'Game Change' Scribe Danny Strong: How I Wrote 'Sarah Palin'

Sarah Palin and Julianne Moore
Sarah Palin and Julianne Moore
 Jeff Fusco/Getty Images; Phillip V. Caruso/HBO

This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I see the movie as an anxiety dream." Game Change director Jay Roach said this to me after we decided to make a movie with HBO about one of the great political stories of our time -- the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate in 2008. This approach perfectly characterized the experience of the film's two main characters: senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and Palin. Both were trapped in a high-stakes anxiety dream in which they worked tirelessly to turn the Alaska governor -- practically overnight -- into a credible national candidate under the brutal glare of the international media.

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That left a simple question with a complicated answer: How does one dramatize an anxiety dream that is completely true? The answer involved portraying one of the most compelling and controversial political figures in recent history, one who had been impersonated so brilliantly by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. Transcending Fey's satire might have proved impossible without the genius of Julianne Moore.

An advantage I had was that Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of the fantastic book on which the film is based, consulted on the project. They read every draft of the script, and their contributions were vital to its accuracy. Using their book, which was essentially unrefuted upon its release in 2010, I built the script around numerous true-life scenes. I also interviewed 25 members of the McCain-Palin campaign. The interviews broke down into three categories: A) Staffers who were very fond of Gov. Palin; B) Staffers who were not so fond of Palin; and C) Staffers who felt she was unqualified to be president but is a compelling and dynamic figure.

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At times, I heard different accounts from people who worked side by side. Some aides described Palin's severe mental meltdowns; others didn't deny them but argued that she was the most charismatic woman they had ever met. Even though accounts varied, it was clear everyone told the truth from their perspective. Jay and I agreed it was crucial to find a way to represent these points of views because we couldn't tell the real story without telling every side of it. Scenes depicting Palin's flaws as a candidate were paired with scenes depicting how ably she dealt with the challenges of being a mother to a newborn with Down syndrome, a son going to Iraq, a pregnant teen -- all while facing intense media scrutiny.

The key point of view, however, was that of Sarah Palin herself. To our disappointment, she denied our request for an interview, but this problem was quickly solved with the purchase of her memoir, Going Rogue, a beat-by-beat account of how she felt about every moment of the campaign.  At times her book contradicted other accounts, which left us with the task of resolving these discrepancies. 

For example, in her book she never discusses having any emotional meltdown leading up to the vice presidential debate and has recently claimed that she was never in a "funk" during this period. That recollection differs significantly from the book Game Change, which has a detailed summary of her emotional descent. We were able to reconcile these differing accounts from interviews with campaign staffers. At least eight of them told me similar stories of her emotional difficulties, all of them expressing how concerned they were for her.

Contrary to recent attacks by Palin's current aides, who have yet to see the movie, this isn't a partisan film, and it does not have a political agenda. It's a story of extraordinary people living through the aforementioned high-stakes anxiety dream of a presidential campaign. For some, it was a nightmare that they struggled to wake up from. Others simply shrugged and moved on. But the star of this dream would rise from her slumber to become one of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party.

Proof positive that sometimes dreams really do come true. 

Strong is the writer of Game Change as well as the 2008 HBO film Recount.

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