MALE SPEAKER: Good afternoon,
everyone. And welcome to another
[email protected] talk. And today we’re in conversation with Bill Guttentag. And so he’s here today talking
about his latest film, which is “Knife Fight.” It chronicles
the modern-day realities of behind “Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington.” So it’s really how the sausage is made
in the modern world. It stars Rob Lowe, Jamie Chung,
and Carrie-Anne Moss. And it tracks the complex
weavings and dealings of a political consultant in the
great American adventure, the general election
from last year. Now, Bill Guttentag is the
Oscar winning feature documentary and feature
filmmaker. He’s written, produced, and
directed many films that made their way up to Sundance,
as this one has, if I’m not mistaken. BILL GUTTENTAG: This premiered
at Tribeca. MALE SPEAKER: Oh, Tribeca. So we balance out the coasts
this time around. So our program today follows a
screening of the film that we had yesterday. And so now is the time to get
all the questions answered. And the film is out
in theaters now. And it’s in partnership with
IFC, so will it be on the IFC network eventually? BILL GUTTENTAG: Yeah. I think right now it’s playing
by video demand, and iTunes, and all over the place,
by download. And it’s playing also
theatrically, as well. MALE SPEAKER: Well, please join
me in welcoming Professor Guttentag to Google as we get
started on this interview. So thank you very much. So I really wanted to start by
walking me through the origins of the film. The 2012 election was weighing
heavily on our minds. Was that your original focus? BILL GUTTENTAG: When I started
wanting to do the film, I wanted to do a film about
being inside a real political race. I thought it would be
interesting to have the cameras where cameras
traditionally aren’t allowed to go. So I met with a number of
politicians, including a couple people who were running
for president. And what I quickly learned is
that people really don’t want to allow the cameras in the
rooms where they think you shouldn’t be in there. So that seemed to be
going nowhere. At some point I contacted Chris
Lehane, who I knew. And Chris was on Al Gore’s
spokesperson. He was an aide to Bill Clinton
for eight years. And I guess you would say he’s
the leading Democratic political consultant. And Chris was running a
presidential campaign, and he liked the idea. But no one is really going
to let you into the room behind the room. And as far as I know, they’re
doesn’t exist such a film. There’s, I guess, some
compelling reasons not to. In fact, one person I met who
was running for president said to me, well, what if you were
filming a debate prep and an aide gave me a suggestion? Would you want to
include that? I said, well, that sounds like
a pretty good scene to me. And he said, no, no,
that’s a bad scene. Because that shows that I’m
taking suggestions from my aides and don’t have
the idea myself. So it occurred to me that that’s
not such a good idea– that there was a big zone
of disagreement. So what I thought was if you
can’t do it as a documentary, maybe you can do it as
a fictional film. And that set us on the
journey of doing it as a fictional film. But we tried to sort of
navigate the channel verisimilitude the whole time,
so that the conversations you’re hearing are, I think,
real conversations. And people have said to us,
political consultants especially who’ve seen the
film, that they get these little PTSD flashbacks when
they watch the film. MALE SPEAKER: Yeah. Well, that’s one thing that
struck me when I saw it. Well, to a large extent, it’s
the headlines you see and then what could be happening behind
the scenes to get there. BILL GUTTENTAG: Right. I think the trick in politics is
that everything is kind of manufactured. Very few things are completely
spontaneous. So it was one person who was
running for president that told me is that the idea is that
you never, ever want to say something spontaneous. But every time you speak, you
want it to sound spontaneous, like it’s the very first time
that you have said it. And in some ways, acting is a
little bit of a similar thing, because acting– What’s wonderful about actors
is that every time they do a take, every time they say a
line, you’re supposed to deliver this innocence, like
it’s the first time you said the line. It’s one of things that goes
into good acting is selling the innocence. In a funny sort of way, politics
is done that way. I guess the line which plenty
of people have said are that politics is Hollywood for
less attractive people. MALE SPEAKER: And so I also
wanted to delve in a little bit to Rob Lowe’s character. And so could you tell me
the origins of that? He seems to be almost
a hired gun. He has something going
on in Kentucky. He has something going on in
California in the film. How does he pick and choose? BILL GUTTENTAG: I think Rob Lowe
is loosely based on my partner in the film,
Chris Lehane. And these political consultants,
they go all over the country. I mean, they tend to work for
issues they care about and politicians they care about. But you are sort of parachuting into various races. And they also do it
