From Politico.com - By Webmaster - 2008-05-12 Danny Strong - "Recount" Tv Movie - Politico.com Interview Danny Strong as Jonathan Levinson on Buffy
GOP heavyweight James Baker III and Democratic
strategist Ron Klain couldn’t have been more at odds than they were
during the disputed Bush v. Gore 2000 election battle in Florida. So
it’s no small irony that as HBO’s telefilm “Recount” was being readied,
the two men both signed off on a completely fictional scene in which
their characters meet briefly on an airport tarmac.
And that was after Baker — the former secretary of
state and George W. Bush’s attorney during the 2000 election —
corrected a few misspelled words in the script by Danny Strong.
Recently, as Strong was preparing for the movie’s May
25 debut on the pay cable channel, he talked with Hollywood Politico
about his work. Starring Kevin Spacey as Klain and Tom Wilkinson as
Baker, the film highlights political pros from Warren Christopher (John
Hurt) and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) on the Dem side to GOP
stalwarts Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban) and Joe Allbaugh (Stefen
Laurantz). Stealing the show — if not the election — is Florida
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, portrayed in all her Cruella De
Vil glory by Laura Dern.
As for Strong, the 33-year-old performer is a familiar
face to any fan of “Gilmore Girls” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Deciding to move from acting to screenwriting several years ago, he
pitched the “Recount” idea to HBO, then delivered his clever yet
carefully constructed script after months of intense research.
We caught up with him last weekend in Beverly Hills as
he took a short break from researching his next project, a script for
Universal about the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of
Not only is Strong intimately familiar with the
colorful participants and timeline of the 2000 recount, but he also
dazzled us with his memory of vote counts in each of the individual
counties, the subsequent media consortium investigation and the impact
of Ralph Nader, as well as other tallies tied to the event.
Q : You spoke to Baker, Klain, Ginsberg and several
others before writing “Recount.” What was the rest of your research
process like ?
A : In my initial round of interviews, which took about
three weeks, I talked to 30 people all over the country and then spoke
to around 10 to 15 after that. I had to hunt everyone down, just
cold-calling people, driving up to Palm Beach County in a rental car
and saying, ‘Can I interview you at 4 tomorrow, because that’s all the
time I have ?’ But Katherine Harris stopped returning my calls when it
was time to set an appointment. Theresa LaPore, the same. Joe Allbaugh
just said no, and David Leahy, the supervisor of Miami-Dade, didn’t
want to be interviewed. Michael Whouley wouldn’t return my calls, and I
followed up five times — but as soon as Denis Leary got cast as him, he
agreed to meet with Denis.
Q : What was your time like in Washington ?
A : I stayed there for a week in a hotel that HBO put
me up at by the Capitol. I had a few interviews set up already with Ben
Ginsberg and Ron Klain and Jack Young. But I figured, I was in town, so
I started cold-calling, going online and hunting people down. Ginsberg
was great — he gave me five hours.
Q : You ended up giving the script to him and Baker and
Klain later on, encouraging them to provide notes. Is that a sound
approach, given people’s natural tendencies to protect their image and
A : Here’s what we did. When we headed into production,
we hired as consultants all the guys who wrote the books that we used :
Jeffrey Toobin, Jake Tapper, David Kaplan and David Von Drehle. Some of
the books Republicans liked, others Democrats liked, so we hired all of
them. We also brought in Mark Halperin, who was incredibly
knowledgeable. We sent the script to them and asked, “What do you think
is inaccurate and what do you have problems with ?”
After that, we went to some participants, letting them
have a shot at it to hear their point of view. We weren’t
closed-minded, and we also weren’t jumping up and down to fix whatever
they wanted. Some notes were tiny — maybe a line they were
uncomfortable with. Whether they liked something or not, I wasn’t
responsible for that. But if they had a good reason and the line seemed
inaccurate, I’d change it. Did we take all their notes ? Absolutely
not. But no one played games, and everyone understood what was
Q : What about the line in the film in which Klain says, “I’m not even sure I like Al Gore” ?
A : Klain never said that to me. That line was
something based on several books and interviews and what I seemed to
get from people. Toobin’s book talked about how Gore wasn’t as fond of
the political people as he was the policy people, and the political
people felt that. So putting that line in Ron Klain’s mouth — he’s the
lead character, so who else is going to say it ? Besides, he had that
rich history of being tossed aside [earlier by Gore], so it made sense.
Did Ron say that to me ? No. Did he ask me to take the line out ? No.
Is he uncomfortable with it ? Yeah. But he wasn’t self-serving in his
notes, and he respected my dramatic license and the artistic process.
Q : What were Baker’s notes like ?
A : They were very small. He really liked the script
and couldn’t have been more supportive. It was a line note here, a line
there. ... He even had the typos corrected. James Baker was fixing my
typos ! It was a little embarrassing. ... The last scene in the movie
[in which Baker briefly meets Klain on an airfield tarmac] didn’t
happen [in real life], so we specifically asked him if he minded, and
he said, “Nah, it’s great dialogue ! Don’t cut that !” There was a lot
of internal discussion, because that was one of the few scenes in the
movie that just did not happen. But it’s so obviously a “movie scene”
that it didn’t seem irresponsible at all. But we specifically asked
Baker and Klain if they were comfortable with it, and they both said
Q : Did you ever think of making Bush or Gore the main protagonists ?
A : No, never. As soon as I read that neither of them
had set foot in Florida during the recount, I knew they wouldn’t be in
it. [The two are briefly seen in a few early scenes, and you
occasionally hear them on the telephone], but any more of it and it
would take you out of the movie.
Q : Which candidate did you vote for ?
A : I’m not answering. But I will say that I wasn’t really inspired by either.
Q : How would you say the Dems worked during the recount versus the way the Republicans operated ?
A : The GOP was so much more effective and organized
and on the same page, whereas the Democrats had a schism over the
approach, with many different ideas — they started off OK but crumbled
within a day. The Republicans were behind the eight ball for maybe the
first eight hours, but once Baker got there, they kicked in by the next
day. The Republicans were also a lot more motivated, in that they were
shut out of the executive [branch] for eight years. And they ended up
spending four times as much as the Democrats on the recount.
Q : Based on all your research, how do you think the voting process can best be modified to reflect the will of the voters ?
A : The best thing we could do for this country would
be to make Opti-Scan the national voting system. It’s the most
accurate, reliable and simple way to go. Electronic voting machines do
not instill voter confidence at all — we hear about fraud, which could
be true, but the biggest problem is that computers do crash. And to not
have a paper trail on electronic voting machines is criminal. You can’t
have a recount if the machine malfunctions or crashes — it’s not fair,
and it’s not right.
There needs to be some real basic federal oversight on
voting laws, because states get corrupted when one party gets into
power and then passes laws to benefit themselves. The 2005 Baker-Carter
Commission on Election Reform has so many great recommendations, and
many were in direct response to the Florida recounts. I’m just
speculating, but it seems Baker was trying to undo the advantages he
had in Florida — such as having the secretary of state working on a
Q : If you were to dramatize what’s going on between
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama right now, how would you end
the movie ?
A : I don’t know. Maybe they’d both walk away and let Mike Gravel have it.