitudes, circa that moment in your lives?
That’s right, but we’re dealing with something I was highly aware of at the time: the emotion that’s induced in an audience, transcending the mere positions a politician is expressing. That’s why I’ve been frightened about Trump from the beginning—he seems to bring out the darkness of the American night. The term is “dog-whistle,” but it’s his whole projected personality: authoritarian ignorance. And people apparently identify with this, and they applaud him, believing that he believes the same things they do, even if he hasn’t quite said it. His total nastiness regarding anybody who disagrees with him or criticizes him, it’s frightening.
But even—maybe especially—with a liberal politician, people feel frustrated with government, people are ready to identify with a guy who’s saying: “Hey, let’s throw all this out, begin again with the things that really matter to us. Which I understand better about you and your neighbor than you do about yourselves. But you know I’m right.” I have a very good story about this: we rented the Paramount Theatre, in Oakland—I live near there right now. It was empty at the time, and our set decorator fitted it up for three separate occasions, and Ritchie had the footage to dub in for each one. We shot McKay giving three speeches: one from early in the campaign, when he was idealistic and hesitant. One from the middle, where he’s in a certain amount of conflict. And one from the end, when he’s been totally carried away. We shot with the same audience. Now, there’s a publicity film about the making of The Candidate, where Ritchie has me stand up and go over the movie line by line with the audience, telling them how to react to McKay’s speeches.
I didn’t wanna do this—I wanted them to be virgin audiences, reacting naturally to each speech as they would then and there. Ritchie told me, “We don’t have time for that, we’re on a tight shooting schedule, we have to do these three speeches and the dramatic scenes in a single week.” So I gave the speeches and paused after every line, telling them how to react, and you can see me intercut with Redford. I never saw this thing, mind you.
Now, the third speech: McKay is over the falls. And it’s a speech of pure demagogic nonsense of the liberal sort—you know, one of the lines is, “I can’t really promise you that I can do all this, but I’ll tell you one thing: I will try!” Something like that. If you drop that at the right point of a speech with the right fervor, the audience goes wild—and the music helps too. At one point in the movie, the editors cut to some girls who are cheering and crying, weeping, as if McKay were the prophet himself, come to earth. They were really there, real extras spontaneously crying, even though they had heard me say in advance that they’d be carried away by this speech. I don’t think they were actresses, so as speechwriter I’ll chalk that up to the speech.
Here’s the punchline: Redford receives the ovation, and he told me it frightened him. That’s one of the best things I knew about Redford—he had the grace to be frightened by that kind of power. I’ve heard all kinds of people get that kind of reverence from a crowd—it’s very corrupting and disturbing to get that. I’m sure Donald Trump is not disturbed by it. When you get it, you assume—as Trump must—that this is the essential you, you’re convinced that everybody loves you. You don’t stop to consider the kind of person you’re drawing in the first place. It’s why Trump thinks everybody else is stupid—he’s always got a crowd responding to him in a particular way. All my life, before I wrote The Candidate, I’ve been in crowds that responded that way—it’s a great feeling. You’re among the virtuous of the land, one with the speaker and one with the grand purpose of bringing utopia to earth. He’s expressing this for you, and the future is gonna be better than the past.
The audience feels that it represents how the whole world is truly reacting to the speaker and inwardly embodying his speech. That’s why so many politicians feel that on election day they will do far better than their polls say they will. Because they get that kind of response from the people who turn out to see them… and they assume this is the true feeling they inspire. Barry Goldwater thought he would win for that reason… and it’s clear that Trump does, too. Hitler felt it… and he turned out to be right!
For the purposes of this interview, I’m deeply wary of equating McKay and McCarthy.
I think you’re right in that.
… but that being said: in any 20th century civics class, they might talk about the Lyndon Johnson “Daisy” commercial like it was this huge game-changer in 1964. Same with Kennedy’s tan in 1960. I would just ask, in your own political experience, can you tell me firsthand about the role television was seen to play in those days?
The commercials were even more important then than they are now. Today, there’s the extra element of social media—it detracts, and has detracted, from the importance of TV commercials. So does the number of channels, now, because you have to make a much more expensive buy for TV airspace. Commercials are not as prominent in today’s campaigning—it was already bad of course, but money has gotten more important all the time. Incidentally, that’s the one thing that’s missing from our movie: the pressure of raising money. If you were to cover a senatorial campaign in 2016, you’d find the candidate on the phone every single day, asking contributors for more money, and most people hate to do that—it’s no fun.
