The director and producer of Game Change, the new HBO dramatization of the 2008 presidential campaign, talks about VP candidate Sarah Palin and whether the filmmakers “went soft” on Sen. John McCain.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Jay Roach
Tavis: Jay Roach is one of the most successful filmmakers of our time with a long list of hit films, including “Austin Powers” and the “Meet the Parents” franchises.
He also has dealt with politics before with his Emmy-winning project “Recount.” He has once again teamed up with HBO for a much talked about new film called “Game Change” based on the best-selling text.
The movie takes a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most historic presidential campaigns in all of U.S. history. Premiering March 10 on HBO, here now a scene from “Game Change.”
Tavis: And Sarah Palin was the answer?
Jay Roach: She was for them at that time, yes. She was a bold choice and they needed something bold. Obama was surging in the polls and McCain had been up and down and they had tried this very risky idea of Joe Lieberman.
Everyone thought that would be a bold choice too, but it leaked that that was an idea and the far right, you know, spoke out and sort of made it clear that would not fly.
So they had to make another bold choice at the last minute with not really a huge amount of time to figure out if it was gonna work.
Tavis: I don’t think there’s anything, Jay, that I don’t already know – I don’t mean this in a nasty way – anything I don’t already know or anything I would want to know about Sarah Palin that I haven’t already heard.
That said, how do you put together a project about somebody who we have watched and, for that matter, are still watching in real time and expose us to something about her that we don’t already know?
Roach: Well, there’s two parts of that. The first thing is everybody, you know, is probably more interesting in private or in parts of their lives that you don’t get access to all the time than some sort of public, iconic persona that gets invented by whichever side you’re on.
We were determined actually to learn as much about her from her own books. I’ve listened to both of them. You know, she reads them out loud in audible.com file and I talked to everybody I could who knew her just to try to get access to the person and try to show some aspects of her that people wouldn’t have otherwise expected.
On one side, from people who might dismiss her. She’s an amazing person. She was a very, very popular governor in Alaska. She fought corruption there, she had five kids, one with Down Syndrome, another kid going off to Iraq and two teenagers, one of whom was pregnant, and then stepped in and did as well as she did at the beginning of the campaign.
So I knew that there was more layers to her, you know, that I could show for that side. You know, for the other side who might kind of elevate her, she went through a tremendous semi-traumatic phase going into the debates that not a lot of people knew about. So that was one thing.
The other thing was I really wanted to make a film that was not so much about Sarah Palin, but was about the guys, particularly Steve Schmidt, who was sort of the central character played by Woody Harrelson, but also John McCain who made that choice, watched it work for a while and then watched it get quite a bit more complicated and had to figure out how to keep that going.
I really tried to center it on – it’s sort of larger than her too in a sort of thematic way, I hope, because it’s really asking questions about what works and what might not work so well about our political process right now.
Tavis: So to your point, what is the value to the viewer of being immersed in a TV movie about a team of people – to your point, it’s not just about Sarah Palin – about a team of people, about an individual, Mrs. Palin, and about a process that clearly was horrific in its implementation?
I mean, I’m just trying to get a sense of what is there for us to learn? What’s the takeaway from seeing something that we all know was just a blunderous effort?
Roach: It’s very well put, that question, because it is the question I wanted to get into. I don’t know all that much about politics. I throw myself into these things because I’m curious and I think I know a certain amount and then I sense there’s more to it and I just have questions.
I love this country. I believe in democracy. I think it’s the best system people have come up with so far to run a civilization, but I think it depends on a certain faith in the process or a certain legitimization or an authority that the process has. I don’t know if it might be losing some sort of a sense of effectiveness the way it’s working.
So my questions were how did these guys make this decision? What does it say about that sort of win-at-all-costs approach to politics that’s become the kind of main strategy for elections these days? Shouldn’t we be able to do it better?
You know, shouldn’t there be multiple choices of excellent leaders in every election? Has it really gotten to that place where it’s just gonna be called a personality kind of candidacy or campaign in each situation and where it’s not about issues? You know what I’m saying.
Those questions of is this working the way it’s supposed to work, whichever party you’re on, and I think both parties have questions about it? If not, where does it go off the rails? This one went off the rails. But no matter what you think about Sarah Palin or John McCain or anything else, this went off the rails. It publicly became a very contentious campaign.
