Austin Powers, The Campaign, Meet The Parents are successful comedies directed by Jay Roach, but he’s also directed acclaimed dramas including Game Change and Recount for HBO, and most recently, Trumbo. It’s the latter that we sit down to talk about in his Hollywood office. The following day, Trumbo would receive SAG nominations for Best Ensemble, Best Actor for Bryan Cranston and Best Actress for Helen Mirren. The day after that, the film would receive two Golden Globe Nominations.
Awards Daily: I got my Trumbo screener the other day, so it was nice to revisit it again because it seems so long since I saw it and the Trumbo luncheon seemed like a lifetime ago.
Jay Roach: I know. I’ve done so many Q&A’s. I haven’t done it quite like this before because when you do the comedies they’re not up for awards. With HBO, it is it’s own specific thing. So, it’s really fulfilling and encouraging to screen it for audiences.
I’ve seen it dozens of times with crowds, and we’ve done the Q&A’s and people have come up to us with incredible moving stories about their experience of being on the blacklist and told us heartbreaking stories, or shared stories of when their families were involved.
On Sunday evening we went to Kirk Douglas’ house to celebrate his 99th birthday. I sat and talked to him and his wife Anne. They were so cool. He’s glad to have this story be told and he very much likes the film which is really gratifying. You very much get this sense that when he made Spartacus it was a very stressful time. Anne ran Bryna, his production company, so she knew Trumbo and knew what was going on. They had risked a tremendous amount of clout and their own money, as well as their relationship with the studio to get the film made. Hearing them tell some of those stories and confirming some of the humorous attitude of Trumbo such as visiting him in the bathtub, and he confirmed the story of the parrot on the shoulder and it was named Sam Jackson which was the pseudonym Trumbo used on Spartacus. So it was nice to hear and be reminded that he loved all those details.
We had actually spoken to him before the film too, and some of my research involved reading I Am Spartacus, it was a very nice of closure to talk to them. Anne’s so proud of her husband and what he accomplished and happy that story will be told.
The book is great, I hope people will find the book too, but you know how it is in our culture, it takes being made into a movie for people to take it seriously.
AD: It’s funny that you talk about Kirk Douglas because I was reading how Michael also gave you the seal of approval.
JR: He was hosting a luncheon for us in New York with Walter Bernstein and Lee Grant. Lee’s story is incredible, she was blacklisted from 1924-1936 for merely giving a eulogy at the funeral of an actor who had been blacklisted. She wasn’t active, but because she had been sympathetic to him and implied that the stress of the blacklist had hastened his death she was blacklisted for that in the prime of her career.
She had already been nominated for an Academy Award and disappeared from age 24-36, she showed up in a publication that said she might be a Red sympathizer.
AD: The first time I heard about the blacklist was when I was in university doing my degree in American Studies and they talked about it then and America’s fear of Communism. When did you first hear about it?
JR: My father worked in the defense industry when I was a kid in New Mexico, and I was very aware of the Red Scare, and the whole Cold War permeated our household because he worked in the defense department continually trying to update the nuclear arsenal. So, we were always aware that we were involved in some bizarre stand off with the Soviet Union, and because he had secret clearance he had to be checked out from time to time. They would interview our neighbors, or there’d be a risk of it. He spoke to us about the risk of talking to people and that there were Communists out in the world. I remember talking about Joe McCarthy and he was after this period. So, I was always aware of it and always seriously interested in it.
Also, in film school my directing teacher was Eddie Dmytryk and he was the tenth of the Hollywood ten, there were nine writers and one director. He was conflicted and tortured. His story was interesting as the only director of the group. He also refused to name names and he went to prison just like Trumbo, but when he was released he couldn’t direct with a pseudonym. When you direct you’re visible and out in the world. His choice was to name names, testifying as a friendly witness, and he was instantly ostracized by a lot of people on the left. People who thought he was a hero thought he was a villain by the time he was a teacher as USC. He told many stories he had never talked about. I remember other faculty giving him the cold shoulder and being judgmental about the situation.
It wasn’t until I got the script that I went, “Oh my God!” I never really put it all together.
