Unlike some directors that crave the spotlight, Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Meet the Fockers, Recount) is more man of mystery. That’s because even though he’s directed some of the biggest comedies of the last decade, I’ve rarely seen him do interviews and you don’t read his name in the trades everyday like some of his peers. So when I found out I’d landed an exclusive interview for his new movie Dinner For Schmucks, I wasn’t sure if Roach would be guarded, or if he’d be willing to talk about anything.
Thankfully, Roach couldn’t have been nicer and you can read or listen to the interview after the jump. During the almost thirty minutes we talked about why he makes so few films and why he’s so selective, how does he find his projects, he talked about a project that almost got made called Used Guys, improv vs. scripted, making Dinner For Schmucks, deleted scenes, the mice and how they were made, digital vs. film, 3D, and of course we talked about whether or not he’ll make another Austin Powers movie with Mike Myers.
And for fans of Austin Powers, Roach said, “If we ever did an Austin Powers 4, I would love to do Dr. Evil’s world in 3D. It would be fantastic. It’d be great to use it as a one-world as 3D and the other world is…” So much more after the jump:
As always, you can either read the full transcript below or listen to/download the audio by clicking here. I really recommend listening to this one.
I guess I want to start with is that you are very selective with the movies you make. You’ve done a number of movies but you sort are like “The Man of Mystery” you know, because you’re so selective
ROACH: I like that idea. It’s hard to see myself that way but I, yeah, I just always look for stuff that has a character-driven thing. And I like it when it has a smart premise, that’s what hooked me on this film is that I thought that the idea of kind of these upper-crust winner type people being so entitled to feel so entitled and so they have this dinner with just that hook,that first 10 minutes of the original film actually is what got me to it. And I don’t stay in the genre because I just like all stories that have a smart hook in them and I can find a comic way through if it’s a comedy or a suspenseful way through it if it’s a drama. I never see it anything other than kind of what you’d call it a “policy” or just whatever hooks me. It’s very whimsical sometimes, unfortunately. It comes and goes. Sometimes you fall in love with some things and then you fall out of love with it and then I’ve often been on stuff that seems like it was going to go great and then it didn’t work out, so it’s become a…what’s the right word…for the opposite of…you become polygamist.
Have there been projects then over the last decade that you have come very close to possibly directing and it’s looking like it’s about to get a green light and then at the last second it’s just done?
ROACH: Doesn’t happen? Well, a couple times it’s happened by my choice but the most painful one happened Used Guys with Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller at Fox which was such a great script and still the best, in my opinion, funniest best un-produced conceptual comedy out there. It’s not common…you know I was on this for 3 years…I was on Meet the Parents for 4 years, I think, trying to get that done. The sequels kind of beget themselves so they’re different. Recount was a fluke. I just got dropped in at the last minute right before prep started on that. So I wish there was again, I wish there was a pattern because I would try to make it work in my favor.
What’s interesting though is that you…a lot of directors like a Guillermo del Toro, every time I open Variety he’s attached. Like he’s attached to 12 different things but you are…that’s why I’m saying “Man of Mystery” because you seem to be very much interested in this one project, I’m going to do it and I don’t hear your name attached to a lot of other things.
ROACH: Yeah. It’s basically true. There are things that either I’m in a sort of mating dance with or it’s in a mating dance with me that don’t happen and I don’t like to…I think you can hold up a project by getting to “on it” and then be on another one and another one and so I’m not…I try not to kind of corral them and store them somewhere. If I’m on it…I mean if I’m going to do it, I’m on it and I stay on it. If I’m not going to do it, I try to let it go. And that’s happened where Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy I was going to do for years. I worked with Douglas Adams very closely, then he died and I…there was a lot of pressure to keep trying to do it and I don’t know, I lost…without Douglas it just didn’t make sense to me and so I talked Garth Jennings into doing it with his partner. And that was painful in a way, but also like I don’t want to hold it up and keep it…you know wait for me to find my bliss on it again. And the same Charlie Bartlett I was going to do and I ended up saying, you know what? I’m going to get one of my closest friends John Paul, who’s my editor, to do it. And so I typically…and even recently, Little Fockers, I was thinking of trying to do it but the schedules didn’t work out. I was doing Schmucks. So I’m always happy when something I’ve liked but couldn’t do myself I can help propel it for someone else, so I like that. I like that actually.
