Wednesday, December 30, 2015

INTERVIEW: Director Jay Roach on Trumbo

After a career spent honing his craft on some of the most memorable comedies of the past twenty years (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and some of the most gripping political dramas in recent memory (Recount, Game Change), it feels like director Jay Roach has ascended a new plateau of sorts with the riveting character study Trumbo. The film stars Bryan Cranston in the title role of the cantankerous screenwriter who gained a different degree of prominence thanks to his place in the Hollywood 10 -- filmmakers blacklisted for supposed anti-American beliefs.

In addition to Cranston, the film boasts such talents as John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Louis CK, and Diane Lane in supporting roles, all of whom lend the proceedings the proper sense of gravitas. I had the chance to speak with director Roach during his recent swing through San Francisco, and as I learned during our chat, for him this project was about more than doing justice to Trumbo's incredibly compelling biography. It was also about making some observations about the state of our current discourse in this modern age. Read on for highlights from one of the favorite interviews I've ever done.

Before we talk about Trumbo, I just wanted to say that back in 1997, I remember being in the opening weekend audience for Austin Powers. It was like a half empty theater, and I remember the way that movie just organically became this phenomenon. I always felt a little bit of pride because I was there.

Yeah, you were there at the beginning. That’s great. We never previewed very well, either. Comedies usually preview, the sort of mainstreams ones, in the 70s, if it’s not going so well, and up to the 90s if it’s going well. We never previewed at a higher score than 55.

Wow.

Because it was such a weird tone to some people. They’ve known Mike [Myers] and they expected something closer to Wayne’s World. And it wasn’t reviewed that well. That’s where I learned to not read reviews [laughs] because I just liked the specificity of it. Sometimes to be really specific, you have to risk dividing the audience a little bit. Then it was very gratifying to see that it caught on on video. That’s what happened. Video is what -- DVD was just starting up. Everybody bought DVDs, so by the time the second one came out, there was a really nice...

It was a phenomenon by then.

Then we previewed. No better film, the second one. It’s a good film, with Mini-Me -- I loved the Mini-Me stuff -- I was really happy with it, but we got like a 90 or something suddenly, in the previews, and it wasn’t that different. Then I also stopped trusting the preview scores. [laughs]

Is it because you didn't have to sell the concept anymore?

Exactly. It was an acquired taste. I really think that more than a lot of comedies I’ve been connected to, it took time for people to go from “I don’t get it, I don't understand it,” to, I remember my own agent said, “I think it’ll be good in Europe,” like he didn’t think Americans would like it at all, to “Oh, my God. We’re so happy we’re part of it.” Everyone claimed to be part of the original lovers of Austin Powers.

As far as Trumbo, I feel like this film in a lot of ways is a synthesis of your comedic side and your dramatic side. How do you know how to modulate that tone?

For me it was pretty straight up. I just wanted to be true to the guy, to his sensibility. Everything in the film is a manifestation of his attitude. So the tone, the comedy, all the comedy in the film is kind of the smart ass variety, the sort of dry, dark wit that these men all had and including Frank King, who has one of the biggest responses in the movie is when he takes on a union leader because he says, “Just try to shut me down and make me fire all these blacklist writers. I’ll just go out and hire hookers and hobos. I don’t care. My movies are garbage anyway and you could say whatever you want in the press cause none of the people who see my movies can read.”  I just love that speech. It was completely scripted and...

And he delivers the hell out of it.

I know, I know. And it’s John Goodman, and it embodies an attitude and an accidental heroism in a way because he was an opportunist. He was exploiting these guys, paying them nothing even though they were really successful, great writers. And he turned out to be the wisest of the producers and studio types that Trumbo was involved with because he just didn’t think it was fair what was going on with these guys. He was willing to employ them and got cheap writing.

Anyway, it was just, that it turned out to be funny was because he was such a fearless sort of somewhat, just a smart ass. Trumbo was like that too but in a different way. He’s much more thoughtful wit, much more trying to expose the lunacy and absurdity of a system using his very carefully crafted descriptions of absurd. There’s actually a great letter or an interview, he once said, “It looks easy to make people laugh while you’re writing satire, but it’s much, much more time consuming than anything else I write, because to get to absurdity, you have to actually be extremely precise.” [laughs]

That makes sense, ‘cause, just coming from comedy, comedy is so much harder in a way because it’s so precision-oriented and you have to keep it up. You can’t just tell the story. But again, just to emphasize, the really important thing I hope comes across is that all the Hollywood 10 writers were funny men, as well as being serious men, because the only way they could cope with the absurdity of the situation was to talk about it, and to talk about it in ironic terms.

There’s no broad comedy in the film. There’s only that kind of dark comedy but I’m always gratified that it plays and that audiences are engaged enough to kind of go with it. But it’s a really sad, tragic, dramatic story. We just heard that we’re in the, if we get considered in the Golden Globes, we’ll be in the dramatic wing. So I’m glad because it is a drama through and through but it just happens to have some comedy in it.

Speaking from my own experience, I was trumpeting the film on social media, and somebody said, “He was a Communist. He was anti-American.” What do you say to people who are going to come at you and say, “Why do I want to spend two hours on this story?”

Well, I first say that being a Communist at that time was one, not illegal, was, two, very closely, we were allied with a Communist country in 1943, so everyone was somewhat sympathetic to Communists during the years we actually allied with the Communist superpower. Not everyone, but you know what I mean. It was not an extreme idea.

