Roach, 51, is the first to acknowledge that his résumé didn’t make him the most obvious choice for Recount. “I could see why people would wonder, What? The Austin Powers guy is doing this?” he says. “But for me, it didn’t seem that way. Even in my comedies I try to connect to a psychological reality; a lot of times it’s about that anxiety you feel when you can tell things are just going wrong. In a way, I pictured Recount like an anxiety dream, where you wake up one day and the institution you have complete unquestioning faith in—walking into a polling station and voting—doesn’t work anymore.”
Before he became interested in film, Roach was a budding political wonk. Since his childhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “I’ve always been a kind of amateur junkie of politics,” he says. “I’m especially fascinated by the whole nature of spin, why some ideas become contagious and others don’t. The academic category for it is mimetics: Why is one meme sticky and another isn’t?”
But in college he developed a passion for still photography, then cinematography and finally directing, so he enrolled at the University of Southern California’s film school. After getting his degree, he found work as a writer’s assistant, editor, cinematographer and cameraman. Along the way, he struck up a friendship with comedian Mike Myers, who, in 1996, asked if he would read a script he’d written called Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Myers was so impressed with Roach’s script notes that he lobbied studio executives at New Line to hire him as the director. “I didn’t want to make the movie without the right tone,” Myers says. “He was someone who just got the film and added warmth and charm, or as my mother says, ‘the charmth.’”
After a few meetings with the studio brass, Roach and Myers were called in to sell New Line cochairman Bob Shaye on the idea. “It was one of the great meetings in my memory,” Roach recalls. “He had like 12 people in it, and he said, ‘Who are you? We’re not just going to hire Mike’s buddy.’” A couple of weeks later, Myers called Roach to tell him he’d gotten the job.
The success of Austin Powers made Roach one of the hottest comedy directors in Hollywood. The sequel was even bigger than the original. Roach then directed Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro before doing a third Austin Powers and finally a Meet the Parents follow-up, Meet the Fockers, which holds the record for the largest-grossing comedy: $516 million in worldwide box office.
But then came a setback. In 2006 Roach was on board to direct Stiller and Jim Carrey in Used Guys, a comedy set in a future where women rule the world and men are mere sex slaves. Given the sci-fi theme, the project was expensive; the budget had climbed to more than $100 million. But just a few weeks before production was scheduled to begin, the studio, 20th Century Fox, got cold feet and pulled the plug.