Director Jay Roach first saw the script to Bombshell (Lionsgate) when actress/producer Charlize Theron sent it to him to provide notes. “I was so hooked by the story. After, I spoke so passionately about why it mattered and encouraged her to do it,” recalled Roach who added, “I cared so much about what these women were up against, what their predicament was. I don’t watch a lot of Fox (News). I have a lot of skepticism about a lot put out by Fox. I didn’t think it would be a place where a big movement like this would occur but it did. These women rose up and took down a very powerful person, a person of great influence in the world.”
Theron saw Roach’s deep support for and commitment to the story--which led from his providing notes to his ultimately becoming director of Bombshell, a film depicting the corporate culture of sexual harassment at Fox News as seen primarily through the eyes of three women: star anchor Megan Kelly (portrayed by Theron); Fox and Friends morning show co-host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman); and a fictional composite associate producer named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Their stories take us behind the scenes to what eventually resulted in the ouster of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the architect and chieftain of Fox News, after Carlson’s 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against him.
For Roach, it was paramount to do justice to these stories, leading him into extensive research, reading books and articles, hearing directly from different women at the network, all helping him in his quest to give the film a sense of what sexual harassment might feel like. He cited a scene in the movie between Lithgow and Robbie in which Ailes is harassing Pospisil. We get a feel of what Roach describes as “that victimization that gets turned into shame,” which is later reflected when Pospisil “confesses” about the incident to her friend on the phone, a fictitious news producer character named Jess Carr (played by Kate McKinnon). Roach related, “I didn’t want to leave the set until we got that feeling right.” He noted, “I had never experienced that feeling as an audience member. As a filmmaker, it was an obligation to capture it.”
Another “obligation” or “challenge,” continued Roach, was to make sure the film “wasn’t so preachy or self-serious that you wouldn’t want to watch it. That’s why we focused so much on casting to find these great performances,” which at times included a sense of irony and absurdity. In that vein, he pointed to the casting of Saturday Night Live performer McKinnon as Carr, a closeted liberal and lesbian working at Fox News. She helped to advance the drama--especially in the poignancy of the phone call with Pospisil while also providing an ironic tinge to the proceedings.
To put those actor performances front and center, Roach sought out cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, BSC whom he long admired and worked with for the first time on Bombshell. “I studied his style for so many years,” said Roach of the DP, citing his lensing of director Paul Greengrass films (including United 93, Captain Phillips, Green Zone). Ackroyd has also shot for director Kathryn Bigelow, including Detroit and The Hurt Locker, the latter earning him a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination. Roach described Ackroyd’s work as feeling “alive, unscripted, spontaneous,” noting the cinematographer’s deployment of opposing angle cameras where the actors are “always on, always live, with scenes played out with the timing of a play.”
Roach marveled, for example, at Ackroyd’s lensing of a scene in an elevator when the three female protagonists--Kelly, Carlson and Pospisil--come together. Front-on compositions and subjective shots from the side serve to heighten the tension of what might otherwise seem a mundane moment, as POV shifts, giving viewers a chance to get into the head of each character.
While Ackroyd is a first-time collaborator for Roach, the director went to the other end of the continuum for his editor, connecting with long-time colleague Jon Poll. Their working relationship goes back to the 1999 release Mystery, Alaska, and then weaves its way through such films as Meet the Parents, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Meet the Fockers, Dinner for Schmucks and The Campaign. “He’s a master--not just in terms of pace but his sense of performance,” said Roach of Poll. “He is so spot-on.” Roach noted that he and Poll are sometimes on an “amped-up pace” but the editor also knows at what points to “slow down,” one such scene being Ailes’ abuse of Pospisil. Poll opted to go with “such long shots and no editing,” said Roach. “He let it run in real time, didn’t compress anything. You feel the emotion and the heart of the moment from that character’s point of view.”
