‘The Campaign’

Director Jay Roach Sticks With Politics in New Will Ferrell Film ‘The Campaign’

The director talks to Marlow Stern about his new political satire ‘The Campaign,’ Sarah Palin, Romney-Obama, and more.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Jay Roach, political film specialist?

Five years ago, in the wake of Roach directing the Austin Powers trilogy and a pair of Meet the Parents films, the label would have seemed like a stretch, to say the least. But after a pair of critically acclaimed HBO films—including Recount, about the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election, and Game Change, which focused on the 2008 U.S. presidential election (and Sarah Palin, in particular)—Roach has become the go-to guy for political movies.

His latest effort is The Campaign, which pits A-list comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis against one another as two dim-witted Southerners vying to represent their tiny North Carolina district in Congress.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Roach talks about his career sea change, his sympathy for Palin, how campaign mud-slinging and super PACs have damaged the political process, and more.

Were you always interested in politics?

I was a student politico in high school and I ran for everything—student senate, district student council, and “boy’s state” that was a model government thing. I campaigned hard and was probably a little Tracy Flick-ish. I had always wanted to be a lawyer and potentially go into politics, but when I was at school I began shooting still photographs and editing radio shows, and before I knew it, I was applying to film school. I didn’t intend to go into comedy, that’s for sure, so getting asked to do these political films was a return to an old yearning.

After the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents films, were you looking to go a different route as a director?

When Recount came up, I had been involved in another political film with Tom Hanks’s company on Mark Felt—or Deep Throat—and it got around that I was interested in politics. We’re still trying to make that one work and there’s already been All the President’s Men, so it’s hard to compete with that. I was interested in telling stories about our political system, which seems like it’s not exactly going the way any of the idealists among us want it to go. It’s therapeutic for me. And, as crazy as it’s gotten with some of the negative campaign trends, I think comedy is the right response to shining a different kind of light on the process.

With Game Change, did you ever hear back from the Palin or McCain camps on their reactions to the film?

We heard a lot from them about the time the film was released—they said they’d never see it but they hated it. But we never heard whether they saw it. The most I heard was Meghan McCain saying she thought her dad looked handsome. If Sarah Palin watched it, I would have loved to be there for the scene where Julianne Moore is watching Tina Fey portray her, so you’d have three Sarahs in the room.

What are your thoughts on Palin?

The more I learned the more I kind of related with her. I saw that she did start out in politics trying to do good things for her community and did take on oil companies in Alaska and had an idealism I could connect with. When she got thrust onto the national stage, it seemed like she had an anxiety and wasn’t ready to do it but had to pretend she was. The thing that was extraordinary to me was that John McCain’s campaign got to a place where they were so last-minute and wanted to win no matter what that they were willing to rush the vetting process and didn’t know what they were dealing with until 48 hours into it. This is the person who’s going to be second-in-command, so that is astonishing.

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In The Campaign, the mud-slinging gets more and more outrageous as the film progresses, culminating in a sex-tape advertisement. Were there any sabotage ideas that didn’t make the final cut?

The more we watched the GOP debates that were happening at the time we were shooting, the more we wondered if we even had enough in there. I remember reading that Rick Perry had C’s in college so it was being pushed by his people that it made him more like the “average person.” I tried to pitch a scene where the two guys competed to see who had the least amount of education: “I didn’t go to college,” “I dropped out of high school,” “I can barely read!” Even Rick Santorum tried to make going to college into a negative thing, and I just thought, man, in this WWE/Jerry Springer Show way, you can turn going to college into a negative thing. The great alchemy of campaign strategists is turning a really good thing into a bad thing, or if he’s a jerk candidate, a really bad thing into a good thing. I could make a comedy every year about that.

Did you get any other inspiration from the GOP debates?

I remember Herman Cain’s scandal came out and his poll numbers initially went up, so we put that in. Will Ferrell’s character is derived quite a bit from John Edwards with a little Anthony Weiner thrown in, too.

There also are not-so-subtle references in the film to the Obama “birthgate” controversy and the silly claims that he’s a Muslim.

Yeah, we have attack ads in the story where Zach’s character tries to convince the public that Will’s character wrote a communist manifesto in the second grade, and Will’s character claims Zach’s character is a terrorist because he won’t take a lie detector test to prove where he was on 9/11, plus he has facial hair so he might be a member of the Taliban. My favorite attack ad is the “Demon Sheep” one Carly Fiorina ran in 2010, where a guy is wearing a sheepskin outfit and on his hands and knees grazing in the grass with real sheep, and looks up and has these demon eyes. We put that right in the film. We honestly worried that we weren’t over-the-top enough. Nobody’s made a sex tape into a campaign ad yet, but we’re not too far off.

I know George W. Bush is the gold standard, but do you think Mitt Romney provides good comedic fodder?

I’m not sure. I know the Game Change authors, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, are working on another election book, and I think those guys are such great researchers and find the ironic angles on stories.

Are the Motch Brothers in The Campaign supposed to be the Koch Brothers?

Not entirely, but there are some obvious references to them. They’re brothers and industrialists, their name rhymes with the mispronunciation of the Koch Brothers, but they’re meant to stand for a composite of billionaires who want to buy influence.

What are your thoughts on rich people buying influence—specifically through super PACs.

I’m a patriot and I believe in democracy. It’s totally flawed, as a process, and it’s absolutely the best way to run a civilization—history has told us that. I just don’t know if it works best when it’s not run by the voters, by the people, instead of being overtaken by billions of dollars to the point where the average voter’s influence on the process is so greatly diminished by the amount of money that goes into running a campaign. I always wonder where the Abe Lincolns and Thomas Jeffersons are. Where are the great leaders and why don’t they run for office? I think it’s because if you don’t have access to tons of money you have no chance, and the money in part creates this environment where everything you do is turned into a negative and is under so much scrutiny.

Is that actually Uggie [from The Artist] in the film that gets punched?

It’s actually Uggie, but it’s true that no babies or dogs were hurt in the making of this film!

And lastly, what’s going on with Austin Powers 4?

It’s kind of up to Mike [Myers]. I completely defer to him when he thinks it’s the right time to do it, and we’ve talked about different ideas for 10 years. So far, we haven’t tracked the right story but he’s been more focused on it recently, so I think that’s why it keeps popping up.