Even Jay Roach didn’t think he was the right guy for this job. Despite a career that transitioned a while back from broad comedies like Austin Powers and Meet The Parents to talky, politics-saturated historical dramas like Recount, Game Change, and Trumbo, the director firmly felt that as a man, he wasn’t necessarily the smart choice to helm Bombshell, his new film about the Fox News sex-abuse scandal that brought down Roger Ailes, the conservative Svengali who built the massively influential conservative talk channel from the ground up. But as he’s told it, producer and star Charlize Theron recruited him personally, and a large assemblage of women behind the scenes of the production helped him to realize the project the way many of them had envisioned it. (Read: no male perspective mansplaining the whole affair.)
The film not only has its share of critics, but the very nature of the politically incendiary subject matter virtually assured it would be viewed with a skeptical eye in some circles, regardless of the result. The A.V. Club sat down with Roach to talk about the importance of men engaging with this subject, why views on sexual harassment should transcend partisan bickering, and how the movie threads the needle of investigating a political culture without those same politics distracting from the main topic.
The A.V. Club: When you first got involved in this project, was the script already complete?
Jay Roach: It had been going on for about a year, I think, when I came on. [The Big Short screenwriter] Charles Randolph wrote it and sold it right around the time of the 2016 election. Roger [Ailes] had been fired during that convention—and, notably, before the Harvey Weinstein news broke. And then [Randolph sent the script] to Charlize sometime in the fall of the following year. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, and she sent it to me as a friend in late January 2018.
I just thought it was a really great script, such a compelling predicament: conservative women at a conservative news outlet doing a feminist thing when they don’t think of themselves… Megyn Kelly specifically doesn’t use the word “feminist.”
AVC: The film shows her refuting that term repeatedly.
JR: Because she makes part of her career on the anti-political correctness agenda—as if political correctness was the real enemy we need to worry about. Which, I recognize that it can be a problem, but that’s how I got into it. And I just loved the script, and I knew Charlize a little bit. And because it was such a good read, and how compelling the story was, I just was hooked on it. And she asked me on a call—I was giving her notes, and she asked, “Would you direct it?” “Uh, yeah.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve spoken publicly about being initially conflicted about taking this gig, because you didn’t really feel like it was your story to tell. But Charlize Theron wanted you for the job, and women you collaborated with helped drive the story. Between first agreeing to do it and the actual shooting, what shifted your perspective in terms of how you ended up helming this and telling the story?
JR: That’s a good question. Because Charles had done a lot of research on it, but hadn’t really had the opportunity to go and track down the actual people and talk to them personally. And I had done that on all the films I’ve made about recent history—apparently that’s my new niche: films about recent history.
And it wasn’t intentional. These stories seem very compelling and very much almost therapeutic for me, because they’re about what I’m worrying about all the time. So I had on Game Change and Recount and even some a little further back—Trumbo and All The Way—it just was a tremendous help to connect with people who had actually experienced aspects of the story and hear what they went through with the specific stuff. How it felt to go through certain things, what it was like to try to cope with these things.
So I did that on this one. I’ve made enough connections in the journalism world generally through doing the other films that I knew who to track down to sit down with people. It seemed sometimes like a kind of surreal stress they were put under at Fox because of Roger’s vaguely culty way of making everybody in his organization pay tribute to him on a perpetual basis. He felt so entitled to the loyalty that he felt entitled to bully people, require them to stick to his program, and even—obviously, as in the film—to return his favors with sexual favors. What he looked at as a favor, helping women—promote them, build their careers, mentor them—that he somehow deserved some quid pro quo, some reciprocal… is the word obeisance? You know, obey me.