As his filmography with Poll prior to their coming together on Bombshell suggests, Roach has roots in comedy. But he has also meaningfully diversified into political drama as reflected in DGA Award wins for the HBO telefilms Recount in 2009 and Game Change in 2013. Recount chronicled the weeks after the 2000 Bush vs. Gore U.S. Presidential election, and the subsequent voting recounts in Florida, while Game Change delved into John McCain’s decision to add Sarah Palin as his VP running mate in the 2008 Presidential election. Roach earned a third DGA award nomination in 2017 for All the Way, an HBO telefilm which focused on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office, an historically significant span born out of tragedy with the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and then marked by an often rocky legislative road--deftly navigated by LBJ, famed for his negotiation savvy--which led most notably to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bryan Cranston portrayed LBJ, marking his second collaboration with Roach--the first being the lauded feature film Trumbo (2015) for which Cranston’s portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo earned him a best lead actor Oscar nomination.
Roach views his comedy and drama exploits as all being part of “a continuum of storytelling” in which at times the different genres/disciplines come together, with absurdity lurking in even the darkest dramas, as is the case with Bombshell.
As for the biggest takeaway from his experience on Bombshell, absurdity gives way to profundity for Roach. “What I took away from it was a new sensitivity to what women go through at work. Women should always be safe at work and often are not. I as a man was not super tuned into that.” He hopes Bombshell helps to bring about more empathy for women. Through telling this story, researching it and having heard so many more stories, Roach has become more empathetic. And in that orientation, he sees that sitting on the sidelines, not being helpful or not being part of the solution aren’t acceptable either.
Yorick Le Saux, Nick Houy, Jess Gonchor
Like Roach, director Greta Gerwig turned to an editor with whom she already enjoyed a fruitful collaboration, Nick Houy, as well as talent she admired but hadn’t worked with before--in this case cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, AFC and production designer Jess Gonchor--for Little Women (Sony Pictures).
In last week’s installment of our “Road To Oscar” series, Gerwig talked of Houy, Le Saux and Gonchor. She cited Houy’s “sensitivity to every aspect that matters to me--language, rhythm, acting, storytelling. He’s utterly relentless, doesn’t ever say ‘uncle.’ This was a complicated movie at every stage, with multiple timelines, multiple characters over eight years, many seasons. It was a beast. We knew going into the edit that it would be a long carefully calibrated process...We went through many versions. Small changes had a ripple effect that was large. I knew Nick had the ability to never let go of a project until we explored every avenue. He’s a great human being with great taste. I feel this trust with him.”
As for production designer Gonchor, Gerwig has been an unabashed fan of his work for quite some time. She cited his efforts on Bennett Miller’s Capote as well as several Coen brothers’ films (which included Oscar noms for Gonchor on True Grit and Hail, Caesar!). “His (Gonchor’s) houses always feel like homes,” observed Gerwig of the work. “I never feel like I’m looking at something separate from the characters and the storytelling.”
Similarly Gerwig was drawn to Le Saux’s work, including the lensing of director Luca Guadagnino’s films A Bigger Splash and I Am Love. She described I Am Love as “a movie you want to eat,” one which had “a kinetic feel.”
This week SHOOT connects with Houy, Le Saux and Gonchor who reflect on Little Women, for which Gerwig also penned the screenplay based on the classic novel and other writings by Louisa May Alcott. This latest cinematic version of Little Women stirs our empathy, introducing us to the aspirations of and adversity faced by its protagonists, including Jo March (portrayed by three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), an ambitious, talented writer whom Gerwig described as her personal “North Star.”
Houy, an ACE Eddie Award nominee for Lady Bird--his first collaboration with Gerwig--said of the director, “She’s what you would always hope for. She’s very open and collaborative, has brilliant ideas and is open to your ideas. She gives you time and space to do your work. She pushes you and understands what works and what doesn’t.”
Houy said a prime challenge posed by Little Women was “telling a story in two time periods that have to move forward but you don’t have the freedom of it being nonlinear. The stories have to progress and intersect in a way.”
In some respects, the intersection is fueled by how our minds work, akin to how many of us recollect our lives. As we look back on important moments, they aren’t necessarily chronological in our head but connected in other ways.
Also helping Houy in his editing was the luxury of beautiful imagery from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and a score by Alexandre Desplat. Houy marveled at how the composer “taps into the emotions of characters,” providing an editor with different options that “blow your mind.” Houy said he feels like the “luckiest young editor” around, being able to work recently with scores by Desplat (on Little Women), and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (on director Jonah Hill’s feature directorial debut, Mid90s).
