Writer Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach are no strangers to that wonderful blend of politics and comedy. Rudnick’s screenplays – typically centered on the brilliantly absurd – often include sly political jabs. Stepford Wives. In & Out. Even Addams Family Values boasts an undercurrent of political observations frequently targeted at more conservative viewpoints.
Director Jay Roach’s most recent films directly re-imagine some of the most substantial political events and movements of the last 30+ years. All the Way. Bombshell. Recount. Game Change. He takes heavy topics and turns them into fascinating character studies. Personally, I revisit his brilliant work on HBO’s Game Change which features some of Julianne Moore’s finest work as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
So, it’s no surprise that Rudnick and Roach have collaborated on HBO’s latest event Coastal Elites. The project offers five monologues delivered by major stars on topics ranging from post-2016 anxiety to Black Lives Matter to gay representation to COVID-19. The monologues as brilliantly delivered by Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever are at once both overtly political and completely human. These are not unrecognizable stereotypes. These are real human beings you see on the street every day, and they’re struggling with how to move on in one of the most challenging moments of our recent past.
Here, Paul Rudnick and Jay Roach sit down with me over Zoom to discuss Coastal Elites and their filmmaking process in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We discuss their influences and inspirations derived from the brilliant actors chosen for the monologues. Finally, we talk about what they hope audiences will absorb in these five slice-of-modern-life monologues.
Awards Daily: So, it’s a huge honor to talk to both of you. Jay, I’ve watched Game Change almost every year. Paul, I can’t believe I’m talking to Libby Gelman-Waxner after years and years of reading the columns.
Paul Rudnick: Oh, I will give her your best.
AD: Thank you. So, where did the idea for Coastal Elites originate? How did that whole creative process start?
PR: Well, I wrote the earliest drafts of it probably about a year ago. I wrote it because pretty much everyone I knew had, for four years, been angry and anxiety ridden and passionately concerned with where our country was going. So, it kind of poured out. These were just voices that I was hearing not only in my head, but everywhere. I wasn’t even sure what final form it would take. Because my background is in theater, it felt like it would be something for the stage. When Jay — God bless him — became involved, he was going to direct it live at the Public Theater in New York and then film it for HBO, which seemed like just a dream.
When the pandemic hit, that, of course, became impossible. Our production team and HBO got back in touch and said, ‘Maybe there is another way.’ I think our first concern, and an overwhelming one, was for the safety of our cast and crew. That a COVID advisor was involved in every possible protocol. So, the piece evolved, and Jay and I had very long discussions about how this might become something purely filmed. It ended up being a strangely ideal match because these were always monologues. While we were filming them, there was an intimacy that became extremely exciting. Especially once we had this extraordinary cast, when you were that close to actors of that caliber and people who were that funny and that emotional and that open, you thought, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly where this material wanted to land.’ So it’s a strange hybrid, but I feel it was the right place.
AD: Clearly the monologues came before the selection of the actors. How did you settle on these five actors for this material? How did you match their voice to the material?
Jay Roach: Well, even when we were going to do it on stage, we always wanted Bette Midler to play Miriam. We had actually almost gotten to do it live, and then her schedule was a little messed up and then the pandemic hit. So as soon as it came back up again that we could possibly do it Zoom style, we called her right away. She jumped in. Then it was just a normal casting process, and every single actor we wanted they jumped in. Partly, I think just because the writing is so good. Paul’s words just drew us all to this.
We’ve all been looking for some way to connect with other people. We’re sort of all in this together, but we are also all in it alone until we find someone to commiserate with even like we’re doing right now. It can feel crazy. You mentioned Game Change, I think all my films are sort of anxiety dreams, and this one is dealing with an actual anxiety reality. Paul’s characters have helped me do it. I think the actors all jumped in because they felt a similar connection.
PR: Also, I think the actors were dying to work with Jay. I mean, I think that he also has enjoyment of actors and a connection to them that is just pure gold. I think they trusted him, and especially because this was such a strange new form, you needed a director that knew what he was doing and also had that sort of ideal balance of comic technique and political precision. So it was just kind of a perfect storm. I will also say with that cast that’s a dream list.
JR: Yeah, it is. It was risky for them. They’re up there pretty much uninterrupted for many long minutes. It’s much like being on stage, so it was really cool that they were willing to take the risk with us.
AD: So Paul, you mentioned this was something that you originally conceived of some time ago. Obviously, it’s been rewritten post-pandemic to reflect COVID. The first few monologues are more broadly comic, rooted in frustrations from the 2016 election. The last few are more somber. Does that mark the shift in your tone, personally, as you’re living through COVID-19?
