The Speechwriter’s Life: screenwriting speechwriter Jeremy Larner (Part One)

“In the movies, there’s a natural line between actor and character. In politics, that line is missing, and the power of simplistic phrases is magnified."

Most speechwriters can only dream of the opportunity to write speeches for two candidates squaring off in the same political contest. But Jeremy Larner has actually done it. He wrote speeches for two candidates running in the same election – Senator Crocker Jarmon of California and Bill McKay, the telegenic challenger who came from behind to unseat Jarmon in a win few predicted at the outset.

And Larner won an Oscar for his work on behalf of Jarmon and McKay. These individuals were characters in his original screenplay for the classic political movie The Candidate.

Larner reminded me that there are in fact three candidates in the iconic film – we should not forget Neil Atkinson, the office-seeker delivering a concession speech at the start of the movie. Atkinson’s brief speech includes these lines: “They said when we got into this, we didn't have a chance. They said there was nothing we could do. Now, the count has gone against us…whatever that means. I'm not sorry, and I hope you're not sorry. I think we've proved our point.”

Atkinson, Larner explained, represents the sort of candidate who, in the face of defeat, “fancies himself a philosopher. Everything Atkinson says is amusing in a way he will never understand. There’s no mystery about what it means when ‘the count has gone against us’ – he lost the election!”

Larner recalled that Robert Redford’s three main speeches in The Candidate were shot all on the same day, with the same extras as the audience. “Michael Ritchie, the movie’s director, asked me to get up and explain to the audience what the speeches were about, point by point, and how the audience was supposed to react to every line. He thought this would enable him to get the reaction shots he wanted faster. I feared this was going to cut down on the spontaneous reaction of the extras. Typical of a speechwriter, I wanted to see the undiluted effect of my speeches on an audience,” Larner said.

“Nevertheless, I did as Ritchie asked. My doing so was documented in a TV movie made to publicize the movie, and the results gave us all a jolt.”

As Larner put it, it’s during the third speech that Redford’s character, Bill McKay, demonstrates “how successful candidates get caught up and carried away by total immersion in the meaningless gestures and sound-bites of campaigning—and the response they get from the crowds gathered to hear them. This is the theme of the film – how candidates get swept away by the total surround of campaigning. McKay by this point in the film is a lost soul, and he ends up reciting all the clichés he has avoided, and equivocating on all the issues he would not equivocate earlier.

“And so I explained to the extras the circumstances of all 3 speeches and how they were to react, line by line. But despite what I said, once we started filming that third speech, as corny and insincere as it was, some of the girls in the front row starting crying. This reminded me that people respond to speeches on multiple levels, as with writing. Think what happens when a demagogue delivers what people want to hear, even if it is vicious nonsense. The audience gives itself the thrill of a united response, indulging the idea that they are as one, the force of good which must obliterate the force of evil. God or fate must be with them! That’s the irrational process a rousing political speech can set off, even when the speaker has a rational program and does not entirely intend it. And it’s only natural for the speaker to go along with his feedback, to feel himself exalted, and to engage his listeners in applauding themselves as they applaud him,” Larner said.

“The thing that impressed me most in all the time I worked with Redford, is that when the girls cried, he knew he’d invoked an unintended power: he was aware of himself as an actor, not a messiah, and felt not exaltation but a twinge of fear.

“I take those tears as testimony to the scene and dialogue at that point in the movie…which happens to set up the ending. I, too, feel that twinge, even when I’m well aware it is caused by my own calculations as speechwriter being reinforced by an irrational crowd.

“In the movies, there’s a natural line between actor and character. In politics, that line is missing, and the power of simplistic phrases is magnified,” Larner said.

The extras’ on-set response to Redford’s delivery also stirred Larner to some thoughts about the limits of the speechwriter’s ability to make a particular speech successful. “It all depends on the person speaking, even if he didn’t write a word of it. If someone is reading a speech, he’s putting his reputation and authority behind it. Whether he is praised or blamed, the speech becomes his forever, like it or not. He commissioned and delivered it; it’s his ass on the line. As a writer, one can take only so much credit,” he said.

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