Q&A with Jay Roach, director and executive producer, ‘Game Change’

Jay Roach made a name for himself directing and producing comedies, but his recent movies have been political thrillers. His latest, “Game Change,” based on the book about the 2008 presidential campaign, premieres on HBO March 10. Roach also directed “Recount,” another HBO movie, which chronicled the 2000 presidential campaign. He told The Hill that politically themed projects are more compelling to him these days.

Q: What got you interested in this project?

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I thought it was an amazing story, and I am hooked on politics and am a kind of amateur student of it. And I had so many questions about how the campaign happened — how they got to that decision [of picking Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate], how they felt about it when it was going really well, and how the strategists felt about it when it got so much more complex.

I’m interested in what’s going on with our political system, and I felt like this story was a fascinating way into those questions.

Q: This is a departure from your past projects — the “Austin Powers” franchise, the “Meet the Parents” franchise, among others. What caused the change?

I’ve always been interested in politics. I was kind of a student politico in high school, and I went to college in pre-law, majored in economics, thinking I might go to law school and ultimately head to public service. I got derailed and interested in film and in making movies.

Now I am inspired to learn more. I don’t know that much about politics, I’m the first to admit that, but these films allow me to fully immerse myself in the research and attempt to get the story right. 

It’s also therapy. I do worry about our country, and I’m a patriot. I love America, and I do believe democracy works. But I think it depends on good leadership, and it depends on the process that encourages people to do their best and the best people to jump in. 

Q: Have you met any of the people the movie features? John McCain, Sarah Palin, Steve Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace, etc.?

I haven’t met John McCain. I reached out to Sarah Palin myself personally. I wrote her a long letter explaining I was going to make the film. I thought it was an important story and that she was a compelling figure in politics, and that I wanted to speak with her and try to get the story right … I wanted to understand what it actually felt like to actually go through that 60-day ordeal. 

I sent a similar letter to her attorney. He wrote back in an email, “I checked, and she declined.” I tried another channel, working through people I knew who worked on her reality show in Alaska, and was told it wasn’t going to work.

Q: Have you prepared for any potential blowback? What do you think viewers’ criticisms might be?

We certainly expected people to have strong opinions about Sarah Palin in particular, but [also] about our portrayal of the campaign. I think it’s one of the things that make it both something I wanted to do but also scared me. It clearly is a potent story right now. It’s one of those stories that’s actually relevant right this second. The electoral process evolves so quickly, and it’s changing all the time, so the fact that it’s about living people that only happened four years ago, it’s very fresh, makes it immediate but also puts us under an incredible amount of scrutiny and allows people to compare what we do in the film to very fresh memories. That’s daunting, but it made us turn up our effort … do our reading, interview as many people as we could. I listened to Sarah Palin’s books on Audible.com.

I did everything I could to make it as authentic as possible, because we knew we’d be under that much more scrutiny.

Q: Palin’s PAC called “Game Change” distorted and demanded that HBO add a disclaimer saying that the movie is fiction. It also accuses you and your colleagues of being in the bag for the Democratic Party on account of the donations you and others involved in “Game Change” made to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. What’s your response?

I think my most sincere response is that the film speaks for itself, and much of the criticism has come from people who haven’t seen the film, and I encourage people to check it out and then decide.

As for an agenda, of my company, Everyman Pictures, and the actors and writers, there was never a conversation of, “Oh, great, here’s how we can influence the next election.” There was never a discussion of, “What’s the best time for the film to come out so we can have an effect on the GOP primaries?” HBO typically releases its films around now.

The constant theme was, what’s the best story we can tell? … [F]or me, the McCain-Palin campaign had all the elements of a fantastic thriller, in a way. 

There were discussions about trying to take on more of the book … but to try to make a survey-course version of that book in a two-hour movie, it never would’ve worked. It would’ve required a Ken Burns miniseries to do that justice.

Q: What do you think is the film’s greatest strength?

I think it effectively raises questions about our political process and what a reality show it’s become. It also asks people to go past their assumptions about these people, good or bad, because these are public servants. They’re people trying to figure out the best way to govern our country, and they’re human beings. 

My favorite thing about the movie is that it goes past the media iconography and presents these characters, mostly through the performances of three of the greatest actors around, as sympathetic human beings. 

Q: What was the casting process like? 

We lined our offices with every possible archival still photo. We watched tremendous amounts of hours of archival footage. We then started putting up actors’ faces up to them.

To be honest, John McCain — I always thought of Ed Harris, if he could just put on a little weight. We thought of his sense of humor, something about his persona that I thought would mesh perfectly.

With Sarah Palin, we took more time. We just wanted it to be right. We knew how much attention we’d get with it.

There’s something about Julianne Moore’s range of characters that she’s played … I felt I needed to ask the audience to connect with Sarah Palin and what she cared about. When I watch Julianne Moore do anything, I care about her. I really wanted that to be the way people experienced Sarah Palin in the movie.

Q: Might you make a movie about the 2012 presidential campaign? 

We just wrapped that kind of movie. I just came home from New Orleans shooting “The Campaign,” with Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell. Two characters go so negative on each other that they nearly destroy each other in a hilarious way. 

I will say, while we were shooting it, we’d go home each night and scan the Internet and say, “What happened in real life that trumps what we did?”

Q: Will you continue to pursue projects with political themes?

I’m not sure. I am fascinated by politics. I do think the questions about how we govern ourselves are very important to me, and I actually lose sleep about how it’s going … it just seems like we should be able to do better somehow. 

I must admit, in the past few films, I find myself more energized on these topics these days than I am on other things.