I also want to address the dinner scene in your film nowHow long is that to shoot and how much of everything we saw on the screen is scripted vs. improv by the actors on-set?
ROACH: It’s hard to measure because there’s such an overlap. We kind of improv the script in a way. The two writers are like…I guess one of them is an actor—Dave Guion does some acting on his own—but we wrote a lot of that talking, just talking it through, talking it through, talking through it. And then they write it. Then we bring in the actors, they riff off it in rehearsal. They re-write it. The actors take the re-write, riff off of that. And by the time you’re shooting, there’s a script and that day I have the actors stick to it for the first few takes and then I let them go. And with this cast, because you’ve got Jemaine Clement, who’s this great improvised, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Schaal, David Walliams. I mean these are like the world class improvisers, you know? They’re not all the biggest stars but they are THE best improvisers around. And you just have to try things when you have that kind of talent and I don’t know what percentage but you know a big hunk of some of the funnier moments were things they came up with. The best example is Zach and Steve in their battle around the table. They just went off on that whole shootout of imaginary weapons. You know, that was all them. We had them kind of going “kew, kew, kew” across each other and then they just came up with this whole elaborate thing where they were…just this giant choreographed action sequence in their minds around a dinner table.
Getting back to my original question, how long of a shoot or how long was the shoot?
ROACH: 50 days. 55 days. We had to fit it tightly into Carrel’s window in The Office.
And how many days did you allocate to filming that scene? Do you remember?
ROACH: We shot that for…I want to say 7-8 days or something like that. A fair amount of time. It was a big scene. I mean dinner table scenes are hard. They’re a great kind of concept because everyone’s stuck there and no matter how much conflict they can’t leave so it’s a great kind of pressure cooker to make the comedy work. But you end up having to cover it from so many different angles, and they have to repeat it from this angle, and this guy’s point of view to make sure the comedy is played to the front and center that’s changing all the time. So that always gets time consuming but it’s also freeing for the actors because they don’t have to worry about all their crosses and moves and they can just focus on finding their funniest way through the scene.
Well, on a scene like that and also other scenes when you have such improv actors, are you filming with more than 2 cameras or 3 cameras?
ROACH: Oh sure. Yeah, usually 2 but in that scene 3, you know, all the time 3 which is daunting in the editing process because there’s so many choices. But I have really great editors. And the electronic editing thing is…I don’t know how you could have done that in the film days, but to be able to put them all up and try this and try…and then you preview it and you have every version you’ve ever previewed available like that tied to the line. You have all the takes of one line just instantly available to see whatever line. That’s a kind of freedom of a kind of a plastic new way of putting comedies together. And it feels like comedies are kind of faster these days and more jokes per…but if you can still serve the character and serve the story and use all those choices to support it, I guess it’s good.
Of course I have to ask you about the DVD/Blu-ray, which is you have all these choices, you have all these extras, what can fans look forward to that might be coming?
ROACH: Well, I always like to include my favorite scenes—whole scenes that didn’t make it because I shoot so much more than I can use in a hour and forty-five minute comedy. And the only consolation when I have to cut out that last half-hour of my favorite stuff is that it’ll find some other life in the DVD, so I get to give them…like Steve says he does with the mice, I get to give the scenes a second chance as bonus material. So I always…there’s usually a half dozen or you know 6, or 8 or 10 scenes that’ll be on there. And in this case there are really some great scenes. And then we’ll usually—just because it’s irresistible—put in a montage of our favorite riffs on within scenes or our favorite outtakes, you know, kind of bloopers. And then we’ll probably have sections on the design of the mice, which was the most, you know, time consuming and Jim Cameron making up a whole world…yeah come and try out making up all these little mice and their every single little detail.
Does that mean there’s 15-20 minutes of deleted scenes?
ROACH: I don’t know. We don’t usually start blocking that stuff in this early. I usually just kind of let them film…see what the audience likes. What they might enjoy as more of that. It’s almost like you don’t want to come out for the encore until you’ve heard how the show plays or you don’t want to set your set list for the encore until you know what it is. So we’ve worked on certain things but we won’t make that decision about what goes on it until later.
