Don’t fret, Buffy and Gilmore Girls fans. The guy behind lovable nerds Jonathan Levinson and Doyle McMaster hasn’t completely bid acting farewell. These days, though, Danny Strong is much busier working behind the camera, penning the scripts to Emmy Award-winning HBO movies (like this year’s Game Change), a Forest Whitaker flick lovingly nicknamed “the black Forrest Gump” (The Butler, out in 2013), and the last two films in the Hunger Games franchise (Mockingjay, parts one and two). Suffice it to say, Strong has had a good year. Here’s how he went from character actor to Hollywood’s hottest screenwriter.
For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes) coverage.
As told by: Danny Strong
I started writing to get my mind off of my auditions. It was more like a hobby than a goal. I wasn’t going to attach myself to my scripts; I was just going to try to do it separately. I wrote four scripts over five years, and then finally sold my first project, a pitch for Recount.
Basically, the scripts that I’d written were all comedies. I thought, “Why haven’t I been able to sell anything?” Then I realized that I had written movies that I would never want to go see – that just weren’t my taste at all. I went and saw this play called Stuff Happens – it was all about the buildup to the Iraq war. I was so engaged and enthralled by the play. When it was over, I thought, “Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
And within 30 seconds, the idea of doing something about the  Florida recount popped into my head.
Jay Roach directed Recount, and we became good friends. Around the time of the  election, Jay approached me about doing a movie about Sarah Palin. I didn’t have any interest in it. I didn’t particularly have passionate feelings about her one way or the other – it wasn’t like I hated Sarah Palin. Then the book Game Change came out, and when I got to the Sarah Palin chapters, I just thought, “Oh my gosh, Jay was absolutely right. There’s an amazing movie here.” Jay called me about four months later and said, “I’ve taken over the Game Change project at HBO. They’ve been trying to develop this Hillary/Obama script, and they’re abandoning it, and I’m going to take over and do the Sarah Palin chapters. I know you’ve said no to me, but I just want to ask you one more time before we find another writer.” And I said yes.
The Hillary/Obama part was so much more of the book than the Palin stuff. I think there’s potentially a great movie in the Hillary/Obama story. But for me, what was so amazing about the Sarah Palin story was that it was truly the story of the American dream and the American nightmare all at once for that character. Here’s a person who was basically plucked from obscurity, who overnight becomes the most famous person in the world. And yet, when you peel back the layers, you discover – and she discovered, and her staff discovered – that she was completely unprepared for this. So you have this weird Pygmalion story, and her arc as a character was really fascinating and at times quite moving.
The film’s not anti-Republican whatsoever. Jay Roach and I never believed Sarah Palin was going to run for president because she resigned as governor of Alaska – if you want to run for president, why on earth would you resign in the middle of your first term? So we didn’t think that this film would affect anyone’s candidacy. If we wanted to affect the election, we would have told the story of Barack Obama. It would have been really inspiring, a great promotion for his candidacy, because he ran such an amazing campaign in 2008.
The negative reaction to the film came solely from the employees of Sarah Palin and a few websites that are Sarah Palin’s fan websites. We were actually quite surprised that Sarah Palin’s aides attacked the film so viciously before they had seen it. In return, it gave the film so much publicity while simultaneously undercutting an attack they could have made after they had seen it. I don’t see why they didn’t just wait a week. When the film came out, they said, “We have seen the film, and everything we said before was absolutely correct.” It didn’t get any publicity, because they had used up their publicity card the week earlier.
One of the goals of the film was, “There’s a media caricature of Sarah Palin, but there’s an actual living, breathing human being behind that character – and if you could walk in her shoes for a little bit and see what she had to go through, you would have a different perspective on her.” The film also makes clear that she is not qualified to be president, but I’ll be honest with you – I don’t know anyone in my personal life who is qualified to be president. I don’t think that it’s the greatest insult in the world to say someone is not qualified to be president. She’s an extremely dynamic, charismatic figure who is beloved by millions of people.
My feelings change significantly for all my characters when I work on these fact-based stories. Because once you start researching them, once you start digging deep into their experiences – I interviewed 25 people on the McCain-Palin campaign [while writing Game Change]. Almost all of them spent the entire 60 days [dramatized in the movie] with her. So I got a completely different perspective on her – and by the way, there were such varied opinions amongst those people. There were people who really loved her, and there were people who actually weren’t fond of her at all. You really get a perspective of someone that you’re not going to get from 30 second, 50 second sound bites on cable news. It’s really gratifying, because you spend so much time with these people – I was just so happy to see us collectively get honored [at the 2012 Emmys].
As for Mockingjay – I can say very little about it. I was approached to pitch on it, and I just literally holed myself up for a week and came up with a presentation for two movies. I pitched my little heart out, and got the job. I literally can’t say anything else – I will just get in trouble. It’s, like, Defcon 5 on security over there. It’s really crazy.