Director Jay Roach, whose pedigree includes both the "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents" franchises, has a serious, politically minded side that belies those series' penchants for poop jokes. He also directed the scathing Sarah Palin HBO movie "Game Change," and the drama "Recount" about the 2000 election. Both aspects of Roach's personality collide in "The Campaign," starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
The film concerns two dopey candidates running for the same North Carolina seat in the House of Representatives, and how far they're willing to drag their opponent through the mud before they realize they're caked in just as much dirt. Roach previously worked with Galifianakis on "Dinner For Schmucks," and Ferrell in the "Austin Powers" trilogy.
Jay Roach sat down with us in New York for an exclusive chat about how those political films influenced "The Campaign," discovering the genius of Will Ferrell, and the futuristic comedy called "Used Guys" he's spent over a decade trying to make.
You've said one of your favorite political comedies is "Primary Colors." That film has such a tightrope balance between comedic character beats and genuine political concern. Even though "The Campaign" is broader it shares that sensibility. To put it in culinary terms, how much comedic sugar do you need to help the medicine go down?
That was the question I had in "Game Change" and "Recount" 'cause those really were political message films and I knew there had to be some level of entertainment value. I remember talking to Sydney Pollack about the hanging chad scene with Denis Leary and Kevin Spacey in the alley [in "Recount"]. I had to figure out some way to get some humor sugar in there. Who cares about chads? Those two guys made it funny to talk about chads.
In this case, there wasn't a political message we were trying to sugar coat. It was foremost about trying to get Zach and Will to be against each other in such a strong conflict. I knew they would be funny trashing the heck out of each other. They came to me and said, "What about politics?" That's amazing, because it was just to create that conflict. We actually tried to see how little political stuff we could get into this to justify that. We knew we would have to have some. At that time it was called "Dogfight," [and] it was gonna be a campaign movie, but it was all a construct to get two of the funniest guys on Earth to go against each other.
They are two of the funniest guys on Earth, but they're also two of the most politically astute comedians out there.
You know, I knew that about Will because of the whole George Bush thing, but I didn't know that about Zach. I hadn't been aware of it being a part of his material, but he does know a lot. Then, of course, I did know his uncle ran for office against Jesse Helms, and that's partly why he's kept up with it, but that's a side benefit that all three of us had thought a lot about politics. Every day we'd come to the set and go, "Oh, did you read about this on the Internet last night?" It was in the middle of the GOP primaries, so there was tons of stuff.
You mentioned the HBO films. You've done two, and you have another one coming up with Paul Giamatti.
Maybe, yeah. I'm hoping that one launches, that would be fantastic. "K Blows Top" is about Nikita Khrushchev [coming] to America and [going] on a road trip. It sounds funny, but it's not! It could be a great film, though. It's right at the height of the Cold War.
When you did the first one for HBO, it was really interesting that someone who does the films that you do would go there to do a non-commercial, non-four-quadrant movie. What keeps bringing you back to that?
I've always been interested in politics. I was pre-law in college. I was very active in politics. As a student, I was the male Tracy Flick of my high school. I ran for everything, got involved in everything. Somehow in college I focused on academics just to get through it. Had a degree in economics and was gonna apply to law school, but then got a photography bug and that led to film school and everything else. I kinda parked the political thing.
I got attached to the Deep Throat/Mark Felt story about the other side of Watergate, really fascinating story, through Tom Hanks and his company; we still might try to pull that off. Somehow through that it got around I was interested, and... when Sydney got sick on "Recount," [producer Paula Weinstein] said, "Will you come in and do this?" Within 24-hours I was fully committed and on it. That was kind of an accident, and led to the other one. For me, it's so fulfilling because I really do care about our system, and it could work so much better, but where are the great leaders of today? That's, to me, the most haunting question.
Where are those people who should be running, and where is the system that won't grind them up and mold them into something else? They're running companies or are generals, I dunno. Who knows? Even when they run, they don't necessarily stay who they are. It kind of tortures me. I watch Jon Stewart every night to try to go, "Oh yeah, that is absurd! I'm not crazy!" That's what was fun about making this because we felt like we were offering the audience a chance to have that shared sense of dismay, and at least console yourselves that we all feel that way.
The really interesting arc to this is you pulled Will Ferrell right out of SNL as Mustafa for the first "Austin Powers," and now here he is front and center in your movie. What was it that you saw in him back then that brought him to where he is now?
I loved the way his eyes worked while he was doing comedy. [laughs] I dunno, that's a weird thing to say, but he had this crazy earnestness in his eyes. I like characters that are super committed. Of course, his improvisational brain was astonishing. It was Mike [Myers] as much as me who knew what Will was capable of, invited him in... He was in all three "Austin Powers," he got cut out of the third one but he was awesome in it. It was for time reasons we had to trim this one scene he was in. We'd developed a couple other things together, then he and Zach came to me on this one and they'd already been talking and said, "Would you do this?" I said, "YES!" I'd worked with Zach on "Schmucks" and loved working with him.
This film had a very different feeling, almost more in line with the stuff Adam McKay has been doing. It's edgier and it's got that R-rating, which you really earned!
That's not by accident. I hadn’t really done an R, but I produced "Borat" and worked really closely with Sacha [Baron Cohen] on that, but I didn't direct that. You're right, it definitely had an Adam influence and he was involved along with Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, the whole Gary Sanchez thing was definitely a part of it. They were very cool and let me run with their thing. It turned out to be a nice collaboration for everybody. Will, Zach and everybody all agreed it had to be R-rated because politics is R-rated. There's so much funny, repressed, dark stuff that gets revealed. We wanted it to feel more backstage too, as much as onstage. It meant the only honest way to do it was R-rated. And you can't punch a baby directly in the face in a PG-13 movie. [laughs]
Sticklers. There was a fascinating sidelined project you were developing over a decade ago called "Used Guys" that you're still trying to resuscitate.
'Cause I'm never giving up until I get to make that movie.
What is it about that concept that makes you so passionate?
It's so funny. I wrote science fiction stuff before I got to direct, so I love sci-fi. Imagining a world run by women where men are just trying to figure out how to be relevant and meaningful. If they figure out a way to procreate without sperm, and they take away all the explosive things and sharp things and the self-destructive things men have access to, then, "Oh yeah, by the way, we might need a little companionship. You prove it to us that you're worth it." That to me is the best concept as a man, for me, just feeling obsolete and useless around women. I just thought it would be funny.
Are Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller still involved?
I don't think Jim is, and Ben's company is a producer on it so yeah, he's definitely involved. So it's up to me to find an affordable way to do it and I'm not giving up.
Mike Judge did "Idiocracy" on a pretty modest budget. You can get a lot more for your money these days as far as effects are concerned.
I know, yeah, yeah. Yeah, effects are a lot less expensive so I'll figure it out.