“Balancing Real and Unusual” Charles Randolph Talks ‘Bombshell’ and ‘The Big Short’
“I’m looking for things that frighten me a little bit,” declared Academy Award-winning screenwriter Charles Randolph. “Things that feel a little complicated, and maybe a little unusual. Something that sort of gets your blood pumping and people can be engaged by and willing to explore.”
Randolph is known for an array of hard-hitting films, starting his career with The Life of David Gale, and then writing The Interpreter, Love & Other Drugs, The Big Short, and now Bombshell.
“Then I’m looking for characters,” continued the screenwriter. “We often pretend like having a movie made about you is Hollywood’s way of giving you an award, but that’s not what I’m after. I’m not after nobility. I’m interested in people who have a rich and unusual internal conflict.”
In Bombshell, the film focuses on a group of women who conspired to take down Fox News head Roger Ailes for the toxic atmosphere he created within the conservative network.
“These characters, each one of them, has this profound internal dynamic they’re dealing with. I’m also interested in worlds I can bring humor to, where it doesn’t have to be a strong satirical component, but it has to have enough that that can be employed. That’s important to me.”
A New Type of Villain
In some ways, this combination of complex characters living in a satirical world creates a new type of villain. We’re far from the white hats and black hats of early cowboy films, but the villains of The Big Short are monumental and invisible, while the villains of the #MeToo movement in Bombshell are powerful and seemingly (and ironically) untouchable.
“Great movie characters from Charles Foster Kane on have been people we are ambivalent about and often people the creators are ambivalent about. If someone asks, how do you feel about Michael Corleone? I love him. He’s fascinating. But do I like him? No. He’s a bad guy. He becomes a compromised man. I’m interested in characters who resist my ability to put them in those boxes.”
In the latest film, we see Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, two victims of Roger Ailes’ toxic environment. “Megyn Kelly is about to face her own complicity in the culture of Fox, as it leads to sexual harassment. Her silence has enabled this problem to go further and further. She has to face these women with some feeling of guilt.”
Kelly, as a character, is comprised, according to Randolph. She’s doing the right thing, but at the wrong time. “There is good and bad about all of them. In the character of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), there is a human component, [but also] components that are extremely dark. Film is inherently humanizing, so for a film to become political, you have to step outside of that world and point down from above. But that’s usually not a very good film.”
He clarified, “It worked at the very end of The Big Short – the last three minutes – because the voice had become so dominant, we let it take over. But generally, you want to avoid that. So the feeling the badness is whatever those people achieve in that world.”
Societal Obstacles for Character
The screenwriter described the obstacles within these two films as metonymic (look it up). They contain individual obstacles, but also highlight much larger problems in society. In fact, the issues are so large we’re seeing three stories around the same problem all hitting theaters and streamers at the same time with Bombshell, The Loudest Voice, and The Morning Show.
“I’m interested in these rich and complicated worlds so I can say something with a definite perspective, but never judge that perspective. This is what I respect about journalists too. They know where they’re coming from, but they’re willing to question this place, rather than preach to the converted.”
From such a specific perch, there’s quite the tightrope between information, entertainment, and dramatization within Randolph’s scripts. The Big Short had a massive amount of research in the can, thanks to author Michael Lewis, but the screenwriter had to figure out how to explain complex financial issues in an entertaining way. He used “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”
“What I loved about The Big Short is the thematic complexity. What I love about Bombshell is the ideological complexity. Every one of them offers different problems and I want to solve those problems with any means necessary. The audience will follow the narrative, based on plot, or character, or theme, because we’ve trained them with documentaries.”
“So an audience will go on any journey, as long as they understand that linkage, or why they’re being asked to follow one scene after the other. One tool I employ is to let the power of the thematic, like a hot button issue, drive you forward.”
An Uncomfortable Audience
Explaining complex financial issues and pointing fingers are flaws in the financial system is one thing, but dealing with harassment is something else entirely. As such, Randolph did draw a line in the sand with the viewer in mind.
“If you’re in a world based in reality, it’s amazing how powerful scenes can be, like the interview scene between Kayla (Margot Robbie) and Roger, compared to something violent like the end of Joker. Film is a contract between the writer, the director, and the audience,” he added.
“Very small things establish that contract, like the way the credit sequence works or the first scene. When I become uncomfortable in a film, it’s because I don’t fully trust the contract I have with that filmmaker. I don’t know where they’re going to go or if they’re going to go too far.”