I read that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was responsible for buying 20, maybe 25% of all TV commercial runtime in the month of June. Trump spent $0.
Well, Trump is personally Twittering every night. Everybody thinks it’ll catch up with him but I’m not sure—I’m afraid he’s got a very good chance of winning, despite his uncouthness. He gets a lot of personal time on TV, he’s always inflating the drama of various things, and cable news is more than willing to indulge him. I understand that today, for example, he came out to announce his VP pick and he talked for 45 minutes before the guy even appeared in the same room! And he didn’t say anything, he just gave his usual spiel of announcing that Hillary’s a criminal, she should withdraw, it’s really incredible what he says.
Your memoir Nobody Knows is pretty hard to track down. From my Googling, there’s a sense McCarthy surrounded himself with the wrong people.
I hope I convey a greater complexity than that, but yeah—they certainly turned out to be, people who wanted to reflect some satisfaction in his snobbery back onto him. He came to the campaign as a fully formed politician from a certain place in life—already somewhat bored with the Senate, he saw a chance to bring this issue of Vietnam. His timing was excellent, he was charismatic, and he could have been elected President, or so I thought—I was about 30 years old at the time. Some people said that I was naive, and I doubtless was—but McCarthy, regardless of what they thought of me, he definitely passed by some terrific chances to make a maximum impact. He just didn’t wanna do it, for various reasons involving his own integrity, his own concept of who he was.
Did McCarthy struggle with TV commercials?
I think Gene more or less ignored those. There wasn’t as much money as there would be in a campaign planned in advance—his was kind of improvised at the last moment, and when he announced, I didn’t even know I would be involved in this. The possibility came up at the last moment for me. I wrote a radio commercial for Paul Newman that played in Indiana, and I ghost-wrote a magazine article for him talking about why he was impressed with McCarthy; he really put in a lot of effort for the campaign, and made many speeches in Indiana, barnstorming for/with McCarthy.
In the spirit of the McKay-Jarman debate, was there any material written or shot about the father-son relationship that didn’t make it into the final cut? Douglas creates a hell of an impression in a few scenes. Even when he endorses his son, there’s a lot of confusion about what he’s getting out of it, how he feels inside…
Sure. There was meant to be tension, because otherwise there’d be no problem about him—and one reason McKay is wary of politics in the first place is his father’s experience as governor. He’s aware of the machinations of it all—but not aware enough. He thought he was pursuing a different path in public involvement than his father, with his rural legal assistance—a development that started in the 60s, to spend public money to provide legal assistance to poor rural people. I think it still exists, by the way. In preparing for the movie, I’d met with a real guy who was doing that, out here in Oakland, J.D. Lorenz. He was Jerry Brown’s labor secretary in the first term, and wrote a book of disillusionment about Brown—he expected him to do a lot more for labor than he ended up doing. Jerry became much more of a leftist after his first term as governor, when he had a radio program for KPFA out here, but as governor (the second time around) he’s been extremely practical—wanted to be known as a guy who was frugal, which is not exactly the progressive image. (Spirit of the times.) All of that is amusing to me. I had the attitude of irony about politics, until Trump came along… These days, politics is an emergency.
Politics must have been an emergency in 1968, though…
Yes. Yes. I was totally passionate about the McCarthy campaign. 1968 was a wonderful summer to be alive, in a way—these debates going on in New York, the entire left was consumed in an argument about Gene McCarthy versus Bobby Kennedy. I think the intellectual community, at least, had a preponderance of people for Gene. The country was changing, people were passionate in their feeling for what was possible. That’s part of why I wanted to write about it afterwards—I had a lot of mixed feelings. I didn’t know I was gonna do it, but I wanted to explain to people what happened. Should you track down the McCarthy articles serialized in Harper’s, you’ll see that most people liked them, and felt that I did explain what happened—and I got good reviews. But a lot of diehard McCarthy supporters didn’t forgive me for it. I remember when I met Myrna Loy, she was angry at me for that.
In The Candidate there are students, volunteer supporters of McKay, talking about him in worshipful tones: “He always has the instinct to know what’s exactly right”, etc. That part, I can say, is based on some of Gene McCarthy’s supporters—and of course, those crying girls, I thought were just wonderful.
