About a week or so ago, I participated in the Press Day for the delightfully entertaining biopic Trumbo. Opportunities to sit down and interview director Jay Roach and actress Diane Lane were provided, and of course I took them up on the offer. Both were very nice and we wound up going off topic a lot (in particular, Roach was thrilled that my grandfather enjoyed Meet the Parents as much as he did, while Lane and I just did a lot of gossiping about awards season), but below you can find the best of both chats. Roach directs and Lane co-stars in Trumbo (my rave review of which is here) with Bryan Cranston, who wonderfully plays the title character. It’s in theaters now and is well worth checking out. Don’t miss it!
On hearing that growing up the first time I heard a family member analyze a scene was my grandfather with the urn scene in his film Meet the Parents
Jay Roach – No kidding! That’s amazing, you know, because that scene is the kind of culmination of a 30 minute build up. There’s so many elements to the set up, so I really appreciate that story, that he noticed how carefully we crafted that, all to build up to that one moment. The studio actually wanted to use that in their trailers and I kept saying no, please, it would ruin the surprise! I’ve spent 30 minutes doing that, I’m not going to let them tip it off and spoil it!
Talking about his transition from comedy films to mostly politically themed material now
JR – You know, I don’t…you see that in this film (Trumbo), there’s a tremendous amount of drama but there’s also wit, because these guys were fun guys. They coped with the horrors that were being bestowed upon them by joking their way through it. Also, their writing in their films was funny. I saw Roman Holiday a couple of times again while making this and that guy is really witty, his dialogue is so snappy, and even the quips he would make while he’s testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was good at exposing their lunacy, you know? Their hypocrisy, just by using sarcasm, sometimes irony, wit. So, I had to tap into some of my own familiarity and comfort with humor, and I also wanted to cast guys who could be funny too. Louis C.K. is one of the funniest human beings on Earth, but so is John Goodman! That scene where he takes on the union guy is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever directed, and here it is in this very very serious drama about one of the most painful and heartbreaking and evil times in our history.
So, I’m glad I have that training and I still want to do comedies, but I do these films and I don’t really see them as “political” in quotation marks. I see them as personal stories that are, just like classic literature or theater, not that we are in league with any of those things, but that we try to use the same storytelling techniques, where there’s a local crisis, a local battle for one’s soul. Literally, which way will I go? Will I do the noble thing and protect my friends and fight for the right to be a part of any organization and not have to name names, or will I name names and keep my career? That battle for the soul is so small and in a way it’s just one man against himself or one man being betrayed by a friend, like Edward G. Robinson betrays Trumbo. Yet, it’s set agains this larger crisis. The political background crisis is just there because it makes the story better to me, it creates a pressure for the smaller battles.
On the surprising tone of the movie
Diane Lane – I know! I think you’re right about that. A lot of people think they’re going to be lectured here. That might be part of the stroke of genius, one of many, that Jay Roach possesses. You know, with his experience in comedy, and his reverence for the intelligence of comedians, there is a kind of circumspect “ness” that they possess, and they can bring a wry quality to scenes that would perhaps on paper read kind of dry. They just bring a lot of humanity to their scenes and to the roles and to the film.
Discussing the themes he’s interested in when tackling a project
JR – Thematically, I always try to make it about how to be a better human being. Austin Powers, there is a love vs fear element. Dr. Evil resents anything that’s humanistic and sappy, and Austin loves things that are human and sappy. Same with, especially Meet the Fockers, Ben Stiller’s parents are all about love to everyone, to a fault they just smother him with kisses, they talk too much about how great he is, and then Robert De Niro is mister paranoia. Trying to root out treachery in his own home using defense techniques!
