Talking to Jay Roach About ‘Austin Powers’, ‘Meet the Parents’, and Directing Big-Budget Comedies
Jay Roach’s first major break as a director was comedy gold. Granted, when your muse is Austin Powers it’s not entirely surprising. In addition to directing the Austin Powers trilogy, Roach also went onto direct the Meet the Parents franchise as well as The Campaign and Dinner for Schmucks. He’s also branched out into drama and directed HBO’s two most watched films, Game Change and Recount, both of which earned him Emmy Awards. Roach also produced Borat, Charlie Bartlett, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and former Bangles front woman Susanna Hoffs and their two sons. Roach and I sat down in Central Park to discuss his comedy-directing career when he was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival.
I get confused as to what equals a comedy — I thought The Sopranos was a black comedy. How do you make the distinction?
There’s a huge hunk of films that are in a very grey zone and so far none of mine have been in that hunk. My films are pretty much unambiguously comedies. But I’ve always enjoyed films that are in that zone, like Alexander Payne and Hal Ashby movies. Movies that have so much pain and angst yet fully committed humor. Those are the kind of movies I grew up on. I also grew up on Monty Python and Woody Allen. Woody, obviously, did a lot of films that are funny and happen to be dramatic, like Annie Hall. And films that are dramatic that happen to be funny. I just didn’t end up doing those films.
You appeared with Ben Stiller at Tribeca Film Festival’s Director Series and you mentioned that when you’re looking for dramatic actors, you pick ones with comedic chops. Do you do the inverse with comedies?
I certainly want actors who can be really funny, but also connect the audience with real emotion. Ben [Stiller] is an amazing actor.
I didn’t know that about Ben till I saw him in Greenberg, to be honest.
There is a scene in Meet the Parents with Stiller and De Niro in the tuxedo shop.
“I will bring you down to Chinatown!”
Exactly, and they’re both wearing tuxes in a silly location and there’s something in Ben’s face that’s so real and genuinely painful. He has no idea why he’s being interrogated and what’s going on. And there’s a scene in Meet the Fockers where he and Barbra [Streisand] are sitting in the bed together and she’s just trying to get them to open up. They’re two scenes where you see the power of Ben’s “leading man” qualities. They’re genuinely affecting and powerful and potent. He’s a really amazing actor. I remember sitting at the monitor and not thinking about whether this is funny enough, which is such a rare thing. But this — is amazing! I don’t care what else happens.
In your interview with Ben Stiller at Tribeca Film Festival, he described you as a “comedy scientist.” Do you think it’s because of your orthopedic shoes?
[Laughs] I did study psychology a fair amount while I was at Stanford. When I was there, I did an independent study with a professor in cognitive psychology in the principle of self-monitoring. He was trying to measure where people fall on the continuum of completely driven by your own inner sense of who you are, as compared to people the other end of the spectrum of driven by how you think other people see you. Many people in show business are high on the self-monitor scale. They can see themselves through other people’s eyes and, to some extent, operate according to that monitor. Many people in comedy are so used to kind of sensing the reaction of the audience that they get very attuned. Your ability to connect with what the audience is connecting to is so rapid fire. It has to be because you have to try be ahead of the audience. I think that live performers are the very best at it. I think that people who can do it in the middle of a conversation with two hundred people are extraordinary at that “audience empathy factor.” People who have performed live are possibly the best people to be doing comedy.
And probably more noble.
Sometimes I will see performers who are so self-aware and I’ll confuse it with empathy.
Yeah, well, that’s the extreme. The extreme form is that you are way too aware and constantly over-correcting to try and please the audience and that’s a disaster. Comedy at its best should be reacting to the audience, it’s interactive. Action-reaction. I mean if I make a joke at dinner and don’t get the reaction I want, I’m going to tell the joke differently next time.
What if that happens just at coffee?
[Laugh] Right. (Drinks his coffee.)
Now Face in the Crowd, I understand, helped influenced The Campaign?
Yes, a little bit. It also influenced the Sarah Palin movie.
I sound so naive, but the character Lonesome Road is so amazing in how he holds up and how little things change.
It’s a human curse how susceptible we are to a charismatic, larger-than-life character. We build them up and then take them down.
How did Face in the Crowd help with your film Game Change about Sarah Palin?
Well, I’m not the first to have made the analogy between her and Lonesome Roads. I’d seen the film many times, but, before I made the film, I sat down and watched it again. I’d forgotten how much of a pattern this is. We’re pack animals and we want to follow someone or something bigger than ourselves. Either we prop them up or they prop themselves up.
Was Borat at all influential to Sarah Palin?
[Laughs] No. But good comparison.
When you first did Austin Powers did you know it was going to be a huge hit?
We did not know it was going to be. It seemed to us a low budget, weird character Mike was going to do. We had deliberately built in a lot of non-commercial elements. We didn’t say, “Hey, Let’s be non-commercial.” We just built in non-commercial elements: bad teeth, hairy back, and funny helmet hair.
