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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Anamorphic is How the World Looks When Donald Trump Becomes President”: Billy Ray on The Comey Rule

Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in The Comey Rule (Photo by Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/SHOWTIME)

Ever since his 2003 directorial debut Shattered Glass, which told the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass and his downfall at The New Republic, Billy Ray has been one of the finest filmmakers we have when it comes to turning recent history into riveting cinema. Breach (about FBI agent turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen) and Ray-scripted films for other directors like Captain Phillips and Richard Jewell are all marked by Ray’s ability to tackle complex subject matter with clarity and concision, making complicated stories accessible without compromising their ambiguities and provocations. Although as both a writer and director Ray has a wide range that encompasses witty literary adaptations (his terrific Amazon series The Last Tycoon), idiosyncratic genre fare (Gemini Man, Overlord) and ambitious franchise installments (Terminator: Dark Fate, The Hunger Games), what he does better than nearly anyone else are intelligent mainstream movies for adults marked by journalistic detail and astute psychological observation.

Considering this, it was perhaps inevitable that Ray would write and direct the first great drama depicting the Trump presidency, the Showtime miniseries The Comey Rule. Based on James Comey’s memoir of the same name but encompassing a broader array of perspectives and sources, The Comey Rule is Ray’s best film to date, a depiction of political process and seismic historical shifts that is also an intimate character study and a sweeping ensemble epic. A funny, poignant portrait of Comey (an excellent Jeff Daniels) watching his life and country as he knows them slipping away before his eyes, it’s a cautionary tale with the informational value of great reportage and the emotional impact of a powerhouse thriller. It’s also a showcase for one of the most stunning pieces of acting I’ve ever seen on film, that of Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump. Gleeson inhabits Trump on every level, getting his voice and physicality exactly right without turning him into a caricature, and the result is an enthralling and chilling performance that would singlehandedly justify the existence of this entire 3½-hour movie if there weren’t so many other things to recommend it. Part one of The Comey Rule airs this Sunday, September 27, on Showtime, with part two premiering the following night; I spoke with Ray by phone a week before airdate to ask him about his process and approach.      

Filmmaker: I noticed right off the bat that the font in your opening credits resembled that of All The President’s Men. Was that film a model for The Comey Rule?

Billy Ray: All the President’s Men is a touchstone for me whenever I tell a true story, but particularly when I’m telling a true story that’s set in D.C. That movie was so seminal – not just for me, obviously, but for lots of people who write and direct. And what I took from All the President’s Men was not just the relentlessness and the muscularity of the storytelling, but also just how emotional that movie is, how compelling it is, and that’s without big love scenes or a soaring score. It’s compelling and it’s emotional because it’s about things that we all care about. 

Filmmaker: It’s also a simple and clear movie about very complicated subject matter, which is something I would also say about The Comey Rule. I can’t even imagine where you start on something like this. How do you decide what stays in, what stays out, where you consolidate? 

Ray: Well, do you know how to create a sculpture of an elephant? You start with a block of granite and you chip away everything that’s not an elephant. There’s no other way to do it. So, the first thing you do when you take on something like this is assemble all the research you possibly can. Obviously the book is a great jumping off point, but then you get on a plane and go interview everybody you can get your hands on that will talk to you, and you read every public document that’s available, whether it’s the IG report or all the books that were written about the subject. You amass all of that, and that’s your block of granite. And then you say, “Where’s the elephant in there?” In other words, what’s the story that I’m telling? And the story that I was telling was about how heartbreaking it can be to be a public servant. Everything that was about that stays in the movie and everything that’s not about that comes out.

By the way, I’ve got to start disciplining myself to stop calling it a movie. That’s a very old habit. It’s a series.

Filmmaker: No, I keep calling it that too. Looking at my notes here, they keep referring to it as a movie.

Ray: On the shoot, we never called it a show or a series. I always called it a movie, because from my point of view we were making a three-and-a-half-hour movie where people were going to catch their breath halfway through.

