MoviesOnline sat down recently with the film’s producer and co-screenwriter, Grant Heslov, at a roundtable interview in Los Angeles to talk about what inspired the political thriller. He told us what it was like writing a screenplay set in the political arena, how he collaborated on the project with director/co-writer/actor George Clooney, and why they set out to tell an old fashioned morality tale that focuses on betrayal. He also discussed how his friendship and working relationship with Clooney has evolved over the years.
Q: How did you balance looking at broader political opinions and then specific candidates?
Grant Heslov: When we auctioned this play, I’d had it for a couple of months and somebody came up and said “Oh you’re doing the Howard Dean play” and I said “Huh?” and they said “Yeah, that play is about Howard Dean” and I said “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Then I talked to the playwright and I talked to the producers of the play and they were like “No…” So the truth of the story is that Beau (Willimon) worked on the Dean campaign, so that’s how he learned about this world. For George and I, quite honestly, that isn’t a really interesting campaign to write about. This is a made-up campaign. George and I, along with Steven Soderbergh, did this show for HBO called “K Street” and we lived in D.C. for 14 weeks really immersed in politics. All we did was talk to politicians and film politicians to create this faux political show. That was really our research. That’s where we learned about this world and so that’s mostly what we drew from to take the play and open it up and turn it into what it is now.
Q: Knowing what you know from having written it, would you still vote for Morris?
Grant Heslov: You mean if I knew that he had fucked the intern and did that whole thing? I think I would vote for him but not if I had seen the scene in the kitchen. So, if I’d seen that scene, if I knew that scene, I wouldn’t.
Q: But don’t you think whoever you want to talk about – Kennedy, Obama, George W. Bush – that there are moments like that in every single…?
Grant Heslov: I’m sure there are but it’s just that I didn’t write them. I guess it is a double standard of sorts but personally I don’t really care who a candidate is sleeping with if they’re the right candidate. But in this case…it’s interesting because we wrote that. That’s the first scene we wrote was that kitchen scene because we knew that was where we wanted the movie to end or that’s where we wanted those two characters to confront each other and then we went back to the beginning to figure out how we get there.
Q: And that broke the story for you? Was that the key?
Grant Heslov: Yeah. We had some idea about the story because it was based on this play. We knew who some of the characters were and we knew that we were going to set it in this campaign and we wanted it to be a very short amount of time. We wanted it jammed in right in the middle of things.
Q: When you were putting this story together, to what extent was it important to divest your own political feelings from the storytelling or did you at all?
Grant Heslov: No, I don’t think we did. We felt like the Morris character is the kind of guy I’d want to vote for and it’s not necessarily everything that he believes is what I believe. It’s more the idea that he’s willing to stand by his convictions, that he doesn’t want a deal. He doesn’t want to compromise. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, but he doesn’t want to compromise on certain things. Slowly but surely he gets hammered down and that was more interesting to us and how that comes about and how it’s virtually impossible to get through a campaign season without really just fucking yourself.
Q: The theme seems to be the loss of innocence which is where we get to in that last frame. What’s your viewpoint on that?
Grant Heslov: It’s interesting to hear you say that because for me thematically the film is less about loss of innocence. For me, the film is more about betrayal. Let me take a step backwards. George and I were working on an idea for a long time. We wanted to take a character and we wanted to run through the ringer. We wanted to do a big, old fashioned morality tale basically and one of the things that we keyed off of was the Michael Corleone character in “The Godfather.” He’s the innocent in that story but he’s not innocent to start with, and just like our character, he’s not innocent. You can’t be in politics and just [remain innocent]… but he certainly hadn’t risen to the level that he ends up at the end. We wanted the character to go through an earthquake kind of change and have to make those huge decisions. When I read this play, I thought here’s a great world to set our idea in. So that’s what we did. For me, it’s less about loss of innocence and it’s more about betrayal. Stephen gets betrayed and he certainly does betray and pretty much everybody in the story is compromised.
Q: You mentioned “The Godfather” and “The War Room” has come up as well as the Lee Atwater documentary. What were your reference points while you were making this?
Grant Heslov: “All the President’s Men” is a….
Q: A masterpiece?
Grant Heslov: Yeah, but the thing about “All the President’s Men” is that everybody knows the story. You know what’s going to happen at the end and it’s still kind of like a thriller and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to keep twisting and turning it and have people, if not on the edge of their seat, at least up a little bit, a little forward.
Q: Given the seismic shift that occurs at the end of the film in the relationship between Morris and Stephen, where do you see them going? What are those dynamics going to be like once they’re in the White House?
Grant Heslov: I don’t know.
Q: How much do you think outside the 115 pages that these characters exist on?
Grant Heslov: How much do we think? I don’t think we ever had a discussion about the next day. I would imagine that all this stuff gets forgotten and it goes to business as usual. I mean, the truth is, we always talked about the right man did get elected. We do think he is the right guy but at what cost. That was the interesting question for us. It was basically at the cost of both of their souls and that’s what was interesting to us – that sort of [cost] on a grander scale.
Q: How has your friendship and working relationship with George Clooney evolved over the years since you loaned him $200 back in 1982?
