Contender, The : Production Notes

Contender, The (2000) - Movie PosterA self-described "political junkie," writer/director Rod Lurie enjoys the power plays of government the way some people enjoy gridiron plays. "Presidential election years are like football seasons to me," Lurie says. "I watch the events unfold with great excitement. I can't wait to see who the Vice Presidential pick will be; I can't wait to see the debates..."

As a former film critic and entertainment journalist, Lurie also had an affinity for movies with political backdrops, especially those that gave audiences an insider's view of the manipulation and machinations of power. He notes, "In the '70s, we had films like 'All The Presidents Men (1976),' 'Candidate, The (1972)' and 'Parallax View, The (1974).' I loved them even as a little boy. The political films of recent years are more satires. With 'The Contender,' I tried to do something different-more of a throwback to those earlier movies."

However, Lurie is quick to add, "'The Contender' is more about principles than politics. The challenges that Senator Laine Hanson faces in this film are decidedly more about her personal life than her public persona. Her principles tell her that under no circumstance should she allow her personal life to mesh with her public one, and her courageousness emerges when she takes a stand and refuses to give in, despite pressure from both sides. Her heroics are based on her sticking to those principles even when they're inconvenient."

The story backdrop of "The Contender" may have arisen from Lurie's fascination with politics, but he has no hesitation in revealing that it was written for the award-winning actress who stars as Senator Laine Hanson, Joan Allen. "I did more than write this movie with Joan Allen in mind for the role of Laine Hanson," Lurie acknowledges. "I wrote the movie itself for her. I am a gigantic fan of hers. I think she is quite simply the best actress in the world."

The decision to write the script was initiated by an off-the-cuff remark Lurie made while presenting Allen with a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for her work in "Pleasantville (1998)." He recalls, "I got up on the stage and, impromptu, said, 'I should write a screenplay for Joan Allen...' I sat down with her afterwards, and she said, 'Write that screenplay.' You know, Joan has never played the character around which an entire movie revolves, and that's what I wanted to give her, so the role of Laine Hanson was born."

Joan Allen was understandably flattered to have the central role of the film written specifically for her, but she was even more thrilled upon reading the script. "I thought it was really wonderful," she recalls. "It's a dream for an actor to have a role like this, but the whole script is so good, and all the characters in it are terrific, not just mine."

Allen was in Ireland filming a movie when she first got the screenplay, but immediately upon her return, she immersed herself in what Lurie teasingly calls "a research frenzy."

"I studied the script and tried to chart her emotional life," Allen offers. "We had the great luxury of rehearsing for two weeks, so Rod and I were able to discuss and refine our ideas for the character. I was extremely fortunate as an actor to know a lot about Laine's past-that she's the daughter of a governor, and was raised in a political world, and at some point had switched parties.

"I think she feels smart and savvy enough to handle the situation because she understands the Washington scene. It's been her life for so many years," Allen continues. "But she also has an underlying conviction that her personal life has no place in the political process. She believes it with all her heart and just can't operate any other way. I think it would certainly be easier for her to capitulate, but it's not in her makeup, so she just digs in her heels. Her principles are unshakeable. That's a valuable quality to have, which is something the President comes to recognize in her."

Jeff Bridges stars as President Jackson Evans, whose choice of a woman to become his new Vice President leads to a showdown on Capitol Hill. "I've spent some time in Washington lobbying for different causes and I'd always thought it would be interesting to play someone in politics," Bridges remarks. "But to play the President of the United States is an entirely different matter. It was fascinating to get in touch with that kind of power and what a complex job it is, but then you have to put it in some kind of normal context. There has to be a seeming normalcy to your portrayal because that is his everyday life."

"The brilliance of Jeff Bridges is his subtlety," Lurie states. "I wrote the character of President Evans a lot more cut and dried than what Jeff actually brought to the screen. With Jeff, you don't really know what Evans' motivations are for putting a woman in the office of Vice President, or his reasoning for sticking by Laine Hanson so strongly."