Tell me about the speech you wrote for Julian Bond.
I wrote that at the DNC in 1968; I wrote it without even meeting him, we had just talked on the phone. I wrote it from the “Conrad Hitler Hotel,” as we were calling it. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the hotel itself [laughs].
Shortly after I finished, we began hearing the sounds of clubs hitting skulls down in the street, and we looked down from the 23rd floor onto the police line, battering back a row of demonstrators and even just people who were passing by, getting hit by police clubs. We couldn’t leave the hotel, and Julian Bond had called me: “I have to deliver this speech in an hour and I don’t know much about McCarthy—I don’t know what I can say.” I said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll get it to you”—and I did get it to him, about fifteen minutes before he talked. But it was a big success and kinda helped put his name on the national map.
I love in the film when Floyd Starkey (played by Kenneth Tobey) asks McKay’s father if he’s gonna get his ass kicked, and Douglas says: “He’s not gonna get his ass kicked—he’s cute!”
Oh! That was my line, but both Ritchie and Redford said one of the reasons this guy wins is because he’s cute. They used that word, and I picked up on it. The mechanics of McKay’s father’s scenes were based on my father, a cantankerous guy who would frequently answer a question with another question—and you’ll notice, that’s what the elder McKay does in every scene. He kinda forces the son to bring up every subject—he says “I hear your advance work is awful.” It’s not really a question, but it’s a rhetorical question.
It’s a provocation.
Right, right—everything he says is a provocation, and he loves it. He loves being in a political situation where people come to you and you’re in control. A lot of people love that in real life, and movie stars do too. You have to come to them.
Were you a Sanders supporter?
You think I might be? I’m an old man; I tell you, I’m a little more practical now than maybe I was then. I think that Bernie is not as good as McCarthy in a certain way; he’s more devoted to his own campaign, but I wish he did a little less finger-waving and shouting. I wish his ideas had a bit more substance. I’m not involved in his campaign and I wish to hell that he’d had a good word to say about Hillary Clinton after he lost—and he may yet. My main feeling about this election is, it would be tragic, devastating, it would be a historical blunder that could destroy human history, if Trump were elected. I’ve seen enough politics, I’ve written speeches for more real politicians to know many things about it—I have some urgent tips for Hillary, but I know I could never reach her at this point. She’s surrounded by people contending to be the one whispering in her ear. But I wish she would do this, do that, you know… Which would help her immensely, which is what we should all be thinking about. Setting aside the question of my own Democratic Socialist politics—this is not the time to advocate those, but I think liberal Democrats more or less represent those, including Bernie. And it was amazing to see somebody run as a Democratic Socialist and gain the support he did.
Well, it’s the flipside of the viability question: eighteen months of “Trump will never get the nomination!”, and on the other hand the establishment sense that Bernie didn’t deserve/couldn’t get a shot after everything Hillary went through in 2008. But it was nice to see him get so close!
Yeah, and maybe he’s right—I think he might be holding back now because he may know something that’d make Hillary withdraw or fail at the last possible moment. In which case he’d be the logical choice. I mean, you have to allow for that—or at least, maybe he thinks he does. There’s always a few things that the public doesn’t know.
Ritchie came to me about a week before we filmed the Jarman-McKay debate at San Francisco State, in their state-of-the-art media facility, and he said: “I want you to write out the entire debate, because we will film more than we will actually use.” So I wrote out the entire thing and we cut down to the best parts, in the service of dramatic through-lines.
Was there ever talk about assassination?
Well, I thought it’d be too much. There is a moment when Lucas and McKay get in the elevator after he’s won—he’s trying to talk to Lucas privately, they get into the freight elevator, and there’s an operator who looks a little bit like Sirhan Sirhan… and he gives them a suspicious look. McKay should not be there at that moment. There’s a tension to that moment that made me afraid people would think the script was on the verge of an assassination attempt—I wanted Ritchie to cut a few feet from the film to get around that, but he said I was wrong. An assassination would be a pretty heavy burden to put on the film—if that’s not the main thought of your plot, then it brings everything to a tragic stop, and nothing that’s happened up until then matters. It’s just a different thing to deal with, dramatically.
The first time I saw the film, that’s what I thought the story was building to after McKay’s “victory.” The ending is, of course, more complicated.