The usual aphrodisiacs…
“The usual aphrodisiacs” is a great phase. You’re good. This is fun. We liked Monty Python. Monty Python never had a huge following here. It was certainly the fans of that kind of comedy, which are sometimes a narrow, small demographic, but they’re very passionate. They [the fans] became crucial after the first Austin Powers when many people looked at it and thought, “Where’s Wayne? Where’s schwing?” or “This doesn’t look like James Bond.”
To which Sean Connery said, “thank you.”
Yeah. Exactly. We tried to get Sean Connery do a third one, and he did say, “No thanks.” If there was anything I offered Austin Powers it was to push away from being some kind of reference to James Bond movies. I really loved that pop art, jet set cool thing that was going on with a lot films back then; whereas James Bond films were cool, but they were also more mainstream spy thrillers.
Would you say that’s your role as a director when working with these great comedians is to ground the film?
I think they have that instinct too.
That’s why they’re huge comedians.
They have that instinct too. Mike is really a student of story and character. He is a professor of comedy in my mind. Most of what I know about comedy comes from him.
Which is what?
A lot of stuff. He is an amazing student of why things work one time and why they don’t another. He has tried everything and seen other people try everything. He also has well worked out theories about it, and he’s the first to admit many times the theories don’t work and there’s no rules. Some of it’s instinct in the moment, but if you have actually thought it through a little bit, you can make it work.
Like you’d be surprised by the amount of time when into things like the nudity blocking thing with Elizabeth Hurley in the first Austin Powers, when Elizabeth Hurley is blocking his naked body. It’s not just the geometry of making sure everything perfectly lines up every time he moves or she moves, so they would match up in this weird perverse dance. It was also about what’s gonna be funniest and why. It was like preparing for one of those explorations to Mars. So many smart people sitting around talking about why it’s funnier for her to bite a sausage a certain way. And would it’d be funny if he leans back in a certain way and is so unapologetic of being totally naked right as she is biting it. We’d discuss the minutest details of exactly the choreography and pose of his body in relation to which she was lining up and biting the sausage. We’re not NASA. So we failed to calculate for the fact that she’d have to bite 25 pieces of a sausage and would eventually become nauseous, and need a pail.
She’d never had that much food before?
From then on, whenever I was in a scene with actors, I’d say, “We’re gonna have just green beans. They’ll be steak here, but don’t touch the steak because you’ll be biting these all day long. Don’t eat the steak. So if you watch in Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller is actually eating the piece of a tip of a green bean, because he knows it’s gonna be a lot of takes. Now that’s something Mike did not teach me.
How to feed the models?
What food to eat while you’re in a comedy.
So when they become these big tent-pole comedies, does it ever feel like it’s too big fail?
The sequels are tough because the expectations are high. I used to talk about Austin Powers 2 for being such a great not vindication, but evidence that a sequel can be worth it. Just doing Mini-Me alone in the second Austin Powers, I was like, ‘Alright. I’m just gonna do sequels for now on.’ That ability to explore something so weird as this clone. Originally, we we’re going to try to do it as a visual effect, but then we found Verne Troyer… And that took a long time to develop, but we just had permission going in the second time to do anything we wanted. We didn’t have “any budget we wanted,” but they gave us a dramatically higher budget, probably four times the budget. The first time was in the realm of 16 million dollars. We had so much money to spend. We could try anything. We had Dr. Evil launch his Global Domination Scheme from Starbucks. And that sequel was also fun because it didn’t have quite as high expectations, as the first one was a modest hit.
What equals “modest”?
Well, it (Austin Powers) made like 50 million domestically and almost nothing internationally. Then the video thing happened. We came out right as DVD was kicking in and it did very, very well on DVD sales. And then Mike McCullers and Mike Myers came up with this trailer, a teaser idea — where you feel like you’re on a ship, that looks a little like Star Wars, and you hear this Darth Vader voice and Dr. Evil spins around in the chair and he’s holding the cat and he says, “You expecting someone else?”…. I mean we had a hairless cat! C’mon.
Most of us can’t afford those.
Think we had the hairless cat in the first one! Well, it did (also) buy us sharks with lasers on their head in the third one.
That’s what studio money should be used for.
We made a joke about not being able to afford sharks with animatronic lasers and we actually had [written] in the script real sharks with lasers in the first movie, but we couldn’t afford them. Overtime, we could afford sharks.
Someone had to hold a meeting to determine the cost of sharks with lasers attached to their heads.
Oh, yeah. That meeting was that scene where he [Mike Myers] has to down scale to ill-tempered, mutated sea bass. It had started with actual animatronic sharks with lasers attached to their head and it ended up being a guy in a scuba suit, rubber fish, and bubbles.
Did Meet the Fockers/Meet the Parents franchise do well overseas?
Is that unusual for comedy?