He continued, “I try to establish the parameters and then only push them to the degree necessary to communicate the horror or the ugliness of the situation. But I don’t want to violate that contract or brutalize the audience. I also feel that takes you out of the movie and you can’t come back from that.”
In the scene mentioned, Robbie plays Kayla Pospisil, a composite character made up of various testimonies and stories from the Ailes accusers. “The nice thing about composites is that you’re building them out of the same tools you build any character, but you make [them] more overt.”
“Any character you write is based on someone you’ve met in life or other movies, so a composite is the threads that are more obvious to people. With Kayla (a fictitious character), I’m borrowing from real women and you know those scenes are authentic because if they weren’t, then legally we couldn’t portray them. There has to be specificity from someone’s experience.”
The Real and the Unusual
“I’m always trying to balance something that is real and unusual,” he added “because if it’s real it will resonate, and if it’s unusual, it will be interesting. You can get real and not interesting and you can get interesting and not real, but trying to find this Venn diagram in human beings is a set of glasses I put on to make every character adhere to that.”
Viewing the world through this lens creates a unique perspective, but also requires a heavy responsibility. In The Life of David Gale, the writer discussed an activist on death row. In Love & Other Drugs, he created a young woman dealing with love and Parkinson’s Disease.
“I do feel a big responsibility and I feel hesitation with all of my films, usually the night before they open,” he joked. “Did I get that right?” he questions himself. “I do take that responsibility very seriously and it’s always a little painful when someone doesn’t feel like it’s been an accurate reflection, although I’ve been lucky in my career that most of them have been well received.”
Randolph takes on this responsibility by immersing himself in research. In fact, he sees himself as getting paid for digging into research, which is something he enjoys a great deal. Within this immersion, however, he actually misses many other normal aspects of society, missing many films that come out or anything that doesn’t float to the top of the research.
“I’m limited to how much popular culture I can consume because I’m wedded to the research. That has certain limitations and certain benefits, but it’s the part of the job I love the most: immersing myself in these different worlds. The interviews are always tough because you don’t want to talk to people too early in the process or you’ll have them on your shoulder while writing. If their story is available by other means – autobiography, press, or affidavit – I prefer to get the outlines first and work out what’s going on there to bring them in later for verification.”
The screenwriter said outlining first through outside research helps him craft better, more focused questions for sources. In addition, it helps avoid asking various sources for their time or story, and then not being able to use their story because it doesn’t fit in the work.
“There’s something depressing about asking someone to tell this heart-wrenching story and then not being able to use it. I also get concerned because I explore provocative subjects and people have NDAs and they could be putting their jobs at risk. I never want to put someone’s livelihood at risk on a fishing expedition. I’ll meet whoever I need to meet in order to get the story right.”
A Canvas, Not a Mirror
As a screenwriter, he also doesn’t quote people directly. Referring to the script as “a canvas, not a mirror,” he interprets the story but tells sources that he’s creating a character and dramatizing the story. That said, “No one ever likes seeing themselves on screen, particularly in any kind of ambivalent way. It’s a process to get people to embrace what you’re doing, but many are appreciative if you capture something true.”
With contemporary events, such as The Big Short or Bombshell, there’s less fact-checking than stories from decades ago. “If Gretchen Carlson goes out and says X happened and everyone in her world knows X didn’t happen, there’s going to be people online or from her world in the press saying it didn’t happen. Because I’m dealing with contemporary events, I don’t worry too much about competing perspectives.”
“This is a film that people further to the right will complain about and people further to the left will complain about. You know that going in. The loudest voices online aren’t necessarily the ones you worry about in terms of audience. If you pay attention to Twitter, those voices don’t matter for the audience.”
The screenwriter wrote this film before the #MeToo movement, so he doesn’t necessarily feel a sense of justice from the film. But, he does have high hopes that “we’re finally at a place that a social issue film like this can play in the malls, and that has not always been the case.”
In the end, all of Randolph’s films are about social awareness. He believes his job is to try and make politics entertaining, so the films have something to say, but are also exciting and emotional from a narrative perspective.
“Saying something is not just making a moral point. It’s asking us to engage with a moral point that might be a little controversial. It might be counter-intuitive. In Bombshell, I’m trying to say that we think we’re in charge of political discourse in the media, but often we’re not. Those conversations are in charge of us.”
The screenwriter concluded “I’m also saying we should look across the aisle, because there are issues that transcend our partisanship and harassment is one of them. That’s why we chose to tell it from the perspective of conservative women, but the politicalization of it is not going to help us in any way. This is an issue where the space at the center matters.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.
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