Directing: <I>Bombshell</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

Directing: Bombshell

The cleverly titled new film Bombshell couldn’t be more timely. Based on the real-life Fox News scandal that erupted in 2016, it tells the story of the women — including star anchor Megyn Kelly (played by Oscar winner Charlize Theron) and co-host of Fox & Friends Gretchen Carlson (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), along with the fictional character Kayla Pospisil (Oscar nominee Margot Robbie), who dropped a bomb when they revealed the toxic workplace and systemic sexual harassment that Roger Ailes (Oscar nominee John Lithgow), the powerful and lecherous right-wing mogul-titan, used to run his influential news network.
No one could have predicted that one of the first strikes in the catalytic movement to overturn the long history of workplace harassment would come from inside the least likely place: at the core of deeply conservative, profoundly loyalist Fox News. But, as the world would soon come to see, this was not an issue of right, left or center, but of righting a legacy of wrongs. 

It all began when Carlson, who’d been recently fired, slapped Fox News’ founder Ailes with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment. Most people expected Carlson to get crushed by the untouchable master of the media universe. But when the dam finally burst and Carlson was joined by multiple women coming forward with their own stories, including Kelly, even Ailes couldn’t survive the flood of accusations (he resigned in June 2016, and Fox superstar Bill O’Reilly was terminated the following April after revelations about numerous sexual harassment claims and secretive settlements.) 

And those accusations and demands for cultural change became a harbinger of a defining moment of our era. Just over a year later, in October 2017, the New York Times would report multiple accusations against entertainment titan Harvey Weinstein, a story that would then combust, growing the small, pre-existing #MeToo movement into a massive global phenomenon. By then, it was clear the corporate codes of silence were being detonated across every industry. 

The meticulously layered and lively docudrama, written by Oscar winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), was directed and co-produced by Jay Roach, who began his career in comedy and who created and directed the iconic Austin Powers blockbuster trilogy, as well as directing such comedy hits as Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, Dinner for Schmucks and comedy/satire The Campaign

Jay Roach

While Bombshell is peppered with biting comedy, of late Roach has taken on more serious and dramatic political fare, with dramas like Recount and Game Change. Most recently he directed the Emmy-nominated All The Way based on events from the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The HBO original reunited Roach with Bryan Cranston, whom he directed in the acclaimed 2015 feature film Trumbo, which also starred Helen Mirren, Diane Lane and Elle Fanning. 

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Roach talks about making the film (which is getting a lot of Oscar and awards attention), the importance of the story, and why he loves post.

This and your recent work seem a very long way from the carefree, wacky worlds of Austin Powers and The Fockers. Fair to say you’re a more serious director now?

“Yes, but I feel I always had a serious side before I did Austin Powers and all the other comedies, and I’d written a lot of serious stuff, and while I’d always loved comedy I hadn’t expected to go comedy at all. But when Mike Meyers pulled me into it I just loved it and the whole process. But in 2008 Sydney Pollack asked me to take over directing Recount about the 2000 Bush v. Gore election and I just reached a different level in terms of dealing with all the serious issues. I needed to understand them for myself. And that crisis seems so relevant to what we’re all going through today in this country. So it took me in a different direction, and led me to where I am today.”

How important is this story and did you worry about having a male perspective?

“Great question. It’s an incredibly important story, and I did worry a bit, but the truth is, it was so collaborative and with so many women involved. For a start, Charlize brought the project to me and was my partner in every way. She was a powerful co-producer, along with three other women producers, we had a lot of women studio executives on it, and we didn’t do a single thing without discussing it. And even on films not set up like that, I’m pretty collaborative, but on this one in particular I was instantly humbled by the challenge of trying to invite people to empathize with what these women went through.” 

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“Hopefully a thoughtful and powerful film that makes people think even more about issues of gender equality and sexual harassment — and all the different kinds women face. It’s not a political film. It’s about a cultural change.”

What did Charlize, Nicole and Margot bring to their roles?

“They all did so much work on their characters, and Charlize is so strong and plays Kelly with so much compassion, even though she felt they had little in common in many ways. And Nicole really pushed to get Gretchen right. We didn’t have much access to Gretchen as she’d signed an NDA, but Nicole really captured her mix of self-motivation and need to please, and Nicole was a fierce defender of her character. And Margo is very analytical and almost nerdy in how she prepares, with tons of questions. So I was part of that team.”

