The fall of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes has previously been the subject of both the documentary “Divide and Conquer,” and the miniseries, “The Loudest Voice.” Now, director Jay Roach — best known for his silly “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” movies, as well as his recent drama, “Trumbo” — tackles the Ailes story with impressive dramatization in “Bombshell.” Having made the Sarah Palin-centric political drama “Game Change” about for HBO in 2012, Roach is no stranger to telling stories about right-wing women with a platform.
The entertaining new film breaks the fourth wall as Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) takes viewers on the tour of the Fox Newsroom. Kelly also shows how the power (i.e. Ailes) operates. When Kelly upsets Trump at a 2016 Republican debate during the campaign season, the future 45 retaliates with ugliness that prompts her to question Fox’s loyalties. Ailes, among others, indicates the spat made for “good television.”
Also facing an unfortunate workplace situation is Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), an anchor whose work disappoints Ailes. When he dismisses her (after previously demoting her), she fights back with a carefully executed lawsuit — but one that relies on other harassed women to come forward. One of those women who could participate in the suit is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie, who also snagged a Golden Globe nomination), a Christian woman whose ambitions get her a meeting with Ailes that becomes highly inappropriate on his part.
An elevator scene (below) with Kelly, Carlson and Pospisil alone together, not speaking, is one of the more beguiling moments in “Bombshell” because viewers know what each woman is thinking — and hope that they will break the silence.
Roach handles the drama and the film’s dark comedy with noticeable aplomb, keeping the large cast of characters and multiple storylines engaging as Ailes’ downfall unfolds. The director spoke with Salon about Fox News and why he directed a film about female harassment.
This film is a dramatization inspired by real events. What appealed to you about telling this story?
I just thought from the point of view of the women caught up in it, it’s an incredible predicament. You look for a great villain in a story, and Roger was interesting — he had a sense of humor, incredible chops as a marketer, and a lot of people who know him described him as charismatic. This made his abuse of power and sexual predation, his cult power and need for loyalty, a powerful force for these women to take on. Gretchen was so unlikely to win this battle of power against a titan. It struck me as a compelling story and relevant to what’s gone on since, as it happened a year before the Harvey Weinstein news.
“Bombshell” has moments of irreverent humor. What can you say about creating the film’s tone?
Tone is everything in these kinds of stories — especially for a story so serious and emotional. You have to be authentic about how these stories go down. From my talking to these women, who are coping with horrific trauma, they have developed survival instincts and a dark sense of humor. They joked about the absurdity of the Fox newsroom and “Team Roger.” We did not use the term “skirt Nazi,” but [Fox] had people who made sure the [on-air female talent’s] skirts were short enough to “maximize the ratings.” That kind of insanity, you have to find the absurdity in it.
Can you talk about breaking the fourth wall in the film to help guide viewers through the madness?
The breaking the fourth wall thing was from [screenwriter] Charles Randolph, who wrote “The Big Short.” It’s a way to do a construct and show this is not a documentary, and it’s not a time machine, but an interpretation — almost theatrical. I’m drawn to that kind of storytelling and being honest about fictional characters. We give you a tour and we give you the story from an unreliable narrator’s point of view. You need to acknowledge what you’re up to as a filmmaker.
How do you justify men both writing directing a film about sexual harassment towards women?
It’s a fair question. Charlize brought the project to me, but as it came to me, I wanted to be part of the solution. And men should try to step up and contribute. The language I can speak with is to provide a microphone, a stage, a shot or camera frame that our women collaborators can portray as they interpret it. I’m involved and concerned with the issues, but I don’t presume to dictate how this story should go. I don’t direct that way. I came out of comedy, so I’m collaborative. This was uniquely collaborative, and Charlize was a fierce partner.
“Bombshell” feature several abuses of power. Roger tells women to “Stand up and give me a twirl,” and his scene with Kayla is especially creepy. But it is also oddly chilling when Megyn tells Kayla, “It’s nobody’s job to protect you.” Can you talk about depicting the balance of power? Everything kind of crystalizes in the elevator scene with Megyn, Gretchen, and Kayla. They are together, but isolated.
The elevator scene is speaking to what the whole film is about — and there’s almost no dialogue. It’s the only time all three women are together, and we know each predicament and the way the harassment is experienced. The power differences are that Megyn was harassed in the past and has been promoted. Gretchen has been punished for daring to complain, and Kayla is about to experience this. And in this box, the elevator is moving from the basement to the level where Roger’s power radiates — the dark tower of this power center. None of these women trust each other enough to help the other at this time. It is a tragic moment. You are worried for Kayla and the others, too. They could speak up, but they are covering. It’s heartbreaking tension. That’s an anchoring scene. There are more dramatic scenes, like Roger harassing Kayla, but the elevator scene says so much in such a short time — the lonely situation they were all in while standing in the exact same place.
