Opening at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way quickly became a cultural touchstone—re-framing the legacy of one of America’s greatest presidents while holding up a mirror to the challenges and fears in contemporary America, as one of the most significant elections in American history moves toward its dramatic conclusion. Earning a Tony for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson on Broadway, Emmy winner Bryan Cranston then resolved to continue on with the role in an HBO film, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Jay Roach—a film which has garnered eight Emmy nominations and is viewed as a clear frontrunner in the Outstanding Television Movie category. Below, Robert Schenkkan and Jay Roach discuss their collaboration on the project, in-character pranks from Cranston, their ongoing relationship wih HBO, and more.
You’ve both received great recognition at the Emmys in years past—what do this year’s nominations for All the Way mean to you?
Robert Schenkkan: I’m thrilled about it. My previous Emmy experience was, of course, two nominations as a writer for HBO’s The Pacific. But in this instance, I’m the sole writer, and the originator of the material, so I feel an even greater sense of ownership, when you combine that with being an EP. It really does feel even more personal this time.
Jay Roach: That’s the name for the sequel. “It’s More Personal This Time!” [Laughs] No, but it was personal for Robert; it started with Robert, and we all got to just join in the movement. What this process has always meant to me, in relation to making these films based on great stories—is that they’re hard to get made, people have an actual bias against there being some kind of popularity for political films, and when they get acknowledged, it helps keep the conversation going.
Robert, could you give a glimpse into the wild ride you’ve been on with this title, over the course of its many manifestations?
Schenkkan: I was approached by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—I have a longstanding relationship with the artistic directors—to write a new play for their American Revolutions project, not just re-telling history, but illuminating the contemporary political and cultural situation. I knew right away that I wanted to write about LBJ because he’d been in my head for a very, very long time. This was a fairly long process, but the one thing I said to them was that I wanted us to open the play in 2012, which was a Presidential election year, of course. That was the goal, and we did.
We all work very hard at everything we do, and you always hope that it will take off, but all of us were a little surprised at the enormous response. I think the audience is hungry to engage in the political conversation of these issues: power, politics, race, the Presidential election, all of it.
The Broadway production went to Boston and into New York, and it really felt like we entered the national conversation. Opening night, Nancy Pelosi sat in front of me and Steven Spielberg sat behind me. The Clintons came and saw the show; the Attorney General came. It was fascinating, and I really felt like we moved the needle a little bit. I had known Steven for some time, of course, and he responded to the script without seeing it. Spielberg, of course, is such a political animal. He signed on very early, and one of the first things Steven said to me—and certainly one of the best things—he said, “Jay Roach should direct this.”
Then, it was all about adapting this material, and right from the beginning, my position in this was absolutely embraced by Steven and Jay. We used to joke on set about being a ‘Band of Brothers,’ but I gotta say, I really felt that way.
And here we are, now, in another Presidential election, where the stakes couldn’t be higher, the issues, more sharp. All the issues that we talk about in this film resonate so keenly. You want to be a part of that conversation, because it’s the conversation to be had—the direction of the Republic. Who are we? Where are we going? How are we supposed to responsibly exercise power?
You share a sterling track record with HBO; Jay’s past two television movies made for the premium cable channel have resulted in four Emmys. What makes HBO the ideal avenue for releasing these films?
Roach: I think it starts at the top—[HBO chairman] Richard Plepler is a really political person. He’s always been close to a number of political journalists, and he radiates that. HBO has been very successful at making interesting political films for a long, long time, so when I got the break to do Recount, I was like, “Wow. This is the place to make these kinds of movies. The studios aren’t going to make them anymore.” And more people see them on HBO than they do if they were made as a small independent film. And then couple that with their creative collaboration, which is outstanding. [HBO Films President] Len Amato, who’s done all three films with me, is just an outstanding executive—so atypical in the Hollywood business, in my opinion, in terms of being a great creative teammate.
Schenkkan: I think I would just describe it as courage and class. They’re bold—they’re not afraid to touch a really controversial story like this, and the class with which they execute it is always of the highest.
What was it that made Bryan Cranston the right actor to portray LBJ?
Schenkkan: Bryan is just a transcendent, transformative actor. And this is a Shakespearian character; the depths and complexity of this character cannot be overstated. Bryan really embraces that, but then finds levels and depths, and details that you didn’t even know were there. From that standpoint, to have been able to work with Bryan on this story over this range of time and these platforms—both on Broadway, which is a very different kind of format to the intimacy and nuance that Jay brought out in the television production; really, it’s an extraordinary range—I feel so fortunate to have been present for it.
Jay, in relation to Trumbo, you had previously spoken about heated, though entirely amicable discussions between yourself and Cranston on set. Were there similar moments on this film?
Roach: I was joking about that because I love debate—I really believe in the creative dialectic, that people have strong, passionate ideas, we’re all trying to do the same thing, and sometimes you’ll disagree about how to get there. The way to turn that into a productive conversation is just let the passions fly. This is our process—this is what we do to get to how it should be portrayed.
One of the lesser-discussed elements in this film is LBJ’s exceptional, often vulgar sense of humor.
Schenkkan:. Most people who grew up with Johnson have this image of him in those terrible television speeches, where he’s so forced. What’s fascinating about that is that’s not how he was, really. He was so insecure about following Jack [Kennedy], and not being a Harvard grad, not being a blue blood—he created this television persona that he thought was presidential, and it was terrible! The real guy, by everybody’s account, was the life of the party; he was funny, he was ribald, he told wonderful jokes. He was a fantastic raconteur. The irony within irony of that, of this incredibly shrewd politician having such a phenomenal blind spot, is really kind of extraordinary. That was something that all of us responded to strongly, and tried to bring out. The aqua car—he actually used to do that! [Laughs] He would do these terrible practical jokes on people, pretend to lose control while driving, and drive into the lake! He just thought that was hilarious. And I thought, god, that’s such a movie moment.