Filmmaker: Yeah, I watched it straight through, so it played like a three-and-a-half-hour movie to me. When I got to the end of the first night and Trump had just been elected and was really entering the story in a meaningful way, I couldn’t shut it off, I had to keep going and see Brendan Gleeson as Trump.

Ray: The thought there came from Jaws, that was the whole idea behind the end of night one. You know there’s a shark out there, and at the end of night one, now your hero is in the water. Now what?

Filmmaker: Let me go back to the beginning. Was this something that you initiated or did Showtime or the producers come to you with it? How did your involvement begin?

Ray: I had been looking to find something to write about that would capture my feelings about the Trump presidency and its impact on our democracy more broadly. Then one day I get a call from this brilliant producer, Shane Salerno, saying, “How would you like to adapt James Comey’s book?” This was the night before it was published. I said, “Oh my God, get me the book.” I read it overnight and called him in the morning and said, “I’m in, let’s go.” Because it turns out that it was the perfect vehicle to tell the story of the thing that I had been wanting to talk about, that idea of the heartbreak of being a public servant. Trump kept talking about this mythical deep state, which I knew was in fact just a bunch of Americans who cared about their democracy and happened to be working within the United States government. People who actually were dedicated to protecting their country and protecting the apolitical intentions of the most important institutions in this country. 

The FBI and the DOJ are supposed to be completely apolitical institutions, and that was what Jim Comey was trying to protect. If you want to know why that’s important, take a look at what Bill Barr is doing right now. Look at what happens when you have a Department of Justice that is 100% political, just one of the propaganda wings of the White House, but with muscle. That’s a dangerous thing in a democracy.

Filmmaker: Why did you decide on a framing story telling things from Rod Rosenstein’s point of view as a way of organizing the material?

Ray: There were a couple of reasons. One, we had a huge amount of information to unload in the story and I wanted to do that in the most entertaining way possible. Two, I wanted to announce to the audience within a minute that I understood how divided they were about Jim Comey as a person, and that I understood that he was polarizing and that I understood that a lot of people didn’t like him. Who better to articulate that idea than someone who doesn’t like Jim Comey? And then, to be totally honest, I’m an absolute devotee of Amadeus. And I thought, okay, Rosenstein as Salieri and Jim Comey as Mozart, it felt like a pretty good fit.

Filmmaker: This kind of goes back to All the President’s Men, but one of the challenges of this movie to me seems to be the fact that you have a lot of scenes that are simply men and women in rooms talking. How did you sustain the energy and keep it from becoming monotonous? 

Ray: Well, there are two answers to that. First is hire a great DP in Elliot Davis and a great editor in Jeff Ford. Just on a technical side, work with artists who are really proficient at their craft. But the second part of it, which has more to do with the writing, is make sure that you’re telling a story in emotional terms. If it’s just dry information, then that setting kills you because it’ll be boring. But if you are telling a story in which everybody in the room has an emotional investment, where they care deeply and they have something on the line that matters to them, then what you wind up with are scenes that crackle. They feel hugely relevant and compelling and harrowing and heroic because everyone there is trying to do what they believe to be the right thing for completely selfless reasons. If you’ve got that, then the subject matter of the scene doesn’t weigh you down.

Filmmaker: I’m glad you mentioned Elliot Davis, because I thought the look you guys came up with for the film was really effective. It was clean and precise and unadorned in a way that served what you were trying to do with the story beautifully.

Ray: I wanted something very natural, but I was desperate to avoid the sterile FBI look. That took a lot of work with our production designer Chris Brown, and it also meant being very judicious about when to go hand-held. The biggest thing is that night one was shot with spherical lenses, and night two was shot anamorphic, because spherical is how the world actually looks—anamorphic is how the world looks when Donald Trump becomes President. 

Filmmaker: The cast in this movie is strong from top to bottom, but obviously the key is Brendan Gleeson as Trump. How early on did you think of him? 

