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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Journalism department holds talk with ‘The Front Runner’ screenwriter

On April 4, journalist and screenwriter Matt Bai spoke at a talk held by the Journalism department moderated by Journalism Program Director Neil Swidey. Bai is a former chief political correspondent for New York Times Magazine and was also a national political columnist for Yahoo! News. Recently, Bai has geared his work more towards screenwriting. He wrote the 2018 film “The Front Runner,” which starred Hugh Jackman, based on his book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”. The book and film are about former Colorado senator Gary Hart, whose presidential campaign for the 1988 Democratic primaries failed when journalists released photos of Hart that suggested that he was having an affair. Bai spoke to students about the shift from journalism to screenwriting, the similarities and differences that they share, and his observations on how political figures are portrayed in the media.

Bai began by talking about the different lessons he has learned about writing in recent years. One of those lessons that he emphasized was about the importance of choices. Bai declared, “All writing is about choices. If you’re not making choices, you’re not writing.” These choices can involve necessary cuts and additions, as well as choices that need to be made in terms of how a story will be told. This is one of the ideas that applies to both journalism and screenwriting. However, Bai does not believe that there is that much similarity between journalistic writing and screenwriting. “I try to put away my journalistic sensibilities when screenwriting,” Bai explained. Bai sees screenwriting as more of an art than journalism. When watching a movie based on a true story, it is expected for there to be some fictional elements. Bai believes that “The Front Runner”is somewhere between 60-75% true, which he thinks is a pretty good percentage for a film. He also said, “We can not get our knowledge and history from art.” However, when it comes to journalism, “You should not pick up a piece of journalism and wonder if any of it is not true.” Journalists have a responsibility towards their readers and while they have a story to tell, they need to provide the facts.

Bai then gave the students some tips he learned about screenwriting and on what makes for effective storytelling. He talked about exposition and how he believes it is something that should be avoided in film. Bai’s advice for screenwriting is, “The trick of adapting stories is imparting information without people realizing.” He finds that exposition can sometimes slow the story down, even if it serves as a necessary background for history. Subtly placing the information in the film can work better for entertainment. Entertaining storytelling is important for a film, which is why choices about elements like exposition need to be made. Working on screenwriting has talked about what it was like to be on the other side of reporting. When “The Front Runner” came out, Bai was talking to the press about the film and went from being the writer to a subject. “The experience of being written about helps you write about other people,” Bai explained. He learned about how subjects feel through this different perspective on the making of an article. Bai diving into the Hollywood scene gave him a whole new outlook on writing as a whole, which is what made for an entertaining experience.

Bai then talked about the line of privacy for public figures and what separates them from performers. This topic goes back to the subject of Gary Hart. Bai mentioned how journalists were more focused on selling the story of Hart then focusing on the fact of him having privacy. When asking the students in the audience that had watched the film if they were on the side of Hart or the journalists, practically all of the students were on the side of Hart due to the violation of his privacy from journalists. Bai said that journalists should consider these ethics, as politicians like Hart still have private lives. When it comes to if these people should be looked into, Bai said, “Can you make a case for relevance beyond it selling in a supermarket?” While there are choices that need to be made in terms of what the readers want, there should also be consideration on if it is what they need. There are some politicians that thrive off of the attention, but they are not entertainers. Bai felt that “Hart was a politician treated like an entertainer,” showing a perspective that the journalists might have done too much in the case of Hart.

While Bai enjoyed his career in journalism, he is liking the relatively new experience of being a screenwriter. Bai said, “One of the reasons I love screenwriting is I’m getting better and better.” He had never taken a screenwriting class before he began, but went right for it, took what he knew about storytelling, and created, what he sees as, a good film. Overall, he has learned a lot about storytelling over the years and will likely learn more as he works on more projects. An important element of storytelling that Bai emphasized during his talk is “Your material has to serve your story,” meaning that a writer has to be able to control their material and make sure that it can create a well-written story. It is lessons like these that Bai hoped the students understood so that they would know how to be effective storytellers, both in journalism and in screenwriting.

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