I completely understand. Does that mean though that on some of your other films there’s even more extras than have been on the DVD’s?
ROACH: Yeah. Oh sure, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. Because I like to put in only the things that I think are really good. And sometimes there’s just the in between stuff that’s good in parts, so we have to be selective. I think the audience wants us to choose a little and not just throw…I mean we shoot hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff to get a 2-hour movies. So yeah, there’s an infinite number of things you could throw on but not all of it would be very interesting.
And getting back to the mice question, how involved were you in creating what the dioramas were going to say and do? Like, you know not say but you have very specific things in the dioramas. How specific was that in the script vs. what you were saying we need this kind of…
ROACH: Yeah. It was an on-going evolution. We wrote what it should be. We actually…you know the actual film the guy made sculptures out of matchsticks…I mean of recreations of like the Eiffel Tower and buildings and things. And once we found these dioramas that were made with squirrels. I found this one set of triptych dioramas—3 of them with 2 squirrels dressed like boxers. And there was the starting thing and there was a punch and there was a squirrel laying on the ground. All dressed in little boxer shorts and little red gloves all in these little boxes. And I thought “Oh my God! That’s so expressive and weird and creepy at the same time, but hilarious.” We said that’s it. That’s got to be his hobby. The writers and I came up with. My dad had been a taxidermist so I knew this could be an area. I mean he hadn’t been a taxidermist but he had been a hunter and had taxidermied animals around and they always creeped me out. So I started doing the online research and it turns out it is a weird niche. Not very many people do it but there is a sub-culture of people who taxidermy tiny creatures and dress them up as people. So once we had that, then I started riffing with the writers on the concept. They came up with the tower of dreamers—Dave and Mike—which is just, to me, that section when Steve stacks up the towers that represent these great moments in history and how they represent great dreamers of the past, I just….they came up with that whole thing. But I started drawing them with my storyboard guy and we came up with the details of how Ben Franklin’s thing would look. And every tiny detail we drew first. Then we went to the Chiodo brothers, who are these 3 amazing guys—they are these 3 very cool dudes who are like Barry. They just work alone and the 3 of them in little workshops and they cooked up the things. They showed me mock ups. I mean it took months. We were doing so many meetings about mice. I said, “When do I get to rehearse with the actors?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought this isn’t supposed to be a movie about mice, well guess what? It is a movie about mice to some extent and because they represent Steve’s character, you know, in a really great way.
But those dioramas say a lot about…they’re so important to…
ROACH: Yeah. To him and coping with his heartache and to inspiring Paul Rudd’s character, so…and I hope they’re inspirational. To me, I get choked up. It’s goofy and sappy and funny but Steve’s speech for the tower of dreams, I’m really proud of how that turned out.
Oh no, that’s a great scene. I’m definitely curious about digital filmmaking and film with you. Did you shoot this on film or was this digital?
ROACH: I’m trying. There’s no one more zealous to shoot digital but most of the D.P.’s I’ve worked with are “leery” of it, let’s say. It’s so close to being not a question. I’m already much preferring digital projection and I spend a lot more time on the digital prints than I did on the film prints this time because the digital prints have more range in the mid-tones and you know the D.P. Jim Denault did such a great job and I think film is actually more limited now. It used to be the other way around where video would blow out in extremes and I love the way digital projection looks and no accidental framing by the projection. No scratches, no…Meet the Parents came out, 400 of the prints were printed, 3 stops too blue…too hot and blue and they accidently put lint from other films on our film. The lint-cleared cleaners cross polarized somehow and they just wiped lint across all of our prints. I saw it at Lincoln Center. It looked like a snowstorm. And I couldn’t believe people were actually laughing. It sort of still played. I’m over that. I’m ready for digital. And I want to shoot digital cameras. I think they’re now, as I say, it’s so comparable and soon will be just superior and everyone will stop shooting film. No offense to my Kodak brothers.
