The filmmaker talks about being fair to the former VP candidate, his quest for empathy and what he left out.
Director Jay Roach's HBO movie Recount, covering the contentious aftermath of the 2000 election pitting George W. Bush against Al Gore, swept up three Emmys in 2008, including best television movie. This year’s Game Change, focusing on campaign adviser Steve Schmidt’s initial advocacy of and ultimate opposition to the choice of Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain’s running mate, looks to be another formidable awards competitor. And in August, Roach will deliver a fictional political battle when Warner Bros. releases The Campaign, a feature film starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as brawling opponents in North Carolina. With this political hat-trick in full swing, Roach talked to THR’s Kim Masters about the challenges of making ripped-from-the-headlines films.
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The Hollywood Reporter: You tried to get cooperation with Sarah Palin. How did that play out?
Jay Roach: Around the time of the White House Correspondents dinner last year, I was sort of tracking Sarah Palin through the parties because we heard she might be there. And [scriptwriter] Danny Strong and I had a bunch of people who were on cell phones available to us and we would get a call — she’s at this embassy or at that party — and we would get there and she would have just left. I think it started at Ben Bradley’s house, and we couldn’t find her. So we tried there. I had written her letters, one to her lawyer and one to her. I got back a quick answer from the lawyer, Bob Barnett, saying, “I checked and she declined.” So you always try. I, in some ways, had an optimistic belief she might have seen Recount or had some sense that we were thorough and fair and would want to talk to us, but a more realistic appraisal would have told me there’s no way she’s going to talk to us. I really thought I would go up to her and say, “Hi, my name’s Jay Roach and I’m doing this film about the McCain-Palin campaign. This is not the greatest place in the world to talk about it, but I sent you a letter, and if you want to talk about it we could. But I wanted you to know who I am, and I’m sincerely trying to get the story right and it’d be great if you want to talk about it and tell a story with even more layers and depth.” So it would’ve been the world’s most awkward conversation; she’d already said no.
THR: You would’ve been like us journalists.
Roach: Yeah. There’s definitely overlap in what you do as journalists and what Danny and I have tried to do in both of those films. We try as best we can to get the story right, to be fair, to check, cross-check, triple cross-check stories. We had five different books that were the basis of Recount. For Game Change, even though we had the book [by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin], Danny still did about 100 interviews. But we also have a different standard because we’re dramatizing events. People will understand that parts of these films are interpretation or speculation about what happened. There are certain things that you can never know about, like what’s in someone’s mind or what happened in a private room. On Game Change, it was important to track down some of the people the journalist authors had interviewed, because there was a lot of new information since the books came out. Those guys wrote the book at the end of 2009. Since then, Sarah Palin’s book had come out; people were talking a little more openly.
That’s the challenge of doing a political film that close to when the events occurred. We started shooting only three years after it happened, so people were still reluctant to speak. As time goes by — on Recount, for example — people were gushing information because it was seven or eight years later.
THR: Did anyone ever send you threatening letters?
Roach: No, you would think that would happen. But I think people are aware of the laws. Once you’re a public figure, there’s a certain amount of privacy you do give up. And unless you can prove some sort of malicious misportrayal, inaccurate portrayal, then I think people realize it’s kind of fair game for this kind of storytelling.
THR: When you were working with Julianne Moore as Palin, did you say, “Let’s replicate her to the greatest extent possible”?
Roach: No. Actually, what we said was, “Let’s try to get as close as we can but leave room for Julianne Moore’s performance to merge with our best interpretation of who she is. In other words, it’s never going to be actual Sarah Palin. I also concentrated on what she cared about, what mattered to her, what scared her, what would keep her up at night. Those things, if we got close to them, the audience would go with us. They’ll overlook the minor differences between Julianne Moore’s look versus the real Palin. So there is a willing suspension of disbelief, a kind of persistence of vision where you almost allow yourself to be put under the spell and be hypnotized. I think as a storyteller, the best you can reach for is to pull the audience in and have a sense of, “Wow, this is really close to what it must have been like.”
THR: You told me you Photoshopped glasses on Moore before you cast her?
Roach: Yes. She’s one of my favorite actresses, but I was not sure about the physical match until I did that. I said, “Let’s get a really good Photoshop artist and without changing her skeletal structure put on the iconic accessories: the glasses, the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe.” And the second we did that, it was like, “Oh my God, that’s a great match. I can definitely buy into that.” As for Ed Harris as McCain, Ed’s very gaunt, and his face didn’t have a perfect match. I just got a sense when I saw the way he carried himself that he would get there. It’s astonishing what a great actor can do. Ed gained some weight and wore a certain shoulder pad that gave the stiffness that John McCain had and raised his shoulders up, but that was about all we did. Sometimes I just look at a photo and say, “Which one is that?” He’s so good.
THR: And matching Woody Harrelson’s resemblance to Steve Schmidt’s was not as important?
