‘Loudest Voice' Boss: "By No Means Is This a Left-Wing Screed"

Alex Metcalf opens up about his efforts to portray former Fox News chief Roger Ailes as equal parts genius and monster in the Showtime drama.
JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME
'The Loudest Voice'

Fox News had not been part of Alex Metcalf’s television diet.

That changed dramatically when the D.C.-reared writer was tapped to run Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, a limited series based on journalist Gabe Sherman’s book by the same name. The Blumhouse-produced series, which premieres Sunday, tackles the rise and fall of the network’s late founder and visionary Roger Ailes, played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Despite the liberal leanings of nearly everyone involved, the show strives, at least initially, to showcase Ailes' positive attributes — his charm and ferocity, among them — as well as his more unseemly behavior, particularly as it pertains to women, as the story unfolds. 

Over breakfast this spring, Metcalf opened up about the genesis of the project, the forthcoming film on the same subject and the ways in which he and his writers room navigated a subject who is at once genius and monster.

You found your way to the seven-episode story arc that's now coming out on Showtime. What came before? 

Originally, the show was this multilayered 10-episode piece from very distinct points of view. So, you'd have two episodes of Joe Lindsley, played by Emory Cohen. He was this acolyte of Roger's, who ran the paper upstate. Then there was a couple of episodes from Brian Lewis' point of view, who is played by Seth MacFarlane; and a couple from Gretchen Carlson's point of view. So, you'd see the same scene from different angles and every episode jumped through time and then we'd go back and forth. Roger was this Citizen Kane-y figure above it all and a bit of a mystery.

So, why the shift?

Once we'd done that pass of it, Blumhouse talked to Showtime and we all, as a group, recognized that we weren't really telling Roger's story. We were telling the points of view of his story as opposed to his story and we started to see that. And maybe it was fear on our part. 

What changed, from a storytelling point of view, once he died?

We were free once he was no longer alive. I mean, to be brutally honest, he's not gonna sue us anymore. So, it absolutely allowed us the freedom to be more open with the story. It's not a matter of less responsibility; it's a matter of digging deeper into the story in a way that I don't think we would have been comfortable had he been alive, forgetting about lawsuits and all that stuff. Because so much of it is his relationship with his wife, who is still alive; his relationship with Joe Lindsley, which many people don't know about and is super interesting; and also the ability to reconcile public Roger with private Roger. And that, to me at least, is so much of the issue. Public Roger is gregarious and self-deprecating and funny and charming and all of that, while private Roger, especially as he got older, is given to fits of rage and paranoia and he recognizes that weaponizing fear appeals to people.

For you, a left-wing Hollywood writer, what's the appeal of Ailes as a subject?

I grew up in D.C. and I've always been surrounded by politics. My stepfather, actually, used to run this paper called the Washington Times, which is a very right-wing paper. But there's an everyman quality to Roger, especially for men of a certain age who have this nostalgia for a “lost America.” It's Roger, it's Trump, it's a lot of these white men who are in their sixties to eighties now — and it's this idealized America that never was but for them. This idealized world where they didn't notice everybody else because they were on top of the heap and they had what they had and the world revolved around their needs and what they wanted. That, to me, is the lost America that they dream of, which of course is the America that never was. But Roger, in that way, is a very recognizable figure, culturally, and that’s one of the things that deeply fascinates me about him and makes him accessible as a human being, even with everything else. 

You’ve been making this show at the same time that Jay Roach has been prepping a star-studded film on the same subject. The Loudest Voice is slated to come out ahead …

Months ahead.

Which I know was important to you. Why?

Well, I'm not trying to trash-talk the movie — and I have not read [the script] — but I believe it's mainly from Megyn Kelly's point of view, and Megyn is not really a character in ours. At least there is no actress playing Megyn Kelly in ours and there never was. She's not really important to our story in that way. But [the film] seems to be predicated on the idea that there was this coterie of women who brought down Roger Ailes, which is a lie.

Why do you say that?

Because there was Gretchen Carlson and that was it. After she filed her lawsuit, after she did all that, sure, there are a lot of people who jumped on board. But from my point of view, that is not the real story. Again, I don’t need to diss anybody and there is no point in that and I'm sure the movie will be lovely and cool and interesting and great. I just think that we are doing our best to reflect a reality. 

With your series, what are you hoping to reveal about Ailes, and what does fiction allow you to do?

First of all, Roger is one of those larger-than-life American figures, who has influenced our country in ways that most people don't understand.

You have an episode devoted to the events of Sept. 11, where you see it was Ailes messaging from the White House.