"Evans definitely has an agenda, and he's going to do whatever he needs to to pull it off," Bridges adds. "One of the things I responded to in the script was that the characters aren't all black and white. You might be rooting for one person and then suddenly find you're rooting for the wrong one."

"It is virtually impossible in politics to paint anyone as a good guy or a bad guy," Lurie expounds. "The notion of what is good and what is bad changes with time. It's not just liberal versus conservative; it's not just good versus bad... Human beings tend to be enigmas, and social or political ideologies should represent that."

Lurie continues, "If you look at the character of Congressman Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman, he's ostensibly the 'bad guy.' But that depends on his motives. If he truly feels that Laine Hanson is the wrong person for the job, then it's merely his tactics that are questionable and not what's in his heart. Runyon is an old-style politician. His only concerns are his constituency, the U.S. Congress, and what he sees as what's best for the country...and he's a master at steering people on the issues he cares about. Gary, for one, never believed his character was in any way the villain of the movie, which might seem confounding to some people. But Gary felt he had discovered Runyon's motivation and really understood why he was doing what he was doing. He gained enormous empathy for Runyon."

Gary Oldman agrees with the director. "Shelly is very much of the old school. But he knows there's this whole thing today of having to be PC. It's about going out there and putting on the 'mask'-there's the public face and the backstage private face. I think you get a delicious mix of the two in this film. You're taken behind the scenes in a very interesting way."

The actor reveals that when he was first given the script, he wasn't sure he was right for the role of Runyon. "It was a great part and a really smart script. I just wasn't sure I was old enough for the role the way it was written."

In addition to the age difference, Oldman is also British. The fact that he was able to master a Midwestern American accent should come as no surprise to those who have followed his career. However, he is almost unrecognizable behind glasses and with a pronounced receding hairline. "I'll never forget the first day he showed up on the set as Shelly," Lurie recalls. "I hadn't seen the look before and I was blown away. In fact, when he walked across the set, no one knew it was Gary Oldman."

Counterbalancing Shelly Runyon as the elder statesman is the young freshman Congressman Reginald Webster, played by Christian Slater. "Webster's a young man looking to get ahead," Slater says. "He believes he's on the right side, but I don't think he's too particular at that point; he just wants to make the right connections. He is being molded as the story progresses. His foundation isn't too solid to begin with, but over the course of events, he sees things and develops some true beliefs of his own and begins to incorporate them into his behavior. He's a much more solid person by the end."

Though many of "The Contender" cast had worked together in the past, the most interesting prior association belonged to Slater, who had portrayed the son of Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen in "Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988)." "It's amazing to look back on that. I mean, I was a completely different person-this wild and crazy kid," Slater reflects. "It was great to be able to collaborate with them as contemporaries now."

Opposition to the President's selection of Laine Hanson comes not only from Congressmen Runyon and Webster. Even those in his inner circle harbor their own-albeit less overt-reservations. Sam Elliott, who stars as the President's Chief of Staff Kermit Newman explains, "Newman is skeptical about a woman coming into this 'boy's club.' Maybe he's not as enlightened as he should be, but he worries about the President as well as the party. The bottom line is, it's the President's call. Newman has his own opinions, but, as Chief of Staff, his job is to serve the President and do what the President wants...and in this case, it's getting this woman confirmed. He doesn't necessarily agree with it, but that becomes his mission."

Newman's reservations are shared by the White House Communications Director Jerry Toliver, played by Saul Rubinek, though, the actor notes, Toliver feels less bound by the duties of his office. "Toliver is definitely playing both sides against the middle," Rubinek offers. "He's promised to help get Senator Hanson confirmed, but he undermines her every chance he gets. He's backing another 'horse' at the same time, but he can't play that too obviously. It's a game of survival on Toliver's part."

The other horse to which Rubinek is referring is Governor Jack Hathaway, played by William Petersen. Hathaway appeared to be on the inside track for the Vice Presidential nod before the President’s startling pronouncement of his choice of Laine Hanson for the job.