Everybody in the film is inside the campaign. It’s not about anybody else other than just those people in the Republican campaign, the McCain-Palin campaign. I just wanted to get in there and be a fly on the wall when all those decisions were being made.
Tavis: I want to ask you a question – something I’ve never done before in all the years of doing this show – I want to ask a question, but tell you the answer you can’t give me [laugh]. The answer you can’t give me is that there is no villain. You can’t tell me there is no villain.
And the question I want to ask, having said that, is who the villain is here. I ask that because, to my mind, what everyone thinks or doesn’t think, like or loathe, agree or disagree, love or hate Sarah Palin, she was picked. Someone picked her to be their running mate. That person was John McCain.
John McCain has a team of advisers, you know, laying out the possibilities for him, but somebody or some bodies in this process have to – we have to be able to point the finger at somebody in this process for cynicism, for simply trying to win, as we saw in that clip, by any means necessary, if I can paraphrase Malcolm X. So who’s the villain here?
Roach: Well, I think there were a number of people who thought this was a great idea at the beginning, but what’s fascinating – and I will say that I agree with you.
Look, not only did somebody pick, we enable our political system to work. We are a people who governs itself by the choices we make and the people who run either party and who are involved in politics are chosen to a large extent people we’ve chosen.
John McCain was elected, you know, and got into that position. Sarah Palin was elected. So we’re all in it together both in terms of blame and in keeping it going as effective as we actually sometimes do.
But what’s fascinating about this story is one of the guys, but probably the main guy who fought the hardest to get her on that ticket, Steve Schmidt, started thinking this is a great idea. This is how we can trump the Obama power, the surge in the polls.
By the end of the campaign, a few months afterwards, he goes on “60 Minutes” and basically implies he made a mistake and he took a certain amount of blame for being part of it and that arc, to me, a guy who’s one of the main proponents of it all the way to a guy who a couple of weeks after that interview on “60 Minutes” said to John King, “If she runs in 2012, it’ll be a catastrophe for the GOP.” I mean, think about that’s the guy.
So he has said, and he says it more directly nowadays, that he wonders if it was too big of a risk, possibly even a reckless choice, especially when you think of how little vetting they were building – again, whatever you think of her, to take someone in who’d never been on the national stage, who people weren’t super familiar with, off of a few interviews, five days of vetting roughly, and say, yes, she should be the person who’s next in line after John McCain.
Tavis: I’ve been fascinated, as I’m sure you have been, to watch this year’s presidential race on the GOP side. One of the things that I think accrues to the benefit of Mrs. Palin is that she, to my mind, has in fact been the victim of sexism.
We live in a patriarchal world, in a sexist country, so it goes to reason that some of the pushback on her has been because she is a woman. Then again, on the Democratic side, Hillary got some of the same stuff because she’s a woman.
Where I’m going with this is here. Rick Perry in a male’s body proved the same thing to me that Sarah Palin proved in a female’s body which is that, even though you’re a governor of a state, you can still be in way over your head when it comes to national presidential politics.
So in that regard, you know, it’s very clear that she’s not in over her head just because she’s a woman or even just because she’s a governor. You can be Rick Perry and be in over your head.
I lay all that out to ask this question, which is what did you learn about how so in over her head she was and how would you answer the question that so many Americans have?
How could the people in Alaska have ever elected her? There are folk asking the same thing about Rick Perry. This guy’s the governor of Texas. How did you guys in Texas ever – what do you make of that?
Roach: Well, I only know a little bit about her and I don’t know anything about Rick Perry, but I will say that, in Alaska, she was very popular. She was, I could say, 80 percent popularity, had taken on the oil companies, had won tax rebates to everybody in the state.
Some $1,200 – I probably got that figure wrong – per person got a check back because she had taken on and actually raised taxes on an oil company and fought corruption, was very popular. So that was the world within which she was functioning extremely well.
I think, once she was shoved onto the national stage with not much time at all, in all fairness, and, again, with a new baby with Down Syndrome, a son going off to Iraq, two teenage daughters, one pregnant, and also carrying the state and being thrown into this. I think it would have been a lot to expect her to suddenly be ready for that kind of spotlight, those kinds of attacks.
