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Jay Roach: Trumbo and Joking Our Way Through Difficulty

on November 18, 2015, 1:45pm

Photography by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

On the surface, you wouldn’t expect a movie like Trumbo to come from the likes of Jay Roach. Detailing the story of legendarily blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played with calculating theatricality by Bryan Cranston) and his attempts to work clandestinely after he and his Communist colleagues were ousted from Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo demonstrates a sophistication and a command of tone that you might not expect from the director of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Meet the Parents. Still, it’s that kind of deft exploration of our glossy perception of the past that makes Trumbo (like the first Austin Powers) effective and entertaining.

Roach has been a journeyman comedy director for decades now, but his more recent efforts (Game Change, Recount) have allowed him to stretch his ambitions to zippy explorations of complex political controversies – of which Trumbo is no exception. When I spoke to the 58-year-old director, he was talkative, effervescent, and intensely revealing about his passion for offering these sneakily comedic looks into the dark side of American politics, which you can read below.

Let’s start by talking about the Blacklist. Was that something you were interested in before taking on this project?

One of the blacklisted men was Edward Dmytryk, who was a director (the only director of the [Hollywood] Ten) and was my directing teacher at USC. I remember learning about the blacklist from him, but what really inspired me to write this was that it was a story about a writer who used his superpower, in a sort of David and Goliath way, to help undo an entire evil system – this thing that evolved where these talented people who were really just fighting for fairness and justice were destroyed. Their lives were destroyed, they got divorces and lost their homes, because they couldn’t work. They couldn’t take care of their families. And so, [Trumbo] didn’t just settle for being a victim: he wrote his way out of it. He wrote his way out of jail, in a way, both literally and figuratively. And he wins two Academy Awards and writes Spartacus and then Exodus and helps break the blacklist? Like, that’s a classic American tale.

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Were there any non-Trumbo accounts of the blacklist that you research when you started working on the project?

There are two great biographies [I referenced]: the biography of Trumbo by Brent Cook and the new one by Chris Trumbo, who is Dalton Trumbo’s son, and Larry Ceplair. Trumbo was one of the most central characters [of the blacklist]: he was the oldest of the guys, he was the most vocal, he was the most targeted, if you will, because he was so articulate and he was the most successful. That’s why he was brought up in a sort of show trial: if they could make an example of him, they could scare anybody.

Not only was he the highest paid [screenwriter of the time], he was the only writer who didn’t have a morals clause in his contract, which was a specific thing of that time where, if you had unpopular political views, or if you got caught up in some kind of scandal with a love affair or whatever, you could be fired and your fees would be taken away. And he said, “I won’t sign that,” so he was already a kind of troublemaker from their point of view. But a very talented one, so they couldn’t get rid of him until they finally found a way, which was by accusing him of being a traitor.

And he wasn’t — he was a war correspondent, and he made Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was a patriotic film about the James Doolittle invasion during World War II. A Guy Named Joe, which Spielberg later remade into Always. He was a patriot, you know, but they succeeded in getting rid of him by smearing him with this Red Scare tactic.

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Speaking of Trumbo, obviously one of the highlights is Bryan Cranston’s performance – it’s intense, it’s fantastic. What kind of prep work did you guys do to get into the character – not just the tics and the physicality, but his psychology. He was a very big personality, so there’s probably the temptation to play him too big.

We studied his life by talking through [Trumbo’s] daughters. That helped tremendously because [Niki and Mitzi Trumbo] gave us so much insight into what life was like and their father was like and how driven he was. He was from the Rocky Mountains – Montrose, Colorado – and he’d been a worker at a bakery, and was psychologically driven to escape the boredom and mundane aspects of his life. So he wrote his way into a much bigger world.

And he also became so theatrical because he believed so much in fairness and justice partly from worker’s rights issues, even as a baker, identifying with the idea that the workers worked and the owners made all the money. That seemed unfair to him, so he started his political career by just fighting for better wages, safer working conditions, more humane working hours, stuff like that. He ended up fighting for the same things for screenwriters through the Screenwriter’s Guild at the time. By doing all that stuff, he became a target.