The one person backing Laine Hanson unconditionally is her husband, William, who is played by Robin Thomas. She also gets some sage advice from her father, Oscar Billings, a powerful former governor, played by veteran actor Philip Baker Hall.

Mike Binder appears as Senator Hanson’s communications director Lewis Hollis. There is also a cameo appearance by Mariel Hemingway, as William Hanson’s ex-wife Cynthia, who offers some damaging revelations about Senator Hanson during her confirmation hearings.

"The Contender" was filmed almost entirely on location in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to being in relatively close proximity to Washington, DC, the city bears important similarities in architectural period and style. There are, however, major differences in size and scale, so Lurie worked closely with cinematographer Denis Maloney in finding camera angles to create a perception of added dimension.

Production designer Alexander Hammond also had to employ some clever techniques to allow both the interiors and exteriors of Richmond to reflect the scale and scope of Washington, DC. This was especially true for the main chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates, which doubled for the House of Representatives where President Evans addresses the Congress.

The chamber was in the process of being remodeled, so Hammond and his team had 24 hours to turn the gutted concrete space into the room familiar to anyone who’s watched C-Span. They replaced the carpet, built benches, expanded the seating and even reproduced the artwork.

By far the greatest challenge lay in recreating the Oval Office of the President. In doing their research, the filmmakers were extremely grateful to the White House, which gave them access to the Oval Office, as well as the mansion and grounds.

The Oval Office scenes were shot on a soundstage in Petersburg, Virginia, where one of the few permanent Oval Office sets stands. However, Hammond and his team found the office bore little resemblance to the real thing except in shape. Once again, the design team engaged in a floor-to-ceiling overhaul in order to make an office fit for the President of the United States.

Hammond and Lurie supplemented their firsthand observations with research of the Oval Offices of every President from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. They learned that each Oval Office reflected something of the individual who occupied it, which helped them to determine the specific décor of President Evans’ office. Nearing the end of his second term, Evans is at ease with his power and outwardly downplays his status in a variety of ways-including his unending appetite. Nevertheless, Hammond and Lurie ultimately decided to give Evans a very formal, majestic office, and allow Jeff Bridges’ performance to create the contradiction.

In the interests of accuracy, everything seen in the Oval Office-or in any of the White House sets for that matter-are reproductions of actual pieces in the permanent White House collection. Two pieces in particular brought a special sense of verisimilitude, as well as history: The blue couches in President Evans' office were actually once owned by President James Madison, and now belong to the governor of Virginia.

Having grown up in Washington, DC, costume designer Matthew Jacobsen knew that the real clothes of those who work in the nation’s capital would never cut it on the big screen. Instead Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman and Sam Elliott wore custom-made Oxxford suits and tuxedos, though Oldman was intentionally dressed in the least flattering shades of brown, olive, beige and gray, specifically chosen to wash him out and age him.

Perhaps the most authentic Washington look belonged to Christian Slater, who was clothed entirely in Brooks Brothers as befitting a freshman congressman. For Joan Allen, who Jacobsen notes, "tailors beautifully," the costume department sought to maintain a very simple and understated look, and dressed her in the clean lines of Rena Lange, Armani and John Galliano. Her sequined evening gown worn for the White House dinner was designed by Pamela Dennis.

Jacobsen put Jeff Bridges in casual clothes for certain scenes, which added to the impression that President Evans is comfortable in his own skin, so to speak. Other times, he is in suits that were chosen to reflect the power and glory of the presidency.

"I am always intrigued by the enigma of the American presidency," Lurie comments, "and fascinated by the political life. In 'The Contender,' there is a blurring of the line between what is public what is private life. In other words, Laine Hanson's entire life is made public-which is true of most politicians, as well as celebrities. That is one of the things we tried to depict with this film."

Writer / Director Rod Lurie with castHe concludes, "Even though I wrote this film for Joan Allen, I realized in my heart of hearts that I was writing it for my daughter Paige. I want her to grow up in a world where she's given a fair shot, where she doesn't have to live with double standards, and where principles are not an inconvenience in politics."