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Interview with Jay Roach, Director of 'Game Change'

Jay Roach interview

HBO

What drew you to the story of Game Change?

Jay Roach

During the campaign of 2008, I started thinking about how Sarah Palin was chosen.  I wanted to be a fly on the wall and listen to those discussions. Whose idea was it? I've always been fascinated by the decision process in the rooms where these ideas come from. I sensed that an incredible, somewhat Shakespearean kind of drama was unfolding in real life. It seemed to me only a few people were involved, and the decisions were very clear, and what happened from moment to moment was compelling.

Palin had certainly accomplished laudable things as mayor and as governor.  She had something like 80% popularity in Alaska as governor.  She was extremely charismatic and appealing as a speaker.  And she fit the American fairy tale, where anyone can grow up to be president.  A hockey mom from a small town in Alaska, a mother of five, with a Down syndrome baby, a pregnant teenage daughter and a son off to fight in Iraq, a strong woman who had already taken on the political establishment. 

Once I read the book, I was even more convinced that a reenactment of the McCain-Palin campaign could make an excellent drama.  It was conveniently contained within a 60-day time period.  So I saw it as a movie going on in real life, that if we could pull it in to a structured story, it would be a very compelling bit of drama.  You know, not just history.

HBO

In addition to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book wasn't there a huge amount of source material to draw from?

Jay Roach

One of the challenges in making a film like this is facing the fact that you're not making a documentary.  You're not just trying to capture every detail of every event that occurred. You're trying to tell a story that hooks people, makes them care about what the characters are going through, and makes them think harder.

I wanted you to be on the edge of your seat. Yes, you saw what happened through the news, but again, what really happened behind the scenes? What would get the audience saying to themselves and to each other, "I didn't know it was like that... I didn't know that much was at stake."  In a way, it's like a thriller, mixed with an anxiety dream, particularly from Steve Schmidt's point of view.

HBO

People know something of John McCain and Sarah Palin but who is campaign manager Steve Schmidt?

Jay Roach

Schmidt was the man who really took on the entire mission of making the idea of Sarah Palin work for John McCain. She was amazing at the convention and people were looking at it as a brilliant choice. But then Schmidt had to watch as it started to unravel, beginning with some of the interviews after the convention, especially with Katie Couric.  Next, Tina Fey comes into the story.

And, because Schmidt had been so instrumental in selecting Palin, he also had to take on the burden and the stress of dealing with both McCain and Palin when things started to go wrong.

HBO

Sounds like a thankless job.

Jay Roach

It's an incredibly stressful job that takes a pretty big brain.  Steve Schmidt was an interesting guy to study. He's extremely intelligent, very competitive.  He thinks like a coach. He has to motivate his team to do things they don't necessarily want to do.  He has to keep them in line, and keep them disciplined. Schmidt's like the coach Lombardi of campaign managers.

HBO

So it's really Steve Schmidt's story?

Jay Roach

I've always seen it from his point of view - a horrible anxiety dream about the worst possible things that could go on during a campaign.

HBO

He couldn't see it coming?

Jay Roach

What was fascinating about the story was that everybody involved was just trying to win the election. They were all making choices that they thought would enable John McCain to do that. It was a good idea, if all that mattered was winning. 

And like any great drama, people start with the right intentions, but because of their own flaws, their own ambitions, sometimes they reach too far or reach the wrong way - putting the emphasis on the wrong thing, and losing track of what matters.

HBO

Did going for the brass ring blind him to what was at stake?

Jay Roach

Well, Steve Schmidt wants to win.  Above all, he's one of the most competitive people I've ever seen.   He's hired because he's a winner.  He had to tell McCain, "Look, you have some very statesman-like choices: Joe Lieberman, Tim Pawlenty, people you could choose to run with. But you're going to lose.  I think we should go for the win.  Sarah Palin may not be the ultimate statesperson, but maybe she can be trained to become one."

That's the dilemma these guys faced in this story-statesmanship or win.  Maybe we can do both, but maybe we have to make a choice that's just win first, and deal with the statesmanship later.

A Faustian choice was right in front of Steve Schmidt.

Game Change

HBO Films

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Jay Roach