Jay Roach’s biopic ‘Trumbo’ highlights political edge


Santiago Covarrubias

Film director Jay Roach visited Chicago Nov. 11 to share his independent movie “Trumbo” with viewers, and hopes it reminds people of the power of storytelling as political change.


Film director Jay Roach visited Chicago Nov. 11 for an advance screening and audience discussion of his new independent film “Trumbo,” which had a limited release Nov. 6.

Roach, known for directing 1999’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” discussed the political significance of the film and the importance of comic relief in a political biopic.

Written by John McNamara and based on “Dalton Trumbo,” a biography by Bruce Cook, the film details Hollywood screenwriter Trumbo’s career after he and other Hollywood figures were blacklisted for their communist affiliations and their subsequent struggle to break out of the blacklist. The film stars Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and features Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg and Diane Lane.

“Comedy requires chaos,” Roach said. “It’s a serious story, but I had to be open to comedy since that was authentic to who these people were.”

He said the comedy in the film came from the Trumbo family’s response to being ridiculed for their father’s treatment and imprisonment for being a communist. Roach said the Trumbo children helped him understand what it was like.

“They developed a great deal of humor as a coping [method], and as Trumbo did,” Roach said. 

Evan Gulock, a freshman cinema art + science major who attended the advance screening, said he heard about the Hollywood blacklist and was interested in seeing how the director would portray the complex issue.

“It was a nice balance between the witticism and the humor of the characters because they had so much contempt for authority,” Gulock said.

Roach said the film is a biography but not a documentary, and a lot of the characters and circumstances became composites for the bigger picture. Gulock said this helped tell the story and connect to it, whereas  learning through textbooks does not give accurate depictions of history, he said.

“You are getting the family life, and I love seeing that,” Gullock said. “It makes [the film] more compelling.”

Josh Jones, a freshman cinema art + science major who attended the screening, had not heard of Trumbo prior to viewing the film but said the film was brilliant.

“Trumbo’s dedication to the filmmaking process was astonishing—I kind of envy him,” Jones said. “It’s an admirable quality to be that passionate about something.”

He also said hearing Roach speak on the film during the Q&A was a highlight for him because he is familiar with Roach’s work and has never seen a director in person speak about their film.

“I was sitting here smiling the whole time, like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Jay Roach!,’” he said. “I loved the chance to hear him talk.” 

Peter Kuttner, a motion picture camera technician who lives in Chicago, said younger generations are not as aware of the Hollywood blacklist. Kuttner, born in 1944, is a member of the Local 600 union, which is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Kuttner saw “Trumbo” and is glad someone is talking about the historical blacklist.

“It will be in the national conversation for a while,” Kuttner said, adding he thinks the film could win Academy Awards.

However, Kuttner pointed out the film only highlighted one struggle among the many union film workers who were affected by the blacklist. He said many camera technicians, set builders, directors and producers got blacklisted who were not part of the “Hollywood Ten” celebrity figures seen in the film. He said they had many strives that were not seen on screen.

“They were working-class people and did not have the resources that the middle-class or rich-class like Trumbo had,” Kuttner said. “Many of them lost their houses and [died of] suicide.”

Kuttner came of age years after the blacklist but experienced its aftereffects in 1975 when he learned he would not be admitted to the IATSE union unless he signed a statement confirming he was not a communist—a decision he said was hard to make.

“High-principle people are confronted with decisions that affect not only them, but their families,” he said. “I was not a member of the Communist Party but was very active in the 1960s civil rights protests  and anti-war movements, and had a large FBI file.”

Kuttner, a longtime member of Kartemquin Films, a documentary group, said he would not have signed something like that on principle, but he needed work.

“I crossed my fingers on one hand and signed the papers with the other, hoping I would not go to hell for it,” he said.

Kuttner said the IATSE apologized in 2002 for its actions, but the blacklist rid the industry of the perceived danger of creative individuals putting controversial ideas into people’s heads. He said it also gave the unions a way to leverage out their more progressive members—the ones challenging the more undemocratic and unpopular ways that the unions worked, Kuttner said.

Roach said this was a persistent theme in the movie, and actor Bryan Cranston emulates Trumbo’s beliefs and characteristics. They are both passionate storytellers and workaholics who are not scared to question political authority and speak about things that may not be “cool” anymore but are ways to create structural change, he said.

“He is a passionate man, and he is not afraid to wear his passions outside,” Roach said about Cranston.

Roach said there is an attempt through representative government to protect civil rights and freedom of speech, and he said he loves what Trumbo said about that in the film. 

“[Trumbo] said the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech,” he said. “We all agree about popular speech, but unpopular speech is what you want to protect.”

Roach said the story of “Trumbo” holds a mirror to modern terrorism, and Cranston’s character epitomizes the drive to oppose political corruption and create fairness among people. This aspect of the character appealed to Cranston, and Roach called him “very Trumbo-esque.” 

“Bryan is committed to big ideas and he is not afraid to talk about them,” Roach said.