Meet the director: Jay Roach Buy Tickets Directly
Meet the director: Jay Roach
At a conference table with comedian Mike Myers, producer Robert Shaye, and numerous studio executives, Myers- friend Jay Roach was making the case for why he should direct the comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Roach had never directed a feature film before. "Bob Shaye said, in front of all these people, "Who are you" There's no evidence you've directed anything. We're not just going to hire Mike's buddy,' " Roach told Pasatiempo. "I said, 'Mr. Shaye, I completely understand, and I would feel exactly the same way if I was in your position. But let me present you with a few things.' " Roach showed him a reel of scenes from the kinds of films that inspired Austin Powers, old spy and heist films from the 1960s, like the Matt Helm and Our Man Flint series' cleverly edited into a gag reel. He then showed him his storyboards for Austin Powers fembot sequence. "I suggested that Austin has this group of women robots he tries to seduce. They try to kill him with the guns popping out of their brassieres and he dances to seduce them and their heads explode. I got them laughing, and finally they said OK."
Roach, now a veteran comedy director, helmed both Austin Powers sequels as well as Meet the Parents (2000), Meet the Fockers (2004), and Mystery, Alaska (1999). He receives the American Director Award at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 22. His films Trumbo (2015) and Austin Powers (1997) screen at the Violet Crown Cinema on Oct. 22, and Recount (2008) screens on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Center for Contemporary Arts. A Masters Discussion with Roach on creativity, moderated by writer and producer Kirk Ellis, also takes place on Oct. 22 at the Jean Cocteau Cinema.
An Albuquerque native, Roach had no intention of being a filmmaker when he left New Mexico for Stanford University to pursue a degree in law. "That didn't last long. I started taking classes in still photography and working on radio documentaries. Before long, it became clear I wasn't going to go to law school. I applied to graduate film school at USC in Los Angeles, and I've been here ever since." Roach has also had some luck bringing projects to his home state of New Mexico. His Emmy-winning political drama Game Change (2012) is an example. "The Santa Fe locations double for John McCain's Sedona ranch," he said.
Comedy may be Roach's forte, but he has proved himself equally adept at drama. Recount, about the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was a Roach-directed film, as was the biographical political drama Trumbo and this year's All the Way, an HBO Films biopic on Lyndon B. Johnson. "One of the biggest jobs of a director is to get everybody to join this benign cult of whatever story you're working on," Roach said. "That's pretty much the same if you're doing comedy or drama. You want to be surrounded with the best possible collaborators in an environment where they can do their best work. Comedy is particularly difficult because, on top of all that, you're also trying to deliver hilarious moments and dialogue. I find comedy more stressful."
Roach added that comedy is more 'neurosis-making' than drama. "A couple of weeks before shooting, you?re pretty sure it?s terrible and not nearly funny enough," he said. "It's a common sensation among comedy directors." For Roach, when a film just doesn't seem all that funny, a lot can change in editing. On set, however, the best moments are often improvised- or appear to be improvised. "One of the pure joys of directing comedy is that good actors make it look like it's on the spot," he said. "When you work with Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, their brains seem to me like they're one or two clicks more engaged, particularly when they're all working together. When we were on the set of Meet the Fockers with Robert De Niro, Barbara Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman, they were all good improvisers- and not all of them are known for that. It's kind of magical being in a room where two or three or more brilliant improv comedians are lighting each other up. They get to a heightened state of consciousness, because they start being so quick and so funny. But we work with great writers, too, and a lot of what looks like it's improvised was just well-written in advance."
The real test for comedy comes at the first big public screening. For Roach, the audience's laughter makes all the challenges of directing comedy worthwhile. "It's a comedy director's heroin. That drug of an audience really having a blast- you'll always come back for another fix of that." As Austin Powers would say, "Yeah, baby!"
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