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