Charles Randolph is the screenwriter behind one of the buzziest new films out now, “Bombshell,” about the Fox News sexual harassment scandal that took down Roger Ailes. Randolph is a previous Oscar winner for writing “The Big Short” alongside Adam McKay.
Randolph recently spoke with Gold Derby associate editor Zach Laws about centering the story on Fox News, working with the likes of Jay Roach, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie and what he hopes people take from the film. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Charles, it’s interesting hearing some of the reactions to this movie which is kind of along the lines of, “I can’t believe that I’m sympathizing with a Fox News anchor.” Was that a difficult challenge for you as a writer to, I don’t wanna say humanize these people, but to make liberal audiences feel inclined to root for them?
Charles Randolph: It was, yeah. I think we knew from the beginning that there would be a lot of people who just didn’t wanna get involved with this story of women from that world. So I guess the strategy was to make them function differently so that Megyn [Kelly] is our narrative center, she takes us through the world, Gretchen [Carlson]’s our moral center, her moral choices structure how we see that world, and Kayla’s our emotional center, the one we identify with the most. I love that reaction. “Why did you make me identify with Megyn Kelly?” But that’s not a bug, that’s a feature, for a couple reasons. One is it shows that this world is beyond partisan politics, without question. No woman deserves to be harassed, even if your worst understanding of her politics was true. But also, by having these women you think you know, coming into the theater with that baggage, I can start to play with that a little bit and I can start by getting you to laugh at them, and if I can get you to laugh at them, then I can get you to laugh with them, and if I get you to laugh with them, then I can make them break your heart. So part of it is choosing these least likely feminists on the planet, that’s more true of Megyn than Gretchen, but I can thread the narrative through in a way that surprises you and entertains. They’re such wonderfully quirky, unusual, contradictory people anyway, so that helps a lot. It’s more cinematic to have someone who is extremely ambitious, a little complicated, make a good moral choice and a strong choice than it is from someone we expect that to come from, because that’s their ideological leaning.
GD: Right, it is this interesting dichotomy because this is the story that pretty much kicked off MeToo and it was kicked off by these women who you would not think of as feminist allies. There’s a lot of intensive research that I’m sure had to go into the writing of this so I wanna ask you about what did you look at in order to begin crafting this story?
CR: Nobody was more shocked than me that a story of feminist determination came from within Fox, so obviously you wanna dive into it, you wanna figure out why and how that happened. There were a lot of people willing to tell their story, there were about 20 people that I or Jay talked to or we talked together over the course of production, but initially, I didn’t start there. I started with the narratives that existed. There was some great journalist done by people like Gabe Sherman or Sarah Ellison. Her piece in “Vanity Fair” was particularly helpful, I found. And then people wrote books. Megyn Kelly wrote a very honest book. Gretchen Carlson wrote a book. There was a lot of information in the marketplace, so to speak, to draw on and then there were court affidavits and other things. There was no shortage of information, which really was a question of how I was gonna structure it. I landed on the three women relatively early because they could, as I say, fulfill different roles in the story. One could be our narrative center, one could be our moral center and one could be our emotional center.
GD: Quite literally Megyn Kelly is the narrative center ‘cause she’s tasked with having to give so much exposition early on in the movie and quite literally be our narrator. How did that decision come about?
CR: The thing I believe is that anytime you’re playing with meta stuff, where you’re breaking the fourth wall or having people talk to camera or doing voiceover, it needs to have a function and it needs to be a solution that that device is the only available solution. The complexity of “Big Short” required that you just stop and explain these things and remind people of things. The case here was slightly different in the sense that there were a lot of ideological minefields to navigate, so it was really a matter of figuring out who it was that you wanted to focus on and let them drive a certain portion of the story. The idea was always to do the story of the women and to only see Roger refracted through their experiences.
GD: I have to wonder also, as a man writing this script that is so much about the experience of women and such a personal experience for so many women, was that a difficult challenge for you?
