It’s a long known fact that comedy movies don’t enjoy the same kind of cache as serious dramas. Comedies don’t win Oscars in the same kind of numbers; comedy superstars (from Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey through to Jim Varney and Carrot Top) are usually maligned by critics and film commentators; and directors who work predominantly in the comedy field are often dismissed and rarely seen as filmmakers with a sense of vision, unless they are arthouse darlings like Wes Anderson or safely minted talents like Jacques Tati or pre-controversy Woody Allen.
This sideways glance experienced by the comedy genre has seen many fine directors not receive the credit that they deserve, and one such filmmaker is Jay Roach, who boasts a considerable list of comedy hits on his resume. When FilmInk spoke with the charmingly engaging director on the release of his 2010 comedy Dinner For Schmucks, we asked Roach whether he would move into making more dramas. “I will do more as time goes by,” he said. “I’ll always try to do comedy though, just because I enjoy it too much, and the people who work in comedy are really just fantastic people with brilliant minds. I’ve developed a number of other things as well though, and it feels like that’s part of the evolution.”
For someone so thoughtful and serious about comedy, New Mexico-born Jay Roach actually started out in a much more serious mode. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics before pursuing a degree in filmmaking from the University Of Southern California. Before earning his master’s in 1986, Roach directed a short film, Asleep At The Wheel, which snared him a Student Academy Award nomination. Roach’s first commercial film work came as a camera operator on the barely released low budget flicks Zombie High (1987) and A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990).
Roach’s first directing credit was on 1990’s Zoo Radio, a near-unknown comedy about two brothers running separate radio stations owned by their father. Though seen by virtually nobody, Roach was able to parlay his credit on Zoo Radio into more work, principally as a screenwriter and producer. He worked on the script for the 1993 television film Lifepod, which literally took the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s claustrophobic 1944 thriller Lifeboat and launched it into deep space. Continuing on a serious keel, Roach got a story credit on the underwhelming 1994 thriller Blown Away, starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones.
In 1997, Jay Roach’s career went in an entirely new direction when he was tapped by popular comedian Mike Myers to helm the spy spoof Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery. Already a hit on TV with the legendary sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, and a surprise success on the big screen with the uproarious Wayne’s World, Myers was at the absolute peak of his comic powers. His script for Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery was peppered with saucy double entendres, puerile silliness, and manifest nods and winks to The Swinging Sixties.
In the director’s chair on his first major film, Roach kept it all under control, and put a hip, energetic sheen on the film, which went on to become a massive, highly quoted pop cultural hit. Myers’ comical super spy, meanwhile, became an instant cultural icon. When FilmInk asked Roach for his thoughts on Mike Myers, the director’s natural warmth once again bubbled to the surface. “Well, he gave me the break of a lifetime,” Roach explained. “I have a unique position on Mike, which is that I’ll do anything that he wants to do. He’s freakin’ brilliant. He taught me how to approach comedy. I’d written a lot of serious stuff before I met Mike, and he had an instinct about me. He just thought, ‘Hey, you should try this because you might be good at comedy.’ His brain works like nobody else’s. He has an encyclopaedic mind. His father was an encyclopaedia salesman, and I always give him a hard time about that because he’s got a category for everything that happens. Every bit of information, and every bit of pop culture, is instantly accessible to him in this sort of hyper-link way. That’s what makes him such a brilliant improviser, in addition to his great sense of timing and knowledge of what’s funny.”
Roach collaborated with Myers on two more equally hilarious and highly successful films featuring the comic’s dentally challenged British superspy – 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and 2002’s Austin Powers In Goldmember – and rumours still swirl about the possibility of a fourth entry in the series. “All I would say is that it’s no different now from where it’s been,” Roach explained of the possible project’s current status way back in 2010. “It hasn’t elevated to having a flashing yellow light above it. Mike’s thought about it, and it’s entirely up to him. I haven’t heard anything other than, ‘Hey, I heard that you were making Austin Powers 4,” he laughed. “It’s still in the rumour phase, and not in the scheduled phase. I haven’t seen a script or anything like that.”