Right, and that's just the beginning of it. He and his recognition of fear and vulnerability-driven entertainment politics have irrevocably changed the culture of our country. Without Roger Ailes, there may be no Tea Party. And without Roger Ailes, there is definitely no Trump. Couple that with the fact that he's this brilliant, fascinating man. And I think Russell's performance is really revealing in its humanity. It's very easy to vilify people we hate, especially in this day and age — and we were really conscious in the structure of the show to want people to like him a little bit at the beginning, because otherwise, who's gonna watch the fuckin' show? 

There does seem to be a conscious attempt to try to understand him…

Right. And you understand where his fear comes from and that's really important. And also the hidden life, which I think is inherently dramatically interesting. We also wanted to be really clear that Roger had a lot of, um, foibles. And we can find a better word. Just find one and put one in. (Laughs.) His issues with women are profound and existed his whole life.

How did you decide how heavily you would lean into that piece of Ailes' story?

I didn't really have any interest in the gratuitous story of that. It's nodded to. There's one story, the Laurie Luhn story, that we tell that's very real and very serious. And we see her break down as we go through. But nobody knows what went on in those rooms, and I don't want to be the one to imply that I do. It's two people behind closed doors. We don't know. Even Gretchen's, she can't talk about it [due to her NDA]. We know what's in the lawsuit and that's in the show, but we don't know anything else, so we have to modulate with that. 

And yet she plays a central role in the back half of your show…

Look, I have a lot of issues with Gretchen's politics and we try to deal with that; she was not a liberal softie out there, she's right wing and she absolutely hewed to the Fox line. But within that, she fought for women and girls in an environment that was completely sexist, completely misogynistic and completely dismissive of women's voices, and she's the first one who not only took action but who thought about it. I mean, she taped [Ailes] for a year and a half and then went to a lawyer. That perseverance and strength of purpose is really amazing to me. I think as a storyteller we absolutely needed to honor that, and so that's there.

I imagine you go into a project like this eyes wide open as it pertains to any potential legal blow back. In your case, Laurie Luhn came out swinging early. Have you heard from anyone else?

Well, Roger's wife, Elizabeth, has not said a word to us about anything, but I'm sure she'll sue us just because we portray her. Even though I'm like, it’s Sienna Miller, what more do you want? (Laughs.) But we have Gabe's work, we have our own research on top of Gabe's work, and we have lawyers everywhere checking everything. I'm comfortable we are not libeling anyone and that we're trying to find a truth in a mysterious man who has changed our country forever. And that is worth it, at least from a storyteller's point of view, to try to understand where we are as a country and what this man's influence was in that. So it's as truthful as we can possibly make it and we've always been really strident about that. We comb through the scripts, we comb through the cuts, we comb through everything to make sure that we're not doing anything wrong on that level. but it's also a drama. It's fiction.

We live in such a polarized world where a show about Ailes comes out and it’s hard to imagine pleasing both sides…

My point of view is I'd love the MSNBC watcher to watch this show and go, “Oh, that's super interesting, I had no idea that's what was driving Roger, that makes some sense. I understand why he/they act this way.” And I’d love the Fox News watcher to watch it and have the opposite response. Like, “Oh, it's really thought out and it's really not quite news.” By no means is this a left-wing screed. I'm uninterested in that. News and media and our perception of what is real in the era of fake news is profound — and I think that Fox was the first proponent of opinion-generated news, but now it's everywhere. It's not just Fox, it's the left and the right. And if, on any level, the show can offer a mirror to that, to both sides, we've succeeded. But yeah, I’m 100 percent sure that the left will be pissed off.

More so than the right?

In an ideal world, everybody watches it. In an un-ideal world, we piss off both sides so much that nobody watches it.

What did your own education process entail? The books you read, the shows you watched…

I read everything. And I watched a lot of Fox News — a lot. I no longer do. (Laughs.) And I read all the biographies — Gabe’s and Roger's [authorized] biography, and then there's Roger's book, You Are the Message, which is totally fascinating. There's a lot of material out there on Roger, all of which we read, or I read. I read almost every article, too, from the Gawker pieces to the New York Times ones. He wasn't shy about self-promotion and all of that. He didn't really like it, but he understood what he had to do.

What surprised you most in revisiting his story?

I went in thinking that Roger Ailes was essentially an entertainer. He has this whole history with Broadway, he started The Mike Douglas Show, all of that, and I thought that because of [Richard] Nixon he happened to fall into the right wing and that became the drive. Had it been [George] McGovern on the show that day, he would've been a Democrat. I was wrong. Roger is an entertainer and he does have all of that background and he understands the power of a good story, but his conservative values are much more deeply engrained than I realized. He's an old-fashioned American conservative who was really weaponized by Sept. 11.That was a big discovery for me, because I really thought he could have gone either way, and I don't think that anymore.