Yeah. It would have been way too heavy for the ending we were going towards—if somebody had even tried to assassinate him, it would have detracted from the ironic, comic ending we did have, which has its own resonance. I’m a little surprised the ending worked out ok—more than ok. That line, “What do we do now?”, is probably not something a real politician would say. They think they know what they’re doing as a rule, even when they don’t! A real politician wouldn’t want to ask a question like that—you have to be deferential when giving advice to them, unless you know them very very well, you’re personally friends, or something, and even then. This is why I didn’t think I’d get away with what I said to Redford in our first meeting.
There is a sense in the middle-to-late passage of the film that McKay is not going to win.
Actually, Klein exists to remind McKay what they’re looking for in order to win—this is how he cuts his ads. I guess I could be accused of a certain cheap cynicism, but really, McKay is trying to be “real,” while Garfield and Boyle’s characters are trying to impose a formality to shape his image in a specific way. They want that image to be something they think he can do. The image is not him, and it’s not anybody, really—people vote for images, and they vote for avatars of their opinions, for symbols. That’s the paradox of campaigning: to win a democratic election, it’s impossible to decide on the merits—it’s a wonder we get any good politicians in office at all. When you think of a good president, who do you think of?
Uhhhhhhhh…… Contemporarily? Obama is looking better all the time. But—
You can feel that when you see him give certain recent speeches. His speech at the church after the Charleston shooting was wonderful—he’s not a great singer but he sings “Amazing Grace”. He gets caught up in the rhythms of the black church, and the response to him—it reminds me of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Movement… I went down south as a journalist in 1961, to cover the sit-ins for Dissent. I heard an awful lot of those speeches, and the organizing was all done around black churches—the level of oratory was fantastic. Anyway—you might think of Obama, Kennedy… I think of Franklin Roosevelt, because I grew up in a household where he was a hero. If I had known him as an adult, I might have been more aware of some of his warts, failings, weaknesses. But he’s a great symbol of a very superior man who got to be President. For me. It always turns out to be somebody you don’t know very well [laughs].
As a writer, I was keenly interested in the idea of appearances versus reality, especially in relation to politics. That there’s a whole team that is set up to try establishing the reality of something that doesn’t exist. They do it partly by deceiving themselves; the politician’s media staff and the media itself are caught up in a fiction, even if the candidate is a good guy—and that can happen. It’s a very scary moment to me—the moment of unreality, when everybody is cheering.
In our initial email you alluded to a missing piece of footage you helped find. Tell me the story?
Well. They did not want me to be in on the editing, and I went home to Rockport, where I was living that summer. But they would call me, because I had seen practically all of the rushes. Ritchie relied on his editors to some extent; our shooting headquarters were in Marin County, in Mill Valley. Ritchie happened to live there, which was not exactly a coincidence—his plan for the movie was that he’d be able to go home to his young daughter and his wife, who wanted his attention. Redford would frequently take phone calls in the evening—he had a lot of business calls and so on. I ended up being the person who actually saw most of the footage, and Redford would call me up and say, “Look, we had to lose a certain scene for the pace of the movie. We need some dialogue to loop in to replace scenes we had to cut. We want to put it in the background of a long shot.” They asked me a number of times what kind of scenes existed with which to do that.
I remember one of them was, a number of takes they wanted to loop in from the point where Redford says to Boyle, “I wanna talk to you.” They go down the corridor to the elevator and so on—the editors told me, “Unfortunately, we don’t have any scenes of them getting into that elevator.” I said, “Yes, you do—that was definitely shot, I know it exists, and you should tell the editor to find it.” And they did.
That’s crucial connective tissue for the last scene!
You could do various devices to shortcut it, obviously. Makes it much easier if you have that.
I’ve seen that happen on an independent or a student shoot—maybe they forgot to get a crucial piece of b-roll, or the mic was turned off, whatever. Staggering to imagine on a Redford movie.
Well, right—but every conceivable thing happens or could happen. I have a feeling I wasn’t the only person who could have supplied that corrective, but for whatever reason I was the only one who remembered that particular thing. A lot of the concern when professionals are seeing the footage every night is, does it do justice by the dramatic scenes? By the star players? If you didn’t, you might have something unusable—or something that would not be to the star’s liking. [Chuckles] Most filmmaking involves more people coming and going at different times than the viewer imagines, and more errors which have to be corrected at the last moment, and replaced by changes improvised in post-production. A lot of expert corner-cutters were involved in The Candidate, including our line producer Walter Coblenz—a great guy, and an expert at efficiency and money-saving. Money was worth less in 1972, obviously…
1.1 million in today’s dollars is, what? $6 million?