In his role as Ailes, John Lithgow really nails a scary mix of geniality and humor along with the creepy harassment, like in the scene where he makes Kayla pull up her skirt.

“Exactly. He’s just brilliant at being both entertaining, charming and generous, but also able to go to that dark place. He also did a lot of research, and we both found that Ailes was loved even by people on the left as a very charismatic, fun guy to hang out with, and John brought all those conflicting layers to his portrayal. Ultimately, I think it was more about power and subjugating women than sex for Ailes.”

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together? I assume you had to do a lot of archival research for footage and stills?

“A ton, and we also found that Ailes really avoided being filmed much. The big challenge was capturing the chaos and excitement of the 24/7 newsroom, and making it all cinematic. Luckily, I had a great DP who really understood all the visual dynamics.” 

Talk about the documentary style look you and DP Barry Ackroyd went for.

“We wanted the audience to feel like they’re right there in the action, but almost like you’re in places you don’t deserve to be in, as if the camera snuck in there and the characters forgot they’re there, and you get those incredibly intimate angles and shots that just blow your mind. And all that is Barry. I was a huge fan of his work from way back and I studied all his films with Paul Greengrass, and if you look at Recount or Game Change they’re shot in a very Barry Ackroyd style. So I was so happy to finally work with him, and he was just amazing. For instance, if you look at the scene in the elevator, the shot is wide and you can choose who to watch, and then we cut and Barry gets these incredibly tight moving shots with racking focus and different compositions, and every frame is beautiful, and there’s this great shot of Margo looking at Charlize, and he’s like another character in the scene, anticipating their every move. And we don’t do a lot of takes. We always use multiple cameras so we don’t have to do separate coverage and setups, and Barry’s so sensitive and aware of what’s going on in every shot and what matters, and how it’ll end. It’s almost like he pre-edits it all as he goes. And he just goes by the rehearsals. He doesn’t love to get a shot list, or even have marks on the floor, because he wants to find it as he goes, and that’s not typical of DPs at all.”

Where did you post?

“All at Tribeca West, and we shot all in L.A. I just love the post process, all the editing, and we had the luxury of eight months for this. Over the years Jon Poll, my longtime editor, and I’ve developed a style. I shoot a lot of film fast, and Jon cuts his own version while I shoot, and then we start together with a fat cut but right away try and get to a playable length — two-and-a-half hours, not five or even three. And then we immediately start screening it, which is what I learned from comedy. Show it a lot and get feedback, and turn it around quickly, and we keep doing this for many months. And I like to talk at length with people about it, and learn from that. Jon also had a great assistant editor, Nina Kawasaki, who cut several very important scenes.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“Finding the right pacing and tone, and the film starts and ends quite differently from the script, and the final film is the last of many different versions we cut. Ultimately we cut out a good 30 minutes of really good material, just for pace, and realizing we didn’t have to explain so much. And then we had a great sound team and they worked closely with our composer, Teddy Shapiro, who did Dinner for Schmucks, and he did this very unconventional, haunting score that uses women’s voices, like a Greek chorus. And then we got this great song, Regina Spektor’s song One Little Soldier, for the end credits. And Elastic did the great animated drawings for that credits sequence.”

Can you discuss the visual effects?

“Dave Johnson and Pacific Vision did them all, and I’ve never done a single film without him. We went to film school together, and he comes at it like a director, a storyteller, and this had a lot of compositing and green screen and putting images on monitors in all the newsrooms. And he also engineered VFX makeup for a character like Bill O’Reilly, which we combined with prosthetics. And we had to create New York outside the windows, and turn LA locations into New York, so we had hundreds of VFX shots like that. And Dave works very quickly, so we had rough versions just 10 weeks into post.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At EFilm with colorist Skip Kimball, and it’s huge. We shot on Alexa and I love the light sensitivity and flexibility of digital cameras, and Skip and I worked from Barry’s notes as he was off shooting. Skip can even tweak individual frames, and we spent a lot of time noodling with the mood and palette, to make it as cinematic and rich as possible.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“More than any of my other films. I’m usually never satisfied, but there’s nothing much I’d change.”