Rather quietly, Jay Roach has become one of the more interesting mainstream directors in Hollywood. He started off with big comedies like the Austin Powers trilogy and the first two Meet The Parents movies. Those projects offered Roach a chance to create something slightly more cinematic than the average studio comedy, but they were still undeniably big, broad laugh machines. Then he slid into HBO to make a pair of funny, yet primarily politically pointed true life tales in Recount (about the notorious Florida voting controversies that got George Bush elected) and Game Change (about Sarah Palin’s delightful reign of terror on the campaign trail). He also combined both his offbeat and commercial comedy chops in the delightful (and quite underrated) Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis flick The Campaign. While still remaining within the mainstream, Roach has proven himself to be an intriguingly diverse director in an industry that tends to pigeonhole.
This week, audiences will be treated to the release of Roach’s most ambitious directorial outing to date in Trumbo. It’s the tale of legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was one of the ten imprisoned and blacklisted writers during Hollywood’s Red Scare. Never one to admit defeat, Trumbo continued writing under pseudonyms and managed to win two Oscars while blacklisted until Kirk Douglas finally allowed him to be credited again on Spartacus. It’s a fascinating slice of dark Hollywood history that Roach weaves with his patented mix of sincere politics and big laughs. With a cast lead by Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and the likes of Helen Mirren, Louis CK, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, and Elle Fanning in supporting roles, it’s also a movie primed for attention during this year’s movie awards race.
Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with Jay Roach when the film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where he spilled the beans about everything from his intriguing career transition, to the challenge of casting actors portraying real people, and how he corrected one of the few errors in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Read on for all the details.
What drew you to this story? Were you specifically interested in Douglas Trumbo or was it more a fascination with the blacklist era in general?
I didn’t know much about this particular aspect of the Red Scare era and was interested in learning more about it. But to be honest, it was mostly the guy. His writing, his movies, his approach to life. He was a very passionate and loving man. He was obsessed with righting injustices, but to a fault. He was obnoxious about it much of the time. He was opinionated, but he cared about words and ideas. He thought every word mattered. He loved language and there were principles that he cared so much about that he was willing to go to jail for them. He didn’t want to go to jail, of course. They were strategizing ways not to, but underestimated what might go wrong with the supreme court. He really believed that dissent was patriotic. He loved America and was a mainstream screenwriter. He wasn’t trying to hypnotize Americans through mainstream movies and indoctrinate them into totalitarian communism. He didn’t believe in totalitarian anything.
I was just hooked by the guy. He was so complex. There’s a whole book of his letters and they are so beautifully written. Many of them from jail and some of them are very inappropriate. (Laughs) He wrote one to his son about masturbation that Nathan Lane read in the play and the documentary that’s very funny. But so many of them were also heartbreaking. The stakes were so high for these men. And I guess I’ve always identified with writers. John McNamara wrote the screenplay and in Hollywood writers are always undervalued. There’s a reason why nine out of the Hollywood Ten were screenwriters. They were seen by the studios as expendable and workers for hire, which is the opposite of how they should be viewed. In theater and television, the writer is king. I’m saying this as a director. I know the power of a great screenplay. So that said something about the undervaluing of the kind of people willing to speak to power. It could happen again on any fear-based topic. Is it really best to silence the men and women who have the power to articulate their thoughts the most clearly?
With both the writing and performing of Douglas Trumbo, was it tricky to find the balance of presenting someone who speaks so floridly and histrionically while still maintaining a sense of realism in the dialogue?
For most characters there’s a certain type of naturalism and for Trumbo there’s completely different type of naturalism. Trumbo’s style was rhetorical. He was a debater in high school and that carried through to his adult life. We deliberately included a clip from one of his interviews in the movie to show what he was like. In interviews, he would have written out answers and rehearsed them and performed them. I wish I could do that to be honest. (Laughs) In that interview we included, he knew that every word mattered and that every idea had to be communicated strongly. He was asked if he could receive the Oscar what he would do with it and he said, “I’d give it to my daughter because since she was three she’s had to live in secret. I’d let her know that we have our names back.” That’s a really amazing line.
Bryan did that as well in our movie. If you compare the clip with Bryan’s performance, you’ll see that naturalism isn’t naturalism in this case. It was communicating with pizazz and power. That’s Bryan Cranston too. He cares so much about the essence of what each scene is about. So he’ll throw everything in there and use all of his range, from those really dark corners in quiet scenes all the way up to the huge speeches. Bryan could communicate so much as this man. Bryan is so much in Trumbo and Trumbo is so much in Bryan that I really don’t know how the movie could have worked with anyone else playing him.
Was it difficult to balance the humour and drama in the film? Particularly the John Goodman and Stephen Root sequences, which are hilarious, but obviously you didn’t want to let those sorts of scenes overwhelm the movie.
