Entertainment » Television

Inside the game plan for HBO’s ’Game Change’

by Jim Halterman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Mar 8, 2012

There are many of us that would be just fine if we never heard the name Sarah Palin ever again. More than likely, though, when the HBO programmers heard the pitch for a movie based on the best selling book, "Game Change" (by investigative journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann), the response was a resounding "You 'betcha!"

While the book chronicles the entire Presidential race including the Democrat side, the film dramatizes how John McCain (played by Ed Harris) picks the then-little known Palin (Julianne Moore, in a shockingly accurate performance) to be his running mate for the Oval Office in the White House in the 2008 election. Also at the center of the action was McCain Campaign Chair Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), who plays a big role of working with Palin as she's thrown into the political fray. The film, "'Game Change,' "directed by Jay Roach, premieres on Saturday, March 10, 2012 on HBO.

A great political story

"We felt that the story of Sarah Palin is truly one of the great American political stories of our time," said screenwriter Danny Strong, best known as the writer for HBO’s "Recount" (about the infamous Bush-Gore election of 2000) and as an actor for "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls."

"You have such an amazing character at the center of it and you also have a story that is unbelievably unique in that you have an individual that people knew very little about, including the people that picked her. They knew almost nothing about her when they picked her, who all of a sudden is thrust onto the international stage, who has never even been in national politics before. So when you combine all of that together, it was just an extremely rich and extremely traumatic story, and it felt like the best movie we could make in a two hour version of this event."

To get the real inside story of what happened during the 2008 election campaign, Strong made sure to talk to as many people as possible. "I interviewed 25 people from the campaign," he explained at the recent Television Critics Association press panel, "I got to interview everyone except for Palin, who declined. But I was fortunate enough to have her book, ’Going Rogue,’ which was her beat by beat account of how she felt about it; [also] John McCain and (McCain speechwriter) Mark Salter, who didn’t respond to a request for interviews. So I interviewed everybody else and then I interviewed many people that were in the campaign that aren’t characters in the film as well."

"Game Change" director Jay Roach (who also directed "Recount" and is best known for helming comedies like "Meet The Parents") added that they did everything they could to get access to Palin. "I personally, on behalf of the show, reached out to Sarah Palin and made a personal request. I wrote a long letter explaining that I thought we would just do better at getting the story right if she would talk to us. And that was our main motive was to just try to tell the story as faithfully and authentically as we possibly could. And I got a very quick email back from her attorney saying, ’I checked. She declines.’ So I took that as, you know, the final answer."

Transforming Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore, who has starred in films like "The Kids Are All Right" and "A Single Man," dove into research to play Palin but so much about the role was about the right look and capturing Palin’s speech patterns. "The first thing I did was hire a vocal coach because, for me, she has an incredibly idiosyncratic way of speaking, and I really felt I needed to capture that [and] we looked at hours and hours of footage. I listened to her on tape. I read her book. I read ’Game Change.’ I read her assistant’s book. I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on."

But all that research aside, Moore said the challenges were ever-present. "It’s a daunting task to play somebody who is not only a living figure, but a hugely well-known one. So, for me, the most important thing was accuracy. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, as I could in my characterization, I mean, certainly even her physicality. Jay [Roach, the director] was enormously helpful. We would sometimes just have the computer there when I was doing the debates - things to be able to watch very precisely, like beat by beat, to get the gesture just right because we are all very familiar with her and with those, sort of, iconic moments. I mean, it was just four years ago."

But what was Moore’s personal opinion about Palin after getting to know her through her research? "I have profound respect for the historical nature of her candidacy," she said. "I mean, from where she was taken out of in state government to be thrust into a national international stage like this that was a tremendous amount of pressure... that was the other thing I was attempting to capture. What was that like, that pressure cooker, kind of, atmosphere? What does that do to somebody psychologically? The fact that she was able to perform the way she was able to was simply amazing."

Becoming John McCain was ’fun’

Ed Harris, who, like Moore, is physically transformed to look like Senator John McCain, said that looking at himself in the mirror was "fun." He also explained, "It took a little while to, personally at least, really kind of feel that we were getting it...but we had a little time to do that. It felt pretty good. Once we felt that we were physically inhabiting the people, we just kind of went with it."

Since McCain and Salter declined participation in the film, Harris, like Moore, dove into research. "My respect and my understanding of Senator McCain, certainly deepened. I spent a lot of time reading some of the books that he had written with Salter and particularly ’Faith of My Fathers,’ which is an autobiographical account of his time growing up, his father/grandfather being admirals in the Navy and him knowing that he was going to be going to Annapolis and his years as a prisoner of war and the aftermath of that and his decision to go into politics. He’s a man of a tremendous sense of honor and duty, and when he decided to go into politics, I think that, by his own admission, his ambition and his ego were in constant conflict with this sense of honor and duty and patriotism. It was an interesting thing to play with, you know, in the portraying of him.

And while actors like Moore, Harris, Harrelson and others like Sarah Paulson, Peter MacNicol and Ron Livingston are playing versions of real people, "Game Change" also incorporates real-life footage of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Katie Couric as well as Tina Fey lampooning Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live" within the film. "There were a couple of practical considerations," said Roach of using the real footage instead of doing a full-recreation.

"One was there was no way we’d be able to really achieve the scale of the campaign without relying on archival footage, but we also thought it would be very interesting to see, especially things like the Katie Couric interview or the Anderson Cooper interview interwoven with what we were up to, to connect you back to what those events actually felt like and how gripping some of those moments were. And I really looked forward, actually, to the moment where Julianne Moore, as Sarah Palin, would be watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. I thought that would be a very interesting bit of the story."

Watch this featurette about HBO’s "Game Change":

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.


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