Fall 2018

The Cinema of Naturalism

Jason Reitman's love affair with Michael Ritchie's The Candidate


Screenpull: Warner Home Video


By the time Jason Reitman saw The Candidate (1972) for the first time, he was already versed on its director Michael Ritchie's unique, vérité approach to storytelling from having seen Downhill Racer (1969)—the first third of a planned trilogy between Robert Redford and Ritchie on the concept of winning in America (the third never materialized).

"I just fell head over heels for it," says Reitman of Downhill Racer. "I couldn't believe it was Michael Ritchie's first movie. It pre-dated a lot of the things that people were doing in the '70s. I found his filmmaking approach fascinating. It's really Altman-esque in style, but there's something still entirely its own that I'm very attracted to."

In The Candidate, that Altman-esque quality is apparent in its fly-on-the-wall candor, deliberately unpolished style and abundance of overlapping dialogue, where the focus isn't necessarily on one conversation.

The film centers on Redford's character Bill McKay, the progressively idealistic son of a former California governor (played by Melvyn Douglas) who practices activism on a small scale and views the political establishment with a jaundiced eye. When he's approached by election strategist and political junkie Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) to run against silver-tongued Crocker Jarmon, the incumbent Republican California senator who represents everything McKay loathes about Beltway politics, McKay reluctantly agrees, with the promise that he can speak his mind freely, since the odds against him are insurmountable.

Reitman, whose latest film, The Front Runner, chronicles the ill-fated 1988 presidential run of Gary Hart, credits The Candidate as "the most powerful influence on the movie I just made," and calls The Front Runner "absolutely a love letter to The Candidate."

As we settle in to watch Ritchie's movie, which opens with a politician's concession speech to a crowd of supporters, the freewheeling, docudramatic nature of the filmmaking becomes immediately apparent—what Reitman affectionately describes as "a purposeful sloppiness" to the coverage.

"Right from the get-go, I love the nature of the camera in all these scenes," says Reitman. "The camera is a person inside this room. Michael Ritchie clearly cares about all the faces. He's not just interested in his movie stars; he's interested in the extras, their stories. He's given them all real things to do."

Reitman adds that Ritchie is "also pointing with sound. He's telling you where to look with your ears, and not many filmmakers do that. Filmmaking is such a visually focused art form; all we ever talk about is how things are composed. And this is a film where sound is really interesting. You're hearing all kinds of conversations. Most often the most important conversation is in the background, while the least important conversation is in the foreground. Oftentimes we can't hear things. That's a big function of this film."

As we watch the action unfold, many exchanges trail off in mid-sentence, or cut to another bit of conversation that's not necessarily germane to what's happening. Reitman notes that it's more about detail and texture rather than advancing the story, and yet it all feels essential. "And that's a perfect example of why this movie's great," asserts Reitman. "A character goes, 'What really matters is…' and now you cut away and they're talking about where they're going to go golfing."

As we get to know Lucas, who managed the failed midterm campaign of the politician we first glimpsed, personal stakes don't appear to enter the equation. As he makes it clear to another operative, played by Allen Garfield, Lucas views the business of running for office as a kind of card game that pays the bills, even if he's seemingly hooked on the action. Reitman views this moment as crystallizing the film's theme.

"You'd think it was about whether a candidate wins or loses," says Reitman, "but instead you're getting this behind-the-scenes guy who's saying, 'Yeah, we took two out of three, not bad for an off election.'"

SELL JOB: (Top) Robert Redford as senatorial candidate Bill McKay is seen in a campaign spot on a video monitor; (Bottom) Peter Boyle as election strategist Marvin Lucas as he courts McKay to make a run. (Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

"Oh yeah, nice guy," Garfield's character responds in the movie.

"The people feel real," chimes in Reitman. "And they keep this (losing politician) alive, even though he's not important to the film whatsoever. Again, all kinds of crazy detail. All it does is create richness. It's as important as the clothes, or the weather."