Ray: We talked about Brendan very early in the process. He’s so talented and he’s got that great physicality about him, and he’s fearless. But the first time we offered it to him, he said no. And I could understand why. I mean, from his perspective, you’re sitting there in Ireland living a very happy, comfortable life. Why on earth would you want to take this part and expose yourself to the flack that is going to come your way? But I had an absolutely great casting director named Sharon Bialy who stayed on top of Brendan’s team, just kept talking to his management and just kept saying, “Brendan should do this. Brendan should do this.” At some point, he reconsidered and said okay, and thank God.

In terms of his performance, he and I sat down via phone and we both came to the same conclusion really quickly, which is he’s going to be doing the first dramatic interpretation of Donald Trump ever. That brings with it a great amount of responsibility. How are we going to play this guy? We decided not to play him in any sort of pushed cartoonish way. In terms of hair, makeup, wardrobe, dialect, we were going to play it straight and let Trump’s behavior be the thing that people judge him on.

Filmmaker: That seems to have been the case all the way down the line as far as the cast is concerned. There are no caricatures, everyone really seems to be inhabiting these characters, and everyone is perfectly cast—I mean, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Bill Sadler as Mike Flynn, Peter Coyote as Mueller, the list goes on and on. How did you assemble that cast?

Ray: Well, we got lucky because everyone we went out to said yes, which never happens, as you know. This was a different animal than anything I’ve ever been near because the actors that were on this show all felt it was their civic duty to be a part of it. They were there for different reasons than actors are normally drawn to things. That brought a certain spirit to the production and a certain dedication to getting things right. Look, when I was writing the script, I was picturing Sally Yates as Sally Yates, but the more I was putting her down on paper, the more I was thinking, “There’s only one person on Earth who could do this, which is Holly Hunter.” The more I’m thinking about Andy McCabe, the more I’m thinking, “Okay, this has to be, just has to be Michael Kelly. Can’t be anybody else.” As I’m writing James Clapper, I’m thinking, okay, “We’ve got to get Jonathan Banks.” All these people said yes.

Filmmaker: How much time did you have to rehearse with them?

Ray: Zero. First of all, we’re up in Toronto, so it’s not like all these actors are next door. We were moving so fast. When I directed for the first time, it was this little movie called Shattered Glass, and we had 28 days. On this show we had 51 days to shoot two movies, so technically I’m moving faster than I moved on a tiny little independent. There’s no rehearsal time. There’s barely time to sit down with the actors when they fly into town and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re looking at.” It’s lots of phone conversations, just about intentions. It’s the same conversation over and over again with every part: “What does the character want and how is the character trying to get it?” That’s almost all we talk about. It’s never, “Could you do a better imitation? Could you try this accent?” The first time I ever heard Brendan do Trump’s voice was on the set five minutes before we turned the cameras on. It was the scene with Trump and Rod Rosenstein in the Oval Office, where they talk about writing the letter. Brendan showed up and rehearsed the scene one time just for blocking, and I looked at my DP and I thought, “Okay, we’re going to be great.” His voice is fabulous. That was the first time I ever heard it.

Filmmaker: Wow. Were you nervous going in about whether or not what he was doing would work?

Ray: Oh, of course I was nervous. When you’re directing, you are in a state of constant terror. You can’t communicate that to your cast or your crew because they’re looking to you to be the leader, but every second of every day, you’re thinking about how much could go wrong. You do all you can to mitigate that. You do all you can to make sure things go right, but yes, I was afraid. I was afraid of how Kingsley [Ben-Adir] was going to play Barack Obama until I saw him do it. I thought, “Oh my God, this guy’s amazing.” What you’re counting on is the integrity of your cast to show up prepared. You do everything you can to help them prepare, but they have to care. They cared and it shows.

