From the outside, Jay Roach seems to have two very different directing careers.
By day, he works on big, broad studio comedies like the “Austin Powers” movies and “Meet the Parents” and its sequel.
By night, he works on fact-based HBO political films like “Recount” and this Saturday’s “Game Change.”
“They definitely inform each other,” Roach tells me. “I’ve always been involved in politics. Before I got to do, very luckily, some comedies, starting with Mike Myers, I worked on more dramatic material. I’ve always been interested in politics personally and followed it very closely.”
Attention to detail is evident in “Game Change,” which focuses on the small segment of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s bestseller that dealt with John McCain (played by Ed Harris) and his selection of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as his running mate in the 2008 election.
Not surprisingly, given the subject matter, “Game Change” has been the subject of at least minor controversy from certain camps on the political right.
In our conversation, Roach discusses his approach to tackling this real-life drama, working with the film’s Oscar-nominated stars and facing criticism from people who haven’t seen his movie.
Click through for the full Q&A…
HitFix: I feel like I’ve spent the last week finishing up the book, watching the movie and going back and forth to YouTube to check out the real footage from 2008… What was your research and immersion process like?
Jay Roach: I was just gonna say how familiar that sounded. When we decided to do this, we knew we’d be under pretty intense scrutiny, so it was up to us to really be able to back it up. If we’re gonna say it’s a true story, we’d better figure out as best we can what’s true. We had this incredible film researcher from the “Recount” film, Deborah Ricketts, and she just dumped a ton of archival footage on us. You can see we use a lot of it in the film and even intercut our own actors with it. It was also taking the book and getting first-hand interviews with a number of the people who Heilemann and Halperin had already interviewed. Danny [Strong] did two dozen of them and I got to be involved in about a dozen of them, with all of the strategists that we could get access to. We tried to get ahold of Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain, but Gov. Palin declined and McCain never got back to us. It was just like on “Recount,” when we just decided to go into full immersion mode.
HitFix: It’s almost irresistible. In the movie, so many moments come across as familiar and semi-familiar and you can’t help but want to see the real stuff play out side-by-side.
Jay Roach: Yeah, that’s an interesting way to look at it, too, because whenever possible, we did go for the exact way it played out. We had so much photo research and so much video research, even to the extent of shooting a close-up shot of Julianne, for example, and intercutting her with the actual footage from the Republican Convention in Minneapolis or the roll-out speech in Dayton, and trying to get as close to authenticity as we possibly could, even given that you have actors pretending to be the real people and you have to get the audience to imagine the cameras aren’t there and we’re not a Hollywood film unit. My commitment to telling the story well is also connected to having it be as authentic as possible, because if you’re saying it’s a true story, the audience wants to feel it’s true. Obviously, again though, there’s a certain series of interpretive choices you have to make to squeeze it all in and retell it. It’s not a documentary and I like to say it’s not a time machine either, but you get as close as you can just to make the story better.
HitFix: As you say, it’s not a documentary. What was the balance you were trying to strike between recreating events as we might remember, but also sorta attempting to be enlightening and giving us a different perspective on those events?
Jay Roach: Yeah, you start with the commitment to trying to match as best you can. A good example of this, a good illustration of what you face trying to do this, is what it took for Julianne Moore to become Sarah Palin. She followed my advice, for example, to listen to Sarah Palin’s own books — which weren’t available for Heilemann and Halperin when they did their book, but we felt we had to update, given Palin’s books — Julianne and I both listened to them over and over as part of our research and what Julianne faced was not only the pressure of portraying a living person, whose story everybody knew so well from the coverage of the 2008 election. She also faced the ghost of Tina Fey, because Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin was so much in everyone’s minds and we anticipated people would be sorta connected to that version and might have a tough time imagining anybody else playing her. So she not only had to find the authentic, as true-to-life a version of Sarah Palin as she could do, with not just glasses and hair and wardrobe, but also with accent, body language and attitude and kind of the emotional/psychological journey that she went on during the process — The burden’s on us to get as close as we can… we had a technical consultant who was at many of those things who would provide details that might not seem important, but thinks like “Where does the secret service guy stand during a speech?” or “How does the press scrum work?,” things like that that you have to try to get right — however, as you’re suggesting, it is a drama.
It’s almost a Shakespearean drama, in real life the way it works out, because these characters are all doing the best they can, in the film and the book and in real life. There were no heroes within this campaign or villains and so we wanted to figure a way to portray the story as dramatically and compellingly as we experienced it when it happened from afar, as we experienced it when we were reading the book and as Danny Strong’s great screenplay read. We had to hook people on this incredible drama and these powerful, successful, charismatic characters, who also had flaws that doomed them clash with each other and their agendas made it inevitable that they would have problems. You couldn’t write, from scratch, as many great forces from pure character and have them all collide with each other as well as it actually happened in reality. We mostly tried to get as close as we could to what really happened and then trust our instincts that it was one of the better political stories ever from real life, the way it actually unfolded.
