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Director Billy Ray On ‘The Comey Rule,’ Casting Brendan Gleeson To Portray Trump, And ‘Volcano’

Two things I learned about Billy Ray pretty quickly into this interview. First, Ray – who has co-written or written movies like Captain Phillips, Richard Jewell, and The Hunger Games and has now directed the two-part Showtime series The Comey Rule, which explores James Comey’s infamous pre-2016 election announcements and his eventual firing by Donald Trump – knows that it will be a truly bi-partisan effort to hate-watch The Comey Rule. He’s not naive.

The second thing is Ray doesn’t love it when you bring up his 1997 effort for the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Volcano, in which we find a Volcano erupting in the middle of Los Angeles. (Honestly, if that happened in 2020 would that really surprise anyone at this point?) Ray calls it, “the embarrassment of his career,” yet at the end of this interview he decided to share a pretty humorous story about the experience.

Ray’s hope is that when you tune in to Showtime this Sunday to hate-watch the first of two parts, that it wins you over. Ray was meticulous on the details (Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, portrays many events going down the same way, often word for word), knowing there’s a bullseye on his back and saying that pretty much every word in the script had to be approved by Showtime’s legal department. Jeff Daniels plays Comey as stoic and, at least, attempting to do the right thing, even though it all turned out to be a disaster. But, as Ray says, the film does put the viewer in the shoes of the former director of the F.B.I and at least tries to explain why Comey did the things he did. And that Comey’s options were more limited than we might all realize. Brendan Gleason plays Trump and Ray explains why Gleason (and many other actors) said no at first and why he eventually said yes.

I want to say this as nice as possible, but there’s a big part of me that didn’t want to watch this. Did that go through your mind even making it? Do I want to relive this?

No. At least for me, it was incredibly therapeutic. I know that sounds like a West Coast liberal word, but that election had a pretty profound effect on me and I had a lot to say about it and this was one way to do that. You know what, will you scratch the word “therapeutic” and replace it with “cathartic”?

You do make a case for why he did what he did with the announcement before the election. That if he didn’t, it would leak and be worse.

As I placed this series within the context of other things I’ve made in my career, it seems like I keep being drawn to stories that people think they know before they actually start to watch.

It would be funny if you were talking about Volcano.

Oh no … you dropped the V-word on me. Goddammit. I’ll never outlive that one.

What are you talking about? If that’s on TV, I will watch it.

That movie is one of the embarrassments of my career, but that’s very sweet of you. Anyway, everybody who was alive in 2016 has it so burned on their subconscious that they think they know exactly what happened, but here was this opportunity to go inside the rooms where decisions were made that so profoundly affected all of us. Not just America, but the world more broadly, and a chance to be Jim Comey for five minutes. When I first learned the name James Comey in the 2016 election, I hated that guy. I thought he had to be just an active member of the Trump for President campaign. And I would hasten to point out that, while I’m sure our show is going to be hate-watched by both the left and the right, I would challenge anybody in America to point to a single thing Comey had said in public that has been proven false, or even close to false.

I feel like you are almost more critical of his first statement where he says the investigation’s over, but then goes onto say she was irresponsible, than the one about reopening the case right before the election.

I think he didn’t have a choice based on what Giuliani was about to leak and based on the number of Hilary haters. Here’s what I will say about the original press conference about the closing of the Hillary case. Director Comey knows this because I told him. I wish that I had known him in 2016, and I wish that I had been a part of his staff. I would like to have done a rewrite on that statement. I would like to have come in for a polish on that one, because I think the results could have been very very different if handled differently.

Do you think Comey got played by Giuliani? That Giullani was bluffing about leaking that the investigation was reopened?

I have no doubt that Giuliani was going to leak it.

Some people think Giuliani did some sort of masterstroke and forced Comey’s hand into doing that.

Anybody who thinks that Giuliani is capable of masterstrokes is not paying attention. That guy is a fool.

That’s fair. Brendan Gleeson’s version of Trump, that seems like a tough gig. Where do you even begin?

Whoever you’re going to approach to play that part has to check a lot of boxes. They have to be a great actor, that’s the first thing. They have to be completely fearless, that’s the second thing. They have to bring a certain level of physicality to it, that’s the third thing. And they have to want to do it, which is really tough. The first time we went out to Brendan, he passed. There were actors who passed without even reading. They just were too afraid to take it on. But then, happily, Brendan came back and said he would do it. He and I had a lot of conversations about playing Trump not as a villain, not as a bad guy, not as a cartoon, but just as a human being where his actions define him. Then, I left it up to Brendan to get the voice right and to get the movements right. And the first time I ever heard him do the voice was actually the first time he ever did it on the set.