This, of course…3D seems to be a revolution in Hollywood…
But no one has really done…maybe they have and I’m just wrong, but the 3D comedy or 3D…it’s just in the spectrum…
ROACH: Well you know Pixar has some of the funniest films and best written scripts, you know, and I saw How to Train Your Dragon with my two boys recently and it’s so well done. So you know the animation 3D is very good and it’s very funny. So clearly, comedy and 3D can go together. I heard a rumor that Todd Phillips was thinking about doing one in 3D and I’ve been joking about it like I’ve got my 3D comedy. I don’t know what it would be. If we ever did an Austin Powers 4, I would love to do Dr. Evil’s world in 3D. It would be fantastic. I wonder if anyone would think about…I guess you couldn’t really mix and match. It’d be great to use it as a one-world as 3D and the other world is…it probably would make more sense if Austin’s world was 3D and Dr. Evil’s was more flat.
Well, couldn’t you make a joke when Dr. Evil is going into the world, he sort of says “Now would be a good time to put on my glasses”.
ROACH: (laughter) Yeah, that’s right. And maybe partway through the film he’s converted to 3D somehow. That’s a good idea. But I would love to…you know what I would love to do is like a really carefully choreographed comedy that used like the best of Busbsy Burkley and Buster Keaton with a good physical comedy performer like Steve Carrel or Mike or Sasha or somebody who were just masters of the physical…the way those guys were…the way Keaton and Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and almost have it be no talking like just be… but hilarious, carefully engineered stuff. Looks easy, they always made it look easy. Like on Austin Powers, we spent so much time engineering every single physical thing. It’d be like this team of talented engineers and stunt people…it’s like a rocket launch to the moon to delivering those and to have that extra layer of 3D on top of like the nudity blocking thing or Dr. Evil’s submarine or whatever. You know whatever would be, would be another treat. So it inspires me to think about it. Maybe there’s some song and dance thrown in there, too.
Well, it’s interesting you mentioned Chaplin and Keaton though because the films they did way back when, we’re talking 80-90 years now, I mean they’re incredible. The level of physical humor and the stuff that they were able to accomplish with such limited resources.
So how is it that Hollywood can’t or why is it that nobody can sort of recreate or touch that world?
ROACH: We tried. There were a few of our physical guys that, you know, we did with Mike which I thought got close to the kinds of things. Never in like a house falling or those giant epic train things. But it’s a good question because you’d think with all the resources now and all the technology you should be able to do anything. And I think my visual effects guy’s a master and like that bird in our film is a complete digital bird. There’s a couple of shots of it that are real but almost all of it is digital. And he does it in such a low-tech way. When you look at District 9 and you see, you know, great, great, expressive low-tech visual effects, you could get [visual effects studio Weta] and get a Buster Keaton Weta film. Where’s that? That’s what I want to see. Because why not take that kind of more, you know, not quite down and dirty. It felt that way in District 9 because the film is set in the…what do you call them….
South Africa…the slums.
ROACH: Yeah. There’s a word for the slums there. I can’t remember what it is, but it’s set in those worlds so it had that feel but you never…it almost didn’t feel like visual effects it was so kind of gritty and cool. And comedy would prefer that instead of the super slick edge of, you know, “Avatar” or something which looks amazing. You could do something with a, it would just be a fun thing to try. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’d be fun to try it.
Well, I definitely want to ask you, with Austin Powers obviously there’s been a huge break now—many years—since the last film. Do you think that sort of opens the door where expectations are now more realistic?
ROACH: I don’t know. I don’t know and I hear rumors of it every 6 months, but I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. It’s up to Mike and I use it as just a kind of…it was so fun for me and I learned how to do comedies on Austin Powers. Mike really…I credit him. He pretty much taught me. I wasn’t a comedy guy at all when I met Mike. So those characters come out of his brain and certainly a lot of the style and stuff I contributed to them, but he…the story…I look forward to getting a call from him saying, “Okay I got it. I know what to do. Let’s try it.” I don’t know when that’ll ever happen.
It’s funny because I just interviewed Mike not too long ago and he said, he mentioned you and your schedule and it’s so funny to hear you say, no, no it’s Mike.
ROACH: You know, my schedule…I had a few things going but I’m, for example, free now. But it’s not…I really would throw it back at him because he’s got to love the concept and feel like he has total confidence in what it could be and that the audience wants it back. And I think, for me, the secret is Dr. Evil…the Dr. Evil world of Mini-Me and the Scott Evil triangle …I could just watch that forever. So I hope he’ll dig back into that side of it. Austin’s a great character, too, but we’ve done so much Austin, you know, I’d love to go deeper into Dr. Evil’s world.
