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With a new film about the Supreme Court–decided 2000 election, comedy director Jay Roach tests his range.
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.”
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.
It was a tough blow for Roach, who had been reveling in his seemingly unstoppable trajectory. “I had been on a track where if you make films that succeed, then you get to make more films,” he says. “I thought, Well, why don’t I get to make this one? It was humbling, and it made me re-examine everything.”
During his accidental downtime he came across Strong’s Recount script, which had been building buzz and nabbed top honors on last year’s Black List, an annual poll for which film insiders pick their favorite new scripts. Unfortunately, by the time Roach expressed interest, HBO was already planning to make the movie with Sydney Pollack at the helm. But weeks before production was set to start, Pollack pulled out for health reasons, and Roach was asked to take over.
HBO Films president Colin Callender says Roach was indeed a perfect fit because the film is “very serious, but filled with events that are more absurd than any dramatist could invent.” He adds: “It was a risk, but I didn’t have a single reservation after my first meeting with Jay. He is lacking in any of the excesses that tend to accompany Hollywood directors. He’s very down-to-earth and has a real everyman feel in how he looks at his characters.”
After Recount, Roach will continue working on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno (Roach was also a producer on Borat); after that, he’s hoping to do a remake with Baron Cohen of the 1998 French film Le dîner de cons, about friends who compete to bring the dumbest guests they can find to dinner. (Roach and Baron Cohen have been calling it Dinner With Schmucks, but Roach says the Motion Picture Association of America might force them to change the title. “The Yiddish word [schmuck] is something related to penis,” he says by way of explanation.) Another project high on his agenda is a second political tale: the story of Mark Felt, the Watergate source known as Deep Throat.
Roach also hopes to one day convince Fox to revisit Used Guys, the subject of which really struck a chord with him. “I’ve always felt women should run the world,” he says. “There’s no question in my mind they would do a better job. Men suck at it. I want to make that be a sticky meme. That’s my secret plan: to change the world through broad comedy.”