The most interesting part was learning about the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization formed by Hedda Hopper, Sam Wood and Ayn Rand who wrote the manifesto. They are the ones who invited Congress because Congress didn’t come out on its own. They were invited by Trumbo’s peers because they were angered by all the union stuff. Trumbo and all the writers had been involved in a big battle with the Writer’s Guilds in town. There was this group of people that met at the American Legion Post right off Highland. In the film, Hedda is against the drapes in front of the military guys, that’s what it looked like. We actually got to go and hang out there for the new LBJ movie All The Way and the guy who was there said that it had actually happened there at the Legion Post.
AD: Why the Trumbo story?
JR: It was John’s choice to simplify it down to one person’s perspective because there were hundreds involved in the Hollywood situation, but there were thousands across the country once McCarthy got involved.
In order to make it accessible and relatable, I thought it was smart of John to focus in on this one guy who was the leader of the group. He was ten years older than the next youngest person. He was the knight and they were the squires. He was also the most successful and he helped get them work. He also wrote two Academy Award-winning screenplays, so you would have an interest for all that he accomplished all while he was blacklisted. Then I understood John’s choice to tell it from his point of view and to get inside the family experience because they teamed up with him, keeping him busy and had an impact. He knew by writing so many of the good scripts it would become embarrassing to the studios that so much good work was being done, even though they were supposedly blacklisted. It made the blacklist as a system ridiculous and ineffective. I love that scene where he says, “All they did was cost people work and they didn’t even do that right.”
That’s what made the story. I also read his letters, if you ever have time pick up the book or on Kindle, you can read these beautiful letters from jail, letters to his children and his enemies. I’ve never read more beautifully written, poetic, hilarious letters from one person. You can get access to an entire spirit, intellect and psyche through this amazing book of letters.
AD: Something I enjoyed about the film was the balance of comedy because you have some great comedy actors in there, and then you have the drama.
JR: That was deliberate, these men were that mixture. Trumbo was that mixture of intensity, aggressiveness, militancy and passion, with sensational wit. He was incredibly witty and sarcastic sometimes, and warmly funny with his children.
There’s this great letter to his son in college, he says, “I’m sending you a book about gambling. You’ll make a lot of money. Don’t tell your friends you have it.” Then he said, “I’m also sending you a book about sex education because I grew up with so much guilt about sexual thoughts and actions. There’s an especially good chapter on masturbation.” It’s hilarious, he went on this long thing describing the details about masturbation. He signed it, From the masturbator’s masturbator. Your father, Dalton Trumbo.
AD: That’s superb.
JR: He was the opposite of the stereotypical left wing activist. The left is portrayed as humorless and he was never that. He was never interested in Stalin, he was interested in humanism and being good to people and civil rights. He knew how to use humor how to make his points so he didn’t become an asshole just lecturing everybody.
AD: With the casting, Bryan is fantastic, but then you have Diane Lane who is superb also. Talk to me about that.
JR:I have an amazing casting director, David Rubin and we worked for months sorting through ideas and watching clips. When I can, I meet with people, I don’t always audition, I just talk with them about the part and what it means to them. Diane Lane was really interesting, by the time she and I met she told me she had already begun practicing juggling.
AD: That scene is great.
JR: That’s her. There’s one wide shot where a stunt woman is doing the turn, but everything else is Diane. She really was juggling and doing her dialogue. She also just connected to the woman. I feel when you work with people who you know are fantastic actors, if you can just build trust between the two of you that you’re both going to work as hard as you can, lose sleep, go the extra distance to make sure you get the character right.
Some of the parts were so terrifying because they’re based on real people, icons such as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, people know what they look like, so on top of their commitment, they also needed to have the talent and craft to evoke and channel these great personalities, and that was daunting for David Rubin and I, because if we got it wrong it would take you right out of the movie. I actually did video auditions with Dean O’Gorman. They were cast via Skype. He was in New Zealand, I didn’t have any backups, it was technology or die and I was grateful to do the video chatting.
They all took themselves seriously, but not too seriously in real life, and if the film could do that, wouldn’t that be the way to do it? It’s a very dark time with a lot of loss and treachery, dark aspects of human nature came out with the scapegoating and witch-hunting. That’s for real, but it was also true that they were also using humor as a coping strategy so the film uses humor as a coping strategy. It can be dangerous if you’re letting off too much of the tension by joking, but I felt it would be inauthentic if there wasn’t humor.