What was it like to recreate the Fox News offices, sets?
Mark Ricker, the production designer, spent a ton of time researching. He found friends who knew friends, and they pirated out what the newsroom looked like. We weren’t allowed in — we asked — so we had to rely on moles who would give us off-the-record access to things. The more important thing to get was what it felt like to work there at the time. We, as men, could never assume what it felt like to be in this situation — to conform as a woman. The dressing room scene considers the male gaze expectations of what a Fox News anchor should look like. We listened to women, ones who work there, and others, like my wife, Susanna Hoffs, who has been in the music business a long time. It was getting the women’s experiences right by listening to them. And Charlize, who was a primary producing partner, was always around and involved in the storytelling.
What are your thoughts on the 24-hour news cycle in this information age in general and your thoughts on Fox News, the “perpetual outrage machine,” in particular?
Charles and I we were raised in conservative households. Fox News is on when I visit my family. I watch Fox sometimes just to imagine what they are watching and understand how they see the world. Fox is a prism for how a huge part of the country sees the word. This is different than how I see the world. I can watch it and point out the differences between what I see and reality, but we all live by whatever delusions float our boats. Some of us hope the antidote to the news and propaganda messaging and branding is some pursuit of the truth — but whose truth?
Some of my family are cool and understand this, but if you want to talk about whose truth, it’s incredible how much division there is on that now. I’m fascinated by how ideas spread and how people can be convinced of things that are not fact-based. There’s gullibility. I’m not entirely sure my view of the world is the right one. It’s easy for me to disagree and attack it, but it’s tough for me to disrespect it, because I love my family. There’s an emotional-mythological battle once you open your mind that your truth is being contested by a 24-hour news network launching another kind of truth.
Yes, I find it interesting to “know your enemy”…
We are telling each other’s stories within our own bubbles, and sometimes I wish I had stronger convictions to fight harder. But I’m plagued with self-doubt. A huge amount of what is put out by Fox I disagree with — and I have a huge problem with it — but I try to understand it.
The way our film is being received in certain circles — they don’t have a problem with the film being told, but they don’t want to hear about sexual harassment at Fox News. That’s an incredible situation. We can tell stories about any kind of antihero — a hitman with a heart of gold, or a conman/con woman — but "to say something about someone different from me politically. . . I’m not ready for that." It’s a fascinating political divide. I veer between a lefty and not-quite-radical way the world should go, but I don’t know that I know everything, so I need to understand where other people are coming from.
We got in trouble for humanizing Sarah Palin in “Game Change.” In a way, that is similar to how people are thinking about Fox News women. Is that interesting? Might you start to think sexual harassment is a nonpartisan issue? These kinds of men [like Ailes] are so egocentric and determined to command loyalty. They are vengeful when their authority is challenged and pissed off when they are defied. That’s common across all political persuasions, so why not recognize that as the relevant, salient thing, rather than think about Fox? That’s a straw man argument. Focus on the pattern and see what we can learn—especially men talking to other men. Our gender is one of the biggest enemies of women trying to do this work. Women should be safe at work. That’s not a Fox, or CNBC, or Hollywood thing; it’s an everybody issue. This is a surprising way to tell the story. Start with a prejudice and make people rethink it from a woman’s point of view.
There are moral issues in the film for the women in terms of both money and career. The film does prompt viewers to think: What would I do in the situations Megyn, Gretchen, and Kayla face? Can you reveal how you would behave?
I think of it in terms of how I play the answer out in the film itself. The character of Gil (Rob Delaney), Megyn’s producer, worked at Fox a long time, and he and Megyn hear about Gretchen’s suit. Megyn is conflicted in how to respond — and Gil tends to be supportive, but he doesn’t want her to rock the boat. He challenges the integrity of the accusation. I think men who have overheard that a woman came forward and accused the guy [of harassment] wonders if the woman had an agenda and defaulted to doubt them. They choose to not become actively supportive. Making this film and talking to so many women who have experienced the damage of humiliation and shame — like what is forced on Kayla in the film — and the additional pain of their sincerity questioned, and a concerted effort to smear the person . . . the more I’ve learned, I hope I would become a default believer in the accusation. The more you learn what a woman faces, that the vast majority are speaking their truth, and I hope I’d give the accuser the benefit of the doubt to be a part of the system to support her when she speaks out and talk to other men to facilitate a discussion and an environment where every woman would feel safe. Making this film, I wonder if I’ve been that sensitive, but having worked on this film, I will be infinitely more sensitive.
"Bombshell" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 13 and nationwide on Dec. 20.