Right, it wasn’t much. Redford talked about how many people involved were receiving some kind of reduced salary. He got royalties on the box office gross, of course—from the first dollar. Traditionally, the first screenwriter gets a piece of profits and Redford assured me I’d make some money off that, but there never were any official profits. I once talked to the president of Warner Brothers, John Calley, and he laughed—he said to me: “It was a successful movie from the studio’s point of view, we were able to write off some other movies on it!” But there were no profits—there are only profits if a movie takes off in the first week, which is one reason why the studios care so much about openings. My profit participation wasn’t worth anything, but I did get royalties off the continuing television broadcasts—another surprise. Almost everything was a pleasant surprise.
And when The Candidate came on television, by the way, it was dreadful to watch: in those days censorship ruled, so the networks completely cut Garfield’s character, and the movie is nonsensical without him! I guess later that same year, cable or late night channels started showing unabridged, uncut movies, and everything changed—and The Candidate has been shown on TV on election night ever since. I thought royalties would disappear after about eight years, because that’s what Gore Vidal told me—he said, “It’ll last eight years.” He told me I had taken his royalties from The Best Man, and in eight years somebody else would take mine from The Candidate. [Laughs] But it hasn’t happened.
So you still get those?
They’re smaller, obviously—you can’t sell the first rights to something after they’ve vanished, just replay rights. Revenues decline even as the show repeats.
The movie seems to have had good press upon release, but even better in hindsight.
Well, we got mixed reviews, which I was shocked by—when the television was able to run the uncut version, it acquired a terrific and lasting reputation. On release, The Candidate was a modest success, but not a runaway hit—I guess it couldn’t have been.
Well, it was a realistic movie about politics, not a popular entertainment. We avoided the drama of a potential assassination or anything like that. I was shocked that I got an Oscar—big, big surprise for me.
Did you consider yourself the underdog…?
I was shocked to be nominated! I didn’t think the movie had attracted enough attention for the script to be nominated, it just came out of nowhere for me. There were people around Hollywood who told me it was gonna happen, and I had to laugh at them—it was never even one of my fantasies. I wasn’t waiting for the nominees to be announced or anything, I just assumed it was an impossibility.
Compared to All The President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor, this seems one of the less vaunted titles in Redford’s supposed heyday—a pity. And if you look it up, you get the impression The Candidate was an unequivocal success when it came out.
Mixed response. It turns out to be a movie that everybody of a certain age remembers, even if they don’t realize that it was talked about later on. I think it was a kind of delayed hit, and I think Redford ran into many many people who began to congratulate him over the years on this particular movie. I remember one summer I came to Sundance and they showed it, the two of us answered questions, and I was really surprised that all these movie people loved it, asked why we hadn’t done another one, so on and so on. This was around 1986 or something like that. Kind of a wonderful evening, for me. Aside from the one year I wrote speeches for Redford, when he appeared on college campuses talking on the environment, I haven’t seen much of him. I’m quite sure that he received a lot of praise but like I said, it was delayed. And Ritchie died mostly before it happened, which is a real pity.
Did you read Andrew Sarris’s review of The Candidate when it came out?
I can’t remember anymore. I do feel like a lot of reviewers misunderstood the movie. It’s the kind of film that calls forth your own political opinions, and many read political intentions into the movie that really weren’t there—some said, “There could never be a candidate like McKay” and so on, and you know what? I remember visiting Washington a few years later, and running into a young congressman who told me he loved the movie. He said, “That’s how we all are, now!” That gave me a laugh. But when it came out, a lot of sophisticated people said “This is impossible—no candidate could get into it so accidentally, or have so little of an idea of his posture that he’s at the mercy of his campaign manager.” I thought, y’know, it had some merit, because you’re telling a story, you make some accommodations to the idea that a story is a little simpler than reality, but I think we were instinctively onto some things.
It gets at a fundamental question about art. Here in New York, for instance, we heard tales of stockbrokers cheering at the very nastiest moments of Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street—have you seen the film?
Is that the one with a lot of sex in it?
Yes. When you’re making something that’s clearly satire, how does it feel for somebody to approach you in earnest and say they were inspired by it?
I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 1988…
Is this the Dan Quayle thing?