It’s kind of scary how good it is, the voice…

It was unbelievably scary.

We are also used to the parody version of Trump’s voice, as opposed to his actual voice.

That was another conversation. Look, we are going to be the first, and perhaps only, dramatic interpretation of Donald Trump ever. That’s a real responsibility, and we can’t do this as a cartoon. And he didn’t want to do it as a cartoon.

Oh, I bet we get more. A lot of the stuff he does is going to have repercussions for a very long time.

Oh, I agree, and I actually think as a nation and as a culture, we are going to be reexamining these four years for decades to come, if not generations to come. However, I also think that what Brendan has done is so singular, I can’t imagine why another dramatic actor would want to take on that part after this because they will all be fighting for second place.

I did notice his hands are way too big for Trump. And I’m not trying to make a joke. I actually noticed this.

Well, there’s nothing we could do about that.

The other thing, what’s frustrating about Trump is sometimes he’s actually funny. He can be charming, which I suspect is something that appeals to people. We don’t see that side here.

Remember, the scenes that I’m depicting are scenes in which Trump is opposite my protagonist, James Comey, and in those scenes, Trump was neither charming nor funny. It would be bad reporting to depict him otherwise.

James Comey’s family basically hates him in this movie.

They adore him.

I don’t doubt that, but they were very upset with him.

He is absolutely a family man to his core. They completely adore him and I think the series demonstrates that, but yeah, they’re upset with him. They disagreed with a lot of what he did, and things that he did made their lives materially more difficult.

I’m currently reading the Bob Woodward book. Have you read it?

I just haven’t had the time.

It’s pretty amazing how his reporting matches up exactly with your series, almost word-for-word.

I’m not a journalist, I’m not a documentary filmmaker, so I don’t want to pretend that I am. That said, of course, we knew that we were putting a giant bullseye on our own back by making this. We all knew from the start that we had to get it right. When you make a movie like this, CBS, before they greenlight it, they make you footnote the script to talk about what your sources were and where you got a certain piece of information and what that inference refers to. This thing was lawyered to death before it went before the cameras.

The Comey Rule is not kind to Rod Rosenstein, played by Scoot McNairy.

I’ve concluded that since we finished the series, I probably took it too easy on Rosenstein.

That is not what I was thinking when it was over, that you took it easy on him.

We learned more. More reporting has come out since we finished shooting about what his real intentions were in terms of Mueller investigation and just how much he politicized his own office. We didn’t go there. Had I known more going in, I absolutely would have.

But you do present him as almost having a nervous breakdown. People are going to walk away with a different opinion of him regardless after they watch this.

That’s fine with me. I’m just saying, with another nine months, I would have known a little bit more about him and I would have played him slightly differently. That said, I’m over the moon about Scoot McNairy’s performance. He’s just extraordinary.

The ending you give this … you said cathartic earlier. It felt cathartic watching that.

What’s funny is I’ve now shown the series to a lot of people, and so many of them on the way in say, “Oh, God. I don’t know if I’m ready to relive this yet.” By the time they’re done watching it, they feel oddly hopeful. Even though people may feel a little intimidated by the subject matter, by the time they’re done watching it, they feel a little bit more American, and that was the goal.

You obviously spent so much time on Comey. What is your opinion of the current head of the FBI, Wray? I’m just curious.

My opinion of Christopher Wray? I’ve never met the man. I don’t know him.

Compared to Comey, we don’t know much about him.

No, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

That’s a good point.

I think this guy’s in an impossible job and I wouldn’t presume to even have an opinion about how he’s doing it. I just don’t know. By the way, that’s coming from somebody who has an opinion about everything. So, it’s significant.

If he were doing a terrible job, someone might have mentioned that to you, I assume.

Yeah. I think that’s fair. But if he were doing a terrible job, Trump would be saying lovely things about him in public.

Robert Mueller is portrayed, briefly, in this. What is your opinion of him?

I think he’s an American hero. He served in Vietnam. He’s a patriot through and through. Every time his country has called, he has answered. I think he was wildly misled in terms of the investigation. I think he put handcuffs on his own team.

Oh, what do you mean by that?

By limiting where they were able to go.

But wasn’t that was Rosenstein’s decision?

He could have defied Rosenstein. He could have given Rosenstein the option. He could have put Rosenstein in the position where Rosenstein had to fire him, because I don’t think Rosenstein would have, but that’s just conjecture. In terms of Mueller as a character, we have as much in there as I needed. I wanted to draw a contrast between what Mueller looked like after 12 years on that job and what Comey looked like on his way in.

Oh, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Obama is amazing. I just saw him in One Night in Miami… as Malcolm X. He’s fantastic.

