Diane Haithman contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
Jay Roach’s political movies span the spectrum: not from conservative to liberal, but from drama to comedy. Likely to be nominated at Emmy time is HBO’s Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination, written by Danny Strong, based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Roach also collaborated with Strong on HBO’s Emmy-winning Recount, about the 2000 presidential race. But Roach is casting a vote for comedy with his August 10 feature The Campaign, with funnymen Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two Southerners vying for a seat in Congress. He’s also developing a Watergate film based on the memoirs of the real Deep Throat, former FBI agent Mark Felt.
AWARDSLINE: For a series, an Emmy can save a bubble show from cancellation. What does Emmy mean to a made-for-TV movie?
JAY ROACH: Getting noticed by the Emmys for a TV movie is an even bigger deal. Series are up and running continuously, but a TV movie hits once and runs a few times and unless it gets noticed, it gets forgotten. On Recount the awards attention was very, very good for that film, people discovered it later down the line.
AWARDSLINE: It seems like TV is virtually the only place to see films about political subjects.
ROACH: There was a time in the ’70s when studios were making more movies that had more of a political point of view, The Candidate (1972), All the President’s Men (1976). It doesn’t seem very easy these days to set up these kinds of movies in the feature world. But I did talk about this story back during the campaign, even with a couple of studio people, before HBO bought the book. Even before I heard about the book, I was trying to convince people that being in the room where they made these decisions would be a really compelling film.
AWARDSLINE: The book also includes a lot of information about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Why did you focus on the Sarah Palin story?
ROACH: When I found out about the book, at first I was interested in making the Obama-Clinton story which I thought was great too, but a little more unwieldy. Even without Sarah Palin, the final sprint to the finish line was going to be a very contained, chronological story. It was a pressure cooker with a ticking clock.
AWARDSLINE: You also chose to focus on the behind-the-scenes, with very little re-enactment of Palin’s speeches and public appearances.
ROACH: We had all seen what happens in public. The real suspense would come from revealing the pressures that campaign managers face, the forces that pulled them to consider Sarah Palin over (Joe) Lieberman or (Tim) Pawlenty or (Mitt) Romney.
AWARDSLINE: Palin’s emotional meltdown as portrayed by Julianne Moore is a revelation. What kind of research went into that?
ROACH: We talked to so many people, trying to get the right tone. It wasn’t a breakdown; it was just a severe form of stress and pure humiliation. After the film, I found even people who definitely weren’t fans of hers were able to relate to her more. Yet I thought it was the one thing she would deny – and eventually did deny. That Katie Couric interview must have been the worst fall in a few minutes of screen time of any politician. I would have been in a fetal position on the floor in a bathroom.
AWARDSLINE: There’s now a generation of people who rely on satirists like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as not only their first source of news, but also their only source of news. What do you think about that?
ROACH: That’s an interesting question, because I’m one of them. It’s tough to find excellent journalism even on cable networks, which you would hope would be more independent. I mean, forget local television — how long ago did local television stop being a great place to find out what was going on in the world? I don’t want to de-legitimize it too much; there are some fantastic journalists, Wolf Blitzer, Rachel Maddow. But I often find that Jon Stewart has it down, and even Saturday Night Live to a certain extent. You can get the news in all its painful truth, and also get a layer of ironic commentary on it; you get multiple things at the same time.
AWARDSLINE: Is that what you are doing with The Campaign?
ROACH: I’m in the middle of it myself, doing a satirical, comedic movie about a campaign where everything is very pushed, very silly. I’m very anxious about our political system; the events of Game Change are my anxiety dreams. And yet here I am, trying to get people to laugh their asses off. You are the stand-up comic on the Titanic, which is not necessarily that reassuring.