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Machiavelli Makes A Movie

Political ninja-turned-screenwriter Chris Lehane reveals his bloodthirsty campaign tricks in Knife Fight.

Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based political consultant and co-writer of "Knife Fight."

In 2004, two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Guttentag (Twin Towers, Nanking) had a fabulous idea: His next documentary would follow a presidential campaign, but instead of covering the usual stump speeches, he would chronicle the “room behind the room,” that Twitter-free zone where pottymouthed consultants strategize about exposing the opponent’s affairs and illegal nanny. Naturally, the first thing he did was call Chris Lehane.

A San Francisco–based political consultant who was deemed a “master of the political dark arts” by the New York Times, Lehane listened intently to Guttentag’s idea, put his phone on mute, and laughed. He certainly had juicy stories to tell: He is credited, for example, with leaking George W. Bush’s DUI charge just days before the 2000 election, and he was chief counterpuncher for the Clinton administration during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. But he made one thing clear to Guttentag: The filmmaker would never get backroom access to such a campaign, not even with a signed request from the pope. 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction can come awfully close if you have the right source whispering in your ear. So Guttentag switched genres and collaborated with Lehane to write Knife Fight, a satirical sex-driven comedy centering on Paul Turner, a political crisis-management wizard who justifies playing dirty in order to get the right candidate into office. It was a remarkably local effort: The movie was conceived, written, filmed, and funded right here in the Bay Area. (San Francisco film buff Guerrino De Luca, former Apple vice president of global marketing, kicked in about $5 million.)

The film stars political junkie Rob Lowe as Lehane. Well, sort of: “The Rob Lowe character cannot be based on me. I’m much better looking than Rob Lowe,” says Lehane, joking, obviously. “Actually,” he adds, “when Rob agreed to do the film, my wife’s reaction was ‘That’s great. No one will ever think this is based on you, because no one in the world would ever confuse the two of you.’”

The film promulgates the idea that in the information age, crisis is as normal as babykissing for political campaigns. As Turner tells one client, an idealistic California physician with gubernatorial ambitions, in order to win, “you have to be the person willing to bring a gun to a knife fight.” Turner is juggling quite a few such fights. Another client, the governor of Kentucky, is a gifted politician but can’t keep his pants zipped. Yet another, a war hero turned California senator, is reeling from accusations of a massage gone too far.

Lehane insists that these characters are utterly fictional, merely composites of people he’s worked with. (After all, he still earns a living as a political consultant.) But news junkies won’t have trouble spotting similarities with real politicians. It’s not a stretch, for example, to conclude that the film’s Kentucky governor is based on that voluble Southern governor turned president with a hyperactive libido, or that the senator embroiled in the “happy ending” massage scandal is based on Al Gore, another Lehane client who was accused (falsely) of that very thing in 2010. Still, Lehane remains circumspect. “That could have happened to any number of folks,” he says. “People get massages all the time. It’s a stressful job.”

With the skill of a man who guides reporters’ pens for a living, Lehane shifts the conversation to how hard he and Guttentag worked to make Knife Fight authentic down to the smallest details. A prime example: The movie’s press corps is played by our own Carla Marinucci of the Chronicle, Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee, Sue Kwon, formerly at CBS 5, and former KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil.

The film was first screened in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Democratic National Convention, and showing it to insiders, says Lehane, was like “bringing éclairs to doughnut fans.” Reviewers, however, haven’t been as kind. Many find the film overly simplistic, with too obvious an ulterior motive, as Nancy Scola explains in the Atlantic. “You don’t need a psychology degree to see Lehane’s script as an attempt to understand his knife-twisting approach to politics in the best possible light.”

Maybe so, but it’s clear that Lehane does what he does as a rogue strategist not just to win, but because he really believes in the people he represents—and believes that bringing that gun to the knife fight can ultimately be for the good. “I’ve been blessed to get to work for folks who have made our country a much better place.” Besides, his real catharsis, he says, was in getting to write certain details into the film. “I finally got to use my slogan! For years I’ve been trying to get a candidate to use the tagline ‘a fair shake.’ So here I had the Kentucky governor, who takes on the banking industry on the mortgage issue, say that he’s giving the people of his state a fair shake!” 

So what’s next for the political consultant turned screenwriter—more Hollywood or more D.C.? “I’m not giving up my day job,” Lehane says, which includes advising Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and the groups behind California’s Proposition 39 (he’s for it) and Proposition 33 (against), as well as half a dozen or so ballot initiatives around the country. But he’s already starting in on new screenwriting projects, which he claims are not that different from his political work.

Basically, the old cliché is true, Lehane insists: “Hollywood is politics for goodlooking people, and D.C. is Hollywood for not-so-good-looking people.” The main difference, he says, is that when a political campaign is over, the real work just begins. With a film, no matter how seriously Hollywood folks tend to take themselves, “at the end of the day, it’s just a movie.”

 

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