“Roger Was Fox and Fox Was Roger” Alex Metcalf On Roger Ailes In ‘The Loudest Voice’
Fox news changed the face of news on our TV screens forever. The term “opinion” news blurred the lines between fact and fantasy. Originally devised as a “fair and balanced” antidote to the left-leaning media, Fox News became a polarizing phenomenon. The Loudest Voice explores the origins of its founder Roger Ailes and his prickly relationship with truth and what constitutes news. We spoke with creator Alex Metcalf about tackling such controversial matter in his TV series.
Based on the book by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Showtime’s The Loudest Voice is a 7-part miniseries about Roger Ailes. The story focuses on the past decade when Ailes became the Republican Party’s leader, while also being charged with several sexual harassment accusations, leading to his eventual firing. Ailes is portrayed by the unrecognizable Russell Crowe. The series also stars Sienna Miller, Seth MacFarlane, and Naomi Watts.
For the adaptation, the creators tried to come up with another title, but decided to merely shorten the title of the book. “The loudest voice in the room doesn’t come rolling off the tongue,” joked Alex Metcalf (Sharp Objects, Kingdom). “We searched for an alternative title, but never landed on anything that spoke to us.”
“Suddenly it occurred to me that the show really is about – whose voice is louder – because it’s obviously a reference to Fox News and Roger Ailes – and later it’s a reference to Gretchen Carlson. Gretchen crosses this voyage and that overwhelmed Roger. It went from a title that didn’t work to the perfect title.”
“Any title that has any ambiguity to it, is good for me. So if people want to construe [the loudest voice as Fox News fans], I think that’s good. That sort of enters into a conversation, whether the viewers are the voice or they are the ears. Right? So that’s a whole other sort of conversation to have.”
Madman or Messiah?
As for the main character, Metcalf found Ailes a fascinating study. “Roger was Fox and Fox was Roger. It’s very much a creation of his psyche and his belief. I don’t think he’s a really well-known figure. You rarely find the case of a relatively unknown figure who has such a profound impact on the media and the politics of the country. Roger, arguably, through his vision and his power has changed the political culture of our country profoundly.”
“Even in our current moment where Trump talks to Fox and Fox talks to Trump on a daily basis, and they’re having this one-on-one conversation to the media and responding to each other. I don’t even think Roger would have ever imagined anything like that. The sort of impact that this man had with Faustian personal presence is angry, funny, charming, bitter, nostalgic, and forward thinking.”
“Ailes was such a man of contradictions, wrapped in this big bear of a body, that could either be soft and cuddly, or threatening to crush you. All the contradictions of that man and the importance of that man became the story that we had to tell, given our current political climate and the power and influence of Fox News.”
Metcalf wouldn’t label Ailes as a madman or messiah, but he does consider him a paranoid person later in life. “I think that [paranoia] was from his classic American upbringing out of Warren, Ohio.” Ailes had a complicated childhood, which made him rife with contradictions. “He was always a behind-the-scenes guy. He was backstage manipulating what the audience could see. He’s both Svengali and Machiavelli.”
Outside of health issues [, Metcalf and company focused on Ailes’ backstory to create his political discourse. Ailes’ father was a staunch anti-union guy (who ironically accepted the benefits of being in a union with Packard), so there are ties to a Republican upbringing.
“In his later years, Ailes began to see his ideas of the America he knew disappear. I think that was especially profound with the election of Obama,” he added.
Adapting Roger’s Story
Outside of the book by Gabriel Sherman, Metcalf researched stories and articles in New York Magazine, also written by Sherman. When Metcalf and company started working on the TV series, Ailes was still alive which shaped the original point of the view.
“When he died, it sort of opened us up to reach a little further into his personal life. Originally, we were thinking of producing ten episodes and telling a story from multiple points of view and then jumping back and forth through time. Roger was then meant to be the Citizen Kane-like mysterious figure above it all.”
This original viewpoint was supposed to highlight the life of Roger Ailes without specifically attacking him. “It was a really interesting take, but once he died, we recognized we had the opportunity to actually tell Roger’s story. So we shifted from multiple points-of-view to Roger’s point-of-view. It shifted to become Roger’s story, rather than other stories with Roger in it.”