How he made sure this biopic didn’t feel like taking medicine in telling the story of Dalton Trumbo
JR – I know. I’m always…the early part of the film has a little less humor until the film picks up, and that’s because the early part is a horror of sorts. These guys, their careers are being massacred. Later, they figure out a way to outsmart their villainous foes and they use a superpower. I’m obviously overextending the metaphor, writing and words and wit became a superpower for them, and Trumbo harnessed that power, not just his own but others too, and ended up helping them all get into the black market and vouched for their screenplays. He lost a lot of sleep, but he wrote his brains out and his heart out and his soul out and that was a superpower to me. So, it becomes lighter as he and his guys like Frank King (John Goodman’s character) find ways to cope and find ways to battle through, and that’s when humor kicks in.
What she looks for when looking at various offers for roles
DL – There’s different movies for different reasons, absolutely. It’s nice to have that diversity, that’s one reason why I’ve always been gun shy for offers for series. First of all, one character and keeping it fresh and interesting not just for myself, but also for others. That’s a worthy challenge in and of itself. Then, there’s also the side of things where you don’t know what’s going to be written, so you don’t know what you’re saying yes to. That’s terrifying to me! Anything goes. These days, the more shock value, that’s the only way that people tune in (laughs). So, I’m a little daunted by that prospect.
On having a directorial identity that’s consistent between comedy and drama
JR – We always have silly humor, a lot of silly stuff, but we always try to talk up to the audience. I feel like you want your audience to have to have a little sophistication, even if it’s a dumb joke, to get it on two or three levels. I try to keep in touch, keep connected to that world, by producing. I produced Borat, I’m producing Sisters, so I love comedy and I also love supporting people who are coming up in the comedy world. When Sacha (Baron Cohen) first came to America, he’d done a movie that hadn’t clicked, and that was one of the things I was most proud of, I spent years helping him crack that story and helping him find the right way to do it. I traveled all over the world filming those stunts with him. I just traveled around directing those bits. I still love comedy, I grew up with Monty Python and Woody Allen, I’ll always try to go back. Sometimes I’ll try to merge the two, like with The Campaign, so I haven’t given up yet.
Talking about the humor in his HBO political movies
JR – There’s absurdity in Recount. Katherine Harris is an absurd character, we had to tone her down from the real thing! And Sarah Palin had some relationship to that as well. But, they were also serious forces in the world, so there isn’t much difference between the absurdity in the serious stuff and the seriousness in the absurd stuff. I appreciate you noticing the connections!
A bit on the scene in Game Change where Sarah Paulson’s character confesses to not voting
JR – Yeah! That was such a heartbreaking scene and wow was she amazing in that scene. She was a Republican and to me epitomized the win at all cost and slowly selling you soul without worrying…they had made choices at that time that actually risked the well being of our nation and realized that they had, but realized it too late. Her saying that she didn’t vote…wow. When we heard that from the real Nicole Wallace, that really brought it home.
On both this role and her role of Martha Kent being parts that require her to be a moral compass of sorts
DL – Well, woman tend to bear the conscience, that’s a lot of film assignments, they give that to women. She (Cleo Trumbo) doesn’t allow him to slip into bullying. You know, I think someone as well spoken and bombastic and extroverted and, you know, justified, as he was in his vitriol, you can’t turn that on the kids. Not to say that…well, anything can be weaponized. So she had to disarm him.
What’s next for her
DL – Oh, well…I did do Batman vs Superman! So I’m there, and I also did a smaller film (laughs), which is easy to say next to Superman. It’s the directorial debut of Eleanor Coppola (Bonjour Anne).
If there’s something he hasn’t done yet and what he’s hoping to do next
JR – I’ve been looking at thrillers lately, but again, thrillers that are set in situations that have stakes that are larger than the people involved directly. I just like good stories. I don’t usually set rules or criteria except that it has to be a great story. To me, that means it has to work on so many levels. In this case, because of the political stuff, I do find that a lot of stories set in that world do have so many different degrees, those battles…how do you do that? Those questions always beget stories. It just has to work on a lot of levels for me to find it a challenge, or else I’d get bored!
There you have the very best of my talks with Lane and Roach. Be sure to see Trumbo, in theaters now…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!