But by the early ‘40s the Cold War definitely made some people terrified of totalitarian Communism, which was a genuine threat. Russia was occupying all of Eastern Europe. But Communism also was pro union, pro civil rights. They own one of the few organizations that was fighting for civil rights at the time back when defending old fashioned Jim Crow laws and all that was still very, very common.

The people who resented their view pushed for workers rights and resented their push for civil rights and resented that they were so strongly anti-fascist, found it convenient to use the real threat of totalitarian Communism to try to tar them as connected to that when none of them, as the committee showed by not being able to prove any subversion, none of them were trying to overthrow the country at all.

They were mainstream Hollywood writers. He wrote patriotic war films like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and A Guy Named Joe. And he wrote very mainstream movies like Roman Holiday. The only film that even had any kind of rebellion in it was Spartacus because they were slaves [laughs]. So he couldn’t have been more mainstream.

And they came to him with that.

Oh yeah, of course. But he did it, and ironically, that film that features a rebellion and a little bit of collectivism is the film for which he’s credited finally after thirteen years. But the point is that I think there are some people in the world today still that are so accustomed to using Communism and Communists, Socialists, whatever their sense of an epithet you can hurl at somebody to try to shut them down, to get them to conform because even being a Communist at that time was American.

Trumbo was a complete patriot and dissent was American. The Bill of Rights protects free speech when it’s unpopular because, this is a Trumbo quote, popular speech doesn’t need protecting. We all agree on that. It’s designed to protect the weird, extreme people. That’s why the ACLU still, they didn’t actually fight that hard at that time, but they fight today for that, for even the most extreme opinions to be allowed to be presented for that reason.

That’s American, and so that’s why all those actresses and actors, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, that long list of actors goes on that radio show that we quote in the middle of the thing, saying, “The un-American activity going on right now is the House Un-American Activities Committee.” That’s a great quote too. I love the way that Lucille Ball says it in the film. So I always say, yeah, check your history because at that time these were some of the most patriotic people in the country.

In terms of your usage of John Wayne in the film as a character, I appreciated the fact that he’s an antagonist but he’s not a quote, unquote villain. I think the complexities were really reflected through him.

I hope so. I like the way he is sort of attacked by Hedda Hopper [Mirren] for being soft, because he was a little softer. For her, once a Commie always a Commie. For him, you could rehabilitate yourself just by demonstrating some signs of loyalty. But he was pretty tough on people who weren’t willing to sort of sign the loyalty oath. No one disagrees with that, including his own biographers, and he even was in a movie as a HUAC investigator called Big Jim McClain, in Hawaii. His character drives the story.

So that’s never been controversial, what his role in it was. But I love the way the guy plays it, David James Elliott, because he’s a real person, and I love that scene where Trumbo says to him, “We both have the right to be wrong.” [laughs] “That’s the whole point,” that’s what he said. I love that idea, and that John Wayne is the guy who has to hear that. I also think Hedda’s really interesting because she’s so much more zealous than John Wayne ever was. We try to find that balance.

I think one of the stories that’s the most haunting is the Edward G. Robinson story, because he’s the guy who really is tempted to sell out and succumbs to that temptation. That’s the real cautionary tale. Trumbo’s pretty firm and reliant on his principles, but it’s heartbreaking watching a good guy, a really good guy. Edward G. Robinson was a good man and fought with these guys, for these guys, backed them up. But then after being threatened with losing his career is blackmailed in a way into naming names, which I know from his biographies, autobiography he was haunted by it from then on.

And arguably, his career never really recovered.

Yeah, he got some great character roles, but he couldn’t act with pseudonyms and fronts because, as he says, “This is who I am.” Directors are the same. Edward Dmytryk who’s actually -- there was nine writers and one director -- was my direction teacher at USC. He seemed, I may have been projecting, but he seemed a little haunted by it. So I think that’s the cautionary tale. That’s Trumbo’s final speech. Instead of taking a revenge, he says these very wise things about how they were all stuck in this terrible situation.

I hope it resonates. I do feel like it’s relevant, because I read, I think it was Ben Carson said something like all universities, any university that has any demonstrable political bias or extreme speech should have its federal funding cancelled. It was like, wow, who decides what’s extreme speech? What if he’s at a university some day and some of his ideas are  pretty far out but he has a right to those ideas. I mean, universities depend on federal funding.

Don’t we want to invest in universities so people can have a clash of even the craziest ideas? Isn’t that what a university’s for? So it’s definitely about today as much as it is anything else. I think using fear of, in a lot of cases, fear of the immigrant, fear of people of other races, or fear of other religions like Islam. Terrorism makes people, tempts people to use fear of terrorism to smear all of the 99.999% of very peaceful people.

I’m Muslim, I was thinking of that. I was absolutely thinking of that. I was thinking of my kids, and the idea that history is cyclical, and we just switch out the names.

One day they may say, “Name all the Muslims you know.” I say, well, I once had this interview with a guy. That could get to you and me being blacklisted because we’re not American enough. I suppose it could get to that. I’d like to think what you do as a journalist and a storyteller yourself is similar to what Trumbo tried to do. It’s just be a voice of sanity, a voice of humanity and protection of liberties, protection of justice, protection of the inspiration to make protecting people’s dignity, human dignity, be the highest priority. That is, I think, the careers we have chosen.

Ideally.

[laughs] Ideally.

*******

Many thanks to Jay Roach for his time. Trumbo is still playing in select theaters, but if you missed it, I highly recommend seeking it out when it hits home vid. To hear the audio from this interview, check out episode 83 of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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