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Golden Globe, SAG Nominee Bryan Cranston Explains How ‘Trumbo”s True Hollywood Blacklist Story Got Made

Golden Globe, SAG Nominee Bryan Cranston Explains How 'Trumbo''s True Hollywood Blacklist Story Got Made

Many of us think we know the history of the Hollywood blacklist, but given that hundreds of people in the ’50s during the McCarthy era were targeted and prevented from working because of their leftist politics, there are multiple stories to tell. Screenwriter John McNamara (TV’s “Lois and Clark”) decided to focus on the Hollywood blacklist through the eyes of its most flamboyant and gifted victim: Oscar-winner Dalton Trumbo, whose drive to write and survive helped to break the work boycott—which lasted from November, 1947, when the Hollywood Ten were sent to prison, until 1960—with help from both German director Otto Preminger (“Exodus”) and Kirk Douglas (“Spartacus”).

McNamara first learned of Dalton Trumbo from his NYU professor Ian McLellan Hunter 31 years ago, when he confessed that he had not written “Roman Holiday,” and turned him on to the book about Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook. It only took 31 years to make it into a movie.

Producer Michael London (“The Visitor”) picked up the development of the script and brought on Jay Roach, known for his Hollywood comedies (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents”) and Emmy-winning HBO ripped-from-the-headlines movies “Game Change,” starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, and “Recount,” about the Florida aftermath of the contested Bush vs. Gore election. When Roach came on, he reduced the role of John Wayne as chief villain, beefed up gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (memorably incarnated by Helen Mirren) and found a way to play with multiple formats: he degraded modern film, blew-up older film, and nabbed permission to use “Spartacus.”

Bleecker Street released the movie November 6 to strong box office; now, the distributor has led the film to three Screen Actors Guild nominations—Best Ensemble, Actor Cranston, and Supporting Actress Mirren—and two Golden Globe nominations, one each for its headlining stars. 

I spoke to writer McNamara as well as actor Cranston and director Roach, who are currently shooting “All the Way,” a movie version of Cranston’s Tony-winning Broadway play about a different order of larger-than-life liberal, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The president was in some ways similar to Trumbo, Cranston told me: “Both men are extremely good at what they do, and tremendously ambitious. Both are funny, storytellers, can hold court, entertain, manipulate, massage, and irritate, and both can be very irascible. They both share a need to be respected and loved and get approval.”

“Trumbo was born in Colorado, from very humble means,” Cranston said. “He tried college, moved to California with the family early on, worked in the bakery, and, as a young man, formed a strike in the bakery to get a nickel more per hour, and it wasn’t unionized; he convinced everybody that, individually, no one has power. That it’s collective. They were grossly underpaid and brought the bakery to a halt. He got his start writing coverage for the studios early on, kept up with that, and then got some freelance work for magazines until he found his place in writing screenplays.”

Anne Thompson: When I look at “Trumbo,” I wonder about the circumstances that made it possible, and if it could ever happen again.

John McNamara: The Congress then was not only corrupt, but they were actually shrewd and smart — and thank God they’re not now. I fear that if someone as smart as Richard Nixon ends up in Congress again, then, yes, it could.
Bryan Cranston: There are examples of this type of behavior happening now. Look at the Benghazi hearings: spending millions of dollars and months of months of time to try to weed out some sort of conspiracy, and finding nothing.
I thought I knew about the blacklist, but I realized I didn’t know much at all.
Cranston: Even those of us in this business know a cursory amount, at least what the blacklist was, and you might know a few names on that list and what happened to them, or perhaps what they wrote. I was woefully uninformed about it. I had the luxury of being able to do the research and have a plethora of source material to be able to listen to and read. The more you learn about it, the more you realize how frightening it was.
Why make Trumbo your central character?
McNamara: Because it’s the only blacklist story with a happy ending, and that’s because of him. A friend of mine, Kevin Brown, saw that book on my bookshelf one day, about eight years ago, and said, “Oh, I knew him.” I said, “You knew Dalton Trumbo?!” He said, “No, Bruce Cook. Who’s Dalton Trumbo?” It took about 11 minutes to tell the story from 1947-1970, and Kevin said, “That’s a movie.” I strongly disagreed, because there were no superheroes. But Kevin said it had a great protagonist, a great antagonist, high stakes, and a happy ending. I said, “You motherfucker. I’m going to spend seven years to write this thing.”