Roach: Not as important, though he had an intimidating quality about his appearance that I wanted to make sure we did match. I did want Woody to shave his head, I did want him to wear his sunglasses on top of his head the way Steve Schmidt wore them, kind of like some Klingon headset. That’s the guy who talked John McCain into bringing Palin into the situation, and I wanted him to be seen from Palin’s point of view, because it’s her anxiety dream, too. I wanted him to look like someone who would make her uncomfortable, which he did. But I also wanted the audience to relate to him, because I think he’s a really interesting and conflicted guy. When I saw him on 60 Minutes, my empathy went to like, “Wow, that must be a horrible place to be, when people are saying on national television that you’re the guy who was the most influential in getting McCain to make that decision, and now you’re the guy saying, ‘I think I made a mistake.’ ” And a couple weeks later he said to John King on CNN, “I think if she runs for president in 2012, it will be a catastrophe.” So whatever you think the errors were and how you judge those, to see a person trying to find meaning or trying to find some kind of redemption or understanding of how it happened and being willing to do it publicly, it’s almost a whistle-blower story. Because no one else was coming out and saying it that early, and it’s almost like [the 1999 Michael Mann film] The Insider or something.
THR: You portray Sarah Palin as almost starting to decompensate to the point where one might hospitalize her. Did you ever feel like that was a sketchy, legal area?
Roach: It was a controversial area even for us when we were thinking about how to portray it. It’s carefully detailed in the book, and the book authors cross-corroborated it in multiple ways. And then we confirmed it with people who we knew were in the room, and keep in mind, there were a number of people in the debate prep rooms. She went through a sort of shutdown phase following the Katie Couric interview, which was, as everyone knows now, one of the most disastrous interviews of a political candidate of all time. Before Katie Couric and after Katie Couric, in terms of their campaign, it’s astonishing how she was perceived. And then Tina Fey was thrown into that, too, because she replicated it and got it passed around YouTube. It just felt like a nightmare. My goal in this, and Julianne’s goal, too, was to try to find, if not sympathy all the time, certainly empathy. What might that have been like, to have been surrounded by people you don’t trust anymore, to have to experience so much public humiliation and mockery and, you know, widespread judgment? I asked one person to just act it out for me, because I needed to know what she was actually like. They described her looking down, not answering, occasionally going to the BlackBerry, but mostly just shutting down, not being willing to answer direct questions, just like we portrayed it. I really believe that’s how it happened and what it felt like. I made sure that room, the main room where Steve Schmidt comes and talks to her, had those bleak, inhuman qualities — with horrible fluorescent lights, fast food that had been sitting around for days — like a kind of modern hell, like a hell on earth, because that’s what I felt she must have been going through. And certainly it’s what he was going through, because his plan had gone south in every way.
THR: Were you worried that anything had gone too far?
Roach: There’s one scene from the book that we shot but did not put in. We shot a scene where Steve Schmidt asked Joe Lieberman to go and pray with Sarah Palin in that same room, because he knew she had respect for him and he was a religious person and she was a religious person. Obviously, he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, but Schmidt asked, “She respects you. Would you pray with her?” because he felt like she would benefit from having a spiritual person around. But we could not get confirmation that he actually prayed with her, and without Joe Lieberman’s cooperation, all we knew from the outsider’s perspective was that he had been asked to go in. I just felt like, “I’m not sure we can vouch for this.” It felt like whichever side you’re on, it could be a controversial thing because it’s about her faith and about Lieberman’s faith, and it just felt like, “Why speculate that much and be on that thin of a foundation?”
THR: And was making The Campaign, your upcoming comedy with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, different?
Roach: I’ve obviously done a lot of comedies and I’m interested in politics, and to be able to do them both at the same time is a real privilege, and it’s really fun. It’s not that different. We were shooting right during the kind of peak activity of the GOP primary debates, and every day we’d come in and go, “Did you see that last night? We have to step it up,” because there were aspects of what was going on in real time that inspired us to push even further.
And seeing things like, when Herman Cain’s affairs became known, suddenly his poll numbers shot up — taking bad things and making them into good things is one of my favorite things to make fun of.
THR: Like a post-Game Change cleanse?
Roach: It is therapeutic to laugh about this stuff.
THR: Did you care about the blowback that came post-Game Change?
Roach: I think I was annoyed by the fact that the people who were attacking the film hadn’t seen it, and they said, “We haven’t seen it, but we hate it.” I think I was probably also surprised that their critiques were picked up by the media in such a widespread way because they seem to undo their own credibility in saying, “We haven’t seen it, but we hate it.” But I shouldn’t be surprised because stories need conflict. Every story needs an antagonist; you need conflict to make the story work. I’m naive and overly optimistic, pathologically optimistic sometimes. Some people thought it was too sympathetic to Palin, though I might not use that word. I think it’s because what they really mean is
it’s sympathetic compared with what they thought it would be. I think it would be boring to be a retelling of what people already expect to hear.
THR: What do you want most from these films?
Roach: Look at what’s happened to Obama. He has tried, some say too hard, to cross the aisle and be a centrist. So you can’t win by being overly polarized, and you evidently can’t win by trying too hard to bridge the gaps. And that’s a dilemma for us. How do we go forward? I guess that’s why I’m fascinated with doing these films about that very thing. How do we choose those leaders? I’m a patriot, and I think democracy is the best system available. It’s very flawed, but it works better than anything else. It depends on great leadership, and it depends on a population that knows enough about leadership. But if it doesn’t end up like that, then you have someone’s telegenic qualities trumping wisdom as the fundamental criteria. So wouldn’t it be great to at least ask questions in a movie about how does wisdom become a fundamental basic criteria for a candidate as opposed to the ability to be super charming on TV?