Four years ago, not many Americans below the 49th parallel even knew who Sarah Palin of Alaska was. That all changed when John McCain named the self-proclaimed hockey mom his Republican running mate, and the media scavenged for any detail about her and her family. An immediate celebrity, she proved to be electrifying… and occasionally a deer in the headlights. Tina Fey infamously skewered her on Saturday Night Live, and Matt Damon, an Obama partisan, rolled his eyes and compared her emergence to “a really bad Disney movie.”
Well, Palin finally has her movie — even if she had no say in the matter. On March 10, Game Change, based on John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s account of the historic 2008 presidential campaign, premieres on HBO, with Julianne Moore playing Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain, and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, the strategist who came to second-guess his initial brainstorm to potentially put Palin one heartbeat from the presidency. EW has the new Game Change poster (below) and director Jay Roach, who also helmed HBO’s Recount in 2008 but is most famous for working with the likes of Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, and Steve Carell, called up to talk politics. Turns out his next movie, Dog Fight, combines both his passions, with Will Ferrell squaring off against Zach Galifianakis for a U.S. congressional seat. The comedy wrapped production yesterday, freeing him to discuss his fascination with Palin, the political system that chose her, and the current crop of GOP candidates.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re best known for directing comedies, like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but you’re becoming equally known for political movies, what with HBO’s Recount and now Game Change.
JAY ROACH: I’ve always been fascinated by the profession of political consulting and spin-doctoring and what kind of an impact the overall political strategists have on our political process. I first brought up the idea of doing this film during the actual campaign itself in 2008, right about the time we were out promoting Recount. I pitched it to HBO, that this incredible decision to put Sarah Palin is very controversial and wouldn’t you like to be in those rooms when that decision was being made? And then, [John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book] Game Change came out, a fantastic book that covered the very area that I was interested in.
I can still remember exactly where I was when I learned Palin was McCain’s choice for veep. Do you have a similar recollection?
I remember vividly watching her speak at the convention and just felt, “Wow, that is a bold move and hats off to whoever came up with that as a political strategy,” because she was electrifying. She’s completely compelling and interesting and charismatic. There were so many reasons why it was a great political move. It was amazing. She really got people to pay attention to politics in ways that I didn’t really remember happening before.
Putting Palin at the center of your story is a thankless task in some ways, for you and especially Julianne Moore. Not only is Palin still extremely visible both politically and in pop-culture, but she’s already been famously caricatured as well.
It was daunting. She’s one of the most famous people on the planet. We [knew] people watching the film would have all sorts of expectations about what Sarah Palin should be like. We expected people to bring up Tina Fey. We expected people to be skeptical about anyone who played her. My approach was to not try to impersonate her. In fact, we tried to go right at those expectations by having a scene where Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin is watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, replicating the moment where she watched SNL the night that [skit] ran. We have actual Tina Fey in that footage on the monitor specifically to say, “Okay, that’s one thing. And this is a different thing, entirely different.” This is not a caricature, and it’s not an impersonation. Julianne wanted to get not just into the surface — her skin, her clothes, her hair, and her accent — but to kind of internalize what she could imagine Sarah was going through psychologically, what anxieties she was experiencing stepping out on to the national stage.
You know there’s no way you’re going to win over Palin partisans with this…
We tried to reach out. I wrote two long letters — one to her attorney and one to her directly because I very much wanted to speak to her to get the story right. She just declined; that’s how it goes. I had to settle for getting her voice through her audio books and through interviews and many of the personal accounts of people who were in the rooms with her at the time. But people have made films before based on true stories without having full access. It’s up to the audience now to judge whether we pulled it off, but we sure put a lot into it.
My take after seeing Game Change is that audiences might be highly critical of Sarah Palin the politician, but it’s nearly impossible not to have empathy for Sarah Palin the woman.
I like how you put that, because we tried to play her without being critical of her as a person and more just trying to question the decision — about how the process went. She’s a very interesting person who had a lot going on in her life at that point. She’s got five kids, a new baby with Down syndrome, an older boy going off to fight in Iraq, two teenage daughters, and now she is in the middle of a national campaign. You couldn’t really write a fictional situation with forces that could pull on someone harder than those forces pulled on her. Then with all that going on, to electrify her constituents as powerfully as she did. That was an amazing person that can do that.
You already documented the most contentious election in modern American history, Gore versus Bush in 2000, in Recount. What did you learn from the reception to that film that helped you this time around?
I learned that when an audience hears that a story is based on a true story, they want it to be true. Our continuous mantra was, “Get it right. Get the story right.” There are limits to what you can pull off in a two-hour dramatization of what was essentially a 60-day story, but if you can’t defend to yourself every single aspect of the story, then you can’t expect the audience to not sense that something’s fake or exaggerated. So we threw everything into that as our priority on this one too.
So what are you expecting?
I think there will be a range of reactions, much like there were to Sarah Palin when she first ran. I do think some of it will be controversial; though we didn’t seek it. For purely selfish reasons, I hoped she wouldn’t run for office [this year], just for the film’s sake. Because I hoped the film would be about what I think it is about, which is the larger issue of how we select our leaders, how we find the people that we want to be on a ticket, how our vetting process work, what is it about the political system that people are put into a win-at-all-costs frame of mind. Those questions, to me, are larger than Sarah Palin and larger than that campaign because they come up every single election. I’m fascinated by those issues, and I hope the controversy doesn’t overshadow the story — because it’s a great story.
You certainly don’t seem to be sick of politics. You literally just wrapped a comedy, Dog Fight, in which Will Ferrell squares off against Zach Galifianakis in a congressional election.
Yeah, a congressional seat in North Carolina. Will plays a six-term Democratic incumbent, and Zach plays a character named Marty Huggins, an insurgent who’s financed suddenly by a superpac. It was pretty timely for us to be able to work some of the actual stuff that’s been going on the current campaign. We’d go online and fire emails to each other — “Oh my god, can you believe how close this is to what we’re doing?” “We gotta get this guy’s hair!” This particular primary season has just been an incredible resource for us. I hope we can top reality. I don’t know if we can keep up. Even in a big comedy, we have to wonder if we’ve pushed things enough.
I’m guessing Game Change was practically part of your pre-production for Dog Fight.
Yes, very much so. How a rally looks, how a press conference looks. How the journalists come at the candidates. Where the security is standing. I didn’t need a technical consultant this time around. Hollywood is a bizarre world but the political world is a very bizarre world. It’s got its own rules and customs and rituals, and I feel I was able to absorb a few of them and draw from that knowledge for a very comedic version of a campaign movie. This movie is even more about the reality show aspect. I always compare politics more to pro wrestling, the way wrestlers take on a persona and invent a version of their enemy and attack that version instead of the real person. It just becomes professional wrestling. That’s what politics seems like to me these days, and that’s what Dog Fight is all about.