Yeah. Dan Quayle took The Candidate very literally, as did some of the people who worked on it—Mike Barnicle confronted me at one point, saying: “I have a different interpretation of this movie. Bill McKay is a realistic candidate learning about the real difficulties of politics, and he’s gonna go on to be a successful Senator!” Well, the movie is not the slightest bit funny in that case. The whole idea of the movie’s humor is, he’s something of an innocent who’s surprised by what happens to him. And he’s at a loss to deal with a lot of things. You say it’s “satirical” but it’s not exactly meant to be satirical—it’s critical, of the political process. Like I told Quayle in that op-ed: it’s not a how-to, it’s a watch-out! In other words, McKay is not meant to be exemplary. It’s not the story of how a good guy learns, it’s like a Zola novel. Sympathetic characters, bad things happen to them… My intention—and I think Redford and Ritchie agreed on this—was that, we weren’t saying McKay was a heroic guy. The point was not his success: the point of it was the process, the nature of the environment, the rawness, the irony of it. You might say the evil, but that would be kinda corny.
Well, so—Sarris panned The Candidate. One of the only contemporaneous pans I could find. He said, and I quote: “Redford fancies himself so superior to the electoral process that he ends up with a completely fatuous characterization of a politician. I think Nixon can be beaten in 1972, but not by reluctant virgins and pure idealogues.” To me he sounds a little like a disappointed voter.
I think McKay could have beaten Nixon, or Redford, as I said—but that’s not the point. A lot of people said things like that and I said to myself, “We’re not making a realistic claim for the guy.” McKay was a good man, but it’s like Balzac’s Lost Illusions. In fact, I was reading that book during the McCarthy campaign, I left it on the plane one night, and McCarthy gave it back to me—he said, “You lost your illusions, Jeremy.” [Laughs] Great line. I wanted to do a realistic movie about politics, but it wasn’t meant to be the story of a real contender—we were not saying a good man like Bill McKay was ill-treated, we were saying a decent man with decent ideals got lost along the way. We weren’t saying a pure, bold political thinker got lost—he’s an idealistic young man! I understand what Sarris is saying, and he’s far from the only person who said it. Which is yet another reason why I was surprised to get an Oscar.
Bearing in mind things could always be more perfect from a leftist standpoint, was there a sense upon release that The Candidate was unhelpful for the left? Or for McGovern specifically?
My friends on the left didn’t compliment me on the movie until years later. It came out in ’72, the year Nixon defeated McGovern. I don’t think it had any effect on the election one way or the other—it was meant to be, as you said, satirical. It was meant to be taken seriously as a kind of a comedy. Certainly wasn’t a tragedy, because McKay wins—we were saying “This is a fucked up process”, and it only got more fucked up as the years went by, to the point where you get a Donald Trump trying to take advantage of it. And you get me, trying to figure out how to write a movie about Trump. But if I did, it would be something like A Face in the Crowd.
It’s hard to say what would even pass for realistic anymore.
I always thought movie criticism was kind of a racket.
Well, there were plenty who wrote that “Robert Redford rescues a pallid script.” That, of course, was annoying to me—I remember Judith Crist, for example, she wrote something blaming The Candidate on the anonymous screenwriter. Redford was quite disappointed with that, he took Judith Crist to lunch and then she came out with another article about The Candidate, saying it was a much better film—but she certainly didn’t mention the screenwriter. A lot of film critics are fame junkies.
We’ve been speaking for nearly two hours; I can’t entirely disagree with that assessment…
There’s different kinds of calculations you can make to seduce critics and buy them off, of course. One way is that a director can “confide” in a given writer what he’s trying to do, which is not illegitimate—but it’s amusing when they’re susceptible to this, and they love to be invited to the set. It means you’re going to get a good review.
Well, that’s one way to quell bad publicity for your $200 million superhero movie or whatever.
Studios spend a lot of money on advance screenings, and on scheduling individual interviews with the stars—and then it’s likelier to become all about the stars, but of course that’s nothing new. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that movie stars are very calculating and say the same thing about the same director to different questioners. They’ll always tell you somebody was a delight to work with, so on and so forth.. A director’s job is to charm the stars. I didn’t think Ritchie was particularly engaged in being charming to Redford, he treated him as a collaborator and somebody he was used to working with. I don’t think Redford was totally pleased with the movie when it came out. He maintained more control over All The President’s Men, and you can tell—like the book, it didn’t explain enough about what really happened. Why would somebody in the FBI have it in for Nixon to that degree? We finally know the answer to that, now. I didn’t think the reporters were such great heroes for pursuing a story, the basic part of which was handed to them by an anonymous source.