JR: Thank you. That’s why you’re the journalist. And fealty’s a great word for it. And when he didn’t get that, he would punish women. Anyway, it all felt very surreal, but it also had a sense of—when the women spoke with us about it, you sensed almost an ironic distance, too. Almost as a coping strategy, like a sense of dark humor about it. So that’s why I tried to cast people who I felt—Charlize especially, she has a very sharp wit. She’s one of the greatest deliverers of a sarcastic punchline. And then you get Kate McKinnon and Allison Janney and all the other supporting people. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are amazing. Margot turned out to be great in those darkly comedic moments, too, with Kate McKinnon—they had such a good chemistry.
That all came out of talking to the real people who had been through it and who were not only people who your heart would go out to—talk about having suffered—but they were also really cool people. Really interesting people. Which was then—because it was Fox News, I thought people on the left might enjoy having their horizons expanded, their prejudices challenged a little bit. I mean, I’m a Hollywood liberal, so I’m certainly… I grew up in a conservative world, my family’s conservative, but I felt challenged. I felt like I was learning something about people I might have prejudged a little bit and that that might be interesting to pursue.
AVC: To say that this topic and this story are politically incendiary is putting it mildly. Who did you have in mind watching the film that you wanted to engage?
JR: I almost feel like it should be a film for everybody. I don’t say that from, like, “It’s a four-quadrant box office blockbuster…” I say it more just as, it’s not a partisan issue, you know? And it’s really not something that men should be afraid of either. Because women are going to have an instant connection—but, if it’s progressive women, they might be suspicious of a movie where Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are the stars. But once you get into the story—and we have long discussions after every screening that are kind of what you were talking about: “Who’s going to see this?” And people worry, “I really like it, but I’m not sure my conservative uncle is going to want to talk about it at Thanksgiving.”
And I guess I hope that, not only will women be interested [in] and connect with it, but that men will be challenged by it. Maybe they’ll be brought by their spouses or mothers or sisters—but that they will see that we are the problem. We are the ones that need to talk about it. It might be interesting to go and talk about it with your significant other as a man, because I just don’t think... I will say, I thought I knew. I think of myself as a sensitive man, and certainly surrounded by strong women whom I love very much. My mom, my wife is amazing, and I’ve heard stories, and you read stories, and you kind of think, “Well, maybe I get this.” But when you really start to hear the stories, I just don’t think we know, really, what it’s like. And it really was hearing those women tell those stories, but also being in the room while we were making the film. Being in that room was just… it was just life-changing.
I hope it connects broader. I told Charlize that because it’s about these women, that’s not a problem for the movie, it’s an advantage. Because it might be that it opens up conversations with people who might not empathize. My mom wouldn’t necessarily tune into a film about feminism, but she would be really compelled to watch a film about people she knows from Fox News. It’s an interesting opportunity.
AVC: Has it been your experience, when dealing with people of different political stripes, that there seems to be this assumption on the part of both sides where they say, “Oh, I am open to this, but I don’t know if that person over there in that part of the country is going to want to see this”?
JR: It’s interesting. We have a worry about how people are going to take things. That actually happened in the previews a lot, too, where the people running it would say to an audience member, “You rated it ‘excellent,’ but there wasn’t a ‘definite recommend.’” And they would say, “Well, I would definitely recommend it to anybody who would agree with it, but anybody else who might be a little less progressive about these ideas, I’d worry that they wouldn’t get it.” I’m like, “Well, let them decide.”
This is not a partisan movie. We’ve said that a lot. And this might be one of the issues we can all agree on—one of the great social justice issues. It really is just, women should be safe at work. They should just be safe at work. And, if they’re not, they should have a way to talk about it, and it should be easier to talk about, and they shouldn’t be disbelieved as the default position. I hope that’s what helps it cross over to unexpected audiences. The people you are worried about, I hope you don’t have to worry about that.
AVC: You don’t want it to be a partisan issue, but, at the same time, that context is in the back of your mind while shooting, right? You may have already gotten these questions at Q&As—if not, you can anticipate the critique from your liberal-minded friends, that it doesn’t acknowledge the role that these anchors themselves have played in contributing to an environment of abuse and harassment, and the complicity in this Fox News machine that helped normalize an abusive, patriarchal culture.
