Showtime airs the battle between ex-FBI director James Comey and President Donald Trump and the investigation into Russian election meddling depicted in The Comey Rule on Sunday and Monday. This after ViacomCBS changed a shocking decision to relegate the $40 million star-studded series to January. Here, Billy Ray holds court on the place both men will occupy in history. Jeff Daniels plays Comey, Brendan Gleeson plays the man who fired him, and they are surrounded by a lauded cast to tell a story Ray says most viewers only think they know.
DEADLINE: You told James Comey when you first met him that you believed his decision to raise the alarm on Hillary Clinton’s emails again 11 days before the election allowed Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. Having immersed yourself in his decision-making process with this miniseries, how do you feel about it, and will he be remembered as being on the right side of history?
BILLY RAY: James Clapper, who was the Director of National Intelligence and who would therefore know, told me that the deciding factor in the 2016 election was not Comey. It was the Russians, and that changed my view of a lot of things. It also created, for me, much more urgency to get this thing made and to get it out there before the 2020 election.
RAY: Because I think voters need to know that a foreign adversary hand-picked our president in 2016, and I don’t think anybody can make the argument that we’re better off today than we were four years ago. That was the design of a foreign adversary. Do we want to do that again for four more years? Can we survive four more years?
DEADLINE: It was clear Comey and others in the FBI knew about this Russian meddling. Why didn’t he disclose it at the same time he announced the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email? Is that something you discussed with him?
RAY: It’s something that they would never have done in a million years. You never, ever publicize a foreign intel operation.
DEADLINE: Is Comey at peace with his decision? Hillary Clinton has attributed that last-minute shocker as heavily contributing to her loss.
RAY: I don’t get the feeling that he is at peace at all with where our country is, and I think he has deep discomfort that he was involved in any way with this result. But I think given the exact same circumstances he would probably do the same thing again. As I have told him, the screenwriter in me wishes I could go back in time to 2016 and do a rewrite on some of the things he did.
DEADLINE: What would you rewrite?
RAY: Well, first of all, the statement he made on his own. I would have had him do it with Sally Yates standing next to him, and I would’ve shortened it to two minutes.
DEADLINE: What good would that have done?
RAY: It would’ve put less of a target on the FBI’s back and less of a target on Comey’s back. It would have drawn less attention, and it would have made it easier to make the case that the FBI is a completely apolitical institution. That was the intention. The intention was to say I’m going to prove to you how tough we were on Hillary in order to prove to you that our decision not to prosecute Hillary was apolitical, but I think all anybody out there heard was how tough they were on Hillary.
DEADLINE: You really think it didn’t cost her the White House, even as she got more votes than Trump?
RAY: I think there were so many mistakes made in the Hillary Clinton campaign. It seems really, really unfair for anybody to put that on James Comey.
DEADLINE: Considering that even now many people don’t know how to feel about Comey, what appealed to you about taking on this job first as writer and then director?
RAY: I had been watching for three years as Donald Trump described a group of people as the Deep State, which was such a character assassination and such a mischaracterization of something that I knew to be very pure. In other words, the people that he was calling the Deep State, are patriots. They’re public servants. They work in the government and they care deeply about it. They care about America. They care about our democracy. They care about the apolitical institutions that make that democracy possible. Those he calls the Deep State are people who are suspicious of his intentions, and it turns out they were right to be.
DEADLINE: You mean from a notion that he governs out of self-interest, and has often debunked the work of his intelligence agencies when it goes against his grain?
RAY: What I mean is that no one can point to a single instance in the last four years in which Donald Trump has prioritized America over his own self-interests. Not once. Not one decision. Not one tweet. Not one hiring. Not one firing. Never.
DEADLINE: What contribution did you believe telling the Comey-Trump story could lend to a most heated presidential election race?
RAY: I wanted to tell a story about how heartbreaking it can be to be a public servant. James Comey, whether you agree or disagree with his decisions, is a public servant to his core, and you may not like the decisions he made, but here was an examination of the process by which those decisions were derived. Now, contrast that with the president. What drives his decision-making? It is self-interest, greed, everything…Every worst impulse possible.
DEADLINE: You spent a good bit of time with Comey. Was there anything that he asked for you to change in this dramatization when he read the scripts? And how did the man surprise you compared to what you expected him to be?
RAY: He surprised me on a lot of levels. First of all, I learned while doing my research that he watched This Is Us every week. And cries. That was a shocker. That floored me, and of course that couldn’t fit in the movie. Secondly, this guy had two years of opportunities in which to try to manipulate me or spin me or steer me into painting a more flattering portrait of him, and he never took that opportunity. Not once. And he read lots of drafts. Never once did I get a note that said gee, you kind of make me look like a dick here. Can you help a little bit? Not once. And think about some of the things that are said about Comey in this series. I really try not to read reviews. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer/director to do that. But I know there are some reviews that have said that this is a love letter to Comey. That is such a fundamental misreading of what this series is that it’s kind of breathtaking. And it’s really really lazy criticism, because the fact is look at what people say about Comey in this series. We take a lot of shots at that guy, and Comey himself never complained about it. I always felt like we were being very, very truthful. This is not an apology for Comey, this series. This is an examination of decisions that were made in 2016 and 2017 that have changed the world.