Jay Roach: Because I love the guy. The tone might surprise some people. Some people go, “Oh, I thought this was going to be something more historical, something more militant, more whatever,” but it is authentic, purely, to me, to who Trumbo was. Just as I’ve tried to do in every film, every decision that I’ve made about casting, sets, costumes, the way the camera moves, to me, is driven by a desire to be as authentic as I can to the soul from whose point-of-view I’m telling.

Why did this need to be a theatrical feature and not another HBO project?

Roach: First of all, I thought the scope of what he went through — the span, the epic sweep — because he goes from being the highest-paid screenwriter in the business, with the best contract: the only writer who had a contract that had no morals clause in it. We know that, because he sued and won against MGM, who fired him because of the blacklist, without thinking that they can’t fire someone for that unless they have a morals clause built in, which says, “You’re not allowed to have an ethical system which makes you controversial.” He had that taken out. He made $75,000 a year, at the time, which is an astronomical sum for a writer like him. And he was nominated for an Academy Award on “Kitty Foyle.” He had access to all the best actors for one of his scripts, and the best directors.

So you couldn’t have a guy more in his prime, more set up to just continue writing hit movie after hit movie. Suddenly he’s a traitor and an enemy of the state, forced to stop, says “hold on,” and doesn’t go to jail for his political beliefs in particular, but for saying, “You can’t ask me about my political beliefs, because it’s not constitutional.” 

He sells his house, but begs for work from people like Frank King [John Goodman], at the lowest low of the production scale. When I came out of film school, I worked for Roger Corman. It’d be like shooting B-camera on “Slumber Party Massacre.” He was begging for work as a screenwriter with people like them, they pay him very little money, but he ends up writing good stuff, wins an Academy Award. They had no idea they’d get such a great writer and also win an Academy Award for “The Brave One.”

What makes it so deeply cinematic for me is how he takes a whole gang of movie writers and helps them coordinate into a black-market enterprise — almost in a heist-movie way. They’re using different names, they have the phones all set up, they’re answering the door, they pretend to be different people. He has people accusing him of being greedy, of being a sell-out, of being a traitor to their cause because he won’t come out and openly defend his point-of-view — won’t even say if he’s in the communist party or not.

So he’s pulled in all different directions and keeps going, all the way to the point where he wins two Academy Awards, helps a lot of his friends get work, and starts writing for Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger at the same time! Plays them off of each other, to compete a bit to see whose name comes out. Preminger gets the jump on him, but Douglas does this incredibly risky and heroic thing: they fired the director who Kubrick replaced. It was a giant bomb waiting to happen if they didn’t figure it out, so he says, “I know: let’s put an ex-communist on the film, and let’s credit him.” The least-commercial choice you could make.

And he was a big-enough movie star to get away with it.

Roach: But Preminger had something similar to the morals clause thing; he had even more freedom than Kirk Douglas. He wasn’t duty-bound to follow a studio-mandated thing. He had an independent contract on “Exodus,” where he could do anything he wanted. He made the choice, but he didn’t risk nearly as much as Kirk Douglas. That’s a movie. 

It’s really different from the HBO films, too, in that those films were really about the political process. “Recount” couldn’t be more about the political process; “Game Change” is about choices one makes backstage in setting up a political thing. To me, Trumbo was just a great character. There happened to be a political thing he got caught up in, but, to me, it’s much more about a man and his family, who are trying to figure out how to survive this sudden persecution — prosecution, too — and turn it into something. So, to me, it’s an underdog story. It’s also a free-speech story, so I don’t see it as a left-right thing, the way those other films could be interpreted. To me, my favorite films are the ones with a local soul at stake, like in a classic-drama sense. 

There were a host of villains, and you picked two: Hedda Hopper and John Wayne.
McNamara: In the draft that Jay committed to, there was no Hedda Hopper; it was just John Wayne. Jay said to me, “The antagonist is the greatest American icon of the right wing in the 20th century. Pick one more.” And I remember, from my research, that there was one person John Wayne was afraid of: Hedda Hopper. So, when I pitched that to Jay, he said, “That’s it.” And that’s how it came to be. It was really Jay’s prodding.