JR: Absolutely. Though, I disagree to some extent. We definitely talk about Megyn Kelly’s comments about “Black Santa,” and we show that she doesn’t want to be called a feminist, that she’s anti-politically correct. But I do think that what I hope you get from watching this, and especially in the overlap of Trump and Ailes, is that there is a somewhat toxic, egocentric, culty thing that went on with Roger’s—and I’m not saying Fox News is a cult, and I’m not saying that people who watch Fox News are in a cult. I’m saying that Roger’s doing what I said: demanding loyalty.
AVC: That he built that entire culture.
JR: There is an overlap between what’s going on with someone like Donald Trump. We show Megyn busting Donald Trump for all the horrible things he’s saying about women, and instead of getting behind her to help her to take on this misogyny, they end up backing Trump at her expense to some extent. That’s one of the things that fascinated me about that predicament. I remember when she took him on in the primaries about all the horrible things he said, and I was, like, “Wow, how is that going to work out? She’s their new rock star of news, and he’s their new rock star of right-wing ratings. Where are the Murdochs going to land on that?” Where was Roger Ailes going to land on that? And they end up making her do this make-good interview with Trump where, you know, halfway through the thing—we were very tempted to include the Billy Bush tape, you know, “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, just to remind people, because that happened just a few weeks prior to when Roger was fired.
But it just seemed like, okay, I think the audience knows all that and it has become, unfortunately, just a partisan bludgeon, to—maybe, if what we really want to do is get everybody talking about this, do we really have to remind people that Fox News is what it is? That some aspects of this Roger-centric mythology is being propagated by these people? Or do we really want to try to tell this story from the point of view that it’s beyond that? In a weird way, it’s bigger than that. That women’s right to respect in the workplace is kind of bigger than that. And, yes, we tried to get that overlap of Trump and Ailes, and the Murdochs to some extent, but is that really what our point is in telling this story? I don’t think so. Does that make sense?
AVC: It does, though it likely won’t satisfy some.
JR: It’s a hard question and I really think we thought a lot about it because, especially as Hollywood liberals who are so frustrated and… what’s the right word?
JR: Yeah, demoralized by how much so much of that messaging catches on in the world. This particular messaging somehow, that women deserve this and that any woman who speaks up doesn’t have a sense of humor or resents being flirted with—you know, all the sort of bullshit: “Well, he’s just an old-school guy.” Rupert Murdoch said later, “Oh, it was just a little bit of flirting.” That I want to pick on. Right now. Other things I will pick on, I’ll approach with my films in other ways. But this one, I just want to talk about the way they treat women at Fox News.
AVC: For that very reason, I think the film tries to evacuate normal politics from itself. There are a few moments: As you said, we get Megyn Kelly’s awful “Santa Claus is white” stuff, we see the opinions Gretchen Carlson took that got her ostracized from the network. But it does seem like the larger context is somewhat stripped. Were you doing that because it felt like it distracted from the story, or was it part of an intentional effort to not engage in precisely the broader context of partisanship?
JR: It was part of the effort to have even people on the left see Megyn and Gretchen as, first and foremost, women who were being abused and also who did—both of them—kind of an amazing thing. Whatever you think about them and their politics, during this one-year phase—starting with Gretchen, who jumped off that cliff a year before the Harvey Weinstein news breaks—she didn’t have anything like the support women got later. Jumping off alone—I just thought, to imagine what that was like, how lonely, how risky, how painful it might be like to do what she did… For people on the left to care about it, it seemed like—I didn’t—we didn’t deliberately strip out, but we tried to just show what that predicament would feel like. Nicole [Kidman] actually found those other two clips—the “no makeup on International Day of the Girl” and the anti-assault weapons thing. [Two moments of Carlson’s Fox show that were included in the film and show her breaking with the Fox ideology. —Ed.] They were almost word-for-word exactly what those broadcasts were—she found the clips and we recreated them. But I also put her at the beginning going off about socialism. But, yeah, it is a deliberate attempt to get past the automatic, stereotypical depiction of them for people on the left.