CR: Yeah, although I will say there was a lot of really brave, courageous women who stepped forward and said, “Here’s my story, and here’s my story in absolute granular, emotionally heart-wrenching detail.” It was helpful to be able to draw on those narratives and have those conversations. It was difficult on an emotional level. It wasn’t difficult on a content level because there were so many people willing to talk. So you had, for example, with Roger Ailes’ sexual pathology for lack of a better word, you have a very clear sense of what that was. The narratives were not dissimilar amongst the women who had experience with him in terms of how he would approach things. You would get new information. You would get new details like the way he would, with very young women in a certain period in his career, do this thing about the gender card, “I don’t know if women can be good interviewers. Women lack that killer instinct. I don’t know if you have that kind of drive. Can you show me that kind of drive?” And he would try that approach to get women in a position where they felt they had to prove to him they were capable of transgressing the rules of proper corporate behavior, for lack of a better way of putting it. I felt really confident about the stories that people were telling, both in their affidavits and in the press. In some ways, Roger himself was a little harder to write because his own dialogue tended to be a little on the nose. It tended to be a little predictable and not very interesting conservative talking points. So I had to cheat a little bit. You’ll notice it’s a little bit more libertarian than it is actually social conservative in some ways. I think the example I always use is the comment section of Marginal Revolution proved more helpful than actual historical tape of Roger talking.
GD: I was really interested in the way that you portrayed him because on the one hand, he was this monster who did these horrible things to these women, but at the same time, you have to understand why it is that so many of these women would’ve continued working with him for so long and why somebody like Megyn Kelly would’ve felt this sense of loyalty to him to not speak out. Was that a difficult thing to balance?
CR: It wasn’t difficult, but it was important. The guy sitting in his office twirling his mustache is not the harasser who’s gonna devastate your life, necessarily. It’d be the friend who you think you have who turned you during a business trip. It would be the mentor who suddenly introduces this new agenda. Part of it was finding a way to do these scenarios that was humanizing and in humanizing him, we make him more powerful and more scary. The cartoony-ness of some of those portrayals of harassers never really captures quite how the power dynamic works and how subtle it can be. It’s interesting. Often when you see harassment narratives, there’s a tendency to try to make them assault narratives because that’s just the instinct that people wanna go to to make it more dramatic. But actually, there’s plenty of drama in just words and the way that these guys will use manipulation and language to try and achieve what they want and I hope we captured that in the film. We certainly tried to. But yeah, I think it’s very important that every human being in any movie is human and fully realized, because that makes them more terrifying. It makes them more interesting and also helps us understand the underlying problem in a more accurate way.
GD: I don’t wanna necessarily spoil it for people who haven’t seen it yet, but there is one scene in the movie that made me more uncomfortable than anything else I’ve seen in a movie this year. I think you and Jay Roach definitely achieved what you were going for in that regard.
CR: I’m glad to hear that ‘cause obviously our agenda is putting men in that room and helping men see that a scene on paper you could dismiss if you wanted to, could be utterly life-changing for a woman and can be surreal and complicated. That’s what that scene’s there to do is to help you see not only how that dynamic works, how that power works, how that manipulation works but to put men inside of a woman’s heart and head in a way that shows this is far more complicated than we allow.
GD: I wanted to ask you about working with Jay Roach and what that collaboration was like. What did he bring to the project?
CR: What does he bring, such a jerk, he’s always so mean to everybody (laughs). Jay is just so lovely and he’s so collaborative. I’ve worked with a lot of guys and movies that got made and movies that didn’t get made. He’s just fantastic. He really wants to get it right. My job as the writer is to always try to give the director everything they need ‘cause it’s gonna have to come out of their soul at a certain point. He’s so respectful of always trying to make sure that he got exactly my intent and if it differed from his intent that we were in dialogue. So Jay’s ability to collaborate not just with me but with everyone on the set was phenomenal. But also he’s got a very astute sense of human psychology. He’s a very smart man. He’s been down the docudrama road a few times so those components of the film, we were in sure hands with for sure. He also has a good feeling for absurdity and comedy. I think for me, above all his films, this is the one that marries those two skills the best. He was a delight. Always a delight every day.