internationally, as well. So what’s great about Rob
is Rob, he sort of understood the music. We kind of knew the feeling
and the things to say about it. He’s someone who really
cares about politics. So he was sort of a
natural fit to it. And then we would hang out quite
a bit with Rob and Chris Lehane and myself. And I think part of that is he
just wanted to get a sense of who Chris is, the kind
of things you say. And you always want to, sort
of, again, stay within that channel of what is real and what
feels like the sort of thing people really would say. MALE SPEAKER: And of course,
most of the filling takes place in California. California being its own center
of political intrigue from referenda on forward. So was the setting important
to you to bring it here? BILL GUTTENTAG: I think that’s
a terrific question. I think California, people
naturally have a greater interest in California than
they do elsewhere. Any film is this combination
of art and commerce. And on the art side, you can
kind of set it any place. But I think people just
naturally care more about what happens in California. We tried to include a fair
amount of California things that would appeal
to an audience. We also had at one point the
senator from California, Barbara Boxer, stop by the
set, which was sort of fascinating. You had this funny combination
of the actors playing politicians. And you’re sitting there with
a California senator, who’s commenting on what’s going on. And in some ways, that’s what
we tried to achieve in the film, is to create this
kind of raking of the fake and the real. MALE SPEAKER: And then similarly
in writing it, you did most of the writing
yourself then? BILL GUTTENTAG: Yeah. It was written with Chris
Lehane, and we tried to ask ourselves are these the sort
of things that people would really say? And we had quite a bit
of help on it. We spoke with Chris, who
writes speeches for politicians. For reporters, we worked with
reporters so the reporters would seem real. And in fact, the film was filled
with, quote unquote, real people. We have some well-known San
Francisco news personalities as reporters. We have the Harvard
professor Alan Dershowitz playing a lawyer. We have Howie Kurtz, who has a
show on CNN, also playing a journalist. My son who is a Teach for
America teacher, who’s in there playing a teacher. All along the way– we have
a Heisman Trophy winning football player playing
a football player. I think all along, we just try
to look for people who are real, because I think they add
this sense of you’re not just looking at actors. But of course, any film
depends on the talents of the actors. But this sort of rounds
out the cast. MALE SPEAKER: Absolutely. And to that end as well, like
I said, there’s many threads going on too. You have the drama in Kentucky,
into California. From a narrative perspective,
how do you weave them together and make sure that the audience
follows along with the day-to-day life? BILL GUTTENTAG: That’s a
really good question. I think that when you watch
a film, there’s this– I think audiences, to some
extent, don’t need to have everything filled in. On the other hand, they don’t
want to be completely lost. So you’ll sometimes see in a
movie where you’ll open up with several different
plot lines. And the audience has a sense
that they’re all going to weave together at some point. And they’ll hang in
there for a while. But there has to be something
interesting enough within those stories that they’re
going to hang in. And there’s a sense of
gratification when it does hang in. But when you’re editing,
everything that you do in a film is a choice. Are you going to do this or
are you going to do that? And I think you have keep an eye
on the fact that you don’t want people to be too lost
with what’s going on. And it’s a little bit of a
tricky balance at times. MALE SPEAKER: In the end, it’s
a film about an election. So the election happens
on one day nationwide. So that kind of draws– BILL GUTTENTAG: Right. I think there’s always a
question, inherent drama, about what happens
in an election. I mean, I did a TV series
years ago called “Law & Order — Crime & Punishment.” And it
was all about trials and courtrooms. And one of the things
interesting about trials are trials have inherent drama. You have a trial. There’s a defendant. Is that defendant going to be
convicted and taken out the back of the courtroom
in handcuffs and go to jail for decades? Or are they going to go out the
front door a free person? And one thing that was
interesting, we were an NBC show, and we were on at 10
o’clock at night– which can be a tough slot because
people go to bed. So there’s a big deal on TV,
trying to cross the half hour and hold onto your ratings. And in our case, we increase our
ratings like 100% of the shows over the half hour. And I think the reason
for it– I like to think it’s because
it was a decent show. But I think another part
of the reason is people want to know– did the person get found guilty
or did they [? get ?] found innocent? So there’s inherent drama
within there. MALE SPEAKER: Cool. And then that drama continued