So it’s a good question. I don’t know. Did I intentionally—it’s an interesting question. I don’t really have much more to say about it, but it’s a really good, challenging question, so I appreciate it.
AVC: There’s an extraordinarily effective scene, one of the best moments in the film, where Rudi Bakhtiar, played by Nazanin Boniadi, has a meeting with a male superior sexually propositioning her while dangling a promotion. And you hear her internal monologue that she’s trying to navigate this situation. It’s a microcosm of the film as a whole. But we never see her again. Can you speak to what pushed you to include that?
JR: That story is so incredibly heartbreaking and compelling. I wish we could do a whole film about her. So Rudi was—at this moment she’s harassed, she’s a rising star. She’d come out of UCLA, gotten very quick work as a young woman at CNN and gets a three-year deal at Fox. And six months into it, people are talking about her as the next Christiane Amanpour. She’s Persian—Iranian—and she speaks all kinds of languages, she speaks Farsi, she’s sent into battle zones, she does great reporting. Six months into her contract at Fox, this guy hits on her, and she doesn’t even report it. She mentions it to her agent, and he reports it to HR. And she gets fired right away for being a problem, right? Never works again on broadcast television. She’s been working in documentaries, and she’s doing a radio thing now. That was 2006. She went from a meteoric rise to zero because she was harassed. It was so excruciating.
And she’s now come out in public—we don’t reveal who talked to us [for the movie], they choose to reveal it first—and she gave us, line for line, feeling for feeling, beat for beat, what it felt like. Charles wrote the dialogue from her words and her thoughts. And you’re right, women have seen it and just say, “Oh, my god, that’s that weird thing where you’re trying to tiptoe around the man’s ego to just keep him from not feeling so revealed and his horrible agenda that he won’t fire you.” And she doesn’t succeed. She does the best she can. She goes, “Oh, that’s the end of my career.” And she can’t even feel it happening as it’s happening. I mean, that just broke my heart. Who couldn’t relate to that?
AVC: What makes that scene so powerful is precisely what you were speaking of earlier. As a man, you read these stories and, at a distance, it’s easy to think of sexual harassment as black-and-white situations, like some monster standing over a woman, Weinstein-style. But it’s subtle; it’s precisely this guy’s ego that she’s trying to finesse to keep things light and professional, long after they’re not.
JR: And Roger’s ego, too. The great thing I loved was the way John Lithgow went at it. [Former Fox News journalist] Alisyn Camorata experienced it: She was briefly portrayed in the film, saw it in New York and went, “Oh, my god, this is so how Roger really was,” and I credit Lithgow for looking for the sense of humor in Roger, the fatherly—it sounds creepy when you say it that way—but the fatherly sort of mentor. You know, Megyn Kelly said in her book that, even though he harassed her 10 years earlier, the whole decade after that, he was promoting her steadily and helping her. That level of complicated relationship makes harassment even harder to deal with—at least, the way she described it. I don’t know. I’m just trying to make it possible for these women to tell their story through our actors.
But the way it’s described, he was so charming. So that made the predation all the more disturbing and hard to reconcile with how their careers were going. Yeah, it’s really creepy. And, for me, again, just eye-opening as a man—the other thing that creeps me out about the story that I hope to convey is the way Gil, a producer, who’s also a composite character, represents that kind of man who knows what’s going on and just decides to protect the status quo and just stay out of it. Like, “Hey, it’s not my place. She’s not really in danger now,” and doesn’t support Gretchen when she speaks up. That kind of complicity that’s very passive is also really disturbing, and hopefully men will talk about the harmful role we play sometimes just by trying to keep our noses out of things.