GD: I have to also ask you about working with Charlize Theron, not just as an actress in the film but also as a producer. She serves a very crucial role in the making of this movie. So talk a bit about her.
CR: Charlize is fierce. She’s extremely courageous. So crazy smart. It’s interesting, something that writers and directors do that we often don’t think about is good actors are exposed to a lot more of the process than we are. Charlize will do two marketing campaigns at least a year, or three sometimes. She’ll build two or three characters a year and there’s a wealth of experience that a great actor has that if you borrow on it and they’re willing to share it can be terrifically helpful in the producing process. So Charlize having twice as much experience in some ways as Jay and I, she’s capable of heading off a lot of problems and solving a lot of problems quickly and very efficiently. Charlize is a no-bullshit person. Charlize likes to get things done and get them done quickly. That, as a producing partner, is phenomenal. The other thing obviously is as a man, there’s limits to what I can understand, limits to what Jay can understand, and having someone whose taste we trust and whose intent we trust to guide us and portray these characters and as we capture them in terms of being the ultimate arbitrator of delicate moments was terrifically helpful.
GD: I have to assume that extended to Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie as well, that ability to help you guys understand what was authentic and what was true and all that.
CR: Part of the reason you hire phenomenal actors is so that they can take control of the character and embody the character in a way that you might not with somebody who’s just starting out. They become the authority on the character and I think Jay would say this as well. Those three women did that extremely well, and differently, which was interesting. Nicole had this determination with Gretchen that because Gretchen’s a whistleblower who gets fired from Fox and has to leave the movie, technically, halfway through, that we not let her get lost and insisted that we continue to service her story so that the audience could feel what she was going through but also so the film didn’t do to her what Fox did to her, which was let her get dismissed in the chaos of Ailes’ firing. So we ended up doing a reshooting day essentially because Nicole really convinced us how necessary that was in the back half of the film that she have a strong emotional presence. Margot is very bookish. Margot is a nerd in some ways. Her ability is to drill down and to do research and to think through like an anthropologist because she’s obviously not American so for her, Fox News is not something that she had any strong sense of, but to really understand a complete world and a completely different way of being quickly was really impressive. She ended up going to a megachurch and bringing back notes and that kind of thing. This curiosity that Margot possesses really served us well. She loves experience, she loves to do things and she’s out in the world, she has interesting friends, she loves going places and I think that really served this character well because she was willing to embody something that an American actress would’ve been less comfortable doing. That character as an Evangelical is a little unique. She’s morally very sincere, ideologically quite didactic and at the same time she’s sexually fluid. That’s a weird mix and Margot just embraced that in totality.
GD: You mentioned “The Big Short” earlier. That was a film that won you an Academy Award for screenwriting along with Adam McKay. What did that recognition mean for you?
CR: It’s great. I don’t know how much it changes your life career-wise as a writer, but it does remove a certain pressure for being able to do the kinds of projects you wanna do and have people trust that you can do complex subject matter and do smart subjects. It’s been lovely in that sense. And of course, those of us in the writer’s branch of the Academy, it’s a wonderful group of writers. When you actually sit down and look at that list as it’s become more gender-balanced over time and more diverse as it’s slowly starting to do, it’s an impressive group. It’s nice to get that particular group of 300-400 people approving of your work. That is without question the ultimate honor that I can experience.
GD: What are you working on now? Anything you can tell us about?
CR: I’m doing with David O. Russell the John D. Rockefeller story.
GD: Nice, well I certainly look forward to that. Before I let you go, this movie is gonna be opening up very soon. It’s been seen by many people obviously and has been generating discussions but the people who when this film finally opens and audiences go and see it, what do you hope they take away from it?
CR: That all of us think we control the conversations that we put out into the world either on a television network, on Twitter or whatever, but those conversations ultimately control us on a certain level. We will do ourselves as a service as a culture if we think about what we’re saying and doing and if we can learn to transcend our own partisan biases and really look at people across our society who have experienced this problem of harassment. This is not one that we can’t solve relatively quickly if we focus on it.