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One of the most interesting projects heading into this year’s American Film Market, McCarthy will turn the clock back some 60 years and focus on the life and times of one of the most notorious politicians in American history. From Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul (The Painted Bird) and starring Michael Shannon in the lead role, the film will chart the rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a man who has an entire -ism named after him, one that is regularly deployed to describe demagogues and fear-stoking populists around the world.
To be shot on location in the U.S. and in studios in Prague, the feature — being sold by HanWay Films — will peer behind the show trials to explore what drove this lawyer and former Marine to seek power by riding a wave of anti-Communist hysteria, helped along the way not just by his notorious right-hand man Roy Cohn (being played by Dane DeHaan), but also his wife, Jean Kerr (Emilia Clarke).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Marhoul explains why the subject of McCarthyism is one that resonates today more than ever (from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson), how McCarthy is still considered a symbol of evil, and why he was scared that Shannon wouldn’t agree to the role.
What made you want to peer into the life of such a notorious politician?
I have seen so many movies about that era, but most most only have a description of what happened during that time. But when I got the screenplay for McCarthy, from the first letter I had the feeling it wasn’t just about Joe McCarthy and a description of what happened at the beginning of the ’50s. Instead, this story is absolutely universal and totally timeless. It’s about those kinds of people, those who, because of their egos, can stoke fear, can divide society and can undermine democracy. These people are very dangerous. And I realized this when I watched the news in January and saw Donald Trump and his call for the Capitol attack. But it’s not just about Trump. Over the past decade in Europe and all over the world, there are so many Joe McCarthys. For instance in Brazil it’s Bolsonaro, in England, it’s Johnson. It’s about populism. And it asks a question: what can people do? Are they just witnesses or can they really do something when the dark times are coming. Whenever I’m reading a screenplay, for me it must be about the emotions. And when I read this I was full of emotions.
Where do these emotions come from in this story? Is it the despair at what happened, of looking at what could have been done at the time to stop it, or the comparisons to what’s happening at the moment?
All of it. All of what you just mentioned. And it’s not just about the politics, it’s not just about the politicians – we must watch Joe McCarthy as a human being. When I was working with Tom O’Connor last year on the screenplay and tried to make it better we agreed that we had to take a much closer look at Joe McCarthy’s kitchen and go into his private life. It’s not just about the hearings in the U.S. Senate. One of the most important relationships was with his wife Jean Kerr. There is a French proverb that means you can always find women behind the curtain. The women are the engine. Joe McCarthy’s wife was really the Lady Macbeth figure in this.
What’s the period of time the film takes place over?
Actually, what’s really exciting for me as a director is that the story goes over four years, so McCarthy’s relationships are going to be changed in that time. And were also seeing how McCarthy changes in himself. And what’s very interesting is his alcoholism. Finally, he was a drunkard. He drank one bottle of whisky every day. He died because he was an alcoholic. And that’s another psychological part of the screenplay and McCarthy’s life. So this film feels like an onion, with so many layers.
What do you think knowing more about the man behind McCarthyism will do to help us understand why he did what he did?
It’s a good question. There were so many people around McCarthy. If you look at his right-hand man Roy Cohn, he really was a pig. He was one of the prosecutors that tried to push the Rosenbergs to the electric chair and when he was only 24 years old. But for Cohn and so many people around McCarthy, he was the elevator. They used him. And another interesting part of his character was that he was very loyal to all his employees. He trusted them even though they used him as an elevator to their own power. But Joe McCarthy is a symbol, he’s a symbol of McCarthyism and he’s a symbol of all those populists around the world.
So are you suggesting that he was driven more by power than his own ideology or beliefs?
Absolutely. He was driven by his ego. His sole ambition was to be recognised and to have power and to be famous. He was so highly interested in the media — he would read article every day and was absolutely delighted if the headlines were about himself. When he said in 1950 that he had 205 names of Communist agents within the U.S. administration, he was totally lying. He was just thinking how to be famous. And although, after four years, nobody was killed, so many lives were destroyed.
You’ve got Michael Shannon to play McCarthy, which is an excellent bit of casting. How did that come about?
We were thinking of about five or six actors, but finally we just decided, look, let’s call Michael Shannon. He’s a great actor, that’s obvious, but the question was are we going to believe that he is going to be a Joe McCarthy and people will forget that they are looking at Michael Shannon. And we said yes. I was a little bit scared, because I didn’t realize quite how much McCarthy’s name in American society still very strongly resonates as a symbol of evil. I was so shocked watching CNN in January when so many political commentators put together Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. For middle-aged and older people, he’s a symbol, and of evil. So I was a bit scared that Michael would agree to play such a negative character. But he said yes.
Do you think the fear that McCarthy helped stoke in the 1950s has ever left America?
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