The story laid out in Bombshell, director Jay Roach’s film about the toxic culture at Fox News nominated for 21 awards, is an inherently messy one. On one hand, women like Gretchen Carlson (played here by Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, who also produced) spoke out about their experience of sexual harassment by CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). On the other, their bravery in coming forward cannot erase the racist and divisive rhetoric that both used their respective platforms to propagate.
The making of Bombshell itself presents a similarly messy dilemma. It’s a film that tells an urgent and timely story about the need for safety in the workplace, and the ease with which corporate America turns a blind eye when there is money involved. But it’s yet another story about women’s issues written and directed by men.
Charles Randolph, who won an Academy Award for writing The Big Short in in 2016, wrote Bombshell in the aftermath of Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes for sexual harassment. What he didn’t know is that just one year later, the New York Times and New Yorker would publish their groundbreaking stories about the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, adding fuel to the #MeToo movement.
In a phone interview with Refinery29, he explained why he felt compelled to tell this story despite the potential backlash.
Refinery29: You wrote the script before the Harvey Weinstein allegations went public. What made you want to tell this story?
Charles Randolph: “Before the MeToo thing exploded, nobody was addressing this elephant in the culture. It was just this maddening moment, where here's this issue that was so prevalent in so many people's lives, has been for decades, and yet no one was really addressing it. And this story comes along — I wouldn't say it's the start of the MeToo movement in any way, but it's an important part of it.”
Why did you think you were the right person to tell this particular story?
“I don't think I would've written it after the Harvey thing. I sold it before. I would've felt like, Oh, the issue's being spotlighted enough that other people, more appropriate, could do a better job, maybe. But no, I don't think I ever stopped to think, ’Am I the right person?’ Because I just felt like nobody was doing it.”
Has the Weinstein story changed how you think about this issue?
“We shot it after the Harvey thing. Obviously, had there been something really profoundly different, we could have changed it, right? But again it felt like we were on the right track. It was more of just broadening cultural expectations and attitudes. A lot of the stuff that people critique about the film, like, ‘Well, why didn't you deal with the race issue,’ are things we definitely tried. That just didn't work because it felt like we were taking too much of a spotlight away from the issue of harassment, and so that there's not much we could have done.
“I do think that the cultural attitude towards Megyn changed over three years a little bit, [since[ the time I first wrote it. The fact that a narrative of feminist determination came from inside Fox News, or people who worked at Fox News, is always sort of utterly stupefying and fascinating. And that didn't really change in the course of the broader issue becoming bigger and bigger.”
Was that a difficult balance to strike? These women put themselves on the line for one issue, but still continue to hold what many people consider reprehensible views.
“It's so fascinating, and it's always great for actors when you have that kind of ambivalence. I mean, when [Orson] Welles does Citizen Kane, part of it is his dislike of Charles Foster Kane. But at the same time, if you portrayed him, you're going to end up liking him a little bit in a certain way. So there's always that ambivalence, always really powerful for actors. It's great for actors, and it's great for story. It's just not great for audiences in terms of the baggage they bring to it, because you have to leave that behind. The very thing that makes [them] great characters to perform makes getting the movie out into the world and people giving it a chance problematic.
“Film necessarily humanizes people. I wouldn't say it makes them necessarily likeable, but it does [make] you understand more because you've spent two hours with them. So there's this thing that inherently people become more human, and then if you put them in an emotional conflict where the conflict itself resonates with people, you're going to end up asking audiences to go with them. Not necessarily like them, but to identify with them to some degree. Part of the reason I [created] Margot [Robbie’s fictional] character is because I knew going in that Megyn was going to be a bit of a tough one for people to go with emotionally, and Gretchen is not really around here in much of the conflict because she gets fired and has to leave the building. And that's sort of the reason the Kayla character exists. In those three different roles, there's the narrative centre, the moral centre, and the emotional centre. “
Was writing Kayla (Robbie) as a composite character also a way to avoid recreating and depicting someone’s actual assault?
“Absolutely. It's a story we never tell: The woman who gets trapped in a quid pro quo relationship with someone. That's not someone who ever says ‘Me too,’ the woman who initially says yes to that deal, and then finds that sort of ruining her life in a certain way. Part of the reason for making her a composite is so that I could tell that story, that really delicate, complicated story, which reflects patriarchy and power inequality, but in a very different way than we normally associate with narratives of harassment.”
Kayla’s initial interaction with Roger Ailes is particularly harrowing. You’ve said that you wrote that scene to show men how complex this issue is. What were you trying to communicate?