[Trumbo] became so outspoken and he knew to communicate these controversial ideas he had to become a very good speaker and writer, so he embraced the power of language, writing, and storytelling. And so Bryan studied him and found out he was very theatrical, and he would kind of perform these ideas to make them all the more powerful. He couldn’t just stand talking in a monotone – he found this melody. Bryan studied that, and I think it’s completely authentic. You can see in the [archival] clip at the end how dramatic [the real Trumbo’s] speaking could be. I think Bryan really nailed that.

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I must think that, for someone who is unfamiliar with who Dalton Trumbo was as a person, you probably need that too.

Maybe, although in a way, it’s a risky choice because I think it’s an old-school way of speaking, so it can come across as kind of pretentious. But because he was also really funny, he could get away with it – that’s how Trumbo really worked. He was such a witty, smart-ass, sarcastic satirist that he could famously take this tyrannical idea coming at him and flip it around on someone, make them seem like the idiot in the situation.

That’s how he testified at HUAC: as this guy with an attitude. It was occasionally very funny, but it also made him seem like a smart ass, so it got him in worse and worse trouble. Then, he ends up writing such great screenplays like Roman Holiday and The Brave One that he wins two Academy Awards — suddenly it sort of embarrasses the studios. They’re like, “We shut a lot of people down, but this isn’t working because all these blacklisted writers are getting consistent work and writing some of the best screenplays in town.”

TR_09545.dngGoing back to the HUAC trials, one interesting approach was the alternating of archival footage of Reagan and McCarthy with actors reenacting other historical situations and people. What was the challenge in blending those different types of footage so seamlessly?

I’d used archival footage in films like Recount and Game Change before, and I tried to do a similar thing here where I try to transport you back in time. I used the archival footage as a kind of time machine to say, “I’m gonna take you back and convince you that this extraordinary, dangerous, evil thing happened.”

It’s only 60, 70-some-odd years ago. In America, people were completely stripped of their freedom of speech and, in some cases, sent to jail. That really happened. And to do that, I showed the archival footage to let you see people you recognize – Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon – people who are trying to make a name for themselves in this process. But then I blend it with our actors, and I start by degrading our footage to look as rough and tumble as the newsreel footage.

In this case, which is different from my other films, I also wanted to underline that we were doing that. You should be aware that it’s not a documentary, it’s not history, it’s a story about history. By dollying in on Bryan as he’s saying, “I’m not going to answer that question with a yes or no answer. Only a moron or a slave would do that.” With that smart ass answer, we push the screen edges out, go to color, and say, “Now we’re in a movie, and you should watch this with an awareness that it’s an interpretation of this time period.”

Not just the politics, but just the general attitude of Golden Age Hollywood since that wasn’t the only thing you recreated. You recreated old Edward G. Robinson movies and Spartacus – I was most impressed by that scene.

Yeah, that was audacious; we are interpreting [this era], but we had to get it right. We had to get Kirk Douglas right. If you get Kirk Douglas wrong, or John Wayne wrong, you’re going to get crucified. And it was daunting to cut to a close-up of Dean O’Gorman after just seeing a full shot of Kirk Douglas. But it was also really important – you need to see our actor saying, “I’m gonna put Dalton Trumbo’s name on it, but you’ll have to reshoot all the scenes with me if you’re gonna fire me, because I am Spartacus.” If you don’t really believe that he’s Spartacus, it’s not going to make any sense. It was required in the storytelling, but it was also frankly bold and enjoyable to try to take that on.

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How difficult was the casting process for these infamous actors and public figures?