Roach: John, great writer that he is, did research and came up with someone much more zealous and outspoken in this particular aspect, and was such a big part of the founding of the [Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals] MPA, which even started before the war, but they invited [The House Un-American Activities Committee] HUAC. This group of filmmakers, who were concerned with communist influence, created an organization and they figured out that they couldn’t do it on their own, and invited a congressional investigation. 

They wrote a letter to a congressman and said, “You better come to Hollywood. If you want to figure out how Americans are being affected by these bad ideas, come and investigate us.” So the MPA was a small, but very vocal group. I want to say it was somewhere between 75-125 people, and we figured out that Hedda had been there. John Wayne was president for two or three terms, right around this time. But she was the voice of it, in a lot of ways, and she was so flamboyant.

She was very driven and very zealous. She had a gossip column that she would sometimes spend 80% of making a political rant. She was also very active in helping form the MPA. Along with Ward Bond and Ayn Rand, she wrote the manifesto, and, within the first few years, Walt Disney, Sam Woods, a whole slew of people had decided — partly based on the labor strikes that occurred both for writers but also for set painters. They painted targets on themselves by being so pro-worker, pro-union.

There was an interesting overlap with the rabble-rousers who were helping unions at the time, who mostly became the Hollywood Ten. They subpoenaed nineteen, but the ten they actually called to the hearings almost exclusively were among those guys who either had been involved in those strikes or had been involved in a fight between the WGA and a more studio-friendly writers union; there was a big fight between those two.
Hopper got tangled up with that because she was such close friends with people like Ward Bond and Frank Brewer, the IA guy who we portray being chased around the office by Frank King (John Goodman’s character). They all decided that they, alone, in a way, understood the threat of this infiltration of Hollywood by communist subversives who would use mainstream movies to hypnotize Americans to somehow become less patriotic or more aligned with “The Communist Manifesto.”

Hedda Hopper is a great character because she’s hugely entertaining. You had the job of creating atmosphere without letting it get too heavy.

Roach: Yes. She knew how, in an almost Donald Trump way, to use theatricality, to use larger-than-life appearance — big, theatrical hats and these beautiful clothes; our wardrobe guy had a blast dressing her — but there is an absurdity and almost a campiness to her outward performance. In a way, she knew she could come across as strident, zealous, dogmatic if she didn’t have something else going on. And that’s what I love about the layers of her character: she was very shrewd in picking a kind of quirky, saucy persona that she could project right on the outside while she was cutting right at the heart of the very, very political, sharp-edged — in her case, right-wing — messaging. She, in a way, was a propagandist. She was crafty; she’d been an actress for a long time. So she knew how to make an impression, and that level of seriousness — mixed with a little of the absurdity and the larger-than-lifeness — were also true of Trumbo.

I like how John Wayne isn’t just a stock figure.

Roach: The distinction between Wayne and Hedda is that he wasn’t stupid and also had a heart. He really believed he was helping America. He really believed — as did 60% of the country — that we were already in World War III by 1950. Hedda and John Wayne were tapped into a full-on populist sentiment, and certainly fear had been whipped up to get people to turn on each other, certainly in Hollywood. But it wasn’t an extremist point of view, and Wayne felt that he and his peers were in jeopardy if they allowed themselves to get tarred with this sentiment that lefties had taken over this great American institution of movies. He was actually trying to protect the industry. She thought she was, too; she also believed, “Once a commie, always a commie.” Just two weeks before she died, she fought to not let Charlie Chaplin back in the country — to her deathbed, she was that zealous. John Wayne would go the other way and let somebody, like Eddie Robinson, off the hook if he would just give a kind of pledge of patriotism or try to rehabilitate himself. That’s the difference between the two.

