How Hillary Clinton inspired a show about the dramas of campaign reporting

Amy Chozick spent nearly a decade reporting on Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency, first for the Wall Street Journal and later, including during the 2016 election, for the New York Times. Like many who study journalism, she expected campaign reporting to resemble the testosterone-fueled antics documented in Timothy Crouse’s 1972 book “The Boys on the Bus,” about reporters who covered President Nixon’s reelection bid against Sen. George McGovern. But somewhere along the way, Chozick realized “what was once the terrain of these swashbuckling men … was now almost entirely female.”

“And not just because there were female candidates,” she added in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “Women had really taken over the campaign trail.”

Chozick reflected on her ambitions — and Clinton’s — in her 2018 memoir “Chasing Hillary,” which inspired the new television series “The Girls on the Bus,” premiering Thursday on Max. Chozick co-created the show with Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”) to explore the unlikely bonds that can form among female journalists working under high pressure and in tight quarters.

Set in the months leading up to a fictional Democratic National Convention, “The Girls on the Bus” follows four protagonists: Sadie (Melissa Benoist), an optimistic-to-a-fault newspaper reporter who refuses to take no for an answer; Grace (Carla Gugino), a veteran journalist at the rival legacy newspaper who is often referred to as a “scoop queen”; Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), a determined Black anchor striving to prove herself at a conservative TV news channel; and Lola (Natasha Behnam), a boisterous content creator who amassed a massive TikTok following after surviving a school shooting years earlier.

The women vary greatly in personality and politics, but are all tasked with following the same female candidate. They bond on the rickety campaign bus, at chaotic rallies and in staid hotel rooms turned offices over their shared hunt for the truth. At the end of the day, Chozick said, “they’re all in it together.”

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

When did it first occur to you that this could be a television series?

I think it started when I chose to write my book in my own voice instead of writing it like a straight political book. Remember “Julie & Julia”? I always wanted to write my book that way, just how two women’s lives intertwine. My late mentor, David Carr, at the time said, you have to put newspapering aside and go to this magical place where writers live.

I had lunch with two executives at Warner Bros. when I was still writing the book. I told them the premise and they were like, “I love this. This could be a TV show.” So it ended up with Warner Bros., and luckily ended up with [executive producer] Greg Berlanti. Greg is a genius, and we knew immediately: This is not a Hillary show, this is not a Trump show. Nobody wants to relive 2016 — I didn’t want it. We knew that wasn’t the story we wanted to tell.

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The series is inspired by a book that documents a very different political era. How did you and Julie Plec approach bringing this story to 2024? I’m thinking of the abortion storyline, for example, in which one of the characters drives another over state lines to retrieve abortion pills.

We were constantly updating storylines and updating language. It’s funny because around 2020 while we were working on it, we were like, if we have a female president we’re really going to have to scrap some of these storylines. But no, still no female president. I think a lot of the big themes [from past election cycles] still apply, even more so now. I think politics is even more dark and divisive and terrifying to people than it was then.

As we were writing the abortion story, the laws kept changing. The other day, I was reminded that in the writers room, we were trying to decide where to set the story. Where does it make sense that the campaign would be [stopping] where abortion is illegal, so you would have to cross over to the neighboring state, you know? We had to get out the map because while we were writing, it was like, “Oh no, not that state; you can’t do that state anymore.”

Did you draw primarily from your past experiences covering campaigns, or did you also consult with journalists who actively cover them today?

Abby Phillip at CNN was a consultant, so she read scripts and talked to the writers room because I don’t know what it’s like to be in broadcast TV. That is a whole different thing.

I really drew on my friends to talk to the writers room. We probably put the most care into crafting Kimberlyn, to make sure she was a fully realized person. I remember speaking to Obama’s faith adviser, Joshua DuBois, during the campaign. I wrote a story on him. He talked to the writers about faith-based Black conservatives that he’s met.

Tell me about writing Lola. I was struck by the potential reality of a school shooting survivor leveraging their social media platform in this way.

