Few filmmakers have their finger on the pulse of what works in comedy quite like director Jay Roach, who first came to prominence in the late ’90s directing Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. A few years later he pitted Ben Stiller against Robert De Niro for Meet the Parents, both which became blockbuster comedy franchises with two sequels each. In 2008 Roach got political, directing HBO’s “Recount” about the 2000 election, for which he won two Emmys and a DGA award, and then last year he followed that up with the HBO movie “Game Change” about the decision by the Republicans to enlist Sarah Palin as the Vice Presidential candidate. That was recently nominated for 12 Emmys.
Roach is back at the movies with his latest comedy The Campaign, which harks back to “Recount” with its look at a fierce political competition between Will Ferrell’s Cam Brady, the incumbent Congressman of North Carolina, and his competition, Zach Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, a simple family man who runs a Tourist Center and is recruited and funded by a couple of rich big-wigs who want to have more control over the candidate.
Anyone who saw Ferrell and Galifianakis presenting the Oscars earlier this year already knows how funny they can be together, but it took a filmmaker like Jay Roach to reign in their crazy humor to deliver a political comedy that feels as authentic to the subject matter as it is funny.
ComingSoon.net spoke with Roach a couple of weeks back and though we only had ten minutes, we spoke as much as we could about making the movie, including auditioning babies “that could take a punch,” and touched briefly upon his long-in-development project Used Guys and the potential for future Austin Powers movies.
ComingSoon.net: How’s it going today?
Jay Roach: Good, yeah. I kind of like talking about this movie. You lose objectivity and then you see it through other people’s eyes and you go, “Oh, yeah, this is pretty good,” so I’m happy people are enjoying it.
CS: You directed the “Austin Powers” movies and “Meet the Parents” and then you went into this different area where you started directing these political movies. Was politics something you’d always wanted to get into and “Recount” gave you that opportunity?
Roach: I think I’ve always been interested in political stories. It’s a really great backdrop for any story. When you want to tell a story about how people connect to each other on a local level, to have pressures outside pulling and pushing on that story so it’s really a storyteller’s appreciation for the arena, but I’m as much in this case I got to make fun of our political situation, I’m sincerely anxious about it, and also, I have a kind of idealism and vision for how I wish it was going contrasted to how it is going, and both the HBO films were about that to some extent: why we don’t value wisdom as a fundamental, basic requirement for political office. This is just a crazy extension of that.
CS: Having done “Recount” and “Game Change,” you already know that the real political world is so funny on its own
Roach: There’s definitely some absurdity there.
CS: It’s funny to be doing a comedy about politics when there’s all this funny stuff that happens in the real political forum.
Roach: I love working with a actors who can play at both levels for example, and I’ve aspired to that myself. If I’m working on “Game Change” and you can get someone like Julianne Moore or Woody Harrelson, Woody’s an amazing dramatic actor but he’s got a great sense of humor, too, so even a serious story can be played with an awareness, an ironic distance sometimes, a sense of irony. I think life is like that. We’re in the middle of serious things, and we find humor, and sometimes in the middle of a humorous moment, we’re reminded what really matters in a serious way. I feel lucky and kind of grateful to be at that place where I can get serious and then also try to make people laugh, which I still very much love to do.
CS: Will and Adam (McKay, producer of “The Campaign”) had already done the Bush show, both on stage and on HBO, so how did you get involved with this? I assume they wrote a script and then you found the script and expressed interest in directing or did they come to you?
Roach: No, there wasn’t a script. Will, who I hadn’t worked with since “Austin Powers 1” – he was Mustafa and I think it might have been his first feature. You should check, I don’t know. (Note: It’s a tie with something called “Men Seeking Women.”) He’d been on “SNL” for a while so we had tried to do a number of things together over the years, and I’d worked with Adam, too, but I also worked with Zach just recently on “Dinner for Schmucks” and he was so great and such a good collaborator. The two of them came to me and said, “We have an idea. We want to play in a film together.” I think Adam was busy on stuff but had been involved in helping them think it through, but the two of them came to me and asked me to do it, and then I heard what it was and I didn’t even need to think twice, and then I found out Adam was involved, too, and I thought that was icing on the cake because he’s a great satirist and has a great sense of political comedy as well as all comedy. It just seemed funny. I just thought, “These are the funniest guys I know and to pit them against each other in this arena” and having just come off such serious versions of it, I thought, “That’s way too good to pass up.” I didn’t even blink. To Warner Bros.’ credit, they didn’t blink.
CS: The movie came together really fast.
Roach: It came together super fast. We pitched it at two or three places and one other place wanted it, too, but Warner Bros. was just like, “No, we really want it, and we’ll give you a green light, a budget, a start date and a release date right now.” Literally in the room, pretty much, and we were like, “Really?” And it was a healthy budget and I was just surprised that the studio would take on a political comedy, it just doesn’t happen. “Wag the Dog” was the one I remembered from before, but I was trying to think of what other political comedies, but there are not a lot of them.