HitFix: With “Recount,” the way the events played out on screen, it was almost a comedy of errors. With this story, was there potentially a different version of the story, a more comedic take, that you attempted to steer away from?
Jay Roach: In “Recount,” there was so much going on that was kinda absurd chaos or chaotic absurdity. It was a kind of comedy of errors. With this film, I felt that as soon as you realized what the stakes were and what pressures each human being was under when this pivotal decision was made, at that moment when they say, “OK, we’re putting her on the ticket and we’re gonna keep it quiet and we’re not gonna gonna vet it the way we usually do and we’ll make what we hope will be a checkmate move on the chess board,” that’s different for trying to go for some kind of comedic or ironic take on something. I hope you feel the anxiety of that moment from all three main characters’ points-of-view and even from Nicolle Wallace’s too. When you’re asking the audience to put themselves in the shoes of those people making those decisions and feeling the stakes as perilously as they feel them, you can’t be ironic. You can’t be cynical. I’m an idealistic person. I certainly have a cynical side from time to time. I feel like this is a film that’s asking questions from an idealistic place. “Why doesn’t it work better? How does it get to this place, where people under these pressures make these kinds of decisions?” I’m not kidding around about that. There are certainly moments that are humorous, but I really tried to go for almost a tone of classic theatrical drama. It could have been a play, I feel. It could have been a good play and Danny Strong’s writing is certainly good enough that it could have been translated into a play. Also, Heilemann and Halperin, when I read the chapter, I was like, “Beat for beat, it’s one of the great stories already.” Danny wrote a great script and it took a lot of talent to get it right, but already there so many excellent beats from the book that it felt like a movie in my head from the get-go.
HitFix: The other genre that I felt it lent itself to is the underdog sports movie. McCain and Palin even used the score from “Rudy” in public appearances. You’ve worked in the genre before with “Mystery, Alaska.” Did you think of it along those lines at all?
Jay Roach: [Laughing.] That’s funny. That’s a unique observation and we never talked about it in terms of that, but we certainly talked about about it as a “Pygmalion” story, but I guess “underdog” was a word we used and that does sort of imply a sports analogy. But it was more, for me, a kind of anxiety from each character’s point of view. From Sarah Palin’s point of view, it was being dropped onto the national stage without a huge amount of time to prepare at all for what she was going to face. From Steve Schmidt’s point of view, it was taking a swing, to use another sports analogy. for the fences. Or rolling the dice. McCain talks in gamblers’ terms a lot and we even have him say in the film that he’s been a risk-taker his whole life. Those were the sort of ideas that got them into the pickle and then once they realized what a predicament they were in…
But actually, to back up one step, it went so well to begin with! They were pleased as punch when she did the roll-out speech and when she gave the incredible speech at the Republican National Convention and it actually looked like an incredibly good choice and maybe it wasn’t going to be an underdog story. She seemed to just, “Boom!” hit hard early and it actually, for me, became more of an underdog story once she’d been through a lot of the press attacks right after the convention and then had difficulty on the Charlie Gibson interview and then difficulty on the Katie Couric interview and now she’s facing the debate prep. That’s when I felt that it was almost like a “Rocky” story, I suppose. She hit a low point going into that preparation. Again, I’m just going with your analogy, because I never quite tracked it that way. But you make a good point, because now she’s in the training montage, if you will, during that debate prep and it’s going not well and she’s almost shutting down and she’s very stressed out. I thought it was really relatable what she went through. Anybody can understand how much stress you’d be under facing Joe Biden, who’s been in the Senate for decades and who is a good speaker, and she’s supposed to go and deliver this knockout punch in the middle of the debate. That seemed incredibly stressful and then we show her actually do OK and then become increasingly powerful as the rest of the film goes on, to the point where she actually goes from being an underdog in that pre-debate phase, to being, I think, the most powerful person and successful person, in a way, of all of them by the end of the election. They lost the campaign, but she emerges from that as being one of the most powerful national figures, at least in the media, compared to all of the rest of them.
HitFix: Obviously Ed and Julianne are the kind of actors who are going to put in a ton of prep ahead of time, but once you were actually there and on the set, what was your role in guiding the performances and making sure they stayed within the tone you desired for the piece?
Jay Roach: With those actors, and I worked very hard to get three of the best actors in the world to play these characters to make sure they worked at every level for the audience, and with these three actors, all three of them are incredibly committed to getting it right and each did a tremendous amount of research and by the time they got to the set, there was very little that I really needed to do. People say that, but it really applies here. Julianne Moore was so prepared and so determined to get it right, because she knew what kind of expectations she would face. If anything I tried to sometimes say to her, “You know, you have nailed it. You match entirely. Now let’s do a take or two where you’re also worrying less about the perfect accent and just let your own imagination of what it might be like to face these issues come through even more past the really excellent match with her, take it to another place that has even more meaning to you.” And then sometimes we’d go back the other direction. She had a very good instinct that she was required to get as close as she possibly could and that the audience would be very skeptical and that she’d be under a lot of scrutiny. So it was a little bit of give and take, but I must say that I mostly deferred to them and I was right to do that. That was my one strategic move that worked, was just let them do what they do best.