We wanted a journalist to represent this new frontier. It was super interesting to see her debates with Carla’s character, to represent the two polar opposites on the spectrum: the old-school scoop queen, “We must live in an objective world” … to the kind of activist, “I’m reaching a huge audience on TikTok.”

We wanted to take Lola seriously. What happens when the cameras are gone, when the press has moved on to the next tragedy and you have a wounded young woman who has to support herself? I think Lola is funny, and older viewers might think she’s just an annoying influencer. But then hopefully, as the season progresses, you have empathy for her.

What stands out to you about how Grace navigates the series?

We know these women in our lives. They’ve taught us, they’ve been amazing. But they came up in a different time, when women really had to be like the boys to beat the boys. Grace had to throw elbows and, having a famous dad, had to prove that she deserved to be there. But instead of knocking the other women down, she ends up lifting them up.

She was very inspired by the way Andrea Mitchell treated all of us on the campaign trail. Here’s a woman who’s an absolute legend and so generous. She was lovely. Maureen Dowd is a wonderful mentor to younger women. Jill Abramson is tough as nails and the sweetest, most generous with journalistic advice. Grace is really molded in that model.

I also really love the idea that, here’s this woman who has been on the trail for decades, has been part of three Pulitzer-winning teams, and her personal life is a hot mess. What are the sacrifices that took? If you go back and read “The Boys on the Bus,” these men got back from covering debates or primaries and their wives would pick them up from the airport. There’d be a pot roast in the oven. That is not the case for women.

Is Sadie the stand-in for you?

I wish. No, of course Sadie is the most like me because the type of journalism she’s drawn to is probably the type I’m drawn to: long-form narrative nonfiction. Like, “Why can’t we write sweeping narratives the way those guys used to?” She is an old soul in that sense.

Actually, speaking of The Post, Melissa [Benoist] shadowed Ashley Parker. Yeah, your very own Ashley. Melissa actually talked to a range of journalists. I think her messiness and neuroses came from a mix of Julie and Rina [Mimoun, the showrunner]. But in terms of romanticizing the paper of record, getting her dream job, I identify with that.

I sensed some parallels, too, in how Sadie talks to her editor [about inserting herself into her stories]. A lot of the online responses to your New York Times interview with Elizabeth Holmes debated the proper relationship between a journalist and their subject. I thought it was interesting to see that discussion in a modern fictional context.

There are — and you’re probably more in the center of it because you’re in a newsroom — these debates about objectivity. Lola and Grace give us that, and Sadie’s sort of in the middle. I talk to journalism schools a lot and [students] are like, “That’s bulls—. Objectivity is a myth. You can’t tell me someone doesn’t bring their own perspective into a story.”

Maybe it’s been a mess this whole time, and we all bring our own perspectives and biases to a story. I think what Sadie’s arguing is sort of like what I did with my whole story. It’s like, I want to be very honest about how I feel in this story. It’s vulnerable, right? By Sadie putting herself in a story, she feels like that is being more honest with readers.

So much of the show is about how unglamorous it is to be on a campaign trail. Were there any particular aspects that you wanted to make sure were depicted?

The biggest thing was the bus. It’s extremely hard to shoot in a bus, as you can imagine. So there were all kinds of creative ideas, like what if we made it couches inside? What if we reconfigured the bus? And I was like, no. It’s called “The Girls on the Bus.” The bus has to look like the souped-up Greyhound that I spent my life on.

Without going into too much detail, you’re left with at the end of these 10 episodes with the feeling that the job isn’t done. What were you trying to convey to viewers?

For one, we wanted a big cliffhanger so we could get a Season 2. But for Sadie, her arc is [that] she starts out romanticizing the boys on the bus. All she wants to do is be one of the boys on the bus. I love when [her editor] is like, “Hunter S. Thompson would be an HR crisis now. What are you doing?” By the end of the season, she realizes she can’t be like the boys on the bus. That era is over, and she has to be better.

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