“That these are situations that are utterly complicated in a way that men don't appreciate. That whole relationship to power is very different. It's an utterly complicated situation that you, as a woman, will intuitively understand better than men ever can, and therefore, we men can't be in the business of judging it, point one. And then point two, those things can be life changing. Things that men look at on paper and they say, ‘Well look, you have to show your legs. What's up? Is it that big a deal?’ This experience that can utterly change how you see yourself, how you see your workplace, how you see your achievements, how you see your aspirations. That's something I think men just don't get. So that scene was that.
“And the counterpoint which I don't talk as much about is the scene between Megyn and Kayla where I'm writing to women. That's more of a scene where I'm saying, ‘Okay, here's this fascinating generational conflict. What does this say about complicity? What does this say about what one generation owes to the next? How are Gen X women who have maintained a silence not just affecting the next generation, but themselves?’ At the end of that scene, Megyn is forced to carry with her the weight of the fact that she's in some way screwed herself by her silence.
“For me by like by a factor of a thousand, the best feminist scene in movies this year is in Booksmart, when [Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlin Dever] become Barbie dolls. It's just great and so complicated. I’m delighted that they're getting attention for it, finally. I love it when you kind of get immersed in the narrative and the conflicts of the community and in the conflicts of the discourse. But I also appreciate as a man I have the luxury of doing that. Whereas the ending of say, Little Women, which is so moving to so many women, that has less emotional resonance with me just because it's intellectually not as provocative. But I'm sure it has a lot more emotional power than I can ever appreciate what people who have gone through life as women.”
You brought up Little Women — what do you think about the whole controversy about male awards voters reportedly dismissing it?
“I do think it's true that we're in this weird moment where those of us who historically have had power have to appreciate that our aesthetic case, our norms, what we value in art is formed by a cultural experience being white men at a certain social class. Part of the greater part of valour is understanding we need to, in award seasons and in evaluating the work of others, open ourselves up to the possibility that there are emotional resonances and ideas that we just can't feel or see the power and beauty of to the degree that other people can, and therefore dismissiveness is not the approach you need to take.”
Jumping off that, what would you say to women who might respond that this isn’t a man’s story to tell?
“I hear you. Part of me agrees, and part of me disagrees. The part of me that agrees is if women want to tell that story, fantastic. And again, had I felt like women were telling it, I wouldn't have told it. But on the other hand, there is always in any of these harassment situations two human beings in the room. And very often the perpetrator is a male. So, understanding that is important.
“I guess I would say we need all kinds of movies that address this issue. Movies like this one are a little bit more commercially oriented. They aspire to sort of be played in malls, and reach maybe a lot of men who normally wouldn't be interested in this issue. I don't know that I would agree or disagree with that sentiment. I can see both sides of it.”
What was it like collaborating with Charlize Theron as a producer?
“Charlize has more experience than I do, or [director] Jay [Roach] does — she's just done a lot more than films. But also because of her market power, she inherently had the position at the head of the table. It was important for Jay and I to have a woman in that position anyway, because we're not idiots — we realise there's things we don't know. She ultimately had the most important input on any stage of the process. It's a hard thing for a director to give up control of some of the ultimate variables of a film, but [Jay] made sure that her voice was heard first and foremost. I don't know any other directors that would be comfortable doing that”.
Was there any moment where she stepped in to change something major?
“Jay and I were little concerned about the male gaze component to the camera work up and down Margot's body in the scene with Roger, and particularly his breathing. There's a lingering there that could be easily read as being the very disease you purport to cure. Charlize was the one who was very much insistent on not cutting a frame, maintaining the tension, keeping that. So, usually it was stuff where she erred on the side of courage, complexity, and general ballsiness. There were moments — probably four or five — where Charlize stepped up and said, ‘No, we can have courage, we can do this. We can make this what it is.’ And that was important. Particularly at the end we're really, really trying to capture that this is a person whose deeply complicit in this, again, in this organization, and will never leave it, even though she's going to physically leave it, it's going to be in her DNA and she'll never be able to leave that. She was showing this, unconcerned about how that read to real Megyn or to the world at large.”
In researching the environment at Fox, was there something that genuinely surprised you or challenged your own views in any way?
“I have been surprised by how many women are complicit, and how few feel that. Roger’s behaviour had been bracketed off as a pathology and a weird thing that happened that doesn't need to be addressed culturally. I wouldn't say that the culture of Fox specifically created an atmosphere of harassment, but I would say the culture of corporations in America in general do create an atmosphere that can further a culture of harassment. I've been a little shocked that the women in charge don't want to face that. I was shocked how much animosity there could be internally amongst the various talents. This goes to a kind of broader economic critique, pitting women against women. All of us, when we are in the economic competitions with other people, are extremely vulnerable to manipulation. And that is what Roger counted on.”
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.