As we get to know Bill McKay, Redford's blunt honesty appears at odds with the usual glad-handing and watered-down policy proclamations most candidates use to gain the widest support possible. But his uncompromising views are chipped away at little by little by his strategists, as McKay succumbs to the sin of pride. We see him brushed off by Jarmon as an insignificant nuisance in two brief encounters on the campaign trail, and McKay clearly takes it personally (something Redford is able to project without dialogue) and begins to play the game as a way of getting even.

"While he is flawed," says Reitman of Redford's character, "there's a real nuance to his flaws. I like him, I get him, I get caught up in his desire to win and the complicated feelings he has about winning."

Reitman pauses to reflect on The Candidate's timeless appeal, and how it colored his approach to his latest work, which he views as having captured a pivotal moment in the way the media covered presidential campaigns and the partisan divide began to widen.

"All that was kind of coming to a head," he says, "and we needed to tell the story in a way in which we're not taking one side, and with so many different points of view that it allowed the audience to make up their own mind. And I don't know a movie about politics that does that quite as well as this movie, where every room that you're in in this film, you're just dropped into it."

It's worth noting that for authenticity's sake, Ritchie surrounded himself with insiders: The Candidate's screenwriter, Jeremy Larner, who won an Oscar for his efforts, was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy's quixotic presidential campaign in 1968, while Ritchie himself, along with his associate producer Nelson Rising, worked on John Tunney's victorious campaign for Senate in 1970.

As Reitman points out, nothing feels premeditated in The Candidate. "Every line of dialogue feels like they just came up with it right there and then," including the kind of flubs most people commit in real life. "That's one of the things that Redford was a master of," says Reitman. "Redford is the most brilliant actor at making purposeful mistakes."

At just that moment we witness Redford early in the film unselfconsciously chewing on a drumstick. "Like that! (a piece of food) …falling out of his mouth," points out Reitman. "I guarantee he did that on purpose."

Reitman says he and his Front Runner star Hugh Jackman, who normally "projects so much energy and emotion," wanted to do something different. "Which was to play an enigma," Reitman explains, "and that's what Redford's brilliant at. He's got the door shut, but you want to come in. Hugh and I wanted to create a performance like that. And we studied Redford." (Redford's Wildwood Enterprises co-produced The Candidate.)

A pivotal scene in The Candidate is Lucas' selling point to McKay in convincing him to run on his terms, which is conveyed wordlessly on the inside of a matchbook: "You lose."

(Top) McKay's guarantee that he can speak his mind without repercussions; (Bottom) A scene from the film. (Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

"This is the most traditionally shot scene in the film," explains Reitman. "It's almost unusual, because it's just these kind of two inside overs… You get the whole gist, you have a movie moment within two words on the matchbook. And then the movie kind of runs wild from there. It gives up on traditional shooting stock, cutting style."

All those mid-sentence cuts that Ritchie utilizes, even interrupting a McKay speech to focus on something seemingly mundane, like chicken being grilled on a barbecue, candid shots of faces in a crowd, distracted expressions, awkward—even embarrassing—encounters, random conversations, a quick in-and-out eavesdrop, all acted as inspiration for Reitman.

While we were making The Front Runner, we'd sit there at lunch during prep—we had a little projector in our conference room—and there were a few movies that we would just watch over and over, [and] this is one of them," says Reitman. "And we would just talk about all the choices [Ritchie] made here and how the combination of them made this feel like a real campaign.

Part of that verisimilitude involved the various formats Ritchie and his DP, Victor J. Kemper, would use, constantly shifting from grainy images on television monitors to run-and-gun newsreel footage to video-transferred campaign spots. Often we see news crews in action, their bare bulbs glaring, trying to capture the photogenic McKay during moments both unguarded and manufactured.

"The use of lightbulbs on this film is really interesting," says Reitman. "Throughout it, lightbulbs turn on and off of (McKay). Very often, like in the top right corner right there, they have a light that's kind of going right at lens. That makes you feel like the candidate yourself. And they use the turning on and off of the light as an example of what interests us and what doesn't.

