In July 2016, former Fox News star Gretchen Carlson filed a shocking lawsuit against Roger Ailes, accusing the network boss of sexual harassment. It was more than a year before Hollywood would be rocked by investigations that toppled the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and Kevin Spacey.
Not long after the story broke, Academy Award-winning writer Charles Randolph sat down and wrote the story of how Carlson and fellow Fox anchor Megyn Kelly told the world the truth about Ailes and about what was really happening at one of America’s most controversial news organizations.
The story would become “Bombshell,” a new film that stars Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, and Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil. I recently spoke with Charles Randolph about his inspiration for the script, the cast, and working with director Jay Roach.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Do you remember the day you first heard about the allegations against Roger Ailes?
Charles Randolph: I don’t remember the first day. I remember that week. It’s complicated because I’ve watched so much footage of television news people announcing it because we used that in the film, so what’s my real memory and what’s my aided memory by having watched all that stuff in the last two years? But I do, I think, remember the TV coverage — sort of relentless. Because it was a much bigger deal, obviously, for TV people in the first 24 hours than it was for anyone else because it was so unheard of that this would happen, in terms of an inside player at Gretchen Carlson’s status attacking that man who was considered so powerful.
KP: When was the point that you thought, “I really need to do something with this. I need to write this story.”
CR: I started reading about it. I’d always been interested in the subject matter, which is a longer, separate conversation. And I was reading Sarah Ellison’s piece. I remember being on a train… I was on the train from Grand Central and right before the end of the line, it’s like midnight, there were three of us left: a young woman, an older woman, and myself. At the stop just before mine, the younger woman got off and she hit the platform and she started just running. She sprinted. And I stood up, thinking this poor woman! Something was happening to her. And the other woman looked at me like, “Why are you worried? What’s going on there?” It turns out she was running to her car and she was just worried because it was an empty, dark parking lot.
It was one of those moments that as a man you never experience that kind of fear so viscerally. So it was this dramatic perspective shift from guy world to what it means to be a woman in the world was sort of like wow. And probably because I’d been reading Sarah’s piece on the train. I think that was kind of the moment I thought, this is nuts. This aggregate of the residue of inequality in sexual violence leading to that kind of behavior, I just thought this is insane. So that — if I were to put an origin point on it — is the closest I could come up with.
KP: What were some of the things you learned as you were researching as you prepared to write the script?
CR: Like a lot of men, I always had a little bit of this urge — this instinct — to minimize when I would hear some of these narratives. “Well, I don’t know, she went up there voluntarily…” You know, that guyish thing, which leads to the skepticism of people’s claims. I’d always been puzzled by that instinct that you’re taking as a man. Like, wait, maybe you should hear this story out before you even start questioning it. So I wanted to interrogate that part of myself, certainly. And I think the way I put it usually is I wanted to drag my own prejudices through this gauntlet of actual peoples’ lives and actual peoples’ experiences. I think, if anything, I have learned to retrain how I see these things and learn the wisdom of retraining how you think about these things, not just in terms of believing people, but in terms of appreciating how those narratives come at such a cost, and how complex they are.
So I think I want the script, if anything, to put people in the room with people like Roger and Kayla when that harassment’s going on. If I could put men like myself in that room then obviously I can show what it feels like to experience that. And we can understand how these are situations that are extremely complicated but also can be utterly life-changing for someone. Particularly situations that, for men, are like “Really? You had to pick up your skirt? That’s going to change your entire life?” And then women can say, “Yeah, it’s going to change your entire life and this is why.” You can feel that and you can see that and understand it in the course of that narrative. That’s really the idea, I think, is to try to bring men into that perspective, that change that I went through as I researched this and studied this and became more open, not just to these narratives but to the undeniable authenticity that comes with people who share those experiences.
KP: The story starts off with Gretchen Carlson, who was the one that really spearheaded this effort against Roger Ailes, and then Megyn Kelly is a big part of the story too, and those are two names we all know very well. But then you’ve got Kayla, who is a character that doesn’t exactly exist. How did she come about and why did you decide to tell so much of the story through her experiences?