As for Le Saux’s work, Houy assessed, “Congratulations on making the most beautiful film in the world. It’s gorgeous, unbelievably beautiful yet shot in so little time. What should have taken days to shoot was instead shot in half a day sometimes.”
DP Le Saux said that he and Gerwig immediately gravitated to 35mm film (Kodak Vison3 500T color negative film 5219 35mm) for Little Women, deploying primarily the ARRI ST camera, along with the smaller ARRI LT. In terms of lenses, the DP went with Cooke S4 primes, mainly using 27, 32, 40 and 50mm focal lengths. Le Saux noted that Gerwig was looking for a cinematographer experienced in 35mm film, one who would embrace the grain and texture it brings to a story. From early on before he even got the gig, Le Saux said that he and Gerwig felt like they were on “the same page” relative to how to approach Little Women. Their collaborative connection only deepened over time as they worked “to establish a visual language” for the film.
Le Saux noted that he and Gerwig decided that when shooting the March sisters as youngsters, the camera would be more alive, marked by more movement. Gerwig described it to SHOOT as the camera “has to feel like a dancer--but not handheld.” By contrast, when the protagonists were adults, Le Saux observed that the camera was “more still” in those scenes, “a little more sad,” distant and formal, reflecting “a bit more of the reality,” delving intellectually into what’s inside each character’s head.
Le Saux added that a prime challenge linked to that exploration was that the lion’s share of the movie’s scenes involved multiple actors, necessitating that the camera do justice to “many points of view” in numerous sequences. Thus meticulous attention had to be paid to blocking out scenes and how to best work in each location. Addressing this in the big picture, he continued, was his simply “bringing the audience into the room with the actors,” and capturing their performances which were enhanced by the stellar work of production designer Gonchor and costume designer Jacqueline Durran.
Gonchor was drawn to the prospect of collaborating with Gerwig for the first time. “I’m an admirer of Lady Bird and the films she’s acted in,” he shared. “We sat down over a pot of coffee in L.A., talking about things that were going on in our lives, people we had in common, living in New York versus L.A., the industry. We connected on a personal level which is the most important thing. For a production designer on a film working with a director, the best possible thing is to connect on a personal level, to like each other--then the ideas will come and develop through collaboration. First and foremost, I felt comfortable with her and respected the script she wrote. I respected the movie she wanted to make and the freedom she allowed me to have.”
Gonchor said the biggest creative challenge that Little Women posed to him was conceptualizing the March family’s home, “creating a family vibe, a house different from every other place in the movie, the anchor to the movie where there are good times, bad times, happy and sad times with a strong mother (Laura Dern) and four sisters (Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen). The house had to be comfortable, warm, exciting and scary, a place for togetherness and loneliness.”
Gerwig told SHOOT of her meeting of minds with Gonchor, “The way he talked about the world was what I wanted, straddling something magical in the memory of it balanced with the reality of it--doing both things at once.” She saw the March family’s home as being “plain looking” on the outside but quite different on the inside, “like a jewelry box, with a feeling of fantasy and being magical inside--lives pushed by the fantasy inside while they also deal with their reality.”
Gonchor said the jewelry box is “dark, wooden and carved but colorful inside--vibrant and with endless possibilities...just like there are endless possibilities for the girls.”
Helping Gonchor realize his possibilities were his colleagues on Little Women, supervising art director Chris Farmer and set decorator Claire Kaufman. This marked Gonchor’s first feature with Kaufman but the two had worked together before on many major commercials. Gonchor said of Kaufman’s work on Little Women, “She did a great job, has such really amazing taste, brought a lot of color and texture to the film--a lot of things that created a positive mood when necessary, and somber when necessary, which is not an easy thing to do. She brought a diverse range of looks to this movie from the publishing house in New York City in the 1860s to the cabin in the woods. She hit all the scales up and down, all the different looks.”
Gonchor had earlier worked with Farmer on the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “We were waiting for our schedules to line up again,” said Gonchor. “He has a great design sense. He put together and managed a great team and with a very difficult schedule pulled it all off. It was like having another production designer on board. He sees things in the same way I do, sometimes in a better way. He’s not just a ‘yes man.’ He gives me a great opinion and makes me a better production designer. We have a good time and that translates onto the screen.”
This is the 10th of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.