Jay Roach Directed Recount at a ‘Dead Sprint’
We're in another tie-breaker scenario right now in this country but when you set out to make this picture you probably didn't realize that's where we'd be. What was your initial impetus was for making a film about the 2000 recount?
I joined the project eight weeks before we started shooting so by the time I read the script, it was already finished, researched and developed. It was kind of an anxiety dream in a way to relive it through that first read. I thought, "Oh my God, I forgot how stressful, complicated, dysfunctional and compelling that predicament was." So for me, the biggest motivation for making the film was: That's the best we can do in running our country's electoral process? There were 175,000 ballots just completely discounted and disqualified in that election. That's the size of a small city. One hundred and seventy-five thousand people got up that morning, went to their polls, thought really carefully about what they were doing, chose a candidate and then had their votes completely voided. No matter who you thought should've won, or did win — surely we can do better than that. That's what I was interested in.
You had just eight weeks of prep, and shot the film in 40 days, how was that?
It certainly was different for me working on a film where it was not a big budget, and there was not much time to make it and we had a tremendous scope to cover. We had a hundred speaking parts, two-hundred scenes — I had to prep in eight weeks and I remember saying to HBO, "You know some days I'm shooting eight scenes. I'm literally going to have to say to these Academy Award-quality actors — Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Kevin Spacey — I'm going to have to say: "Cut. Print. Run!"
It was literally like we were cracking a whip to herd people at a dead sprint to the next thing. I said, "I don't know how I'm gonna do that and have them feel good about it," and you know what? They were out in front. Some days they were pulling me because I was so exhausted and we pulled each other. It was such a great feeling to be on a set where everybody had a sense that what we were up to was important and fun too. Not being religious about it but just being like, "Wow, this is a great story and this is gonna be fun to see and fun to make, but it's also going to be about something that really matters..." That made the whole process really enjoyable. Extremely difficult but also really, really enjoyable.
There's a lightness to the tone, given the seriousness of the subject matter. Is that something you brought to the script?
No. [Writer] Danny [Strong] did a great job packing a tremendous amount of story and irony into the script. Then there was the challenge to also not bore the audience — to both keep them on the edge of their seats and not lose sight of some of the absurdities and ironies and full-on humor of the predicament. There's a tremendous amount of idealism represented in characters on both sides of the story but there also is a certain amount of dysfunction and frustration and, and in some cases absurdity because it got silly. Sometimes how far people were willing to go to bend reality into a kind of propaganda that served whichever side was a good target for satire. And so I hope most of the comedy that is there comes out of not just jokes but a satirical, ironic take on some of the more absurd aspects of the situation.
It's probably one of the most partisan events in our lifetimes in this country. Did you have a sense of responsibility to try to depict it in a nonpartisan way?
It would be impossible to not have it be partisan in the sense that whenever you're in any one of the parties' point of view it was a supremely partisan situation. There was an attempt to have it be fair and to be true, as best we could. It's like filming a war film from the point of view of the soldiers in the particular battle or in the trenches. Ron Klain is basically the protagonist of the story but we were determined to get both sides right and to capture the essence of what each side believed in and what they were willing to fight for. The validating thing is that people from both sides have seen it and don't agree with every aspect of it but have confirmed that it tells a story fairly.
Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn hosted a screening of the film at their house and invited a wide range of people including a number of people who were in the film. David Boies, Ron Klain, Ben Ginsberg, George Terwilliger, Ted Olson, the Republican Supreme Court attorney — a whole slew of people that had been involved - plus a fair amount of media personalities. George Stephanopoulos, Tom Brokaw...Senator John Kerry was there. It was very intimidating. And they all sat and watched it in this tent in the back of Ben Bradlee's house and it was terrifying to me. Almost all of them had lived through it and been involved in it or at least reported on it - and it went extremely well. Extremely well. Nobody stormed out and said: "This is bullsh*t!" They all sat there and watched it and stayed and talked about it. It was painful to relive it in a certain way but I hope also kind of therapeutic in that it raises the questions again. People forgot. Even people who lived through it kind of admit that some of it they've just forgotten because 9/11 happened, which sort of shook our memories clean, like an Etch-a-Sketch. Bush stepped up and became really popular right away after 9/11 and it was almost unpatriotic to talk about the election having so much dysfunction. So in a way the whole issue was just tabled. I think to some extent it explains why so few of the problems with our electoral process have been resolved. If it's ever that close again I fear we'll be right back in the same pickle because we just didn't have time before 9/11 and after 9/11 to revamp the whole thing. There have certainly been efforts. There have been a number of congressional acts and the Baker-Carter Commission and some changes — the punch card process has pretty much been removed from operation, which is great. But there are a lot of other areas for improvement that just aren't being funded and haven't been addressed.
Were there any other surprises in delving into this story?
What has been fascinating to see is how much people care about the issue. Particularly in this election season, it's very exciting to see how much interest there is in the election, so much less apathy than I'm used to. The candidates are all really interesting and people really want to make sure their vote counts. I hope that the film will be out in time to have an impact on the way it goes. There's still time to volunteer at polls. There's still time to train poll workers better. There's not a huge amount of time to revamp entire systems and switch to one kind of format of voting or another, but there's still time for people to get out and get more people registered and to make themselves aware enough to actually individually vote.
It's validating that people want to talk about it. I was afraid it would be seen as a political film and an educational film and therefore not be able to compete for people's attention against Grand Theft Auto IV and Iron Man. And the opposite has proven to be true, which is really cool.