with the various screenings you did last year. I believe it premiered
the DNC. Do you have any memories
of that screening? BILL GUTTENTAG: We showed
it at the DNC. And there’s obviously a lot of–
the Democratic National Convention– there are a lot of politicians,
who I think felt like they were seeing their
lives in there. So that was a favorable crowd. We also had a screening at
Harvard, where it was sort or fascinating that– It was at the Harvard Kennedy
School, and we had a number of politicians, democratic, people
who work for Democratic presidential candidates,
couple people on the Republican presidential
candidate side. And the debate all became about
whether the character in the film played by Carrie-Anne
Moss could actually win the governorship of California. And it’s sort of interesting if
you make a film that people are actually taking
it seriously enough to debate this. And it’s grounded in the fact
that the two most famous governors of California in
recent memory were both non-politicians, referring, of
course to Ronald Reagan and so Arnold Schwarzenegger. So this is a state which will
embrace someone who is not a politician and put them in
the highest state office. MALE SPEAKER: And I’d like to
follow up a little bit more on Carrie-Anne Moss’s character. And I’m reminded of the film, of
course, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the idealism being
dragged down by the realities of modern politics. So what inspired you as you
created that character? Do you think that such a
character could succeed on the national stage? BILL GUTTENTAG: I think part of
the story involves a doctor in the Mission District who
would like to be governor of California, played by
Carrie-Anne Moss. And I think that the
character’s an aspirational character. I think the idea that if you
have a great sense of intelligence and compassion
that this will somehow connect, and you can get over
the fundraising issues, and all the other key issues
that people encounter. And I think that, I hope that,
audiences will connect with that character. A lot of TV, I think, is
sort of aspirational. A lot of movies are
aspirational, too. It’s not the world
as it exists. It’s the world as you kind
of want it to be. I mean, if you see certain shows
on television, hospitals really aren’t run that way. Or if you watch “The West Wing,”
the White House isn’t really run by a bunch of super
smart, completely ethical people, who always do
the right thing. But we all hope it would be. And I think that that’s what
you come to the table with, that you hope that these
hospital shows or the medical shows or the legal shows, that
this is a world that you want. And I think that’s one the
reasons people will watch television or movies. In part, they come to
be entertained. In part, there’s an aspirational
quality to it. MALE SPEAKER: And also,
I was struck– I don’t have the quote memorized
with me, but the main essence was the idea of
Machiavellianism in politics. And so some of the characters
that the consultants are working with, they have great
ideas, but there is some questionable paths
to those ideas. BILL GUTTENTAG: Right. People aren’t running
for saint. If you look at modern
presidents, there’s a high percent of modern presidents
that have had extramarital affairs. And in other countries, it
doesn’t matter so much. But in this country, whether
it’s John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, or you can just keep
going down the list, Bill Clinton, and this is something
that can be a severe blow to you if you want to get ahead. But the reality is that they’re not running for saints. And sometimes in politics, the
lowest blows are used for the noblest ends. And you have to use these sort
of tactics if you hope to win. Politics is a blood sport. And they always say that your
hardest day on the campaign trail is going to be your
easiest day in office. And so in some ways, the system
prepares you for the blood sport ahead, which is
also running a country or running a state government. MALE SPEAKER: And the American
political scene is one thing– I’m brought to memories of
life in Europe, as well. So has this film made its
way across the pond? BILL GUTTENTAG: It’s
interesting. We were screening recently
in Stockholm. And I thought it was fascinating
that the Swedes that I met we’re saying that
they were inundated with American politics. But I think it’s important. So what happens in the White
House actually affects what happens in Scandinavia. So I think they found
it interesting. But if you look, political
consultants work all over the place. I mean, people like
Chris Lehane work all over the world. There was a famous Republican
political consultant who went to work for Boris Yeltsin. This is what happens. We’re exporting our brand of
politics for better or worse. MALE SPEAKER: And the approach
is different, too. Europe, they may recognize more
the distinction between a candidate’s public life and
their personal life. BILL GUTTENTAG: Yeah. I think that’s true. I think in general, people
are more forgiving of extramarital affairs. I mean, look no farther than