Grant Heslov: He never paid me back the money so I always have that on him.
Q: Does that make you immune from his practical jokes?
Grant Heslov: Yes, exactly.
Q: Has your relationship changed much over the years?
Grant Heslov: The truth is, we were friends before we worked together and if we ever stopped working together we would always be friends so the friendship overrides everything. It’s a very easy working relationship. We write, we never fight much, we actually have a lot of fun. It hasn’t changed much over the years. We spend more time together because we’re writing or we’re shooting and that takes a lot of our time.
Q: What is the writing process like with the two of you? Who’s on the keyboard and who’s nailing the yellow cards to the wall?
Grant Heslov: I’m at the keyboard and George writes on a pad like that (referring to a stenopad). We just go back and forth and write it. Sometimes we use cards, but not always. This one we didn’t because we really knew. This one was pretty straight forward for us.
Q: As two actors working together, are you bouncing off each other as actors while you’re writing the sequences?
Grant Heslov: Not so much in the writing. It’s more like once we have a draft, then we usually do a read through with just the two of us and we read all the parts and read through it and see if something sounds stupid coming out of our mouth or if we don’t make sense of it and then maybe we’ll call in a couple people who work for us at the office and we’ll read it through for them and get a little feedback.
Q: Do you think that as an actor working on a script then “Oh this is some good red meat for the cast”?
Grant Heslov: Yes, definitely. You know when a scene feels right being said.
Grant Heslov: Exactly.
Q: I can imagine you bouncing back and forth and affecting an accent while you’re reading the script.
Grant Heslov: Oh yeah, we do. We’ll do all kinds of silly stuff. It’s interesting. You really have to get out of an actor’s head to write because actors only care about their part and it revolves around their part so “This is the important part because this is the part where…” As a writer, you know what the purpose of the scene is. It really has nothing to do with the actor so you have to really get out of that space because for actors it’s a micro-focus and then you figure out your arc through what the writers have given you to say. But that arc is just one little piece of the huge arc of the whole film. It took a while to get out of that.
Q: It seemed like everybody has lost their soul in some way. You wonder if Ryan Gosling’s character doesn’t become a grander version of Paul Giamatti’s character. Did you ever talk about an Option B – putting in a character that this is what would happened if you saved your soul or could they not exist in that world?
Grant Heslov: No. We didn’t consider that, but as you mention it to me, it wouldn’t be as interesting for us. That’s sort of a different film. It’s like “Dave.” Not that I didn’t like “Dave.” I liked “Dave” but that’s a very different kind of film.
Q: This film has a lot of similarities to “Primary Colors” even though it has a different tone. Did you look at that film at all?
Grant Heslov: Not really. I saw “Primary Colors” when it came out. So that was when?
Grant Heslov: Something like that. No, not because I didn’t like the film but this was a very different kind of film from that. I hope at the end of the day this film feels slightly thrilleristic, that you get taken on this kind of ride. I think “Primary Colors” was more of a comedy.
Q: When did you know that George Clooney would be playing Governor Morris and did that change how you wrote that character?
Grant Heslov: We knew when we were writing it. It didn’t change it. We knew that he would be saying those words so we mostly wrote them. He wrote most of those speeches for himself so the words coming out were words that he would have written as a candidate.
Q: Did you have the poster in mind with Ryan Gosling and George Clooney on the cover of Time Magazine?
Grant Heslov: No, I love that poster and I wish I could take credit for it, but no. We always wanted Ryan. Every single person in the main cast is exactly who we wrote it in mind for.
Q: Was there a role or performance that got you interested in Ryan Gosling?
Grant Heslov: I’ve been following his work since “The Believer.” We wanted him to do “Leatherheads” with us but he couldn’t do it because he was doing something else so we’ve always been trying to work with him. Fortunately, this is the one. This is the best one. This is the right one.
Q: Ryan had mentioned that George playing this character could pose a risk to George’s own political activism and his effectiveness if the character rubs off on that perception. Did George ever think about that at all?
Grant Heslov: People are going to think he’s more liberal than he is or something?
Q: That he’s having secret meetings in kitchens and threatening people?
Grant Heslov: Oh, he’s not a politician and he has no aspirations. If you were George, would you want to ruin your life and go into politics? The guy’s got the greatest life in the world.
Q: There’s a certain cynicism that has to fuel this story but George is someone who also uses his public persona to try to effect change and believes that change can happen. How do you get into the cynicism head as writers while also trying to believe in the system to some degree?
Grant Heslov: I just don’t think we’re that sophisticated. For us, it’s like we want to tell a specific story so there’s no way of dipping your foot halfway into the water. You’ve gotta tell it. We’re both cynical and we’re both hopeful. I can’t totally speak for him, but just from what I can tell and for myself, it’s hard not to be cynical. We’re all experiencing what’s happening in politics right now, and not just in politics but in big business and sports. It’s easy to be cynical so sometimes I am, but I’m also hopeful. It’s harder to be hopeful but sometimes you’ve got to do the hard work. That’s what I tell my kids.
“The Ides of March” opens in theaters on October 7th.