It’s the night before I’m supposed to meet with Jay Roach, and there’s a message on my cell phone: “This is Jay Roach calling. I wanted to ask you if—I know we’ve shifted this all around, I’m sorry, but I was wondering if we could slide the interview back up again, a little earlier to, like, 9:30…. 10 is okay if you can’t, but 9:30 would be way better. Call me back if you have time.”
There are only a handful of directors who can boast that their movies have made more than $1 billion at the box office, Hollywood alpha men Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Michael Bay and James Cameron among them. When one of those guys wants something done, especially something so simple as getting a magazine writer to show up a half hour earlier for an interview, a legion of assistants and publicists typically takes care of it—and none of them would make the request sound optional.
But Roach, who has directed both the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, which have made $1.5 billion combined, is as unassuming as your local barista. When I show up at his Santa Monica office—at 9:30—he’s wearing jeans and a purple flannel shirt, and the first thing he does is offer me a cup of coffee before heading to the kitchen to fire up the espresso machine himself.
The reason for the slight schedule change is that he’s putting the finishing touches on his latest film, Recount, which restages the battle over ballots in Florida after the 2000 U.S. presidential election. More specifically, the drama details the 36 days between the election and the Supreme Court’s ruling that effectively handed George W. Bush the presidency. Neither Bush nor Al Gore, however, makes much of an appearance; rather, the film follows the lawyers, political operatives and state bureaucrats—played by an impeccable cast including Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson and Laura Dern—who were at the forefront of the shenanigans. The movie is based on dozens of interviews with people on all sides of the story conducted by screenwriter Danny Strong and Roach, who then shot many of the scenes at their actual locations and interspersed them with real news footage. Although Roach and his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, have supported a number of Democratic candidates in the past, he insists that “there was a very deliberate effort to make sure we told the whole story and let the audience experience the arguments of both sides and the sense of outrage that each side felt.”
Despite Roach’s comedic background, he doesn’t exploit the situation for laughs. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, played by Dern, is depicted as a misguided party hack whose decision will change the nation’s history rather than as the clownish character who was lampooned on late-night TV. “Many other filmmakers would have steered me to the joke because it would have been so obvious,” Dern says. “Jay very carefully directed me to stay true to the person we thought we were portraying.”