McNamara: If you look back on it, he was to the right of center, but not as far right as Hedda.
How did Trumbo’s family help you?
Cranston: They were extremely important. Whenever you’re tackling a non-fiction character, you have the added responsibility of getting the essence of that character, and this character was in the recent past, so you have the added anxiety of knowing that family members, friends, colleagues of his are still alive and will be watching this. John developed a relationship with the oldest, Niki, and Mitzi, and even in their separate ways, at the time they were giving separate accounts. Naturally, they would, because of their age difference, they had a different experience and point-of-view. I contacted them and they were extremely helpful, and I said, “I don’t want to do an impersonation of your father, but he was very dramatic. With the bird and the cigarette holder…” She said, “Oh, my God, he was a chain smoker who lit one from the other, popped pills, drank to stay awake.”
He did it all in the bathtub.
Cranston: Well, there’s actually a pragmatic reason for that: he had such a terrible back from hunting and pecking throughout his life that he was strongly recommended by physicians to soak in a hot bath every day for 90 minutes to two hours. Well, he wasn’t about to spend that much time luxuriating! So he brought the work to him; that’s how he did it.

Roach: Because of my experience with “Recount” and “Game Change,” I got so much out of going to the actual people, straight to the source of people who’d been there, saying, “Tell me everything.” When you talk to the real people who’ve been involved, the stuff they tell you is often so much better, and with so many more layers, than stuff you could invent. So we went and talked to the daughters together.
 The family life is great. It gives you lots of things to identify with.

McNamara: Both sisters were dubious at first, and really, maybe didn’t believe they were going to be listened to, or that their input was going to result in rewrites — but it did. As Bryan mentioned, Niki and I are very, very close friends now. She’s wonderful. I mean, all of Niki’s scenes really come from Niki.

Cranston: Dalton was very ambitious, very driven. He was a workaholic. As the kids told me, as I asked, “Any family vacation memories?” And they laughed. Mitzi was laughing, “We never went on vacation!” There was an earlier iteration of the script where he takes them to get ice cream. 

McNamara: They were like, “Are you kidding me?” My favorite moment, which I couldn’t fit into the script because this happened in the ‘30s: he declared bankruptcy his first year as a writer at Warner Bros., because he spent more than he made. He went to bankruptcy court in a chauffeured limousine.

Trumbo is both communist and capitalist!
Cranston: He’s not really a communist. He was a member of the Communist party, but he was a socialist. He loved being wealthy. He was a terrible wealthy person, though. As you saw, he couldn’t keep money: he gave it away, he bought things, he got the latest typewriter as soon as it came on the market. He had tremendous compassion for people, and that was his goal: joining the party was part of the idea of trying to establish a political wing for unions, that they would have a voice in Washington.
So that was the whole point of doing it. But the fear mongers were very successful in combining “communist, Stalin, Russia, killer, American Communist Party, communists taking over the world, that’s what they all want to do.” And it’s like, “Whoa! Wait a minute!” And the explosion of the American Communist Party happened as a result of the Depression, when not many people had jobs, and it was actually a viable thought. “Would this work? Would a communist regime work, where people are all sharing and contributing? Maybe.” It works in small constructs — in a kibbutz, it works perfectly. The point was that he had an opinion, and he went to prison because he had a thought, he had an opinion. There was no crime committed; they were not pleased by the answers they were getting.
He should have been protected by freedom of speech.
Cranston: He thought the 1st Amendment would protect him.

Roach: We think of those protections as carved in stone — the Bill of Rights, the right to freedom of speech, the right to associate politically with whoever you want to. But aren’t they potentially more fragile than we think? Once there is a real, external threat… in this case, there was. The Soviet Union was intent on crushing America; obviously that’s for real. In the same way that, today, terrorism is for real; ISIS is for real. But to spread a bad idea like, “All Muslims are terrorists,” or, “All lefties are communists.” That’s an old chestnut that we go to over and over again. “Obama’s a socialist.”

So the whole idea of, “Anyone we don’t like is a communist,” now anyone who’s coming over the border from Mexico or of the same religion as terrorists are bad ideas that are easy to spread if you can just get people to focus on what they’re afraid of. Which is what Trump is doing. I’m sure it happens on both sides, but that is the current example of it.