If that yellow light does start flashing, Roach offered a few firm ideas about what kind of film he’d like to see. “If Mike ever does Austin Powers 4, I hope that he’ll do a film about Dr. Evil because I’ve heard him go off on these amazing monologues when he’s in character. Because of the prosthetics and the suits, it’s like he’s not Mike Myers anymore. He’s some character in a Mike Myers dream, but he’s not Mike Myers. He’s just this creative entity travelling the cosmos. It’s unbelievable watching that. I always tried to convince [studio] New Line to let us do an ‘indulgence cut’ of one of those movies for DVD, where you could click on any Dr. Evil monologue and see the other half-hour of stuff that we shot. Some of that stuff was extraordinary. It compares with Peter Sellers, and also with the Monty Python guys, who were the heroes of my youth. Anything that Mike wants to do, I’m down for it.”
In between the rolling juggernaut that was the Austin Powers franchise, Roach moved into slightly more serious territory with Mystery, Alaska, a 1999 comedy-drama starring Russell Crowe as a small-town sheriff whose local ice hockey team takes on the might of The New York Rangers in an exhibition match. When FilmInk expressed its fondness for the film, Roach sounded genuinely surprised. “Wow, you’re one of the few that’s seen that,” he laughed. Though charming and bucolic, the feel-good film (which featured a hilarious cameo from Mike Myers as a sleazy sportscaster) failed to click with audiences and critics, and Roach returned to a singularly comic-paved road for some time.
With one successful franchise under his belt, Roach unknowingly walked into another when he slid behind the camera for Meet The Parents, a hilariously relatable comedy about a loveably awkward under-achiever (Ben Stiller) who discovers that his father-in-law (Robert De Niro) is a hard headed former CIA agent for whom discipline is king. The film was an unqualified smash, and continued Roach’s dream comedy run. “I had a very narrow experience of my own,” Roach once replied when asked if he’d had any awkward experiences when meeting the in-laws. “I fell in love with this girl and had to go and meet her father. He was a psychoanalyst. I sat round imagining how much of myself I might reveal. I told bad jokes, brought bad gifts, and chose the wrong wine. You think that you’re alone with it, and that you are the only person who has ever had this much anxiety.”
Though he reteamed with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro (along with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) for the 2004 equal sequel, Meet The Fockers, Roach had to bow out of directing the third film in the series, Little Fockers, which was helmed by Paul Weitz. Roach retained a producer’s credit though. “I developed that script, and I worked on it for a long time,” Roach replied when FilmInk queried him about his role on the final film. “But the windows of opportunity – and there were so many people involved, between Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller and the studio – didn’t match up. It wasn’t easy. When it was ready to go, I was committed to doing Dinner For Schmucks. But once we found [new director] Paul Weitz [In Good Company, About A Boy, American Pie], I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to work. He knows how to do it, but he’ll make it his own.’ And he has, which is really cool. I’ve now been able to come back and be around for some of the test screenings, and I’ve been able to give feedback. It’s Paul’s film, yet it’s completely true to what the characters are.”
Roach has acted in a similar capacity on other movies. “This is the kind of producing that I really enjoy, where I don’t have to sweat as much as I do as a director,” Roach laughed. “I can be the back-seat driver! Even that’s inflating my role though – I just get to be a friend of the film.” Scheduling conflicts had also plagued the director around the time of the first sequel, Meet The Fockers, forcing Roach to jump ship on the big budget film version of Douglas Adams’ cult novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy 50 First Dates. He did, however, remain attached as a producer on both projects, and worked in a similar capacity on the low budget indies Smother and Charlie Bartlett, as well as the comedy Sisters and the dramas All The Way and Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House.