"But then there's a real nuts-and-bolts approach to kind of how everything is done. When they're in the station wagon, you see all their equipment in the trunk. They're constantly showing you how everything is being filmed, how everything's being shot, how everything's being lit. It's a movie about process. It's about how close can you get to a documentary feel when the movie screen becomes like a mirror."

About a half-hour into the movie, Redford returns home to his wife exhausted. As he hovers in the doorway, he's completely submerged in shadow. "It's such a '70s move," says Reitman. "You don't see this enough anymore. The dark room? The piece of light, then the character comes in, and they're in silhouette. There's like a confidence [in] not seeing someone's face. People are scared to do it now. Studios and networks are always begging you for more close-ups. They don't trust the ability to follow body language."

The extramarital scandal that would plague Gary Hart is hinted at in The Candidate in the form of a volunteer/groupie who appears intermittently in the movie. The actress is neither named nor given dialogue, and she and McKay are never alone in their onscreen encounters, but the unseen transgressions are made obliquely clear.

"Oh, this storyline with the girl is brilliant," declares Reitman. "They do a full arc with a woman that you never really meet. She gets three scenes; you never hear her talk [but] you know exactly what her whole story is. It's not as simple as is this man having an affair or not? Is this man moral or immoral? He's a handsome man. He's a man in power. He's flirting with people; people are flirting with him. It carries all the nuances of real life. People meet each other; they have chemistry. Sometimes they act on it, sometimes they don't. And there's no moment in this movie where you go, 'Oh, that's what the whole thing's about.' It's just painting with color."

A scene involving a Malibu fire becomes an opportunity for both candidates to score political points, pivoting quickly from their pre-arranged itinerary, and one can't help drawing parallels to the wildfires currently raging in Northern California. "It's perfect," says Reitman. "I mean what's fascinating is when they actually are talking politics in this movie, everything could be right now. All the stuff they're talking about is pertinent to today."

In terms of Kemper's cinematography, the scene is one of the film's more richly captured moments, despite its jagged, impromptu nature. "It's so impressive that a movie as naturalistic as this can have a beautiful shot that blends right in," Reitman comments. "In less natural movies, beautiful shots are easy. There's all kinds of ways you can make a shot dramatic and look cool. But to a hand-held film where life is chaotic and then have these moments of grace, where everything lines up beautifully, but does not feel forced, to me is all the more impressive."

MEDIUM AS MESSAGE: Scenes from The Candidate, where we're exposed to how a politician's image is groomed. In the bottom image, we see the suggestion of an affair with a woman who remains nameless. (Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

About midway through the movie, the campaign and its endless rubber chicken dinners begin to take their toll. We see Redford handed a pre-wrapped sandwich, which he frowns at and stuffs in his pocket.

Reitman brings up his initial meeting with Matt Bai (author of a book about Gary Hart, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid), who co-wrote The Front Runner with Jay Carson (who served as press secretary on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign). Reitman said they should watch The Candidate. "So we all sat down and watched the movie. And all Jay Carson kept on saying was, 'This is exactly what it's like to be on a campaign. Some guy's chatting in your ear about where you need to be or what you need to say. And all you're thinking about is how ugly this sandwich looks.'"

As the movie enters its third act, McKay begins to realize that he's lost his edge and has capitulated to the hacks—a turning point that's eloquently noted by real-life ABC news commentator Howard K. Smith (one of several actual TV journalists who appear in the movie).

In his debate with Jarmon, McKay's photogenic looks and hazy responses to specific questions have the contradictory effect of painting him as a sellout—a carbon copy of his opponent—even as he's gaining the upper hand. A seemingly unpremeditated image of the two candidates in double exposure appears to bear this out.