“Once we landed on the idea of Roger’s story, we were very conscious of the idea of not wanting to do a traditional biopic. We wanted to hit the important points in his life, but also be sort of incisive, and a little less reductive than that. There are so many great stories from his youth and with Mike Douglas on the campaign trail. All that stuff is really fascinating and it really speaks to how this man became the man he was.”
“But, once we got in the room, we came up with an iteration about the growth of Fox News. This really gave us a frame to tell the story that would allow us to go back to Nixon, moments with his son, or going back to Ohio. We could get to into all that stuff without having to be there, but also tell Ailes’ story linearly. I’m not a flashback fan.”
A Political Animal
In the first episode of The Loudest Voice, the writers made it clear Ailes had a new idea for Fox News. “He wanted to run the network based on public relations. Roger is Fox and Fox is Roger. It’s very much the same thing.” But the writers were also fascinated with Ailes outside of his iconic role as a “political animal.”
Ailes previously produced a handful of Broadway plays and he was a fan of theater as a kid. “The entertainment aspect of Roger was deeply embedded in him and his views on how news should be told. I had never seen that before. I knew what I knew about Roger Ailes, because I’m a political news junkie, but I had always seen him as purely a political man. I wish we got to articulate that more within the context of his past, but it did change how we saw his character.”
Extended from Roger was the dichotomy of the Fox network. “The poppy colors, the glass top tables so we can see the female anchors’ legs, and all of that stuff came from Roger the entertainer. News/opinion was his stage.” This also led to an interesting dynamic between Ailes and Rupert Murdoch (CEO Of Fox parent, News Corporation). There were many clashes between the two in how far opinion could be spun as news. Ailes’ often won so long as the megabucks kept flooding in.
“There was a lot of journalistic work done on both Roger and Rupert. The thing that struck me the most is that Rupert is conflict-averse. Trump forces people to quit rather than fire them because he is also conflict-averse. Rupert, I think, really will walk away from conflict. Given that Roger is a man who steps right up to it, and is not afraid of conflict. That seems to be kind of the fulcrum of their relationship.”
“Roger would have to drive conflict to get what he wanted from Rupert. The thing that Murdoch wanted for Fox News was that he wanted to influence and money. That’s what drove him.”
“Fox News made money hand over fist. It was just it was a money machine. They had a testy relationship, but ultimate Roger was going to win the battles.”
Then, of course, there’s the influence of their wives. “Rupert’s wife Wendy seems to have influenced Rupert both physically and politically. She stopped him from drinking too much, got him on a better diet, and made him cut his hair. He met the Obamas, which bothered Roger because he felt Rupert was betraying the conservative cause.”
Creating Elizabeth Ailes
As for Elizabeth Ailes, there are more complications. “Sienna Miller is phenomenal in this role. I think she does amazing work on the show and people will see her in a way they haven’t seen her before. Elizabeth was his third wife. She came out of the professional world, where his other wives did not.”
“Elizabeth was a strong, competent, producer at CNBC, which is where they first met. I think there was a sense of an equality given that she was such a competent producer. I think that relationship to him was a little bit unique in that she had a voice rather than merely being a wife.
Even after his death, Elizabeth didn’t believe Roger did the things he was accused of while working at Fox News. “Their relationship was also complicated by the fact that there’s a 25-year difference in their ages. So Roger was quite an old man by the time their son is born. But they still bonded together.”
The TV writers’ room, which consisted of Alex Metcalf, Laura Eason, Tom McCarthy, author Gabe Sherman, and various fact checkers and assistants, could be described as an “odd room.” According to Alex Metcalf, only two writers had television writing experience, but all were interested in the struggle of creating the right tone and voice for the The Loudest Voice.
“That’s always the hardest part of a room – creating a voice – especially when you’re creating a new show. There are no existing characters. There’s no existing voice or tone.” Amongst screenwriters and authors, most at home writing alone, the room had the challenge of building a collaboration for the sake of the story.
“The room involved a lot of conversation on points of view, how political the story is, how personal the story is, which story we want to land on, and where we want to go. But it was actually a really fun writers’ room. It was very conversational and very political. Once we settled on telling Roger’s story the tone became apparent. It was a natural outgrowth of our conversations. The tone became Roger. Whenever we felt lost, we went back to Roger.”
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