For some, it may be tough to reconcile the idea that Jay Roach, the same man who directed all three Austin Powers films and both Meet the Parents movies, also helmed some of the more literate and savvy looks at modern politics: the HBO movies Game Change and Recount, as well as such issue-oriented works as The Campaign, Trumbo, and the HBO adaptation of the acclaimed stage show All the Way. The latter two starred Bryan Cranston. His latest work may be his most incendiary; Bombshell concerns the group of women who decided to take on the sexual harassment behavior of Fox News head Roger Ailes, as well as the toxic atmosphere that he allowed across the network—right as a certain presidential candidate was rising in the polls and it became clear that sexual politics was about to enter a new and darker phase in this country.
The film stars Charlize Thereon in an uncanny performance as anchor Megyn Kelly, the most powerful woman at the network; Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, the first woman to bring these accusations against Ailes (played by John Lithgow); and Margot Robbie as composite character Kayla Pospisil, whose current struggle with Ailes serves as a grotesque and disturbing reminder that even as he was being sued, he continued his lascivious ways with reckless abandon.
I spoke to Roach recently in Chicago about the structure of the film, how he handled the likability factor of people working at Fox News, and why he felt the need to create the Kayla character to represent a group of women still under a non-disclosure agreement with Fox. Please enjoy our talk…
I imagine that one of the big challenges of telling this story is that there are a great number of people in this country who are wondering “Why should I care about these people who work at Fox News?” They don’t like the channel, they don’t watch it, and some of these people may have walked into this knowing that the environment was that toxic and still wanted to work there. How do you overcome that mindset?
I don’t know that we ever will, but it’s one that appealed to me. I’m a liberal, I’m progressive, I think of myself as a feminist, but I also resent what gets said about feminism on Fox News. Even Megyn Kelly said, “I don’t want to be a feminist.” There was something about her coming at Trump in that debate that made me think “I suspect that I have prejudices about these women, and I want to get past it.” I grew up in a conservative household, so I was at least a little more open because I’ve had long conversations with relatives to moving past my own predispositions of it.
That’s why I like making films: it expands my own horizons and it’s somewhat therapeutic; it gets to searching for what matters. How shall we go forward as a country and a species? I thought that maybe if I could connect and empathize—it’s something Charlize and I talked about when I was trying to convince her to go forward with it—then maybe it’s a way to remind people that there are some essential and fundamental things that we should all agree on. One of them is: Should women be safe at work, and should they be allowed to talk about it if they’re not? I thought it might be a healthy exploration, and it might be for the audience as well.
I knew I had a lot to learn and I thought maybe in my desire to team up with these amazing women—the actors, the producers, and the women who agreed to talk to us—we could end up being part of the solution and not be like “That’s just something that happens in that weird organization.” Turns out, that pattern is very common across all kinds of organizations. I just read Ronan Farrow’s book and saw this great documentary [on Hulu] called Untouchable, about Harvey Weinstein. It’s a pattern, and you look through the barriers to adopting something and go through that about Fox News, and see the pattern there might just shake up your perceptions about how this all goes.
I’m sure that in the coming years, we’re going to see a lot of stories about harassment and inequality. Why start with this story? Is it because it forces us to look past our political beliefs, and see the story for what it is?
That was a part of it. The real reason was that it was a year before the [scandal] explosion, and people forget that—I forgot that. I remembered the Trump part of it, that Megyn had taken him on in the primaries, and I wondered “How is that going to work out? She’s the rock star of her network, and Trump is this big draw for them too. They have to pick a side.” And of course they end up pressuring her to be nicer to Trump. But it was early, and Gretchen Carlson had to jump out over the cliff on her own without that wave of support. I was at the convention doing some research for an HBO thing when Ailes got fired, and then I started looking back at the case even before the script got to me and was like “Wow, she really took on something with no chance of success—suing Roger Ailes.” That’s why I thought it was worth telling. There are a lot of people telling the Harvey story and other stories; I hadn’t really heard enough about this story at the time.
And now this story has been told in different ways in three different films: a documentary [Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes], the Showtime series [“The Loudest Voice”], and now your film. What is the fascination with this series of events?