I really take your point and I really related with her or empathized with her. She was attacked mercilessly. People accused her of pretending that the daughter’s baby was hers, you know, they were just saying horrible things about her, many of them unfair. So she was, on top of all things I just mentioned, surfing the chaos of being constantly attacked.
I think they’re separate things. They’re actually separate jobs and I think it just came on to her so fast that I don’t think there was any time to be any more ready than she was.
Tavis: So coming on so fast is one answer, but the movie does not shy away from the other part of that answer, which is her aptitude, her intellect, or the lack thereof, and the movie doesn’t back down from that.
Roach: It doesn’t show her, I don’t think, as being in any way unintelligent. What it shows…
Tavis: …Jay, Jay. Come on, Jay. When you point on a map, this is Germany. The fed is not the federal government. Come on, man.
Roach: But we don’t say she doesn’t know that’s Germany. We show her being very eager in accumulating – we know this is true – accumulating knowledge, writing down every single thing, whether she knew it or not already, on cards.
That’s all we show her about Germany. We do show that she was not that knowledgeable according to the people we talked to about international affairs.
So she did go through a phase of multiple interviews where that came out. She just wasn’t that well prepared and they figured that out about 48 hours into the campaign and they were stunned.
They did not catch that in the vet that she just didn’t have a lot of exposure to international issues, so they hustled and they brought in all those experts and they did try to sort of get her to cram a lot of information.
Then she went on to interview shows and struggled, but she was amazing in two straight speeches, the first speech in the rollout, the speech at the Republican Convention, and she held her own very well against Biden in the debate. So given time, who knows?
But my point about the movie is not judging that because I don’t know how to judge that. I don’t know what led to those performances and those interviews.
But I do know the campaign put themselves in a position or was put in a position to make those kind of decisions about bringing someone onto that ticket in that timeframe which was ridiculously rushed. Everybody else they had on the list was like a six to eight weeks with many lawyers.
They had so many secrecy issues, they had to restrict the team that was doing the research to just a few people who didn’t go to Alaska because they didn’t want to let it leak out, didn’t ask people who might have negative things to say or just didn’t do a thorough vet, and that was very, very risky.
Tavis: My view of the project is that you guys went soft on McCain. When I say soft on McCain, I mean to say – since we’re talking about Steve Schmidt – that it comes across to me that everybody around McCain gave him bad advice, but John McCain is a war hero. This guy is a United States Senator for more years than I can count.
You know, this is John McCain, leader, committee chairperson, the buck stops with me. I mean, this is John McCain and we’re supposed to believe that the people around him kind of led him in this direction?
Roach: Well, I think they did. I really do think they helped him get to the place, as you see in that scene right there, and that’s very, very close to what we think actually happened almost word for word. They were in a pickle.
They said you can go with these guys and lose or try this bold thing and maybe we’ll lose too, but at least we went for it. There’s other scenes in the film that say that. They made it so that there was really no other way to win.
We definitely show he made the decision and there’s a really key scene towards the end of the film when Steve Schmidt goes to him and says, “Look, I need your help to figure this out and sort this out and deal with her” and he just said, “I’m not…”
I think it is a moment that’s tough on him. It’s so funny because I just got off the phone with another journalist saying we didn’t show him filled with humor – you know, everyone has their different – that we were too hard on McCain.
So that there is a debate about that, I think is what a film like this should trigger and I’m happy to see that people have different opinions. All we could do was ask everybody we could possibly find to what really happened, how did it feel.
We could not get access to John McCain and we could not get access to Sarah Palin, though we tried. I tried personally very hard to get access to Governor Palin because I wanted to find the layers that people didn’t see, you know, during that time.
Tavis: She has found you, or her advisers have [laugh], and they are…
Roach: …she didn’t want to get involved, but her people now seem very much wanting to have some say about the film.
Tavis: Are pushing back. And what do you make of the pushback you’re getting from her advisers?
Roach: It’s hard to be objective about it because, again, our research is so thorough. We based this on an incredibly thoroughly researched book, “Game Change.” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann are very, very smart guys. We’ve gotten to know them.
They worked very closely with us in prep, making the film, editing the film, you know, were very, very close consultants of ours and we trusted the depth of their research to get it right. Our mantra, as we did on “Recount,” is we just have to get it right.
People make a deal with us when they hear we’re making a movie that’s based on a true story that it’s gonna be a true story. If you’re sitting in the audience and someone’s told you that you’re gonna be taken out of it if there’s something fake or whatever, I stand by that level of research.