It used to be called unusual for a talkie comedy, a verbal oriented, non-physical comedy like Meet the Parents. At the time “they” would tell us don’t have high expectations for it to cross over. I think Robert De Niro helped.
They like him?
It was also a somewhat universal concept….
Jews and Wasps?
The second one was really big overseas and, again, I think Barbra [Streisand] and Dustin [Hoffman], and De Niro are all big stars internationally.
Is that a fact? Would you state that on the record that Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbara Streisand are stars?
Yes, I will go out on a limb and say that they helped us internationally. Also, Ben had a following from Something About Mary. Without being kinda “egg on your face” funny, the poster looked really funny. I think the concept of trying to please and seek the approval of your future father-in-law was a strong idea.
It’s also the first time in history where you have intermarriage happening across the board universally, and families melding as a result.
Yeah, I love that so much. I was raised Christian and didn’t know very many Jews when I was a kid. I am pretty sure I have relatives in my lineage that thought the Jews killed Jesus. Marrying into Sue’s family was one of the most incredible cross-cultural experiences. [Sue is Susanna Hoffs and she is Jewish.]
You’ve also said it’s a melding of different personalities.
That’s right. Playing De Niro’s paranoia and intense love for his daughter against Barbara and Dustin’s sort of so much, too much, love that it’s annoying seemed like ‘oh, this is good.’ And that’s another example of a sequel [working]. Once we had them and we knew it would be that story — not just of two families of two different faiths — but families of completely opposite worldviews and approach to life.
These blockbuster comedies allow you get comfortable with the characters in the first and second and maybe third films. But then it seems horrible for new people trying to break in.
I agree that this as an overall trend of sticking to the “tried and true” with branding and sequel remakes. It’s been fun and productive for me, but I really wonder what it does for the industry.
What was neat about Austin Powers was that it didn’t fit any mold — it became a mold. But it didn’t start out that way and needed someone to give it a chance.
A lot of people think the first one was the good one and I actually thought the second and third one were.
I thought the seventh one was the best. I wanted to ask about the film you did about Hitler because that’s reportedly how you got your start?
That’s a tiny bit exaggerated.
It was really about Pinochet?
No. I worked on a film about the psychology and mythology of evil, where I was working with a film student partner and we made this elaborate “artsy” film on that subject and Mike [Myers] is a history nut. He knows everything about World War II, so it actually started our friendship really, where we were just talking about history and the War.
Did you talk about how to make genocide pretty? If we just get the right color…
We talked about history a lot and it evolved into talking about comedy. We talked about film with a certain style that we liked. He put me up for the job [of Austin Powers] without telling me. I was helping him look at director’s reels as a friend. It was like Dick Cheney becoming Vice President by being on [former President George Bush Jr.’s] search committee.
You’re saying Dick Cheney had no other motives!
I really wasn’t angling for that job.
I feel like those are slightly different situations.
Well, I hadn’t really directed anything. I was just looking at commercial director’s reels and I put someone forward and he [Mike Myers] was like, no I actually put you up for the job. I didn’t realize that he and my wife, Susanna, and the Todd Sisters, who became the producers, had a conspiracy to put me up for this job. I honestly didn’t know they had brought me up already to the studio when they told me that I had to get busy putting a reel together.
So I not only put a reel together, I added these clips from these artsy, rather kitschy, European heist and spy films that had a pop-art component to show that style could be funny. I certainly wanted to reference the Bond films and other spy films, but to also show that the exaggerated sets and costumes could be that pushed. They didn’t say yes [to Roach] at first. They eventually said yes when Mike said, “I’m not doing it until you hire this guy.”
A lot of SNL stars are talented impressionists and comedians. But there are very few comedians who are able to see and draw the whole picture the way Mike Myers, Woody Allen, Steve Martin and a handful of others who have a real aesthetic.
Yeah, he really does. Instead of basing it on one thing, we compiled a bunch of things and then we stuck too that plan religiously. Like I didn’t have any fancy camera tricks, or steadycam, or visual effects. We stuck to a look that was so pleasing from those old movies and Mike loves that stuff. We liked Young Frankenstein, which has its own completely sealed hermetic reality. He loves combining old cultural elements into something new and then he invents a lot of stuff.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple things. I have a really cool HBO project. I have a TV movie that’s about when [Nikita] Khrushchev visits America and goes on a road trip at the height of the cold war. It begins at a period of detente and he goes to Hollywood and on the train to San Francisco and he poses kissing a cow. It’s a very interesting and dramatic story because nuclear war could happen at any moment. But Eisenhower was convinced he could be a partner.
I am picturing it like as if Kaddafi went to Disneyland.
It’s not unlike that. Paul Giamatti is playing Khrushchev and it’s just a fantastic script and I have a couple TV series that we’re seeing if we can get started at HBO and doing the research on a project with Tyler Hamilton and Lance Armstrong.
Is it funny?
It has some comedy.
I think anything involving bike shorts has to have some comedy.
Lycra and performance enhancing drugs are old chestnuts that always work.