The Showtime show and documentary were more Roger-centric. When Charles [Randolph] wrote [Bombshell], he didn’t know those were going on and neither did I. But it is a really compelling predicament that you couldn’t make up because it has such a great villain—Roger Ailes is such a complicated, interesting guy, who very much turns this world of his into Roger’s Playhouse with his mythology. Everything is about Roger, and you either got on board with his version of reality or you were punished if you didn’t deliver according to him. And even if you didn’t deliver sexual favors, because that’s what he required of you, it was all about power to have these women serve him in some weird way.
I though Gretchen Carlson especially was so strong and cool to do what she did in this great David and Goliath story. She’s literally taking on a Goliath of the media industry with not much power. Megyn comes in and helps her eventually, but she jumped off a major cliff to do that. I think it might be happening because it’s a compelling story about strong, interesting characters up against a strong, interesting antagonist, and they succeeded. It’s not Mission: Accomplished, but they did a remarkable thing that might have given other women some courage to come forward later on.
You have a line at the very end when we see Gretchen signing her settlement agreement that implies strongly that perhaps some of the NDAs in place were broken in order to tell this story.
Absolutely. Everybody at Fox signed an NDA, but we talked to many people, so you can deduce from that. But we didn’t know when we ended the film in that exact way, when they say “You get the settlement and the apology,” which was incredible that she got them to apologize. But she was going to be muzzled, and she says “Maybe.” That wasn’t the end of the original script; we shifted it around. We didn’t see it coming, that very thing of “Will she speak in public ever again?” She’s been personally pushing Fox to drop the NDAs in the past couple of weeks, and it came out partly after what happened after Ronan’s book revealed that NBC had suppressed similar stories. So when Rachel Maddow said that NBC was going to drop their NDAs, suddenly NDAs are getting talked about, which is great for this whole situation, because NDAs are what prevent women from warning each other. The fact that we ended the film there was coincidental.
Colleen Atwood did your costumes, and it’s interesting to costume a film that is very much about what people are wearing, how much leg is showing, how tight something is. What were some of the directives in terms of how to dress, especially the three leads? I assumed she also designed Lithgow’s fat suit as well.
Yeah, yeah. She is such an amazing designer. In a way, that dressing room scene where you see the women squeezing their way into clothes, and putting on shoes that are torture machines.
There’s that great shot of someone’s heel with blood or a blister on it.
My mom, when she used to wear heels would always get blisters. “Why do you have to do this?” I think because it is Roger’s Playhouse. He had an idea of what would sell news, what the look was that he required—they made women wear short skirts and would keep track of how short [they should be] because of ratings. A quarter inch might mean more ratings. So Colleen completely embraced that and didn’t really push it as much as just matched the reality of it and designed those really beautiful clothes.
The thing that John had to wear was like a suit under a suit, but it was so lightweight and perfectly proportioned, and with the makeup that Kazuhiro [Tsuji] applies, John completely disappears into that guy. There was a whole team of brilliant shape-shifters that enabled us to do that.
Speaking of Kazuhiro, every time I’ve heard his name recently, I feel like it’s a story about somebody dragging him out of retirement to work on something new.
[laughs] That’s so funny that you noticed that; I’m going to start doing that. I’m going to retire after every film, and the story is going to be that I was dragged back out; it’ll make me seem so cool.
Did you have to do that to a certain degree? Because his work is all over this film; it’s not just one character.
Yeah. He’s a sculptor, and I think some part of him would rather just sculpt his great pieces alone. At first, he said he might do the designs if he could find the time, and then it was like “Can you apply them?” And he was like “Maybe,” and then cut to him being on the set every day doing every stitch of it. He cares very much about how the actors feel about prosthetics and having worked with a lot of them, including the comedies, it can go wrong so many ways and the actors get so frustrated, and rightly so if their performance doesn’t come through, if it’s uncomfortable, if they’re sweaty. He worries he’s not going to be able to deliver, and he pushes himself so hard to collaborate with the actors and have them feel great about it.