Well, what’s the story…I’m not sure and pardon me for not having enough research on this one, what of your previous films are on Blu-ray and what are not and what are coming?
ROACH: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I wish…you know a sad story in Austin 2 when they made the DVD one of the digital master persons chose on his own to reframe the picture—it was super 35—which means you have a fair…fat bit of negative there and you pick where the frame goes, and I personally went in and supervised it. We had leaders—framing leaders—and the graphics are all set up perfectly, you know, everything is dialed in and it’s tight. The D.P. was really…as goofy as those films are and silly sometimes, we put so much into the look and copying the Bond feel, copying the pop-art Italian stuff, so there was a lot of care and the D.P.s are great. And Willy Steiger shot the 2nd one and they mis-framed it 10%. They just decided…we decided it looked better. And I begged them to re-frame it. They’d already made like 8 million copies and I said I can’t believe it. And they said, well when we go to Blu-ray we’ll fix it, and they didn’t. So I’ve never even picked up the Blu-ray because it’s even more pain to pick it up and look at it. I think the Austin films are in Blu-ray. I think they even did a boxed set of all 3 of them. I don’t actually know if Fockers or Meet the Parents are on Blu-ray.
Yeah. I should have done more research before that question.
ROACH: That’s all right.
I definitely want to ask obviously you have made a film like every 10 years or so—I’m joking about that—
ROACH: (laughter) It seems like forever since the last one. My God.
It’s been a little while besides Recount.
What does that mean? Are you looking at scripts and how is your process at picking projects? Do people call you on the phone and say I have an idea? Or do agents send you scripts and say here’s our batch?
ROACH: It’s all different ways, you know? We develop a lot. I was in development on this for 3 years, on Dinner for Schmucks. But that came to me. On Meet the Parents there was a dormant script that someone had ….an agent that one of the writers had sent me but it had sort of died and I kind of worked on that for several years. I tend to find the things I work on awhile myself become more of my DNA and I can’t get them out of my system. Everything else, as I was saying before, it’s kind of hard to keep it up for the project long enough unless I’m just so deep in it, or it happens the last minute like Recount. We have a couple of new projects though. We have the Mark Felt project—the Mark Felt story, the guy who was Deep Throat in All The President’s Men and that guy died a few years back and Tom Hanks is going to play the guy. And it’s been an on-going development process which I’m really excited about. I’m attached to another election film at HBO about the 2008 election, you know Obama and Palin and that’s coming out. But they come to me in weird ways. I just try to stay open to them. I have a production company that very smart, cool people are always reading a ton of stuff. And you know I have a few ideas that we’ve put into development too of my own. So I wish, again, I wish there was a pattern. I should be more systematic about it but I’m not.
And I know I have to wrap up but with like HBO obviously they seem to just hit home run after home run. How involved are they in the creative process? Like for Recount…
ROACH: Completely. Recount Lynn De Monta who took over for Collin Callendar was an executive producer for Apollo Weinstein and they hired him off of Recount but then they were completely involved. They’re amazing and they’re like the bravest studio in town. They’re like doing the movies and experiments on TV shows too that people did in the 70’s and the environment now where you have to be a comic book movie or a comedy or an action….who else is going to make, you know, the Kervorkian story or do, you know, I’ve been watching The Wire recently. I mean, I don’t know HBO is…
Had you not seen The Wire before?
ROACH: I’d never seen it. I just started watching it. I’m watching it from scratch and now I’m like, oh thanks a lot. Someone gave me the DVD because now I’m just completely hooked.
What season are you in right now and I know I have to wrap?
ROACH: I’m in Season One. I started watching it 6 days ago and I’m like on Episode 9.
It’s probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life.
ROACH: Yeah, I’m hooked on it so, but yeah, I’ve got a lot of ways of finding stuff and it might come out of talking to you about 3D, so you never know.
And there we go.
ROACH: Tomorrow you’ll read about it.
(laughter) I would love to…
ROACH: I’ll mention you.
Would love to read about that. Thanks a lot.