When it comes to Emmy wins, director Jay Roach remains undefeated. In 2008, he took home statuettes for Recount, his candid look at the 2000 presidential election. And in 2012 he won again for Game Change, which follows Sarah Palin’s rise as the Republican Party’s V.P. candidate.
But despite his growing reputation as the go-to political guy, he still occasionally feels like the new kid on the block. “Keep in mind,” said Roach with a laugh. “I’m the Austin Powers guy. We comedians still feel like we’re always at the clown table.” Roach comes from a comedy background, having directed all three films in the Mike Myers franchise in addition to Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.
Lately, his interests have moved from giggles to government. “They’re the stories that count right now. I think of them as political, but also as classic drama. These are human beings in their own private battles, but they’re also taking on issues that affect all of us. To have a story work on so many levels makes for a richer story.”
When he started work on All the Way, which secured eight Emmy nominations, he felt like the outsider. Both Outstanding Lead Actor nominee Bryan Cranston and playwright/screenwriter Robert Schenkkan had worked together on the play from which the film was adapted.
“Robert wrote the screenplay adaptation of his own great play,” said Roach. “He was around constantly. I had him involved in pre-production and he was on set every day. He would help me and the actors sort out issues. We had Bryan Cranston, too, who’s such a great storyteller himself, so we’d often powwow with Bryan.” In fact, Roach had the opportunity to work with Cranston back to back: first on 2015’s Trumbo and then on All the Way.
The film follows the chaotic aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson stepping in and working across parties to pass the Civil Rights Act. One aim with the movie versus the play was to open up the scope of what LBJ accomplished in his early years, to go deeper into the heart and soul of this president and what he was up against. “There’s dynamism and charisma in his face that you couldn’t showcase as much in the play.”
The All the Way film adaptation comes just a little over a year after the Academy Award-nominated Selma, which follows a similar storyline focused on Martin Luther King Jr.’s point of view.
“I loved that film, and thought [director] Ava DuVernay did an incredible job, and David Oyelowo as MLK was breathtaking. I was really moved by it. But this story was from a year earlier and from LBJ’s point of view, so I knew this story would feel different. I was hoping it would actually be a welcome companion piece. I think any film that brings up the conversations going on in ‘64 and ‘65 are so important right now. Unfortunately, the issues prevail. We’re still talking about the same problems that haven’t been solved.”
When it comes to depicting history, one of the most important things to Roach is getting the story right, with he and his team doing a lot of research. However, he admits it’s hard to fit every single fact into a two-hour movie.
“You have to take license. The audience has to remember, really none of what you’re watching is accurate. These are actors on a set with fake props. But you hope you get to a place where the audience recognizes that it is based on the true story. It is authentic.”
And for some stories, like that of Donald Trump’s current run for president, Roach is simply watching and waiting.
“We are definitely [Danny Strong, HBO, and I] talking about how to do this. We plan to explore what that story would be. We’re not even sure what it would be yet, since it’s not over. I don’t know if a fictional adaptation of reality is even possible. We’ve been doing research. I went to the Republican Convention. I think it’s so fascinating.”
Covering Trump could be quite the contrast from All the Way.
“LBJ is really the anti-Trump. He was a pro at getting things done. He had worked for years in the legislature and then as vice president. I think people devalue experience, but he was a master legislator before he was president.”
As for remaining undefeated at the Emmys, Roach doesn’t feel any pressure.
“I like all of the projects in the category. I just look at it as, I’m so happy to get the chance to make movies like this. I’m really honored to be a part of it and glad for the film to be noticed, but I’m more just celebrating that we’re even at the table.”
From clown table to Emmy table.