Based on your filmography, it does not appear that you stuck around in Hollywood after winning the Academy Award.
But I did, though. I wrote about a dozen screenplays, I was much better paid for them and I thought some of them were far better than The Candidate, but I could never get any of them made. The ones that were made, what I wrote was shredded to pieces by the moviemaking process and I didn’t necessarily want my name on them—in some cases, I was fired and they picked up ten new screenwriters. Or they didn’t do the movie and it became clear they would never make the movie. A lot of times, I was hired to write a script which was a clever solution to a difficult problem—but the problem, whatever it was, was still overwhelming and they didn’t do the movie, so none of the subsequent scripts were done, certainly not in a way I approved of. I may have got more money, but my subsequent career was a failure.
The Oscar didn’t buy you any clout, then.
I don’t think screenwriters have much clout. I was friendly with Bob Towne at the time, and he told me, “Jeremy, you don’t have the right personality for a screenwriter.” He would think very self-consciously about how to become friends with key people, and what he would say to them—and I didn’t do that. But he did. And he was pretty good at it, up to a point, where he came into conflict, himself. His story is interesting but it’s different from mine.
Many. I regret that I was not able to have distance from the situation and didn’t assess what the realistic possibilities were, and what I wanted to get out of it. I desperately wanted to write a good movie in my own life, and I think having won the Oscar, I assumed people who hired me to write something would respect my point of view. But I don’t think that’s given easily to a writer. You certainly can’t count on it. It’s quite ordinary for any producer to assume he knows more about screenwriting than the writer he hired—certainly, for any director. I wanted my writing to speak for itself, but most people don’t even know how to read a screenplay, in my opinion. They have to be told a screenplay is “good”—it’s like that Warners publicist who found my script incomprehensible. I always wondered what he thought of me winning the Oscar.
So, a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend works for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Brooklyn. Apparently when they’re working in the office, they don’t refer to her as Hillary, or HRC—they refer to her as “the candidate”. Was that your experience with McCarthy? Tunney?
I believe it’s very common on campaigns, and it’s kind of a joke—you’re packaging the person as a commodity. McCarthy was “The Senator.” “The Senator will be along in five minutes”; “The Senator will discuss that later today.” “The Senator has a cold.” You know. Since every campaign is different, with its own loyalties and whatnot, so let me ask you a question: do they love Hillary?
My friend’s friend’s friend?
The people working for her.
I know the people who love Hillary are out there. I’m imagining if you work at Clinton campaign HQ, you have to convince yourself that you do, at least until November.
No you don’t! I mean… You can vote for Hillary, you can respect Hillary, without totally being a fan. A lot of people are fans who end up attributing special powers to their candidate. The question of how far you’ll go is also a question of a candidate’s charisma. Some candidates are really beloved by their own staff, and some are not.
He was beloved and he wasn’t. Various people have complaints about him, but we were all a bit awed by his personality. He denied having charisma but he had a lot.
The running line on Hillary is she’s better one-on-one, more comfortable and quicker on the draw, than she appears in the endless spiral of photo ops and speeches and so forth.
That’s my impression too, by the way—there’s nothing so original about the observation, but she may be so worried that she has nothing to say that she qualifies it unnecessarily. But she’s very bright and her positions reflect a ton of experience. I think she gets maligned a lot. I think the people who know her well love her a lot, and I know a few of them. And people who love Hillary are always disgusted by Bill, but he has a lot more charisma than she does.
They make quite a two-hander.
He apparently has the gift of making you feel like you’re uniquely smart, and you can communicate with him uniquely like nobody else could—that’s a real talent.
I believe the line I’ve heard is, “he can make you feel like the only person in the room.” Seems like an intriguing micro-inverse of “the moment of unreality” you mentioned earlier.
Right—but it’s not the same thing. What I’m talking about is a mass phenomenon; the other thing is a question of personal charm, projected. Everybody who meets a star is either wowed or disappointed—some stars are very disappointing, while others can give you a quick dose of magic. Which the people who know them well can come to resent. [Laughs] But that’s too interesting a subject for today.
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