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Bryan Cranston on the lesson of ‘Trumbo’: All opinions should be heard

Dalton Trumbo was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1947 he was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten -- a group of writers and directors who refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Jeffrey Brown speaks to actor Bryan Cranston and director Jay Roach about “Trumbo,” a new biopic that explores the writer’s life.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: The story of a screenwriter comes to the screen.

    His name was Dalton Trumbo. And his life and work were intertwined with a controversial period of film history.

    Jeffrey Brown has a look at Trumbo for the NewsHour at the Movies.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful Hollywood screenwriters of his generation. He was also an activist in labor and other causes who joined the Communist Party in the 1940s.

    As the Cold War consumed the nation, Trumbo gained a new kind of fame, as a member of the so-called Hollywood 10, writers, actors and others who were brought before the Congressional House on Un-American Activities Consulate and blacklisted by the major studios.

    Trumbo would spend almost a year in prison, then, for nearly a decade, could only work using a pseudonym. One screenplay during that time written under the name Robert Rich for the film “The Brave Ones” even earned an Oscar.

    Only in 1960, with his scripts for the blockbuster films “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” was Trumbo able to work openly again.

    Bryan Cranston, who plays Trumbo in the new film, is best known for his role as Walter White in the TV drama “Breaking Bad.” He and Trumbo director Jay Roach joined me to speak about the film and the man it was based on.

    I asked Cranston what attracted him to the script.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON, “Trumbo”:

    And this was an amazing story about the jeopardy of the First Amendment rights to an industry, the Hollywood film industry, that wasn’t used to being scrutinized like that.

    And the ripple effect that the eventual blacklist had on that community was profound. And the character himself of Dalton Trumbo was just bigger than life, dramatic, flamboyant. He was a contrarian. He could be very irascible. He was a pretty hard drinker and a chain smoker.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, constantly throughout the film.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Constantly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How did you fill in — you have to take this individual, right, but fill it in to a kind of history that is real history.

  • JAY ROACH, Director, “Trumbo”:

    yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How much did you know? How much did you fill in?

  • JAY ROACH:

    It was more about extracting from this incredibly complex story, a 13-year story, to distill it down to something that was accessible.

    And that really — I have to credit our great screenwriter who told the story about a screenwriter. John McNamara had — had done a few things to make it more sort of relatable and manageable by doing a couple composite characters.

    Louis C.K. plays a guy who represents two of three of the blacklisted writers. And there are a few choices like that that just made it a story you could tell in two hours.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have to dramatize it. Do you also — you also have responsibility to the history.

  • JAY ROACH:

    Of course, and — but the main responsibility, I think, is to get to the essence of what mattered to these people and to the battle itself, who they were up against, how the obstacles related, and how they overcame them.

    You are always going to — there’s never been a — quote, unquote — “historical film” that didn’t have to vary from the beat-by-beat reality of it. But as long as you stay true to the essence of what the people are up to, I think it’s — I think it becomes very authentic.

    And we did a tremendous amount of research. We spoke to the daughters of Trumbo. We spoke to Kirk Douglas. We read every possible book and saw every possible bit of film or radio that we — and listened to radio.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Very complicated character, right, I mean, larger than life in many ways, big in many ways, committed, and yet loving a kind of life, right?

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    He was a very idiosyncratic man.

    He was a member of the American Communist Party. He was very compassionate about workers’ rights. He led a lot of strikes when he was young, especially for himself, in a bakery when he was very young. And he was very much a pro-worker individual.

    But he also loved being a wealthy man. He was the highest paid screenwriter in the ’40s, and that is tantamount to saying the highest paid writer in the world. And he loved that idea.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you enjoy the contradiction of that, I mean, as an actor?

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Oh, as an actor, it’s juicy, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Any time — any time someone makes an emphatic statement and then goes against it, it’s like — it’s quite fun to play both sides of those things.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let’s — I want the play one scene. This is you as Dalton Trumbo and Louis C.K., who you just mentioned, talking about this very thing. Right?

    Let’s watch that.

  • LOUIS C.K., “Trumbo”:

    No, you know what it is? I don’t trust you.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Well, I would say go on, but I’m afraid you will.

  • LOUIS C.K.:

    Look, I know what I am. OK? I want this whole country to be different top to bottom. If I get what I want, nobody gets their own lake.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Well, that would be a very dull life, don’t you think?

  • LOUIS C.K.:

    Yes, for you, not for the guys who built this. If I’m wrong, tell me, but ever since I know you, you talk like a radical, but you live like a rich guy.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    That is true.

  • LOUIS C.K.:

    Well, I don’t know that you’re — I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So, you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not them.

    But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.

  • LOUIS C.K.:

    Oh.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    What?

  • LOUIS C.K.:

    Just please shut up.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This movie puts — well, puts the wider culture under a microscope, right, under scrutiny, but also Hollywood, which often doesn’t — which doesn’t come off looking all that well, for the most part.

  • JAY ROACH:

    Hollywood turned on itself in those days.

    There was a group of people, Hedda Hopper, Walt Disney — Ayn Rand came and helped them out, some other directors, who felt these writers were polluting the minds of Americans through mainstream Hollywood movies, even though some of them, like Trumbo, was a war correspondent, had written “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “A Guy Named Joe,” very patriotic, almost pro-war films, were suddenly somehow seen as traitors because they just had different political views. That’s all it turned into.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He went to prison.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Mm-hmm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He had to write under a pseudonym. In the end, he got the recognition. How do you end up seeing him years later? How do you look — how do you see him?

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    You know, a lot of people will look back and say that he’s a hero. There are other people who will say, he was no hero, he’s a dirty red commie or whatever.

    And I suppose the point of the movie is that all opinions are welcome. All opinions should be heard.

    I don’t think Dalton Trumbo would look at himself as a hero. I think he would — he was practicing self-defense. He didn’t want this fight. The fight came to him. He was subpoenaed to testify, under the threat of incarceration, and forced to let his First Amendment rights go by the wayside.

  • And he thought that — that the questions themselves were un-American. And he kept asking:

    “Have I committed a crime? Do you have any evidence that I have committed some crime? I would love to hear that.”

    But that wasn’t part of the agenda.

  • JAY ROACH:

    I thought, at least as a person who didn’t succumb and who was victorious, in that he kept writing until he embarrassed the studios, wins two Academy Awards, writes “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” and suddenly helps break the blacklist.

    So, there is definitely, to me, something heroic about that.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    And — but along with that was a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    People who not only were not able to — were — taken away their personal freedoms, sent to jail, or taken away their ability to pursue their own career, which means you cannot support your family.

    It put tremendous pressure on families. Marriages broke up. Families dissipated, loss of homes. There were some suicides. Even when you think of the ripple effect and how far it goes, the bullying of the children going to school, who don’t understand what’s going on, but they’re — they know that something is wrong.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

    The film is “Trumbo.”

    Bryan Cranston and Jay Roach, thank you both very much.

  • BRYAN CRANSTON:

    Thanks.

  • JAY ROACH:

    Thanks. Thanks a lot.

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