It was really hard. I had a great casting director, David Rubin; he’s done so many of my recent films. But I found Dean [O’Gorman] in New Zealand. I auditioned him multiple times via FaceTime, because he couldn’t fly back and forth to LA. So we worked it out – he tried things, I’d give him a few notes, he’d try a few more things. He’s got a really strong New Zealand accent, and yet he sounds like Kirk Douglas to me. Kirk Douglas saw the film, really liked Dean, and just said, “I wish you’d just cast me, but this guy was really good.” We were happy that he felt that way, because what Douglas (and [Otto] Preminger) did really helped break the blacklist.

Speaking of the cast, you assembled a cast with a great comedic background – Alan Tudyk, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Louis C.K. (who’s fantastic in it).

Yeah, people don’t bring up Alan Tudyk; I love his comedic sensibility. [Laughs.] But no, that was important to me, because these people were very comedic. They wrote very intensely and passionately, and sometimes very seriously, but they would also write with this sarcastic attitude sometimes that was delightful and funny. They were raconteurs and great storytellers, even at parties. At Trumbo’s funeral – he was the oldest of the gang – they trashed him in a really funny way and turned it into a roast. So we had to be funny in order to be authentic, to get it right required us to have some comedy.

It doesn’t hurt when you’re dealing with such a serious topic – so much sacrifice, so much loss – that we, in life, joke our way through difficulty. We have to. We wouldn’t survive if we couldn’t find some irony in absurdity and how screwed up things are. They were masters of that, and that’s why it’s not only unfair and unjust that they were shut down. It’s a devastating loss to us, as audience members that Trumbo couldn’t keep writing great studio movies for 13 years. After all the films he wrote, I wish he’d had more freedom to be a spokesperson for our culture.

And I think the comedy really helps, especially once Trumbo’s structure takes hold. It takes the structure of a caper film.

Yeah, a family heist film. That’s what we learned from the daughters, Mitzi and Niki. It was terrifying, and they were threatened all the time, but they formed a tight bond as co-conspirators in this effort to sell black market scripts. Cleo was really driving around, dropping off scripts, picking up cash. The daughters were terrified that they’d pick up the phone and answer the wrong pseudonym. Meanwhile, their dad’s in the bathtub muttering and drinking.

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I was really glad you didn’t shy away from that dark side of the family dynamic.

He was totally dysfunctional while he was being incredibly functional. That’s what makes the story so compelling.

One overarching theme in Trumbo is the ability for art to change public perception. As Trumbo kept earning more Oscars, and we learned more about the injustice of the blacklist, we go back and think about all the cultural capital we lost. Is that something that was conscious in your mind?

Well, there’s been so much bad information about what happened. To this day, there are still people who are trying to resurrect Joe McCarthy and rehabilitate him. I read somewhere recently that “They didn’t go far enough,” you know, “against these Commie traitors!” These men, they were not traitors. Trumbo was a patriot, a war correspondent. He made pro-war, pro-American movies. He was a lover of justice, he was a terrible member of the Communist party – he wrote scathing attacks on them, memos trying to criticize them. He was rich, he was a hypocrite.

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That’s why we had Louis C.K. play the guy who would bust him. He was the hardliner, the true Communist character – and he’s based on two or three other guys who were much further left than Trumbo. Trumbo was not that hard left, and he joined while we were allied with the Communist superpower to fight fascism. He was strongly anti-fascist and very pro-union. He used storytelling to correct misperceptions, to inspire people to stand up against injustice. Spartacus is one of the greatest stories of all time about standing up against an oppressive system. These are slaves who are forced to fight to the death and who have a revolution. That, ironically, was the most subversive film he wrote, because who doesn’t want to be subversive when you’re a slave?

I think [it’s admirable] to use storytelling as [Trumbo] used storytelling: to correct misperceptions. He once said, “I’ve had many fights, but late in life I realized it was all one fight: for fairness and for liberty.” That’s, like, a libertarian idea! It’s a right-wing idea as much as it’s a left-wing idea. It’s an American idea and a global idea that should catch on. But [Trumbo] used storytelling to advocate for something that’s fundamental.

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