In 2008, Roach made his biggest career detour since his dramatic sidestep with Mystery, Alaska. Brought in to replace ailing filmmaker Sydney Pollack as the director of the HBO-produced television film Recount, Roach delivered an acclaimed drama about the backroom politics that drove the 2000 Presidential election. The highly regarded film signalled a director with a lot more to offer than just the broad comedy that he’s become most famous for. Boasting a strong cast (Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson, Denis Leary, John Hurt), Recount scored three Emmy Awards, including the Best Director gong for Roach himself. “It certainly was different working on a lower budget film, and we had a tremendous scope to cover,” the director said of his experience on Recount.
After the phenomenal success of the Austin Powers and Meet The Parents films, Roach continued to develop his Midas Touch for comedy when he helped British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen bring his films Borat and Bruno to the big screen by taking a hands-on producer’s role. The scathing mockumentaries not only broke new comedy ground, but also captured the public’s attention in a way that cinema rarely does. “His comedy is so specific, and he’s so amazing at it,” Roach told Hollywood News of Baron Cohen. “I’ve never seen an audience laugh harder than they laughed at Borat. I can remember, literally, just looking around at the audience during that naked fight sequence and going, ‘Oh my God, I will never direct anything that has people flopping around in their seats as hard as they are right now.’ So I learned from those experiences that he is a master. I was a producer on those films, and I helped with the post process where we screened it over and over and kept finding the film with the interactions with the audience. I evolved through that.”
Roach’s next film as director was 2010’s aforementioned Dinner For Schmucks, a black comedy about a group of rich people who hold dinner parties where each must bring along an “idiot” for the amusement of the table. “I really enjoyed the darkness of the piece,” Roach told FilmInk. “There aren’t many opportunities in the scripts that I read to have characters that are doing something so cruel.” The broadly entertaining comedy is a remake of seminal French comic director Francis Veber’s cinder-black gut-buster, The Dinner Game. “He’s such a hero of mine,” Roach said generously of Veber, who has directed such classics as Les Fugitifs, The Toy, and The Closet. “He’s in the class of people like Mike Nichols, and he is also one of the classiest gentlemen that you’d ever want to meet. It was a great experience getting to know him.”
After remaining on comedic ground with the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis 2012 political satire The Campaign, Roach has moved more solidly into dramatic territory, while also injecting his serious fare with a sizeable dose of humour. 2015’s excellent biopic Trumbo (starring Bryan Cranston as infamously blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo); the 2016 HBO film All The Way (in which Bryan Cranston masterfully essays President Lyndon B. Johnson in the early days of his time in office); and 2019’s wonderfully pointed Bombshell (about the women who took on predatory Fox News boss Roger Ailes) are all peppered with laughs despite their serious subject matter.
“I grew up in a conservative household, so I was at least a little more open because I’ve had long conversations with relatives to moving past my own predispositions of it,” Roach replied to Third Coast Review when asked about making his movie on the toxic and misogynist workplace at the right wing Fox News Network. “That’s why I like making films: it expands my own horizons and it’s somewhat therapeutic; it gets to searching for what matters. How shall we go forward as a country and a species? I thought that maybe if I could connect and empathise, then maybe it’s a way to remind people that there are some essential and fundamental things that we should all agree on. One of them is: Should women be safe at work, and should they be allowed to talk about it if they’re not? I thought it might be a healthy exploration, and it might be for the audience as well.”
When FilmInk had Jay Roach on the line – the man responsible for two of the most successful, and best, comedy franchises of all time – we couldn’t resist asking a very obvious question. What does this fine proponent, and keen student, of the genre think makes a good comedy? Roach paused for thought. “I like comedies where the characters are extremely well designed, and the situation that forces them together is as airtight and clever as it possibly could be,” Roach replied. “When you focus on character and story like that, then the comedy will come, because it’s just designed to cause conflict and predicament and pain, which can be an anxiety and suspense. Comedy depends on suspense more than people realise, and to get suspense, you need a good story. Those are the things that I always look for. I also sometimes look for the commitment to creating a universe – we certainly did that in Austin Powers. With Young Frankenstein and Monty Python And The Holy Grail – two of my favourite comedies of all time – the commitment to the reality of the piece, though it’s heightened and pushed, is so total that it’s enjoyable to just get completely lost in it.”
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