HitFix: Did that make Woody Harrelson’s job easier or harder here, knowing that he was playing the character who most viewers either aren’t going to know at all or certainly aren’t going to know as well?
Jay Roach: I don’t know. With Sarah Palin and John McCain, there’s an instant knowledge of what those people are like in real life and I suppose you could argue that that knowledge helps the audience understand a little bit what’s going on, but both are difficult. What Woody gave me for Steve Schmidt — which I needed, because, in a way, he’s the moral center of the piece: He’s the one who proposed her and sold the idea of her to John McCain and then months later, he’s the one who says “I wish I could go back and do it all over again, because I thought it was a mistake” and what I saw in that “60 Minutes” interview convinced me that his point of view was, in a way, the audience’s point of view, or at least the audience could relate to what it must have felt like to feel like when you have to win and now you’ve found out that you’ve compromised your own values and your own idealism to secure the victor and you lost something along the way — was that cautionary tale, I needed Woody Harrelson to do, because I needed the character to be likable and I think Woody has tremendous good-will and likability from all the great parts he’s played.
You also needed depth and intensity and Woody’s sorta a laid-back guy in interviews with him or when you itneract with him in real life, but he’s a very philosophical, very caring searcher. He’s always looking for meaning in things and he’s got the depth of what really matters in a particular moment. And he also can summon up, in performance, tremendous intensity. Steve Schmidt has all of those things. He’s a very thoughtful person, but he’s also a samurai. He’s a hired gun. He worked on the Schwarzenegger campaign. He worked in the Bush White House. He’s worked on some of the Supreme Court nominations, on the PR process. He’s a very strong person and yet here he is at the end of the campaign, months later, confessing that he made a choice that he no longer thought was wise and that’s the humility to come forward and say, “I was wrong and I wish I could take it back.” That, to me, was astonishing. I needed all of those qualities in the actor that would play this guy, who I thought was the central point-of-view of the movie.
HitFix: We started off talking about your awareness that this project was going to come under intense scrutiny. How has the actual push-back in the past couple weeks compared to what you expected or feared?
Jay Roach: It’s pretty similar to what we expected, to be honest. We saw it coming. We felt we should do our homework so that when it came up, that people would question us or comments. The only thing that has surprised me about it, frankly, is how strident the criticism was given that the people who really launched the most strident attacks had not seen the film and had judged it entirely based on hearsay and the trailer, which was a trailer, not the movie at all, but a promotional device, which certainly captured some of what was best about the film, but it in no way got all the layers of all the characters that you get watching the entire film. I thought that was, let’s say, “very bold” of them to come out so hard against a film they hadn’t seen. So yeah, that was the only surprise of what has happened so far.
HitFix: Did you watch the Sarah Palin-produced, “Actually, everybody thinks I was awesome” trailer?
Jay Roach: Yes. Yes, I did watch it. It might as well be another trailer for our film, because all of the positive moments for Sarah Palin — the speeches, the impact on the polls for John McCain, how much the campaign people liked her and liked her performances — and every single beat, I haven’t found one yet in her trailer that’s not actually in our film, especially in the beginning of the film when everyone was sure she was a good idea, but even as the story unfolded. What it left out was the idea that there were any problems at all. So it was a little trailer that was calling our film fiction, but our film has all the aspects, in my opinion, of what all these characters went through in the 2008 campaign and theirs left out almost all of the parts people know about and were concerned about. It’s an interesting claim to be a true story when it’s only a small portion of the truth.
HitFix: Does it feel to you like you have these two somewhat separate careers, your HBO political film career and then your big studio broad-er comedy career? Or do you see how one informs the other?
Jay Roach: They definitely inform each other. I’ve always been involved in politics. Before I got to do, very luckily, some comedies starting with Mike Myers, I worked on more dramatic material. I’ve always been interested in politics personally and followed it very closely and I’ve been involved in a few political projects. Even before “Recount,” there were a couple things we’d been trying to get off the ground, including the Mark Phelps story, about Deep Throat from Watergate history. I tried to get that off the ground and I haven’t because there were some rights issues and etc etc. What’s great about something that I just completed is that I’ve been able to combine the two. I just wrapped shooting a movie called “The Campaign,” which is a political story, at least in its background, but it’s a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two guys running for US Congress in a town in North Carolina who, through the use of some serious PAC money, take each other on in a very fun adventurous smear campaign against each other. It’s the ultimate smear campaign/negative campaign movie, but starring two of the funniest guys on the planet.
HitFix: So that’s going to kinda be The Ultimately Jay Roach Movie?
Jay Roach: Well, it’s at least, for now, a way for me to combine two of my favorite things to do: One is to think about politics and two is to make people laugh.
“Recount” airs on Saturday, March 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO.