Fired by President Donald Trump in May 2017, former FBI Director James Comey’s first reaction to writer-director Billy Ray and producer Shane Salerno adapting his 2018 memoir was “Hell no,” he said in a recent live Washington Post Zoom interview. “I didn’t want to be part of such a thing. They talked me into it.”
Ray wrote “The Comey Rule” as a story about how heartbreaking it can be to be a public servant. It was because of that take that Comey finally agreed, after months of resisting, to give him the rights to adapt his “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” The resulting two-part limited series launched Sunday on Showtime.
On a certain level, Comey’s hesitation was understandable. “Start with the fact that the guy to play him was in ‘Dumb and Dumber,'” said Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”), who, in fact, brings his trademark decency and gravitas to the role. (He’s also 6’3″ to Comey’s 6’8″.)
But Ray wanted Daniels because “he brings instant credibility,” Ray said in a phone interview. “You know the guy’s telling you the truth. With someone as polarizing as Comey, that’s an important hire. Jeff is someone America already trusted.”
Equally important, Comey is quiet and contained; he’s got a poker face. “I needed to have an actor so confident that he wouldn’t be thrown by the fact Trump is the bells and whistles fireworks part in this show,” Ray said, “an actor who can trust his own stillness and quietude and know a lot of power in that.”
“The movie shows you what he’s thinking,” said Daniels, who listened to Comey read his own audiobook. “You put the thought in your head and show what he was thinking. I had so much, I could hear his voice in my head. We tried to show you him thinking about what to do, moment to moment. His decisions were so often between a rock and a hard place.”
According to Comey, his literary agents had to force him to include the most incendiary material in the book: his one-on-one meetings with Trump, who is played with powerful menace by Brendan Gleeson. “I didn’t want to write a book,” said Comey, who scribbled notes after each Trump meeting. “I wanted to leave the Trump stuff out…I wanted to share a message about institutional values, about these people and the values they represent in American life. I’m sensitive to criticism. I don’t like the narrative that I’m a showboat…the idea of a screen production of my book made me cringe.”
It turned out that Ray “had a lot to say about the Trump presidency,” he told me. “It was making me slightly crazy, the way he was talking about the Deep State, which is just a bunch of public servants who cared about their country and the apolitical intentions of its most important institutions. I was looking for a way to express this idea.”
Salerno told Comey that this was the way he could get his message to more young people than would ever read his bestseller. When Comey talked it over with his wife Patricia (played in the series by Jennifer Ehle), they decided to cooperate, after all, without conditions.
Comey chose the Oscar-nominated Ray (for the adapted screenplay for “Captain Phillips”) for the adaptation “because I knew he would tell the truth. I’m a human being. I have strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t care how I was portrayed. I wanted the institution shown in an honest way. There’s a whole lot flying around about the FBI; I knew Billy had a passion for truth. That’s what sold me.”
And Ray returns the compliment. During all the research and phone, email and in-person interviews that he did with dozens of players including Comey, he told me, he “has never said a word in public that has been proven false, ever, not even questionable. You can’t say that about Trump or [Michael] Flynn. He tells the truth. You may disagree with this interpretation of things, but that guy doesn’t lie, manipulate or spin.”
To diffuse some of the criticism about Comey, Ray has U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) lay out the showboating claim right at the top of the show. “I know people are conflicted about James Comey,” he told me. “Who better to preach that than Rod Rosenstein, because he’s the Salieri to Comey’s Mozart. He’s the guy who would like to be a leader but doesn’t have it. He’s the one who asks James Comey, ‘Please come talk to my team about leadership.'”
One criticism of “The Comey Rule” is that it glorifies Comey as a Washington do-gooder. “I never thought of it that way,” said Ray, who transitioned from movies to television with this series. “I never thought about how to make Comey into a hero. I thought, ‘Let’s put the world in Jim Comey’s shoes for five minutes, create a story, and go inside the rooms and the decisions he made that so profoundly affected the electorate.’
“We tell the truth and present the facts,” he said. “This is what Jim Comey was facing. Here were the facts, pressures, constraints, and political realities. ‘What would you have done?’ It’s not my way of saying he did the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s the thought process that went into those decisions, and the staff around him [most of whom have since left the FBI], challenging and/or amplifying those decisions. It was a noble process, the intentions of the process were pure.”
In fact, “The Comey Rule” refers to the ex-FBI chief’s Achilles heel. After all, he’s the executive who insisted on investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails on the eve of the presidential election that swung into Trump’s favor. As Ray was talking to people at the DOJ, one of them told him that they came up with that term, he said, “for when you have such a fierce belief in your own perspective that it supersedes the norms of the DOJ.”
After his research, Ray took a 144-page treatment to the networks, selling the project to CBS because it could go to either streamer CBS All-Access or premium cabler Showtime. The drama easily broke into two parts. Night One ends with the election of Trump, and Night Two starts with his taking office. “At the end of Night One we made the case there’s a shark in the water,” said Ray, “and as we go to break, our hero is in the water, ‘Now what’s going to happen?’ I thought a lot about ‘Jaws’ as we were making this: the decision to hold off on seeing the shark for as long as humanly possible, so that when you do, it really pops. You don’t see the shark until your hero does.”
Having directed two features (“Shattered Glass” and “Secret in Their Eyes”), Ray was eager to take the reins on the $40-million four-hour limited series after another director dropped out. In some ways it felt the same, he said. “I shot ‘Shattered Glass’ on a 28-day schedule and this was two movies on a 51-day schedule. We were moving faster,” he said.
How to handle the first dramatic interpretation of Trump caused some anxiety — it would be so easy to overplay him. “We’re not doing a cartoon version of Trump,” Ray said. “I feel if we portray him accurately, he is by definition cartoonish, so we made the decision to play him straight to the extent we could. His hair couldn’t be a joke even though the hair is as ridiculous as Trump, and his suits fit better. We did not do a ridiculous voice or mannerisms.”
And Trump makes a strong villain. Gleeson, who initially resisted accepting the role, does not dismiss him as stupid. “You’d never call a mob boss an idiot,” Ray said. “Brendan is a brilliant actor with incredible physicality. Most important, he’s fearless. He was worried [how it would be received.] That’s why he’s sitting in Dublin right now not doing press. He knows how much blowback there’s going to be. He’s hiding under a rock 8,000 miles from here.”
Comey got the shakes when he sat in a director’s chair on the set during the filming of his one-on-one dinner scene with Trump. “I was about to throw up on my shoes,” he said, “sitting in the dark as they recreated what I lived in a way I found very disturbing. I found it really difficult to relive…it hit me like a wave.”
He recalled how his mind raced as he asked himself, “‘How do I protect the FBI? What do I say?’ I was trying to maintain distance. ‘How do I do that now?’ Watching that scene, Jeff doesn’t say anything, but you can see the turmoil by looking at his eyes and the way he’s holding his jaw.”
“You’ve ruined my day,” he told Daniels. “You brought back the struggle, the awkwardness.”
“That’s my job in a nutshell,” Daniels said, “without saying a lot, to show you all that. If the guy I’m playing saw it, touchdown! I’m there.”
It was the plan to air late “The Comey Rule” in May or June, but some higher-ups at Showtime parent Viacom decided to air the series after the election. Ray objected, saying that the cast delivered spectacular performances, notably Daniels. After his letter of apology to his cast was leaked to The New York Times, Showtime redated the series. “We wanted the world to see the biggest number you can get,” Ray said, “to air it before the election was white hot, a lot of eyeballs. After it’s an historical artifact you don’t get as many.”
Comey remains surprised that 53 Republicans, members of U.S. Senate, “took the oath to support the Constitution and twisted it,” he said, referring to the vote on the second count of impeachment towards Trump, that of Obstruction of Congress. “They told themselves a story, that ‘the American people need me, and if I stand up, I might lose a primary, or deprive the American people of my services.’ We have to remember what goes on so that it isn’t repeated.”
In case anyone was wondering, Comey is endorsing Joe Biden. “A new Attorney General will work to restore commitment to values,” he said.
“The rule of law is on the ballot as well,” Daniels said. “If we don’t have that we are no longer the America we keep telling everybody that we are.”
“The Comey Rule” airs its second episode Monday, September 28 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime. The limited series will then be available to stream in full on Showtime.