With the acclaimed television films “Recount” and “Game Change” to his recent credit, Jay Roach is without question the go-to director these days for political dramas.
Even better, he’s also the gifted helmer behind the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” films, which makes him the perfect candidate for the new Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis comedy satire, “The Campaign.”
Or is it a comedy? After all, American politics comes off as a big farce at times, especially during campaign season.
“We’ve joked about how ‘The Campaign’ seems like more of a documentary than a broad comedy,” Roach told me with a laugh in a recent interview. “We’re one click away from having politicians making ads as outrageous as ours are.”
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Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Campaign” stars Ferrell as Cam Brady, a long-term Democratic congressman who is used to getting re-elected merely by placing his name on the ballot in the 14th district of North Carolina. But when a salacious call to his mistress ends up on the wrong answering machine and his popularity numbers plummet, a mousy, squeaky-clean Republican candidate named Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is recruited in the hopes of unseating the freewheeling, carousing politico.
The problem is, as Marty is being groomed by a cutthroat campaign manager (Dermot Mulroney), the newbie’s idealism is thrown out the door as the race turns into an all-out mudslinging match. No dirty game is off limits to either candidate — or the special interest people behind them throwing loads of cash their way.
While “The Campaign” is about politics, naturally, Roach said there’s no secret political agenda hidden within it. The movie doesn’t take sides with Democrats or Republicans, but instead points out the faults of a system spinning wildly out of control.
“We wanted ‘The Campaign’ to be bipartisan-bashing enterprise,” Roach said. “It’s set it in North Carolina because it’s a purple state, and we were very careful to make Will’s character a Democrat and Zach’s a Republican, because a comedy about a primary wouldn’t work as well. The idea was to pit them against each as political opposites so the conflict would be as heightened as it could possibly be. We always hoped to make it a non-partisan film because we wanted to make fun of the system, the media and really, we in the population who fall for this stuff sometimes.”
The great thing about “The Campaign” is that it shows what ridiculous lengths real-life candidates will go to plant ideas in prospective voters’ minds. In one case, Marty tries to tie something Cam did as an 8-year-old to a future, socialist agenda.
“One of my favorite scenes is when Zach finds Will’s second-grade essay about a rainbow and a pot of gold and calls it a communist manifesto, and half of the audience in the debate falls for it and a huge riot erupts,” Roach said, laughing. “To me, right there, that’s the story of our political climate.”
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As outrageously funny the scene is in the film, Roach believes that sometimes that’s the sorry truth about people’s beliefs when it comes to politics. They so badly want things to be true that they’re willing to blindly accept them even if they aren’t.
“Conflict sells and scandal sells,” Roach observed. “The problem is nowadays, because there’s so much pressure on every media outlet to stand out and so much pressure on every candidate to make such a big splash, the more outrageous it is, the better. If you don’t educate yourself or care enough to learn about the issues, this is what you get. We’re not preaching about that in the movie, we’re laughing at it.”
Apart from the comedy Roach found in the reality of “The Campaign,” he said he was inspired by the passion both Ferrell and Galifianakis brought to their work.
“It’s great to be involved in something that you feel has some relevance, but you mostly want people to enjoy these two guys’ work — they’re two of the funniest guys I’ve ever gotten to work with,” Roach said. “The way they’ve designed each of their characters to be so beautifully opposite is great. They’re committed to trashing each other — a kind of dynamic that’s part of the political system these days.”
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