CR: I would say she does exist, but she exists in different people. So she’s a composite and I should honor the people who talked to me by saying that. Mainly because there is a story that we never tell, and that is the story of someone who finds themselves caught in a quid pro quo sexual relationship and doesn’t know how to get out of it. That is a woman who is usually not comfortable saying “Me Too,” but that is a story that needs to be told.
If you look at someone like Roger Ailes, I think it’s a safe assumption that some people said yes at some point to the deal he was offering. Yet we never hear from those people really. And so I wanted to tell one of those stories, and that’s obviously not something I can put on anyone. That’s something that obviously people are loath to volunteer. I did hear some stories of people who were caught in those situations, but no one who had the sort of narrative that I would feel comfortable saying, “Okay, this is that person.”
Also I wanted her to fill other functions in the story and not just her sexual interaction with Roger — which is based on three people — but doing other things. Evangelical, a country club Republican from the south, Atlanta. There were other things I wanted, having to do with my own past, my own background, the people in my life, the people I’ve known. And I wanted a woman whose sexuality was complicated. I come from a world where in our 20s, we were very morally sincere, very ideologically fervent, and at the same time a little sexually muddled because I come from such a conservative background. I wanted to capture that.
KP: Did you talk to some of the people involved at Fox as you were working on the script?
CR: We did, yeah. Ended up talking to about 20 people. We’re not going to talk about who it is, but we talked to about 20 people at various levels of the organization from pretty low down to pretty high up. It’s a really good canvassing of the information that was available. We learned some things that journalists had not and we learned some things that ended up being surprising. Like the role of Janice Dean — she’s outed herself — in creating a list of names and curating a list of names over the years just because she sensed at some point this was going to explode… I don’t think that story had been told prior to us starting filming.
KP: How much effort did it take to convince people that you weren’t trying to make them look bad and that they could trust you with their story?
CR: It’s always a dance. I try not to get people involved until later in the process. If there’s material available, which is someone has written a book, or there’s a good court affidavit or someone has given a lot of interviews, I try to trust that they’ve told their story, that they weren’t lying. So I’ll do the first pass of the script, or if there’s an underlying book I’ll do the first pass of the script with that. See who I need, see what the story is. And then as we move toward production I’ll meet people.
I don’t like it often, so I’m hesitant to do it sometimes. Jay loves doing it, he’s much more excited about doing it. I do it with a certain kind of fear and trepidation. But if I’m scared of meeting someone, that’s probably a good indicator that I need to meet them. And some people want to meet you, some don’t. Generally speaking though, because I’m doing it later in the process, that usually means there are movie stars attached to the film and that it’s moving toward production and it feels very real. You will find that a lot of people want to talk at that point because they know it’s going to be up on the screen. Unlike a journalist where you’re at the mercy of one person’s take on you and it might be better to avoid that, when it’s going to be a big movie people tend to say “Yeah, I’ll talk to you.”
KP: At what point did you and Jay start working together?
CR: He came on in February of 2018. Charlize was already attached, we had done the legal vetting, Charlize had given me her first round of notes, I believe. He came on around then and we moved immediately into production. There’s a lot of work to do almost out of the gate.
KP: What was it about Jay that made him the right director for “Bombshell?”
CR: First and foremost that he had a relationship with Charlize, that she had such trust in him in doing this character, which was always going to be a problem. Because it’s a very delicate thing. So that’s point one. And point two, he just has a great understanding of psychological insight, so we knew the dramatic beats — any of the docudrama beats — he would be able to really capture the way politics work.
And the other thing is he’s a nice mix of comedy and drama, he’d done both and makes films that have a certain degree of commerciality. We knew that we would find an audience. This one’s a little different than some of the others. I don’t often care so much about box office. I mean, I care, but where it is in my priority list changes over time. But in this one it mattered for me in terms of it’s an important subject matter and I liked our take on it and I liked our take on it for people across the country, but particularly men. So I desperately want the film to be seen. Because it has a message component box office mattered a lot and so Jay’s historically really great at finding that sweet spot between smart and commercial and that’s one of the reasons he was the right choice.