John didn’t want to wear prosthetics—he’s played Churchill without them, and ironically Kazu had done the prosthetics for Gary Oldman when he played Churchill, whom he was constantly compared to—but once he saw the tests, he could see that he didn’t have to contort himself. He was just Roger, and it was through Kazu’s makeup. And as soon as Kazu saw how excited John was to wear that, and the same with Charlize, he was thrilled. He cares so much about his work. I can identify. I sweat bullets to get it right, and afterwards I’m like “I don’t know if I can do it again.”
With Charlize, people have been remarking since the teaser trailer was released about how much she looks like Megyn. People think they just have similar looks, but they don’t, and the makeup adjustments are subtle but significant, down to changes in the bone structure.
We did the jaws different. There’s quite a bit going on around her eyes, a little bit of a nose thing—her nostrils are adjusted. People in the screenings, they had to have it pointed out that in the first bit of footage you see, they thought it was archival footage, but then you realize it’s Charlize Theron; that’s not the real Megyn. The eye color was a big thing, the hair, the wardrobe, but it’s really the performance. The technical things are important but Charlize just got the accent, got the spirit of Megyn, and was committed to getting it right.
With Margot Robbie’s character, you’ve made it clear this is not a real person. What did creating someone who went though this experience do for your storytelling that using a real person could not?
It’s interesting. Because the young women who were being harassed by Roger late in his life weren’t coming forward in public. They did speak to the outside investigation, but we didn’t have access to them. Unlike in a documentary where you’re stuck and can only use who you can get, the thing about being in an interpretive creation and dramatization is that you can hear and tell the essential truth of what those women went through but since you don’t have them or their actual quotes, you have to try to distill and recombine the stories into a character who will now speak for them. Based on the people who have come out and seen the film, the sense that it’s authentic is there. The feedback we’re getting is that this was an authentic re-creation of the kinds of things that were going on.
I heard multiple times about the twirl that he would require women to do; it’s so creepy and sounds like such a benign word and action, and men might think “What’s the big deal?” when he asks them to turn around, but then you see the scene and that’s an example of what happens when you talk to the real people. You get a feel for what it’s like. I don’t think men could ever imagine the level of humiliation and soul-crushing theft that Roger took from women like Kayla. It’s so excruciating to experience, and she represents something that women can empathize with.
You seem to have this real flare for wrangling these giant stories with a hundred characters and making sense of it. You used the word distill, and that’s what you’re doing with these sweeping issue-oriented stories. Do you have a way you begin that process, of organizing and figuring out the storytelling direction?
It starts with the script, and Charles Randolph wrote a great script. He had done that with Adam McKay with The Big Short, and what a massive story that was to tell. This was a little more chronologically and geographically confined in certain ways, but it has national and global implications. For me, once I read the script, the way I wanted to make it feel big is to have layers. We worked very hard to have every monitor in every newsroom—and there were dozens of them in every shot—have what was going on in the world, in the nation, up there on that day.
So you always sense that this is just a weird, almost Shakespearean drama going on with this guy abusing his power, and he’s going to fall hard, and these women are going to bring him down. But it has implications, especially in the Trump singularity. The implications were huge; that’s my favorite kind of storytelling. They are fascinating, compelling, local complexities that I’m really obsessed with, but there are all of these other pressures outside the castle wall, an army laying siege. That’s why I like these kind of films.
Speaking of abusing power and falling hard, you forget that at the time Megyn challenged Trump in the debate, Fox wasn’t totally on board with him.
Right around that time, they were starting to see his potential. It might have been a turning point. I can’t remember when I started going, “Wow, they’re really on board with this guy.” But he was already center stage at all of the primary debates; the debates were getting really big ratings, and it wasn’t because of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. They were reading the tea leaves, and for her to take him on…and he had been a Fox feature for a long time, calling on “Fox & Friends.” So they had already invested in him. You’re right that it was a turning point in that they asked “Are we going to fully commit to him even at the expense of our new star, Megyn Kelly? Yep, we are, and she’s going to have to make it up to him somehow,” and she did in that horrible interview she had to do with him later. For me, it was a turning point because I didn’t pay attention to Megyn Kelly until that moment.