the politics happening in France right now. MALE SPEAKER: So were there
any questions from the audience as well? We do have a mic if you brought
some questions with you from your screening
yesterday. FEMALE SPEAKER: One of the
things that I thought was interesting was that kind of
cathartic moment for Rob Lowe’s character, where he was
very motivated by the suicide attempt of the young woman. And I’d love to hear your
thoughts about how plausible that was. Because I would’ve thought
that somebody like Chris Lehane would have foreseen that
as a reasonably plausible outcome, and wouldn’t
necessarily have been moved in that way. So I’d love to hear your
thoughts about how plausible that is versus being a useful
plot device, of course, to motivate the character. BILL GUTTENTAG: I think that’s
really a terrific question. And I think when you’re writing something, it isn’t spinach. You want it to be dessert. So you want it to have some
dramatic juice to it. But you also want to make it
feel like it’s plausible. And I think that in the heated
campaigns, people do a lot of really nasty stuff. So is it plausible that people
do nasty stuff without thinking about it? I think it happens
all the time. The question is, what happens in
the end of having done the nasty stuff. And as you know, if you’ve
seen people in the news, people just descend on their
driveways, or they come onto their house. I was just watching something
as simple as– it was a shot at the Newtown tragedy that
was written up yesterday. There was a photograph
of a woman praying. And suddenly, as she’s praying,
she was descended upon by photographers. And it was sort of a private
moment in her life, but she became instantly a
public figure. So in terms of plausibility,
I hope it’s plausible. And part of what makes things
plausible are that you’re looking for the right actors
who can pull it off. In this particular case, it’s an
intern, who’s in the center of this, who’s played
by Amanda Crew. And I think she did a really
wonderful job delivering this kind of naive innocence
and confusion. And you hope, again, it
stays within that believable realm of people. And I hope the whole thing
feels believable. FEMALE SPEAKER: This
is to follow up. The question was not actually
about the plausibility of her actions– because
I totally agree. That seemed completely
plausible– but about somebody in Chris
Lehane’s position. How did he feel about that? Did he feel like, oh, that would
actually change him? BILL GUTTENTAG: I think that
it’s still a movie. I can’t really speak
to how political consultants will be affected. I think political consultants
can be affected by events in their lives. But I also think in the heat
of a campaign, you do all sorts of stuff that you
might regret later. And sometimes, it has powerful
consequences. People are really hounded
out of office. I mean, there’s a line
the film which I think reflects politics. One of the cardinal sin of
politics is when you have someone down, you better
put the shiv in, or it’s a mistake. And if you look, that’s
what happens. People go down and they get
kicked in the shins. I think this is the election
cycle that we’re in. I mean if you look, people get
built up and then they get crushed down. If you looked at the Republican
crowd that was running basically to have Mitt
Romney’s job, basically, to me, it was a little like a
clown car at a circus. Someone got out and they went
running around the track, waving their hands, and
then they left. But I think also, if you watch
that, people were built up tremendously. Rick Perry is going to become
the presidential nominee. And isn’t Rick Perry great? OK, well, whatever. A week later, he’s saying, oops
and can’t name the number of agencies– couldn’t name the agencies
that he’s going to cut. But I think you saw that with
some of the others. There’s Michele Bachmann. She was going to be,
and then she made all sorts of mistakes. And I think people saw how
shallow she was, and so on. So I think this is the real
world, where you’re constantly trying to adjust. There was a time when there
were like three news cycles a day. And you had to adjust with
all those news cycles. Now the news cycles
are continuous. And you have to respond with
overwhelming force when things are coming. And if you don’t respond with
overwhelming force, stories start taking on a solidity. And people think that this
is the way things are. So you have to come back and
you have to hit hard. And I think there’s also rules,
and people sometimes make mistakes. And I think one of the things
that we saw on this last election cycle and beyond is
when Rush Limbaugh took on the Georgetown Law student, because
she had spoke in favor of contraceptives paid for
by the government. He called her a slut and lots
of other terrible things. I think that people were really
offended because she was considered, quote
unquote, a civilian. And you don’t attack
civilians. And people had a visceral
reaction against it. He’s been on the air forever
attacking everyone under the sun and didn’t get the
same response. But after that, there was all
sorts of threats to pull their advertising. People felt like he