CS: Did you know that Zach had a politician in his family as well?
Roach: Oh, sure, we talked about that. That’s partly why we set it in North Carolina. His uncle ran against Jesse Helms (for Senator) in North Carolina, and his whole family is there and he has a place there. Will has roots in North Carolina, too. I don’t remember what his connection is, so we were super-aware of it. I met Zach’s Dad and we talked about his brother a lot, and yeah, he’s a lot more current event-oriented, Zach is, then you might think, because he’s so specific and idiosyncratic, I didn’t realize how worldly he actually is.
CS: He kind of stays away from it with his humor and his stand-up act is not that political.
Roach: No, it’s more personal.
CS: I thought North Carolina was an interesting choice for a setting because a liberal in North Carolina is someone who only goes to church every other Sunday or something like that.
Roach: But it does swing Democratic sometimes. They voted for Obama in 2008, and that’s why we chose it, it’s a purple state. And it’s definitely not about making fun of Southerners. We literally just said that we need a state where it could go either way, where there’s a conservative wing, but there’s also a progressive wing, and we don’t want it to be a partisan thing. We want to make fun of both parties and the whole system. We thought it might hurt the comedy to have it somehow become an issue film. The only issue that it gets into is that there is so much money going into politics that everybody is driven crazy by it, and that was it.
CS: I think one of the scenes that gets people going is the scene where Will punches a baby. I remember seeing that for the first time at CinemaCon and it brought the house down.
Roach: And that’s the only time thank God, they couldn’t put it in the trailers, because I’m sure they would have. I’m so glad that no one but the CinemaCon people have seen that footage.
CS: How do you approach doing that scene?
Roach: We knew obviously it was going to be a visual effect baby and we weren’t going to be punching actual babies, but we did have to audition babies who could take a punch in a bigger sense that Will would have to move his hand we knew that Will would act in slow motion and I shot it in even slower motion, but he would move really slowly and then we’d try to get the baby to have some kind of reaction, but the baby enjoyed the game so much that we kept having to shoot it a bunch of times. Then my wizard visual FX guy Dave Johnson, who has done every one of my films, the Dr. Evil submarine and the island, everything, the spinning thing they would jump through in “Austin Powers 1,” Dave Johnson, he’s such a wizard. He made a 3D baby that could really take a punch and all that rippling face. We studied all those 2,400 frames per second scientific films. Weirdly, there’s some footage of people on the internet taking punches shot in super slow motion, so that’s the part that no one has seen if you haven’t seen the film.
CS: Any idea what you want to do next? I know you’re lined up to do the Gorbachev movie for HBO?
Roach: Yeah, that’s actually the one I like the most. I don’t know if HBO’s going to jump into it but it’s their project and I’m doing more stuff with them for sure and I really love that project, it’s a really interesting Cold War story. I have no other plans. “Game Change” and this film overlapped, so I feel like I have to take a breath and figure out what’s next. It’s nice that other doors are opening up these days, so it’s really cool.
CS: One of the projects you’ve been trying to do for a while is “Used Guys,” which you had Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey lined up for and then it fell apart.
Roach: And then Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris tried to do it.
CS: Is that one of those things that will never happen?
Roach: I don’t know. I would drop anything the moment we can all agree on how to do it. I wanted it to be a big enough budget to transform the world because it’s a world run by women, it should be different. I got into trying to redesign it, and I understand, but I tell you, that script was so good, it could have really worked for Fox, and maybe someday we’ll all figure out how to do it. It’s up to me to come up with an affordable version.
CS: Was that something you were doing at the same time Mike Judge was doing “Idiocracy”?
Roach: Yeah, that might have cut into it.
CS: But you probably could do that sort of FX cheaper now than you could five years ago.
Roach: Definitely. Because they were replicant Ben Stillers, you had to shoot a whole bunch of motion-control shots to have Ben appear 18 times in one shot. Now that’s easy, so maybe we could pull it off.
CS: Do you think we’ll ever see Austin Powers again?
Roach: I don’t know.
CS: I was surprised you weren’t a producer on those movies.
Roach: No, I wasn’t. It was always Mike’s thing. He came up with it, he invited me into it – he gave me the break of a lifetime doing that first one, but I’d drop everything else to do that, too, if Mike found a version of it he wanted to do. I think that just takes time to get the right one. Having done three, if you’re really going to do a fourth, it’s mindblowing.
CS: I actually liked “Goldmember” a lot
Roach: Yeah, well, thanks. I liked the second the most. I liked all of them but the second one, establishing Mini-Me. If I don’t do anything else, getting Mini-Me into the world
CS: Well, you changed Verne Troyer’s life forever, that’s for sure.
The Campaign kicks into high gear when it opens in theaters across the country on Friday, August 10.