I feel like the story that is happening right now with him might be something you would take a look at in a few years.
Because of Game Change, HBO has been trying forever to figure something out. But every time we think we know the story about Trump’s rise and fall, we realize we have to wait. Every time we thought we would do something new, he trumps what we would have come up with before.
The pacing of this film is often relentless and feels like controlled chaos, but it actually sets up a couple of key moments where you just stop. The audition scene is one of those. Do you have to carefully select those moments? The movie isn’t that long, and you probably could have gone much longer. How do you identify those moment when you want to slow things down?
We wanted to mix up the entertainment value, and it’s a bit of a Trojan Horse. You’re trying to get people to pay attention and actually care about it, and it’s easy for people to feel like they’re being lectured to or taught something; we never wanted to do that. We just wanted people to think these were great characters, great performances. It was the performances that made us slow down. Nicole Kidman, when Margot comes in right before Roger bullies Nicole, she starts whispering to Margot “Don’t leave the show. I’ll help you.” I slowed that down.
The moment when Margot is with Roger was always meant to be one of the excruciatingly uncomfortable, creepiest scenes I’ve ever been involved with, and what made it creepy was that she was stuck there. He had her in his clutches, and she wasn’t going to get out, and she was going to have to maneuver her way out of there. It’s like a horror film. The dragon might kill and eat her right on the spot. I feel like the more you worry for her, the longer it could be stretched out. It plays out in real time; we just shot multiple cameras and let them go, and I don’t think we cut a second out of what they did, performance wise. I shot the while film that way; everybody is always on—there is no “off camera” in this particular style of shooting. Both of them were one with opposing cameras, and I was actually operating that wide shot camera because I didn’t want to put them through it too many times. So when we were in the cutting room, I was like “I know you might be tempted to speed this up, but don’t even think about it.” That was [editor] Jon Poll’s instinct, too. In fact, his first cut is very close to how it turned out. He found the rhythm in that scene and it was amazing.
Tell me about the lengths you went to to re-create the Fox News newsroom in terms of its geography and the hierarchy of offices.
Our research was extensive. Mark Ricker, the production designer, who did Trumbo and All the Way with me, was very compulsive about matching. We had some photos that were leaked out to us through various people. We weren’t allowed to go in, but we did ask. It was like a period piece, in a way, trying to get the details down, because I don’t think it’s the same today versus 2016. And the big part for me was making sure the media was right, the stuff on the computer screens, the monitors. Same with wardrobe and props and everything.
I’m sure people keep asking you about a new Austin Powers movie. The rumors about it happening keep coming up. Is that happening? Is it moving forward? Are you involved?
I honestly don’t know. We always talk about it, but I don’t have a good answer for it. I’ve been quoted before saying I’d do it, but because it’s been almost 17 years, I don’t know how to give you a read on it. It’s always up to Mike, and if he’s excited about it, then we’ll talk about it.
Having examined this part of Megyn Kelly’s life, what do you think of what’s happened to her since this?
It’s interesting really what Ronan Farrow described about what went down with her when she was fired, which happened in the middle of our shoot—she was fired a few days into our shoot. So we were wondering what it meant, does it impact people’s ability to empathize with her? And Ronan Farrow’s theory was that, although she was fired for saying racially insensitive things, there had already been so much tension about her fighting with them over their suppression of Ronan’s story about Harvey and the Matt Lauer stuff, and actually having victims of Matt Lauer on her show, that she had put a target on herself at the company anyway. I don’t know where it’s all going to go. It’s interesting when you make films about people who are in the middle of their careers, lives, and also your film becomes part of the story. What must that be like for them? The sense I get is that it’s one of the most surreal, almost PTSD experiences for these people, so imagine it will be like that for her.
I assume you saw the interview she did when she went back on Fox with Tucker Carlson.
Yeah. She was even pushing back on Tucker’s presuppositions, and that’s what makes her so interesting.
Jay, thank you so much for this. Best of luck.
Another really good time. Thank you.