Tribeca Dialogue: Bill Guttentag, Chris Lehane and Rob Lowe on the Shady World of Politics in ‘Knife Fight’

Tribeca Dialogue: Bill Guttentag, Chris Lehane and Rob Lowe on the Shady World of Politics in ‘Knife Fight’

Apr 30, 2012

Knife Fight

What are you going to get if you opt to catch Bill Guttentag’s Tribeca Film Festival entry Knife Fight? Guttentag’s co-writer, Chris Lehane, says it best. “Sometimes it takes the lowest blows to achieve the noblest ends.” Lehane works as a political consultant and, more bluntly, a crisis averter. When a contender’s campaign turns south via scandal, Lehane steps in to spin the situation in his or her favor.

And so is true of the star of Knife Fight, Paul Turner, played by Rob Lowe. In Paul’s case, he’s got a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) with a thing for young office employees and a California senator who can’t help but to take a massage a little too far. With the next election on the horizon, their only hope at holding onto their positions is if Paul, with the help of his trusty assistant, Kerstin (Jamie Chung), can work some magic.

Guttentag, Lehane and Lowe not only hit New York City to celebrate the film’s big premiere at Tribeca, but the trio also sat down to talk about the truth behind this project, the challenges of working on such a small budget with so little time, how they hope audiences will respond and more. Read all about it in the interview below.

Movies.com: How did the project come to be? Who approached who here?

Chris Lehane: Bill and I had friends in common. At one point, Bill had contacted me when I was in a presidential campaign to see whether we would be willing to allow them to do a behind the scenes documentary and I pretended to have a conversation with Bill about the idea that we would pretend to be interested in that. [Laughs] And then fast forward a couple of years and Bill asked me to come to Stanford, which is where he teaches at the business school and give a little talk to his class and after that, Bill came up and suggested he’d be interested in working on a potential script. I had been approached in the past by folks, but I’m gonna steal one of Rob’s lines here, but no one who won Oscars. So someone with those type of credentials and pedigree, there was a seriousness and purpose about it because if it was gonna be done, I wanted it to be done in an authentic way and a right way.

Bill Guttentag: I had met a couple presidential candidates with the idea, could you get into the room? And the answer quickly became, no you couldn’t. [Laughs] No one would let you in the room, the real room. There’s things where you sorta get in, but you’re not in the real room. Having said that, we came up with the script and then this is a film that, of course, lives and dies on one person’s performance and you want to feel like it’s authentic, it’s real and it’s extraordinarily well acted and so we met Rob; he seemed like a really good fit to us.

Knife Fight

Movies.com: I know this is a fictional story, but are there any tiny factual details that snuck in there?

Lehane: Yeah, but if I answered that, I’d have to kill you. [Laughs]

Movies.com: I have this on tape, you know. [Laughs]

Lehane: That was a joke! [Laughs] It is very much a mosaic so that there are different pieces that come in from things that I have done as far as my career in politics that are certainly informed by this, a little bit moderate right TV series takes things that are ripped from the headlines. What this is designed to really do is take stuff that has happened very broadly in politics, but actually get you into the room behind the room where the cameras never go, where people like yourself are never allowed access to, to actually have a discussion about how you’re going to deal with those types of issues. But I just want to show you how politics really works and why you should care about this, but do it in an entertaining and compelling way. Bill said this, but this film does not work other than a performance by Rob.

Movies.com: Was this part of their pitch to you? This film isn’t going to work unless you do a great job?

Rob Lowe: The sales job for me was really script. I knew this was a great part. There’s so many great arias in it. I was just picking a clip for David Letterman later tonight and it’s an embarrassment of riches; there’s so many great sequences. So I wanted to do it based on that alone and the reason that they work for me is that they are authentic and I know it’s exactly what people say, it’s exactly how they say it and these are the positions in which they say it. And most people don’t get to see that behind the curtain look.

Movies.com: How’d you prepare for this? You’ve got the real deal right here, but also some fictional material, too, so how’d you go about bringing out the best of both?

