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'Trumbo' director Jay Roach goes from 'Meet the Parents' to meet the propagandists

Comedy filmmaker gets serious with the true story of a blacklisted screenwriter

Director Jay Roach attends a panel following the official Academy Screening of TRUMBO hosted by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at New York Institute of Technology on November 1, 2015 in New York City.
Director Jay Roach attends a panel following the official Academy Screening of TRUMBO hosted by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at New York Institute of Technology on November 1, 2015 in New York City.Read more

Director Jay Roach is the man behind two wildly popular comedy franchises, "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents," but over the past few years he's turned his lens on more serious issues with a political backdrop.

In HBO's "Recount," he looked at the 2000 presidential election and the decisions in Florida that led to the election of George W. Bush. In "Game Change," also for HBO, it was the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's 2008 running mate. Now, in "Trumbo," opening today in theaters, he tells the story of famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo ("Roman Holiday," "Spartacus"), and how he survived a lengthy blacklisting in the late 1940s and 1950s for being a Communist.

The film has a number of parallels to today - substitute "socialist" or "Mexican" for "Communist" - and also touches on issues of anti-Semitism, censorship and the power of propaganda and fear.

The Daily News spoke with Roach in September at the Toronto International Film Festival about what drew him to the chain-smoking, smart-mouthed rebel writer who served time in jail for his beliefs.

Q: So what turned you from a director of broad comedies into a director of big ideas?

A: I really come at it more from character than anything else. The Sarah Palin story ("Game Change"), for example, I was so fascinated by the point of view of the spin doctor (Steve Schmidt). Imagine being in the room when they decided that she was the best person for vice president and then finding out there's more to this than we thought.

That's what happened here. I just connected to Trumbo so much. The politics was an important part of the complexity of the predicament, and it's clearly an important part of the story, but it was his approach to life, his passion for justice. It's such an uncool thing in the modern world to sit around and talk about fairness and justice. That's an instant conversation-killer for most modern dinner parties.

But he could talk about big ideas in a way that he could not only make them persuasive but enjoyable. He was deadly serious and incredibly zealous, but he was also very funny. And that not only propelled me to want to do it, it helped me set the tone for making the movie. I wanted to make sure there was humor in it as well as the seriousness, because that's Trumbo. He would never have a long conversation without cracking a really inappropriate joke in the middle of it.

Q: The movie, however, is not just about a smart, funny man. It has a serious political underbelly.

A: I'm really interested in how propagandists use either an external threat or an internal threat to whip up fear and then convert that fear to someone who's not actually the true threat. That's not to say totalitarian Communism wasn't a threat at the time; it was. But to convert that threat to this mainstream writer, who even wrote patriotic films ("30 Seconds Over Tokyo") and was a war correspondent, that this guy is dangerous in the same way that Stalin is, that's a trick.

That this guy is taking orders from Moscow and using those orders to hypnotize Americans who are unsuspecting dupes to get on board with the party line through [his movies], it was just freaking absurd. But that is the conversion of the propagandist. And it's not a Left or Right thing. It's a politician's thing.

This group turned the fear of totalitarian expansion into a totalitarian injustice locally. They used a type of totalitarian big government intervention into these people's lives to combat a totalitarian influence.

Q: Labeling someone a Communist is still a popular smear.

A: Since 1917. During the LBJ era [Roach is now working with Cranston on "All the Way," about the Johnson era after JFK], J. Edgar Hoover used Communism to smear the civil rights movement. All the surveillance of Dr. King was justified by his association with a not very Communist guy, Stanley Levison.

In the time of Trumbo, Walt Disney testified before HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee] and said, "Why would the animators want to strike if it wasn't for their Communist infiltrators?"

Q: That sentiment still exists today, as if it could have nothing to do with seeking a livable wage.

A: Yes. Why would you have real grievances unless some Communist got into your head?

Q: Why do you think it was always writers who had to testify before Congress?

A: Because the writers were expendable and less sympathetic. If they put the Left-sympathetic actors up there and made them answer questions, they feared that the public would turn on them. So the "friendlies" were often actors but the "unfriendlies" were often writers.