It’s what the Constitution foresaw: the framers foresaw that there would be temptations to have the majority be manipulatable through fear-based propaganda, and the minority should have outward protection. The Bill of Rights was created for that. It’s not created to protect popular speech; it’s created to protect unpopular speech. This was an unpopular idea, the idea that workers of the world should unite. Totally understandable. And it was associated with a totalitarian threat. But it was still a protected idea, a protected behavior. Trumbo and those guys were not a threat to the world or plotting to overthrow the United States. Most of those guys were progressives who joined the Communist party; Trumbo joined in ’43, while we were allied with a communist country. Party in response to fascism, partly in response to Great Depression and rampant, runaway capitalism, and partly because they were smart-ass rebels who were thumbing their nose at the power structure. He did join the Communist party, but he had a right to; it wasn’t illegal. He had a right to not talk about it, and the thing that always gets me is, for example, he had a right to not divulge his union membership. The Founders had fought to protect those things.

When you looked at Trumbo’s movies, what did you learn from them? Because his values are in his movies?
Cranston: Well, very much so, but there are also pictures like “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” and whimsy with “Roman Holiday,” and romance. There’s righteousness with “Spartacus.” It goes on and on. There are fun movies, adventure movies. When he was writing under a pseudonym, he wrote “Gun Crazy” and all kinds of movies.

Roach: Unlike some of the other Hollywood guys, combined into the Louis CK character, who were more hard-lined and truly looking for a way to turn our system upside down, Trumbo was, at heart, a storyteller, an entertainer, and certainly a preacher in a way, as well. His films were a little preachy. I watched “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes,” the Edward G. Robinson movie, and it’s very heartland, American values, but kind of preachy. Look at “Spartacus”: that makes a very strong statement against informers. That may be, in a way, the most subversive film he ever made, because slaves throwing spears at the palace? We reenacted that scene, in a way, or intercut our Kirk Douglas with a real Kirk Douglas.

McNamara: It is a collectivist, communist work. The bad guys are all rich, the good guys are all poor, and they achieve their goals by having a revolution.
Cranston: And they stick together!
Did it take a major movie star who was also a producer to break the blacklist? Did it have to be someone so powerful?
Cranston: Well, Kirk Douglas was very much on the vanguard of this, and he had a lot at stake in doing it. He put up his own money, he risked being ostracized and losing his own career. During the process of making “Spartacus,” he had an epiphany of, “What the hell am I doing? The very point of this movie is connected to the writer that I want writing this.”

And he did a very courageous thing, and he very much has a strong responsibility to the destruction of the blacklist. Otto Preminger was in a different camp: he had total control, and no studio could tell him what to do at any time on any element, so it was a singular decision. I don’t know if it’s as much courageous as it is righteous from his standpoint. And all the other writers, who we were, unfortunately, not able to point up and discuss alongside Dalton.

Did you get Douglas’ input into the script?
Cranston: I saw Kirk recently — after he saw the movie. He said, “I just have one complaint.” And I’m bracing myself for Kirk. He said, “Why didn’t you get me to play Kirk Douglas?” [Audience laughs]
McNamara: I have a similar story from two years ago, when we sent him the script. He said to the producer, “I want to give the writer notes.” I’m like, “Oh, my God.” So I go to his house with the director and producers, and he says, “Which one of you is the writer?” He goes, “I love the Kirk Douglas character.” I said, “Thanks.” He said, “Why aren’t I on page one?” I said, “Well, I did my research, and in 1947 you were still on Broadway. You hadn’t come to Hollywood.” He just waved and went on to the next note.
You have to take this very dense history and not make it a history lesson. How do you do that?
McNamara: Just channel Trumbo. Trumbo had fun doing what he did. He was a prankster, in many ways, and the letters are amazing. My favorite of his letters from the blacklist was to a contractor, and the letter begins, “Dear Burglars…” How do you not love the man who writes that letter? His attitude was the same at the depths of the blacklist, and his attitude informed the movie. In the scene with Trumbo and Otto where, “If every scene is brilliant…” That is 100% him in an interview recounting working with Preminger. And I thought, while I was typing the scene, “These guys are like literally an inch away from being subpoenaed and jailed, and they’re joking around.” That’s the whole movie, because that’s who they were.

Why was Cranston the right casting?