PR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I thought it was so essential to include that material to reflect how the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests might impact these characters lives. Just as a writer, I love that the stakes were getting even higher, which were already pretty immense when it was only a political focus. I think that the the tragedy, particularly of the pandemic and the importance and the drama of the Black Lives Matter protests, became an essential part of this story. So it was a great opportunity. It’s so rare also that you’re working with this kind of speed and with performers who are this nimble, so that they welcomed it and their input became very, very valuable as well. It was very ongoing, and Jay was so essential in finding the right balance. You don’t want it to feel dated. You don’t want it to feel like a campaign ad in any way. It became a real method of reflecting the times.
AD: Paul, when you brought the actors on board, they obviously have the monologues at hand. Did you work with them to hone them, to tailor them more toward their individual personalities? Did you work with Jay on that? How did that process evolve?
PR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when you’re working with people this gifted, you’d be insane not to listen and take full advantage of them. Between Jay and the actors, it was just the best possible way into the material where you say, ‘Okay, this needs something more. Let’s take advantage of what this performer is capable of.’ I found that whenever I make changes it’s my favorite version. If something feels off, it’s my fault. These people are too good. Jay was so brilliant at finding balance both between comedy and more serious moments and also about making political material so deeply emotional that it comes alive. I think that’s what’s going on in the world right now, certainly. Some of it’s making it up as you go along, but you really need to take advantage of all the talent in the room.
JR: Every one of the actors, we got to rehearse with them for a few days before we began filming. Paul was always involved in the rehearsals. I always have the writers with me anyway, but with Paul in this case it was even more that way because it was Paul’s play. The actors — I knew Paul would be open to it because I’ve worked with him before — the actors go so deep into their characters, and they want to know everything. They also want to find new connections that we may not have thought of. Every single one of them made small contributions and sometimes more significant contributions that Paul then very quickly folded back into the characterization, which was a really fantastic collaboration. Again, it was even more intimate because it was just us on Zoom. There were no assistants around, no producers . It’s just us in their private space and our private space connecting just like you and we are now. So, it was actually a really healthy collaborative process, very fulfilling from from the get go.
AD: So, Jay, as a director working pre-pandemic, you’re very accustomed to being face to face with actors, very accustomed to being hands-on, but all that’s taken away. That’s a limitation as a director, but I would think that it would evolve you creatively as well. What do you think, in your repertoire as a director, you have honed in this experience to take back to another project?
JR: It’s gonna be hard to go back, just telling you. When you’re directing, half the battle is just trying to focus on what really matters: script and cast, script and cast, script and cast. I have to say that to myself over and over all day long. I know the trucks are in the way, and I know there’s some noise about to happen. I know we’re chasing the weather and the sun, and I get it. But can I just focus on this performance? In this case, there was none of that. It was all just connecting to some of the greatest performers, greatest actors ever with a beautifully written monologue in every case. So for me, this is what it’s about. It was such a fantastic reminder of what matters, and how ironically in this weird process, I felt I was getting even closer to the best aspects of what directing can be like.
PR: Yeah, I mean, it was like watching a master class in direction. Jay and I would also be in contact through texts. I’d be having a breakdown, and Jay would think about things. He would then give a direction to the actor that I didn’t see coming that would be so distilled and so perfect and instantly reflected in their work. I think, ‘Oh my god, how does he know?’
JR: But that is a new technique we can bring to our actual shows from now on as a secret text.
PR: Exactly. Writers in the room can sit there and just, you know, suck all the air out. I thought it’s very good if you only suck the air out of your own apartment.
AD: There’s a lot that’s going on here politically as well as culturally and socially within each vignette or within each monologue. Question for both of you: what do you hope that viewers either liberal or conservative take away from this material?
JR: Paul, I’ll let you answer most of that, but I will say the one thing that I hope happens is that people get past the labeling and stereotyping that comes with labels like “coastal elites” and/or “basket of deplorables.” Very soon into this process, you realize that almost nobody is at least financially elite in this show. All of them are people who would only be called “coastal elites” by people who just wanted to bundle them up and put them off into a basket and ignore them and/or demonize them. The minute you start to hear these people confess all of their concerns and talk about their coping strategies, you realize there’s so much more beautiful layers of drama and comedy in every aspect of them. If you went by the stereotypes, you would miss all that. So, I think that’s what was great about what Paul wrote.
PR: Yeah, that was perfect, but I hope that the material will surprise people. I hope that they’ll bring an openness to it, and that it will not be maybe what they might expect or that they might end up agreeing with someone who they assumed was suddenly, you know, the opposite side of so many divides. Also, that they’ll be wildly entertained, which I think is so important because I think we all are kind of bombarded with factoids and op-ed pieces and websites and whatever network we tend to swear allegiance to.
One of the things I love about creating fictional characters is that you can embrace the contradictions. You can believe so many different things at the same time. You can try to hold it all in your head and maybe even come out at the end with a little bit of hope. That’s what I mean about surprising people. That they’ll watch it, and by the end, realize they know these people and maybe even to some extent they are these people even though they live in Iowa or Hawaii or France. That the piece speaks to everyone.
Coastal Elites premieres Saturday, September 12, on HBO at 8pm ET.