In the late 1940s Dalton Trumbo was a hugely respected and successful Hollywood screenwriter who was famously one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and a director who were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their communist affiliations.
As “Trumbo,” the first effort to tackle Trumbo’s tale on the big screen, opened in a few San Francisco area theaters last week with wider release slated for this weekend, The Stanford Daily sat down with director Jay Roach ‘80 to discuss Dalton Trumbo, the freedom of speech and getting a foot in today’s film-industry.
Stanford Daily (TSD): Just starting out, how did you first learn about Dalton Trumbo and blacklisting? What was your first exposure to that?
Jay Roach (JR): My first exposure was, when I went to film school… well at Stanford I started being a projectionist for a Japanese film series, I ran Sunday Flicks for a while, and then I worked at KZSU and The Daily, and I started getting more interested in storytelling. So I sort of bailed on the Pre-Law thing, I still got my degree in economics, but I stayed and worked at the Stanford instructional television Network. And then I went down to USC, applied to film school and got in, and my directing teacher was Eddy Dmytryk, who was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was the only non-writer of the Ten. He was a director and the other nine were writers. He was a great teacher, a great guy. He had made a lot of really excellent films, one called “Crossfire” before the blacklisting era, and another one called “The Caine Mutiny,” later. A really cool film called “Broken Lance,” which is a really interesting western. But he was subpoenaed, appeared at [by the House Un-American Activities Committee], was sent to jail for not answering the questions, came out of jail and then did answer the questions, and even named names. By the time he was teaching at USC, I felt…I think I was projecting on it that he never talked about it, so I think I inferred from that that it haunted him. And that’s the first time I remember hearing about the blacklist, because I would hear the other faculty talking about him, and I didn’t really dig into it much, and I never really thought about Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo. I loved his films, but I didn’t know — I didn’t make that connection until John [McNamara] gave me the script.
TSD: What do you think it is about this story that makes it so relevant today?
JR: I think the obvious thing is that fear mongering is a go-to weapon at any time, any era. Politicians make names for themselves, the way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to some extent, made names for themselves in this era. People now try to make names for themselves fear mongering based on terrorism or our fear of the other, fear of immigrants. And that’s tragic, and it — well it sucks. It cancels real discourse. As soon as you evoke fear, and then say “if you’re not in in synch with our way of addressing a theory then you’re not patriotic, not a true American, the way we are, then you must be un-American and therefore you’re a traitor, and therefore you’re probably a socialist and a communist.” That’s the same conversation today as it was in 1947. It’s just a different boogieman used in these witch hunts. That seems always relevant. The first thing that gets jeopardized, and in some cases diminished, is the Bill of Rights; the way they apply to free speech. Trumbo was above all else, a humanist. He had other labels, including communism, which are accurate, but most accurately a humanist and he hated injustice. He would become obsessed with it, and would get himself into trouble, because he would paint a big target on himself, over causes like workers rights and things like that.
TSD: What was it like casting the roles of such well known figures? How important was it to get look-alikes versus capturing their essence?
JR: That’s a really good question, because it’s terrifying. I mean Kirk Douglas, I mean you’re gonna try to recreate Kirk Douglas?
TSD: Biopics are kind of infamous for being difficult to put a [unique] spin on; do you think you needed to do that for this, or did it sort of speak for itself?
JR: I wasn’t trying to have a signature thing. I just served the story. The story is the thing, and I just tried to serve it in every way I can. I definitely try to serve what matters to me about it, in the way that it’s shot, but everything in “Trumbo” is a manifestation of this man’s attitude. The tone is entirely Trumbo-esque. Not Trumbo, like Trumbo’s films, but Trumbo, like Trumbo the man. What he cared about, how he went about things, his sarcasm, his pranksterism, his zeal, his idealism, his naivete. In every aspect of the story I tried to be true and authentic to that. So I’m not trying to make it a Jay Roach film, I’m trying to make it a story about [Dalton Trumbo].
TSD: What would you recommend to Stanford students who are considering going into filmmaking?
JR: I’ve talked to some students, and we’ve had a few interns who’ve come down…One: look for a good internship, there are a lot of them. Two: When you’re choosing what kind of intro-level job to — let me step back. The first thing you need to do is just write, write, write. Just be writing all the time, whether you want to direct, produce, be a cinematographer, agent, whatever it is just keep writing. Because the only superpower, as I try to show in this movie, the only power that has true force is writing. If you can tell a great story, you can sell a story, talk actors into doing a story. But you have to know have to tell a great story. And that’s writing first, and then presenting it. You have to learn how to present it verbally as well.
And, just as a tip, the best jobs in town (which is what I did), well I was a cameraman and a gaffer I did a lot of the low-line jobs, but I also worked as a writing assistant, which is a person who sits in a room and everyone’s trying to think up the story, and there’s boards with cards on them, whiteboards to write your ideas on. But the writing assistant mostly just sits there and types up every single thing that’s said and tries to organize it into a useful format that the writers can then share. And that’s what I did for years. I was a writing assistant, and what’s great about that is the writers are there but the directors come in, the producers come in, the actors sometimes come in, and they sit and just talk about script. And they need an assistant to take notes, so you get to see how it all works, and if you have gumption you can not only make the notes readable, I would take them home and [organize them] in a scene or outline order so that they could be put to better use.
Anyway, it’s the best job. Skip the PA, skip the assistants to the agents (if you can), and become a writer, because you really are at the center of the creative process of filmmaking.
Contact Hannah Frakes hfrakes ‘at’ stanford.edu.