Roach: I’ll tell you what it is: Trumbo is a very flamboyant, theatrical man. He wrote these incredible letters to his family and friends. I saw the documentary on him, which is not only filled with facts, but with famous people reading his letters — Nathan Lane, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland. A whole slew of amazing people. They’re incredibly opinionated, bombastic, profane. He wrote a letter to his son in his first year of college, and sent him a book on gambling and sex education. He devotes the whole letter to masturbation, and trying to convince him not to feel guilty, and telling his own connection to masturbation. He signs it: “From the masturbators masturbator, your father, Dalton Trumbo.”

In real life, there’s a lot of Bryan in Trumbo. All I had to do was see him in “All the Way,” which I’m doing right now. His Lyndon Johnson was the right scale. He was so much larger than life than characters I’ve got to work with before. Once I saw that and once I saw that Bryan was committed to playing the full range of a guy who’s very serious, very zealous, but also one of the funniest, most profane, most smart-ass, sometimes obnoxious people… and then I heard the eulogies at his memorial. All of those writers were incredibly witty, and they used wit and a sense of irony, ultimately, to write some of the best scripts written during the blacklist, win Academy Awards, and embarrass the studios through their sense of humor, wit, and irony, to the point that it was ridiculous.

By the time Kirk Douglas had made the choice to put him on “Spartacus,” it was so blown apart by the contrast of their relentless witch-hunt thing — which turned up nothing — and this incredible pool of talent and storytelling ability that created some of the best work of that period. Again, Trumbo won two Academy Awards and writes “Spartacus.” That’s an amazing film. The pure meaning and entertainment combined, the guy who could do that… once we thought of Bryan and he committed to that range of expression, obviously I’ve never thought of anybody since then.

I was also moved by Edward G. Robinson, who’s played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg.
McNamara: As any actor can relate to, he says, “This is my work. I have no one else to be.” It was one of the first scenes I wrote in the movie. When I started writing, I wrote the scenes out-of-order. That scene and the Frank King baseball bat scene were the first two I wrote. Stuhlbarg shows how far the movie can go in terms of pathos and comedy. But I had great, huge empathy for Robinson, not least of which is that I’m a huge fan. He’s a wonderful actor, and what a terrible, terrible choice he had to make. 

That character is the soul at stake in this story. Trumbo is pretty clear on who he is, and he goes to jail for it. He loses his career over it, and he takes on the whole system without really ever changing all that much. Robinson is a tragic predicament, where he really means well. He’s actually very much in favor of The Ten, he’s pro-Freedom of Speech, he’s a liberal, he helps them. He actually lent money for their legal fight, as we portray.

But, as we show in the film, he can’t hide behind pseudonyms and fronts; his face is his work. So he gets completely shut down. He even does a year-long tour of a play that is incredibly patriotic just to try to earn his way back in. He says, “No, I won’t testify. I won’t name names” for years, but he goes back four or five times, and he finally does. He finally names names of people that, he’s quick to point out, they already knew, but even by cooperating, he made so many enemies on the other side. I like working on a movie where every character could have his own movie. Hedda Hopper, or any of the Hollywood Ten, or John Wayne, or Kirk Douglas.

What was the hardest scene to perform, the one that kept you up at night?
Cranston: Well, any time you’re buck naked in front of people [Audience laughs] with a 60-year-old dad bod and white, pasty ass… [Audience laughs] Some people might be concerned with that. We shot it as full-on, frontal, backal, everything, and it was interesting. Jay and I talked about it, and he said, “The important thing here is that he’s not going to a country club. He’s lost his physical freedom and dignity. How do we convey that?” Well, strip any man down to nothing and subject him to cavity searches. And that dialogue that was in there as well.
Yeah, it was tough. It was tough to do, and when I’m in an embarrassing situation, I usually have a default mechanism to humor to offset my personal embarrassment. So I was actually in a cage with four other men, all naked. Here’s the interesting thing: I know I have to do this because it’s important, visually, for the story. It’s an important component for the story. On the day, I said, “Who’s going to be with us?” They go, “We’ll find them on a casting list.” I said, “Oh that’s not going to happen. Who responds to, ‘Who wants to be totally naked and get a background paycheck?’” Dozens of hands go up! You’ve got to be kidding me!

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