That was another one of those where we really got lucky in terms of the casting because Obama appears so early in the series. He’s about four minutes in, and if you have a bad performance there, I think you’re dead. He just killed. He just absolutely crushed.

Is there any other example of something like that? Obviously Jeff Daniels as Comey, but is there anyone else that it’s like if this goes south with this character, the whole thing’s over?

Imagine Sally Yates without Holly Hunter. Imagine someone other than Michael Kelly playing Andy McCabe. Imagine someone other than Jonathan Banks playing Jim Clapper. We just struck gold on all of these performances.

William Sadler is great as Michael Flynn.

Oh my God. Thank you for reminding me. He was awesome as Flynn, and really funny. I don’t find Michael Flynn himself to be funny, but Sadler’s performance really makes me laugh. It’s so human.

You got to talk to all these people who were involved in all this. When Flynn’s name comes up, what do people say? How did that happen to him?

All I can give you on that one is conjecture. There are things about 2016 and 2017 that I know, and then there are things about 2016 and 2017 that I can sort of guess at based on public safety behavior and what I learned behind the scenes. It seems to me that Flynn, like so many of the people around Trump, will just do anything for money. And when Trump is faced with a person like that, he knows how to weaponize those people. He understands that venality. If you’re that kind of person, you have a place in this administration because you’ll do anything.

Yeah, and then he’s got something on you.

Well, yeah, but he doesn’t even need to have anything on you. Again, this is just conjecture, I don’t think Trump was ever blackmailing Flynn into doing one thing or another. If Michael Flynn is willing to take money from the Turkish government so that he can advocate publicly for the kidnapping of a cleric on American soil, that’s Donald Trump’s kind of guy. Those two speak the same language.

Speaking of that, the scene that really stood out the most is when T.R. Knight as Reince Priebus asks if Trump needs anything and Trump says, “Why would I need you,” and walks off.

I’ll tell you what that one was. What I said to Brendan, and T.R., who’s so great in that part, I said, “Look. In our White House, every day is shit on Reince Priebus day.” That’s just how Trump behaves. Remember, Priebus was the guy, after the Access Hollywood tape, who stepped up to Donald Trump and said, “You need to step down. This is not recoverable. You need to get off the ticket right now.” It was October 7th, and he said, “You need to get off the ticket,” and Trump makes him Chief of Staff? Why? Just so he could beat the living crap out of him every day. So, we played that. It is extremely telling that to this day Reince Priebus won’t say a thing in public that isn’t complete ass-kissing toward the president.

That’s what makes no sense.

Because none of them give a damn about the truth. Priebus has done a calculation and, in his head, it’s still better for his career to have a positive relationship with Donald Trump. That’s how he’s going to get a job as a lobbyist or a consultant or whatever it is he wants to be. By the way, that will change. And when that calculation changes, Reince will find God and come out with his memoir.

It’s interesting compared to Scaramucci who has done the opposite and made quite a little career for himself out of just trashing Trump, which seems like it can also be a career.

Sure. Why not? I applaud Scaramucci’s version more than I applaud Sarah Sanders’ version. At least Scarmucci at some point began to tell the truth.

Yeah.

While I have you, can I just tell you a quick Volcano story? Do you time?

Oh, please do.

That movie came out when I was 33. And I knew that we were going to get absolutely destroyed in the reviews. and I said to my wife, “I can’t be in Los Angeles the morning this opens. Because I can’t pick up the L.A. Times and read a review in my hometown paper where I get my head handed to me. I just can’t do it.” So we go out of town. We rented an RV and we took our baby and we drove to Santa Fe.

That Friday morning I wake up and I think, Santa Fe, they probably liked us in Santa Fe? So, I go and I get the Santa Fe paper and we get killed. And I thought, well, maybe they liked us in Albuquerque? So, I get the Albuquerque paper. Dead. Then I said, USA Today, they like populous stuff. So, I pick up the USA Today and we get buried and I’m so depressed. I come back to the RV and my mother-in-law calls and says, “Oh my God. You got the greatest review in the L.A. Times.”

I was in college when that movie came out. That is the perfect “watch a movie in college” movie.

Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

And look, I lived in Missouri then. I had no idea if there was or wasn’t a volcano in L.A. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable.

In my defense, the original script was written by someone else, it was sold as a spec. He sold it on a Friday. I was brought in the following Monday to rewrite it. My city had just come out of Rodney King and all of that, and so I had this hugely pretentious idea: could we use the lava under the underground as a metaphor for the social ills that were underground in Los Angeles?

Ah.

That turned out to be a stupid idea. But I committed to it with 100 percent intensity. And you live and you learn.

‘The Comey Rule’ premieres this coming Sunday night on Showtime. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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