Filmmaker: It definitely does. I would never have guessed you were on such a tight schedule with no rehearsal. The dinner scene between Trump and Comey where Trump asks for his loyalty is incredible. Jeff Daniels is both so sad and so hilarious in his subtle reactions to what is happening there.

Ray: Okay, so a number of things go into that. First, you have to have an actor in Jeff Daniels who has the confidence to sit opposite another actor when that other actor has the bells and whistles part. Trump has the fireworks in every scene. Jeff had to be confident enough to know that his stillness would be just as powerful. Some actors couldn’t do that. Some actors would freak out in that circumstance, not Jeff. Jeff’s whole theory is that half of his performance comes from the other actor. Well, he had another actor who was delivering big time, and Jeff used that as fuel. Okay, so that’s the first thing. If you don’t have that, you’re dead, absolutely dead. Second, again, I’ve got to refer you back to my editor, Jeff Ford, who I think is the best in the business, just has the most incredible sense of performance and rhythm, and of when we need to be in one place or another. Third is, again, you go back to the idea of the sculpture of the elephant. What’s the elephant? The elephant is we’re telling a story about how heartbreaking it is to be a public servant. Every scene and every cut has to be in service of that idea.

The loyalty dinner was the only scene in the entire show that got its own shooting day. Otherwise we were shooting roughly four scenes a day. The loyalty dinner was eight-and-a-half pages of dialogue, and it was the first day that Jeff and Brendan worked together. It was also the only day James Comey was on set, and he was there with one of his daughters. In terms of degree of difficulty for Jeff Daniels, that’s pretty hot. On top of it, no rehearsal. None. I just said, “Here’s where you’re sitting. Here’s where he’s sitting.” Then the last thing, as if all that wasn’t enough: we did a lighting trick in that scene where once Trump says, “I need loyalty,” we very slowly start to kill the lights behind both actors. It took about five-and-a-half minutes in each take, killing those lights so that by the end of the scene there’s only that light above them. The idea was to make it feel like they were on an island, that there was just nothing else happening in the world except a spotlight on these two men, because to my mind, that’s what was accurate. So on top of everything else, Jeff has to deal with the distraction of the lights changing around him, and yet he delivers the performance that he delivers in this very quiet, still very powerful way.

Filmmaker: Going back to Jeff Ford, another thing that seems tricky to me about editing a movie like this is that it is so heavy on information. You’ve read everything there is to read and talked to everyone there is to talk to, you know this story inside and out, but you’re making a movie for audiences who might have varying degrees of awareness. How do you make sure that the information is getting across clearly to the viewer? Do you screen it for friends or hold test screenings?

Ray: Oh, yeah. That’s where Jeff Ford and I both needed to be educated. We put a cut together as fast as we could so that we could start showing it to people. This was in those golden days, pre-quarantine, where you could actually call people into your editing room and say, “Take a look at this.” The very first thing we asked them was, “Were you ahead of the movie? Did you know more than the movie? Did you need more information?” Of course, that is a very individual thing because everyone has their own different level of education about what had happened in 2016 and in 2017, but if you start to hear the same note two or three times, you pay attention to it. When the show airs, we’ll find out, did we calibrate that exactly right? I feel pretty confident about it.

Filmmaker: That leads to another—admittedly slightly generic—question, which is, what are you hoping people take away from the movie and how do you hope it affects them?

Ray: I think everybody, after the 2016 election, had their own belief about what had just happened. That’s informed by whatever news source you choose. If you watch Fox News, you have one narrative, if you watch CNN, you have another, but here was an opportunity to actually take people inside the rooms where things happened, where decisions were made that profoundly affected our electorate, and therefore more broadly, the world. I hope people understand a couple things coming away from this. I hope they understand how dedicated our public servants are and how selfless they are. I hope people come to understand what the Russians did to our election in 2016, how they violated it, because they are clearly trying to do it again. That is not conjecture, that is fact, so people, when they go to vote in 2020, can take that into account. That’s what I wanted.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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