'Ides Of March': Political Intrigue Not Far From Reality

George Clooney directs and stars in the movie, The Ides of March, as a Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination. His campaign, however, is really a backdrop for power plays and infighting among the campaign staff. Host Audie Cornish speaks to screenwriter Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the film with Clooney and says they took their inspiration from real-life political deals and personalities.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. In the new film "The Ides of March," we see campaign posters with the iconic red and blue stencil portrait of a candidate. Only instead of the face of then-candidate Barack Obama gazing at the sky, it's George Clooney. George Clooney directs and stars in the movie as a fantasy Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination - a governor from a swing state and an unabashed liberal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IDES OF MARCH")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (as Governor Mike Morris) I was raised Catholic. I am not a practicing Catholic. And I have no idea what happens after we die. If the senator does, then perhaps he should be president.

CORNISH: But the candidate's campaign is really a backdrop for the movie's focus on the power plays and infighting within the campaign staff. There's the senior advisor, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the hotshot press secretary played by Ryan Gosling. All are focused on doing whatever it takes to win the Ohio Democratic primary and capture the presidential nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, THE IDES OF MARCH")

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Paul Zara) If you get Thompson's endorsement, the race is over.

CLOONEY: (as Gov. Morris) What does he want?

RYAN GOSLING: (as Stephen Myers) Cabinet post.

CLOONEY: (as Gov. Morris) Never going to do it. I said I wasn't going to make those kind of deals.

CORNISH: "The Ides of March" borrows quite a bit from some recent ripped-from-the-headlines campaigns and scandals. Stephen, the main character in the film, is struggling to get a crucial political endorsement and a primary victory for his candidate. Stephen's also fighting temptation from the rival campaign and from a beguiling intern who may or may not be trouble as the Democratic primary approaches. Clooney's longtime collaborator Grant Heslov co-wrote the screenplay for the movie.

GRANT HESLOV: For us, the film was sort of less about politics than it is about moral dilemmas that people face when they're in those kinds of situations, where they have to make moral choices. And that's what we wanted to do with Ryan Gosling's character. We really wanted to chase him up a tree and force that character to make some very difficult decisions.

CORNISH: Beau Willimon also contributed to the screenplay. In fact, the movie is based on his 2008 stage play "Farragut North," which he based on his work as a former campaign staffer.

BEAU WILLIMON: My senior year of college, one of my best friends, Jay Carson, roped me into working on Chuck Schumer's 1998 Senate race.

CORNISH: And this is the New York senator?

WILLIMON: That's right. He's now the senior senator from New York. It was an unbelievable experience. Our grades suffered quite a bit from working on that campaign, but Schumer won. And Jay went on to a career in politics. I went into the arts. But every time he was working on a campaign, and I had time on my hands, and he was working for a candidate I believed in, he would rope me back in. So I worked on a number of campaigns: Bradley's 2000 presidential, Hillary's 2000 Senate race.

CORNISH: That would be former Senator Bill Bradley and Hillary Clinton.

WILLIMON: And then eventually Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid, where I was on staff out in Iowa.

CORNISH: So, I'm dealing with a hard-core Democrat right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIMON: A hard-core Democrat, that's right, yeah. I'm not shy about it.

CORNISH: OK. Was there a moment when you thought, oh, my gosh, I've got to turn this into a story. I can't believe such and such is happening?

WILLIMON: I remember sitting up in Manchester, New Hampshire right after Dean had done the Dean Scream in Iowa, and I'd helped set up that event in Des Moines after he came in third place. And we rode the plane out to Manchester that night. And it was very subdued on the plane because we had lost and lost big-time, and the future of the campaign was in jeopardy. But none of us knew that the Dean Scream was going to hit the airwaves the next day and be replayed 672 times in 24 hours.

HOWARD DEAN: We're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico. We're going to California and Texas and New York and we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Yeah!

WILLIMON: We were immediately shocked and then devastated, and then the adrenaline started kicking in - what are we going to do? And then the fighting mentality, and then, are we going to be able to come back from this? And all of those mixtures of emotions happening just in a matter of a few hours was something unlike I experienced in regular civilian life. And later that night, I was sitting down with my friend Jay and a number of pretty high-level reporters, one of whom was the top political correspondent for the New York Times, Adam Nagourney, who was covering the race. And we asked Adam, so, what do you think? And he goes, I smell death.

CORNISH: (Laughing)

WILLIMON: And at that moment, we really sort of had this feeling in the pit of our stomach that it was over. What I later learned, though, was that the upper echelons of the Dean campaign knew that we were going to lose Iowa weeks before. And all of us on the ground had been fighting and working hard as though we were going to win. That sort of disparity between perception and reality, between what the people in the inner sanctum know and what all the ground troops know is another thing that really stuck with me about the way that hierarchy, power dynamics and information operates in a campaign, that's in many ways different from our everyday lives.

CORNISH: The main character in this story, Stephen, he actually has this conversation with a journalist, and I was wondering how many Stephens you met on the campaign trail. I mean, essentially people who can only be described as ruthless idealists.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIMON: Well, ruthless idealist is a great way to put it because I think ruthless idealist translates into realist. A lot of people might think that Stephen is a cynical or jaded character, or that's where he ends up. And maybe he does, by most people's standards. But really what he is, is a pragmatist, a realist. In order to get to the White House, you have to do things that most people would find ethically abhorrent. And no one is immune to it. And that's just 'cause it's a hard, bloody game, and the stakes are so high, and so much power is up for grabs.

CORNISH: That's screenwriter Beau Willimon. We also spoke with Grant Heslov, producer and co-screenwriter of "The Ides of March." The film is in theaters now.

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