The John Goodman scene with the baseball bat was one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever filmed. It was about something. He was an accidental hero. He was this big guy in a tiny room with a powerful union leader threatening him and he didn’t take it. He was fearless with nothing to lose. It was well written and beautifully performed. Dan Bakkedahl really did a wonderful job.
Every one of the secondary actors adds complication and texture to the scene and I take as much time casting the smaller parts as I do the large parts.
AD: The other thing I like is the balance of Trumbo the workaholic getting these scripts out, and you show the family scenes that are just so dysfunctional.
JR: There’s a price for that. Being a writer, director or artist, there’s a certain amount of neurosis, anxiety and worry that is dysfunctional, but is also functional. you couldn’t do this kind of work if you weren’t a little bit nuts about your work.
The price that the family pays for that is a little unfortunate, we got to know the daughters, Mitzi
and Niki, also the widow of Chris Trumbo (the middle child), and they talked about it in the way the film shows it, which is very much the charisma and passion and humor of their father mixed with the stress of him smoking, drinking and taking pills to stay up and pills to go to sleep while writing 16 hours a day and soaking in a bathtub. It sounded rough. Again it felt important to show all the aspects of life at home of a driven screen writer.
AD: I really enjoyed the mix of the footage of the committee, that was really clever.
JR: That took a long time, I have an amazing film researcher. The archival footage is almost like a time machine, it takes you back and you really feel like you’re there for a while. But I also wove together the shot of Bryan and the HUVAC hearings with the black and white footage from the reel, documentary style. Then I dissolve into color and pull the sound into the surround sound speakers and moved the edges of the frame out to remind the audience that this isn’t history but a construct. It’s meant to put you there, it’s meant to ask you what it would have been like to be Dalton Trumbo in this situation. It’s an interesting choice.
In my other films, I make it seamless, but here I not only reveal the seam, but challenge the audience to remain skeptical and make them aware that these are movies within movies and a movie talking about movies, a writer talking about writers, and that is all weaving a tale.
The screen writer said, “It’s not history; it’s a story about history.” I really subscribe to that. It’s trying to get the essence of what happened to these guys, rather than becoming the record of the blacklist. It could never be that. It’s 13 years packed into two hours, it’s actors pretending to be people, it’s sets and make-up, but it can be something else — an attempt to raise questions, and be authentic to the characters.
AD: I was speaking to Alan [Baumgarten] about editing the movie and that some of the great scenes are those archival ones.
JR: Alan has cut on this, and other films for me. I also have to credit John McNamara because that was in the script. The idea of transitioning came from the screenplay, that’s a part of the collaboration that I had with John. Hedda Hopper wasn’t part of the movie when I came on. John Wayne was actually the main villain, but I said I didn’t remember him being that zealous, so he [John] researched that and found out that Hedda was far more of a zealot.
I really identified with the Edward G. Robinson story because he was put in a no-win situation. He couldn’t help his friends without losing his entire career and being put in jail, possibly, but he couldn’t betray his friends without suffering the moral and spiritual crisis that he suffered. There was no way out for him, so it was really moving to cast Micahel Stuhlbarg and work closely with him on how to make that work.
John really helped and listened to us about what we wanted to do with it. I love having the writers with me all the time.
AD: When did Trumbo’s family see the film and what was their reaction?
JR: We showed it to them all the time, they saw the script and gave us notes, helping a lot in the second half and described the way Trumbo manipulated everybody. There were great notes. Mitzy had different notes from Niki, and they had a lot to say. They came to the set for a few days. We brought them to early screenings and they had notes. For both of them it was very surreal as Bryan’s portrayal of their father got very close. They’ve been incredibly supportive of the movie and it’s been very gratifying. I miss being around their father, I really miss him. He’s one of the most principled people I’ve ever encountered from real life stories. He’s this tremendously humanistic person who sacrificed so much just for fairness and justice. He loved telling stories about people to people both on screen and in person, he was a great storyteller.
AD: Well, it made me want to go out and see the films he had done, and now, I want to go out and read those letters.
JR: I recommend it.