Then Danny Strong, my incredible screenwriter on this just like on “Recount” is the same guy I worked with on that, interviewed everybody again to confirm the stories. We are confident that we’re telling it as close as you can to what actually happened.
Tavis: Because, again, you’re a filmmaker and not a political reporter. Let me talk about the film specifically while this clip is running here. The cast. Kudos to your casting director. Woody pulls this thing off, Woody Harrelson I love.
So you put a picture of Julianne Moore, as I did with my producer, Stephanie. You put a picture of Julianne Moore in your film up next to a picture of Sarah Palin, it’s hard. You have to look really hard to tell them apart. So talk to me about Woody Harrelson and about Julianne Moore.
Roach: Well, Julianne, to start with, what she took on, the challenge of this and the scrutiny she knew she would be under, I mean, really stepping into the spotlight, it was a major undertaking.
We were all concerned that it be as close to her as possible without being an impersonation and certainly without being some kind of a caricature because Tina Fey had done that so well.
Julianne tried to find humanity, what she cared about. She tried to go into Sarah Palin’s head and find out what does she care about and how did it feel to be thrust onto that stage without that much preparation, to be attacked as viciously as a lot of the members of the press attacked her.
What were the anxieties she faced having to deal with this, having to prep for the debate which is, again, is one of the most interesting and kind of revealing sections, I think, which we double, triple, quadruple checked.
She really got that down before the debate and really was almost shut down. I had a number of people say, no, no, it was even worse than when you guys were showing it. I relate with her. I’ve had to step into so many places where I, you know, feel way in over my head.
You know, she was not surrounded by people she felt she could trust anymore. It was that difficult of a campaign. There was that much animosity between some of the people that had been with McCain for a long time and some of the people who were now with her.
Tavis: This is my own commentary. I’ve never figured out how it is that anyone lets themselves get into something that they know they’re not prepared for. It’s like so much of life is just knowing your strengths, your weaknesses, your abilities, your limitations, and to think that you can, you know, do X when you know you’re not prepared for it.
Roach: But if you waited to feel prepared for everything you did, you might not do anything [laugh].
Tavis: But we’re talking about being a heartbeat away from the presidency. That’s a little bit different than hosting a talk show on PBS [laugh].
Roach: Or directing a movie because I feel the same sometimes when I go into like “Am I really ready for this? I don’t know, but I’m gonna jump in.”
But you’re right. She was saying and McCain’s people were saying, “We think she’ll be ready” or one of the scariest lines is one of the lawyers says, “Well, she might be able to get ready by the time she needs to be ready.”
To me, that’s where it gets to the level of risk, the level of is it really worth taking that much of a risk with the country’s well-being to just guess whether she could get ready in time?
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because I want to close in the last minute and a half I have here talking about risk. A personal question for Jay Roach. Why, after “Recount,” you know how this works.
You knew that this Pandora’s Box was gonna be opened up. You knew you were gonna get it from both sides, so why take the risk? I mean, there are 1,000 others movies you could be doing. Why take the risk?
Roach: Again, I had questions. I believe in the system, but I just look around sometimes and say our country started at such an idealistic place.
It was such a bold and noble experiment and it took incredible leadership to pull it off and it’s taken incredible leadership to keep it going, to overcome unbelievable crises, the Civil War, all the many wars we’ve dealt with and 9/11.
I mean, we’ve kept going, but is the political process as effective as we all want it to be, whichever party you’re in? I mean, the recent GOP primary is just one more step, you know. It doesn’t look exactly to me like it’s as statesmanlike, let’s say, or as much about policy and…
Tavis: …that’s a kind and charitable and generous read, Jay.
Roach: Look, I believe everybody’s doing the best they can, given what they have, and maybe too generous an interpretation. But I want it to be better. I have questions. I want to raise it for myself.
I do these films to learn about what the issues are and I hope people will watch the films and say, “Yeah, where are all the great choices every election? Why don’t we get more?”
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you do it and you do it awfully well.
Roach: Well, thank you very much.
Tavis: This one’s called “Game Change” premiering on HBO March 10 based, of course, on the best-selling book and directed by Jay Roach. Jay, good to have you here.
Roach: Thank you, Tavis. Thank you so much. I always like being here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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