Roach: Robert opened it up quite a bit from the play by writing that in, and a number of other moments that were very cinematic. Bryan’s so good at playing the larger-than-life guy—he’s got some real comedic chops. When Bryan would stay in character in between takes, it was so that he could mess with us all in LBJ’s body. [Laughs] You would always be lucky if you did get through the day without being made fun of by LBJ himself. One of the great things that happened on the set is, we had Frank Langella, who does an amazing Nixon, and we also had Bradley Whitford, who does a pretty amazing, hilarious Clinton. We’d have the three Presidents wandering around the Oval Office, talking about the advantages and disadvantages of secretly recording a phone call. [Laughs] And again, what Robert created all came out of character—Johnson would prank you and mess with you, but often to get you off balance so he could then work on the legislation that he knew was life and death to people.
LBJ states in All the Way that politics is not war by other means, but war itself. With this in mind, why cut around the horrific scenes of violence introduced by the film, which were transpiring in the South at the time?
Roach: For me, a lot of times the decisions are based on point of view. Although we do go down to the South, the idea is to set up what this felt like from LBJ’s point of view, and Martin Luther King’s point of view. The events came at them through the newspaper, and the story is really more about how they react to what’s happened. So I think rather than rely on shortcuts to emotion through on-screen graphic violence, it’s certainly not sugarcoating what happened, and I feel like the reactions were more what the film was going for, than trying to connect to people through a visceral reaction.
Schenkkan: These wounds are so painful in the American body politic, and you don’t want to be exploitive, with shock for shock’s sake. The point is to make people aware of why this violence is taking place—this wasn’t irrational violence; this was violence in pursuit of an objective—and to heighten, as a consequence of that, the moral and political struggle to defeat this. It’s very easy to just lean in to the on-screen violence, but that lets us off the hook in a way. There’s a lot of rhetorical violence right now, in this political campaign. It’s very, very dangerous, and what I hope is that one of the things we accomplish in this film is showing how potent and important, and often dangerous, language can be. This is a consequence of that—people die.
Given your mutual fascination with history, is there a specific public figure or period of history you’ve not yet touched that you’d like to explore?
Schenkkan: Well, of course, there is a sequel to this, [The Great Society], which carries LBJ forward from 1964 to 1968, and leads us into Vietnam. We’re all chomping at the bit to get at that. But I’m very caught up in where we’re at right now. This is another period in American history with a really unique set of circumstances. I wouldn’t mind writing about this.
Roach: I’m with Robert on that—that in a way, it’s one of the most interesting things that’s happened in a long time. It’s also one of the most dangerous sets of forces in play, in my opinion. It’s funny, I was going to go back further in history and say that I would like to spend more time studying our country right before we reached a point of no return in the Civil War, because I think there’s an anxiety now that we are so divided. What did it look like to see a civilization unravel? How fragile is society? And if we’re going to stay together, what are the forces that will hold us together, from which we can derive hope for the future?
I’m always interested in that potential tipping point, or that place where a society either completely falls apart, or is glued together. I think the problem is the apathy, and the disconnect from how fragile things are. In particular right now, there’s such a reckless tendency to exploit peoples’ fear. People are willing to throw our civilization under the bus to discredit the existing system, without any proposed solution to the problems that they’re willing to pointing at. One of my favorite lines in the whole movie is from Johnson, when he quotes Sam Rayburn: “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” That probably should’ve been on our poster. That’s how I feel right now.
Jay, you had spoken in June about Trump, and the notion that there is a spell over the Republic that will be broken in time. With the progression of events since then, do you remain confident in this position?
Roach: I do feel like the mirage is dissolving—in a certain way, the Wicked Witch is melting. But I also would be quick to throw in that whatever happens with Trump, there is an energy in our country that will have to be dealt with, will have to be acknowledged and coped with. There are people who feel that they’ve lost ground, lost access to government—people whose quality of life has been affected. There are people who are capable of surfing that discontent—Donald Trump is very capable of surfing it—and I don’t think it’s all about him. It’s about a cultural mood.
Schenkkan: Within this nativist, nationalist ugliness, there are people who have legitimate grievances, who the economic system has left behind. Both parties have to take a certain amount of responsibility for that, and the hope is that that will be addressed. It must be addressed, because it’s not going away.
Roach: One of the great things about Robert’s play was that he shows Johnson having the dilemma of continuing to exploit the populists in the South to take advantage of the fear of a kind of growing power in the African community, or whatever the fantasy was that the Dixiecrats had. Johnson could have easily chosen fear, but he actually chose love—‘I love my country, I love all people in this country, and I want to, in a loving way—in a way that’s committed to justice—risk the forces that I could rely on to get me re-elected.’ That, I think is why the film matters now. Johnson made some tough decisions later in his life that helped people forget what he did at this time, but what he did during this time was truly presidential.
And in the debate now, where both candidates are lobbying accusations of the other candidate being completely un-presidential—lacking the temperament—this movie is all about that. What does it mean to be presidential? I’m continually anxious about our civilization, and these kinds of stories are very, very meaningful to me, and meaningful to Robert. And that’s why we’re making them.