"I love this move," declares Reitman. "I always wondered on that shot whether that happened accidentally on set or not, that super-impose where they become the same person, and when you realize, 'Oh yeah, it's two sides of the same thing.' It's so brilliant, you'd hope that they thought of it in advance, but it could have just as easily been like, 'Oh wait, wait, wait! Get that!'"

As Jarmon delivers his closing statement, the expression on Redford's face makes it seem like his mind is racing, not sure what kind of summation he'll deliver, again all without uttering a word.

"There's a beautiful actor-director relationship at play here," says Reitman. "You can tell they've already made a movie together, that they completely trust each other. They know each other's instincts. (Redford) knows how to act for Ritchie's camera, and Ritchie knows exactly how to set up a location so that Redford can do all the things he does magically."

As Reitman observes, Ritchie never hits anything directly on the nose, never resolves anything completely. It's both a sign of confident filmmaking and trust in the audience's intelligence.

"The movie's toying with our understanding of the format," explains Reitman. "There is an underdog: He must learn to become a political animal so that he can win. And [the filmmakers] trust our ability to string everything together. And they never give us a scene that's actually about that.

Late in the movie, on the eve of the election, when McKay has closed the gap to within three points, Lucas rallies the troops to get out the vote. As is typical throughout, the setting is deglamorized, and our perspective is immersive.

"It's one of my favorite details in the campaign office," says Reitman. "Every chair looks like they stole it from a different building. (Pointing to the P.O.V.) Wasn't that a nice choice, also? The camera trying to see behind a head? Not having the perfect point of view. That's something we talk to camera operators all the time about is make it feel like it's hard for you to get the shot."

(Top) The two competitors appear to merge; (Middle & Bottom) Melvyn Douglas as McKay's father revels in his son's win, even if McKay cannot. (Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

That night, McKay happens upon the matchbook that convinced him to join in the first place. "What's that?" his wife asks him. "Nothing," responds McKay.

"Isn't it interesting how few of those beats you need to tie together and experience the feeling that most movies are spending the entire time delivering?" says Reitman. "If done right, that moment totally lands. We didn't need to have to have that over-explained. And (McKay) doesn't have some giant change of heart. He doesn't do anything. He looks at it; you see it pass through his eyes, looks at his wife, wonders if his wife has changed; are they the same couple? Goes to sleep."

As the returns are pouring in, Ritchie's focus is all over the place, from TV news updates to campaign headquarters to cheerleaders chanting their support to the principals taking it all in.

"How do you film into these moments?" asks Reitman rhetorically. "[They] just jumped into the middle of [them]. But you can't just set that beat up. I think they must have just covered the day of action from all these different locations. You almost wonder if the script is like 300 pages long, because it had all of these scenes to wedge out the tiny details from."

When McKay pulls off a stunning upset, he can't bask in the moment. Redford's look is of utter bewilderment. "You're a politician," his father tells him, possibly the most damning thing one could say to a lapsed idealist.

Looking panicked, Redford is being herded down a hallway to a podium to give a victory speech, but pulls Lucas into a freight elevator, where a lowly hotel employee tells them, "Hey, you're not supposed to be here."

"How great is that line?" says Reitman. "It speaks volumes."

The two retreat to another room before the throng quickly hunts them down, banging on the door. Amid all the commotion, McKay asks Lucas: "Marvin, what do we do now?"

It's the film's closing line, ending the movie on an uncertain note.

"Clearly I'm obsessed with that," says Reitman. "That's how all my movies end."

In closing, Reitman reflects on Ritchie's achievement in the grand scheme of American cinema. "I think there's a lot of movies people always point to," he says, "and I feel like people generally list the same 10 movies, and when they do, there's an obsession with directorial control and shots that are spotless, lighting that is clean, and a kind of exacting storytelling. And I totally respect the beauty of that. But a film like this, that is wild and out of control in the same way that life feels, I find exhilarating. And as a filmmaker, [it] completely intimidates me. And I feel like with each film I'm trying to capture that, but it's just…it's elusive.

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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