Thank you for mentioning Stephen Root. People always mention John Goodman and forget him. He’s one of my favourites. He’s playing Hoover in the LBJ movie that I’m working on with Bryan. That section of the movie is so enjoyable for me, when the two least likely heroes team up to find a market for Trumbo’s screenplays. It would have been unrealistic to make a completely serious a film without humour in it because these were witty dudes. Trumbo was a very funny man. You read those letters or his screenplays and you see it. Even Spartacus has some very funny and interesting moments. So it’s more authentic and enjoyable to experience this story with humour. The script already had that element, but then when we cast John and Stephen it went to another level. It captures so much and feels so real. That’s why you cast those actors. Same with Louis CK. We knew we wanted his character to be a more hardline communist. We kept having conversations saying, “we want someone as funny and opinionated as Louis CK.” And then eventually we just got Louis CK. (Laughs) I never thought that he would have time to do it. He’s constantly touring and in a ton of movies.
I love that he’s slowly becoming a character actor. It really suits him.
Yeah. He’s so good in that Woody Allen movie as well. He’s always good. But he and Bryan in those scenes, they became such fast friends. I really think they made that relationship matter so much that you really feel it when it breaks. They were wonderful together. Yet he’s also funny to get those lines like, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chizzled in a rock some day?”
Has it been difficult for you to transition into making more dramatic films like this after having started your career with mainstream comedies?
It’s hard to explain. I love making comedies and as you’d imagine they can be very fun to make, where you’re just laughing all day. But they can also be very hard work because you never know if it’s funny enough and you’re always chasing the laughs. For me, it’s all storytelling and it’s all related. Working on those comedies was a wonderful experience and I want to do more. But there’s something about these movies. When I finished reading that book of Trumbo’s letters, I knew I had to make the movie. I had people saying to me, “Why are you wasting your time? No one is going to want to see this.” But, I kept saying, “No, there’s something compelling about this.” I just wouldn’t let it go. When you’re working with that strength of conviction, I’ll use the cliché, it doesn’t feel like work. I will be honest, sometimes when you don’t have that, it can feel like work. It’s fun work. It’s still the greatest job on earth. But it can feel like work. When you’re working on something like this that I enjoy talking about, it’s a blast. It’s really fulfilling. And you know, it’s not going to change the world, but it might start a conversation. I did Game Change and Recount at HBO as well and I just love working on these things that start a conversation.
With Trumbo, Game Change, and Recount, you’ve now got quite a bit of experience casting actors as real people. Sometimes you find people that look remarkably like the performer. Like the guy you got to play Kirk Douglas in this, which is almost creepy.
(Laughs) Thanks. I can’t wait for you to hear his real voice. He’s Australian.
Really? Bizarre. But sometimes you’ll just cast based on the performer and don’t worry about getting the look right. How do you approach that? Do you try to find people that look right first? Or do you try not to think about that?
It’s challenging. You don’t want to go seeking people primarily because they have the right look. That might get you into trouble. I don’t like going for an impersonation. But there is a little bit of an obligation to have the audience sign on instantly for the portrayal and looks can help with that. I’m working with Frank Langella right now and what he did with Nixon on Frost/Nixon didn’t look that much like him, but I think it was maybe ten seconds before I forgot what Nixon looks like. That’s what a really great actor can do. Like Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin. I wasn’t sure if she could get the look, I just knew she was the best actress in the realm and then once we got the hair and everything right she disappeared.
On Trumbo, John Wayne was the trickiest one. He had to have the voice and the right stature and everything. At that point in his life, Wayne was extremely patriotic and cared about his country and was very zealous about fighting communism. There’s a great story about how he came at Carl Foreman during the shooting of High Noon. He actually smashed his fists into the walls because he was so frustrated that Carl Foreman wouldn’t cooperate. So we needed someone with that zeal and heart that could add a soul to that performance. So I was very happy when we found David James Elliott. Same with Michael Stuhlberg as Edward G. Robinson. That’s a story of an actor who didn’t have a pseudonym to hide behind, so he had to choose between giving up his career and naming names. It must have been so hard and it took four interrogations before he did. So we ended up with Michael who doesn’t look much like him, but got Edward G. Robinson’s vibe. People just respond to that predicament, so I knew that if the predicament and performance were strong enough, people would forget about the looks.
Finally as a director, how much did you enjoy getting to recreate those scenes from old movies in Trumbo, like the opening on the set of the Edward G. Robinson or even getting to have the Spartacus costume around for a day?
(Laughs) That was fun. The Spartacus one was particularly enjoyable because…well…it’s Stanley Kubrick, come on! I got to go to work on a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie. He’s such a hero and I knew I had to patch Dean into that shot. Actually, there was a small eye-line issue in that one scene where Kirk was looking off in a slightly wrong direction so I corrected that. (Laughs) One of my favourite things was watching our Kirk Douglas watch himself and make that decision. He already knew at that point that he wanted to give Trumbo credit. We talked to Kirk, he actually already saw the movie and he told us that he knew he was going to do it, but still wasn’t completely sure. He had financed the movie through his own production company and was way over budget, they had fired a director before Kubrick and then he had the bravery to put Trumbo’s name on screen. It was a very difficult decision. So, that was a really important moment for me to get right in the movie.