crossed the line. So I think this is something
that is often respected in politics, that you stay
away from civilians. It’s something that you see,
that generally politicians’ kids are off limits. People do not attack
politicians’ kids, because they are considered
non-combatants. And in the case of the movie,
I think what they ended up doing is they ended up attacking
a non-combatant. And when you attack a
non-combatant, it creates all sorts of issues that you have
to deal with later on. And hopefully, we can take those
issues and turn it into some drama which people
care about. And then this is sort
of the big picture. But in the small picture, what
you’re trying to do is write a scene that an actor can play,
and hopefully they play convincing. And you as an audience member
will identify with, in this case it was Amanda Crew,
and feel for her and identify with her. MALE SPEAKER: And then what
happens when the citizen wants to enter the realm willingly,
become a player in the game? BILL GUTTENTAG: In
what kind of– MALE SPEAKER: Well, as you were
saying, the citizens are the non-combatants. And then what happens when they
willingly choose to enter that, to run for the office? BILL GUTTENTAG: Right. Well, I think once you get on
the playing field, you have to be prepared for just
about anything. And this is something we
referred to in the movie, that there’s this idea of opposition
research. And the first thing that people
do when they run for office is they do opposition
research on themselves. They sort of want to find out
what is out there about them that is likely to come out. I think one of the rules about
politics are everything can and will come out. So you really can’t contain
your secrets. And I don’t know that everyone’s
necessarily clean, but there are also ways of
releasing information. Some of the things we touch on
in the film are the Friday night document dump. And that’s traditionally on a
Friday night, often before a holiday weekend, you release
all sorts of information. The theory being that many
reporters are off on their vacations, and they’re not
particularly eager to come back to the news room
to report on it. And by Monday morning, reporters
will be chasing newer, shinier things. So that’s a way that you
release information. There’s ways of getting the
information out in the least damaging way. But you want to put the
information out. It’s one thing that people who
are very knowledge about this– a lot more knowledge than
me– talked about that one the big mistakes that Romney
did was on his tax returns, that the tax returns
became a continuing issue for Romney in the last election. But if Romney had, in the early
days of campaigning in Iowa, put out his tax returns,
then it was the dead of summer, people really weren’t
paying that much attention. He should have just gotten it
out there in that way, and then it wouldn’t become
an issue. But because he gave so many
different answers to the questions and seemed to be
evading all the time, it became an issue that dodged– To correct that, it became an
issue that just followed him throughout the campaign. MALE SPEAKER: Well, and to a
large extent now, the American election is never over. It keeps going. BILL GUTTENTAG: Right. I think that’s absolutely
right, Cliff. I think we’re sitting here now
in February of 2013, and there’s all sorts of speculation
about who’s going to be the presidential
candidates in 2016. So it is a never-ending
campaign. You’re absolutely right. MALE SPEAKER: And I guess to
close, looking towards future campaigns, we had the bloody
sport, the knife fight in 2012, what sort of lessons
from this film the viewers to take away? And how do you see this applying
in future campaigns? BILL GUTTENTAG: It’s
a great question. And I think I’d just like people
to watch the film and feel like they’re getting
a peek inside the room behind the room. When you watch the scenes,
you’ll have a sense of this is the way real people truly
talk while the cameras are not around. And it’s not always pretty, but
I think it is accurate. And in some ways, I’d like to
think that we made a film that ultimately is kind of a
patriotic film that’s sort of an endorsement of the system. I mean, there’s a line that this
is a terrible system, but it’s the best we have. So there isn’t a better system,
but this is not flawless system. I think the more people
are aware, the better. There’s a famous line,
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Well, I
hope a film like this will show some sunshine. But also, it is a film that
takes a bunch of stories, most of them are based on real
stories, and tries to present them in such a way that it’s
sort of both entertaining and informative. MALE SPEAKER: Well, Bill,
thank you very much for stopping by. The film is out right now. I definitely encourage you all
to check it out, amazing film. And like you mentioned, it’s a
moment of light in something that folks don’t normally see or
don’t normally think about. It’s almost how the
sausage gets made. So thank you very much
for stopping by. BILL GUTTENTAG: Thank you
very much, Cliff. I really appreciate it.