I say this, of course, before we open.
KP: What about Charlize and Nicole and Margot? How did you get them on board?
CR: Charlize came right away. I turned the script in to the studio and they immediately sent it to her because they had had a meeting with her about working together while I was writing. In the pitch I’d actually said, “Oh, you know, Charlize would be great at this,” and we’d talked while I was writing. We always thought Charlize would be a good person to play Megyn. So it went to her right away and that was pretty easy. She was enthusiastic about the material, but not necessarily about playing Megyn until she did some more thinking about it.
So she came on and then Margot and Nicole came on a few months later. Charlize drove a lot of that. She would take them to dinner and woo them. Nicole, I had more of a relationship with because I’ve done more with her. I didn’t really know Margot at the time. But it was clear that Margot would knock it out of the park as that character. There weren’t a lot of actresses of her status — probably no one available at the time too — so it was serendipity that we didn’t have to convince anybody at the studio. It was just like, “We’re gonna go to Margot!” and they were like, “Yes!” So that was good.
And I think Nicole came in last because we were worried about scheduling at some point. She read it and responded to it and we were glad to get her. And they all three bring very different qualities as actresses. I think of them as very different in terms of their superpower.
Charlize’s superpower is this fierce courage. She’ll do anything and once she’s committed to it she’s super committed and so damn smart. Margot is just nerdy in this lovely way. She’s curious. Her superpower is this bottomless pit of curiosity. This is a great role for her [because] it’s culturally so specific. What we sometimes forget about these actors is they’re not Americans. They didn’t grow up with Fox News. They need to find a way in. So for Margot, being a southerner, being so ideologically specific, having such a specific background really was the sort of thing she could respond to so she could just drill down and learn, learn, learn, learn. She’s a real book nerd that way.
And Nicole has this determination. She never stops. She just goes, goes, goes. For her, she really invested in us building out Gretchen’s character as much as possible. Gretchen’s character is hard because she leaves the movie about halfway through because she’s fired, so she’s not around. In a movie about an office place, she’s not in that office place. So it’s a problem. And she really insisted that we continue to build out the character and that we revisit her at home so that we understood the stakes. That we can continue to nuance and layer in her family life and her emotional life. It really helped the movie. It did. I think people would be surprised at the original draft how minor Gretchen feels compared to how it became a three-hander. And that was a function of Nicole really insisting that the film not do to Gretchen what Fox did, which was marginalize her simply because she was a whistleblower. We had to honor her whistleblowing experience, even if it meant cutting away and seeing it separately.
KP: Now that the film is seeing audiences and going out into the world, what has been the most satisfying part of this for you?
CR: The most satisfying thing is when — mostly men, but men and women — come up afterwards and express how moved they are by the scene with Kayla and Roger in terms of understanding harassment and its implications on the emotional life of a human being in a way they had not. And that’s great for me. I love that. I love the fact that people actually know what that feels like. Because we all know it intellectually, we all can picture the scenario in our heads. But it’s hard to get people to actually feel it. So that’s been the great joy.
I also have a secret joy I will confess. I love the fact that it encourages us to rethink Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. I’m a big believer that too much of the time now that our media around us, even our movies, preach to the converted. I believe that art has to frustrate our easy categories and that sometimes great art comes from rooting around in the sloppy middle. So I do like the fact that this film is demanding people stand outside of their partisanship. You’ve got to engage with Megyn Kelly as a real human being. I think some of the critiques of the film — which is that it’s too soft on her — are not true. Because I think ultimately her arc is about a woman who understands her complicity in a crime in an organization. But at the same time, I do love the fact that it’s forcing people who don’t want to to to realize partisanship limits their ability to empathize with other human beings.