Lowe: As luck would have it, I got a lot of experience behind the scenes myself. I’ve been in the room standing next to a guy who just lost the presidency of the United States. I’ve seen him get the results. I’ve seen what they say to you. I’ve been standing next to a guy who’s receiving the concession call and winning the governorship. I’ve been on the bus with guys like Chris, his opposing number, who’s actually in the movie, Steve Schmidt on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign. Just because I’m interested, I’ve been around a lot of it. I didn’t have to do any research. I didn’t have to do any of that because I’ve lived a lot of it. Where that helped me, was when I read the script. Like on Brothers and Sisters, there would be times where I would read the politics and just call bullshit on it nine times out of ten. First of all, the “republican” they had me play on that show was the biggest full of shit republican. It just did not pass any authenticity test at all. When I read this, I went, ‘Oh, this is the real deal.’ 

Knife Fight

Movies.com: It must have been a major asset to have Rob so "in the know," but was that the case with the rest of the cast? Was there any politics 101 here?

Guttentag: People come to the role with all different things and fundamentally you’re looking for believable actors, but the thing is, in the film, Rob is supposed to be this vastly experienced person as is Richard [Schiff], so that’s actually reflecting the reality of that world.

Movies.com: How was it working with such a big ensemble?

Guttentag: It’s an ensemble, but at the end of the day, there’s just like a handful of people you care about. So on one hand, when you’re going deep into the casting, small parts can pull you out if someone doesn’t feel real and it sticks out. On the other hand, the fundamental collaboration on this was with Chris and Rob and myself and beyond that you take out of concentric circles; you obviously   have to believe Jamie and you have to believe Eric [McCormack] and Richard and so on, but this whole idea is just keeping it real and just making sure people believe.

Lehane: As the novice to this whole thing, [Rob] made a lot of changes to the script to make it tighter and sharper. And, this is going to sound very naïve, but the compressed filming schedule, people are working 7am till late in the evening and then doing four or five hours of sleep, having to go over lines for the next day, it actually felt a little bit like what a campaign feels like. There’s a beginning and an end, it’s a very intense period, you’re around a bunch of people who you get to know pretty well because you’re eating with them, you’re effectively living with them for a significant period of time and then it ends. It goes from like a mom and pop business to a Fortune 500 company in a matter of weeks and then it’s over!

Lowe: For me the challenge is, it’s a lot of verbiage. I think the hardest one for me, because it was so technical, was the scene where I’m driving and I’m explaining to Jamie why great men have great flaws. It’s like three and a half pages uninterrupted and you’re in a car, driving so you have to stop for the motorcycle cop and you have to go now and then you’ve gotta stop here and you can only talk from here to here and if you don’t finish the speech here, they’re not going to be – so it’s tremendously technical on top of if you were just sitting in a room, it would be hard to do. And on this budget, it wasn’t like we were gonna have 10 or 15 takes, so I knew that you had to bring you’re A-game every single day. If you’re doing this movie for Warner Bros., anyone can play this part. Literally almost anybody. But to do it on this schedule under these sort of run and gun circumstances, I knew that was gonna be a challenge I wanted to tackle.

Knife Fight

Movies.com: Do you thrive off of that pressure? Like, sometimes when I have a ton of pieces to write in a short amount of time, I bang them out, but when I’ve got all day, I lag.

Lowe: Yeah, you kind of get off on the pressure. Every year that I do this I’ve gotta find something new to try to extend, sort of push through a boundary and so in this case, part of it was the schedule we were gonna make it on.

Guttentag: There is this soup of the artistry and the technical part. I just want to endorse what Rob said; on one hand he’s got to say the lines and you’re just looking at the frame. If you’re in the theater, you’re just seeing the frame and in some ways, that’s all you should be thinking about, but you also have to understand that Rob’s at the car wheel and we thought it was an authentic thing to have him cutting through San Francisco. It would have been a lot easier if we chose some backstreet, but if you want to drive around City Hall, guess what? They got other traffic to deal with, so you could only go at certain times, and the motorcyclists, and they stop you and all this stuff, and in a way, an audience should think about it, but it’s also part of the real skill set, the technique that as an actor, you have to push out all that other stuff. I think this is part of Rob’s brilliance is that when you look at the frame, you’re not thinking about all that stuff. You’re just thinking of a guy giving a really good talk.

Movies.com: What are you hoping audiences take from the film as far as the story goes? Paul’s a good guy, but there’s no denying his methods might not be the most honest.

Lowe: He is a guy who behaves cynically, but he himself is not cynical and I think that’s very interesting because usually you get one or the other, but you don’t get both. I think that the audience will be, hopefully, aghast, entertained and then embrace the reveal of his love of the country and this process and why he does it.

Categories: Film Festivals, Interviews
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