DEADLINE: Trump did a bunch of audio taped interviews with Woodward for his book, Rage. Since your miniseries turned out to be heavily mano a mano between Comey and Trump, what happened when you tried to sit down with the president to get his side of the story?
RAY: In fairness I didn’t try very hard to sit down with the president. There was a little bit of contact with the White House. I don’t want to go into a great deal of detail about it. It was very clear to me that if I enlisted Trump as a source that I would then have to share the script with the White House, and that just seemed like a suicidal move.
DEADLINE: The risk he would have put it on Twitter?
RAY: Yeah, of course. Let me ask you a question, and I would ask this of even the most ardent Trump supporter. If you had written a teleplay that you needed to keep top secret, would you entrust it with Donald Trump? Is that a guy you’d ask to keep it secret? If Mike Pence wrote a screenplay and said, ‘Hey, 45. I really need you to keep this under wraps,’ the guy couldn’t do it.
DEADLINE: How did you compensate with no input from the president?
RAY: You always have to question and scrutinize the veracity of your sources, that’s journalism 101. There is nothing that James Comey has ever said in public that has been proven untrue. Not one thing, and I’ll go further. There’s not one thing he’s said in public that’s even been kind of shaky, or looked like it was spin. Everything he has said has been true. During that same period, Donald Trump has told 25,000 lies. I mean, provable lies. So, when I look at something like the Loyalty Dinner where Comey took copious notes as soon as the dinner was over to memorialize what had happened, what I have to do then as a storyteller is to say, okay, here are the things he says Donald Trump said. Looking at the public-facing reporting on Donald Trump, do Comey’s notes comport with what I know to be true of Donald Trump? 100 percent.
DEADLINE: There are moments in your miniseries that Trump would not like them if he watches this, such as his skin-crawling attempt to become Comey’s friend with the dinner in the White House, and the handshake in the room full of people, down to Trump being served an Egg McMuffin on a beautiful silver tray. Describe what was in your mind as you and Brendan Gleeson built this character, and the challenge of what’s it like to do that when the character you are building does not reflect your own political beliefs or values?
RAY: The conversations with Brendan were just like the conversations I would have with any actor on any movie, if they were the star or playing newspaper man number 10. The conversation is, what does your character want and how is your character trying to get it? That’s it. All you talk about is verbs, not adjectives. What are the intentions, not what are the emotions? Brendan is such a great actor. I knew he was going to come in prepared. It would be lazy, horrible directing to say to him hey, can you be more villainous here? Can you be a bigger doofus? That’s just crappy directing.
DEADLINE: Were you perhaps tempted on occasion?
RAY: Never. Never. You know why? Because as a director you don’t want to give an actor a result. You want to help them organically from the inside out become the person, and so all we talked about with Trump was in this scene, what does he want and how is he trying to get it? And to be honest with you, most of the time when he was in a scene with Comey, it was really simple. It was okay, charm him. Okay, threaten him. Okay, this time, just don’t let him breathe. Be 10 firehoses right now pointing at this guy. Do not let him breathe. Bully him, and then you go up to Jeff Daniels and you say, whatever you do, don’t get bullied. And then you’ve got conflict.
DEADLINE: How many takes in those scenes between them would it take to get that balance right?
RAY: With actors that good, not many.
DEADLINE: All of the Comey-Trump and FBI stuff has been covered so exhaustively, and picked apart with different interpretations through CNN and Fox News, that you need to account for everything. I noticed that most times when we saw FBI investigators Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, they were clearly in some assignation in a hotel. It is known they had an affair while he was married because her texts were made public. Why creatively did you feel like you needed to have it depicted that way?
RAY: Okay. Well, I want to answer that question in two parts because the first part is really significant. Yes, everybody believes that they know what happened in 2016, but what they know is completely informed by which news source they were looking at, and in America people choose the news that agrees with them. So, your experience of the 2016 election was very different if you were watching Fox News or listening to Sinclair Radio than it was if you were watching MSNBC or CNN, but here was this opportunity to take you inside the rooms that you didn’t have access to, and to say, okay, this is what actually happened. This is what these human beings were grappling with. Now make up your mind.
So, that’s part A. Part B is, I have zero interest in the affair between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. I mean, less than zero, but they were necessary. Lisa and Peter were part of the investigation that the FBI was conducting, and so they were a necessary part of the movie, and if I didn’t acknowledge their affair I would have been accused of whitewashing. So, even though it did not interest me I had to acknowledge that the affair happened. So, what I did was I took what was publicly reported as dialogue in their text exchanges and just made it the dialogue in those scenes.
DEADLINE: There was high drama when ViacomCBS declared it would not air The Comey Rule until after the presidential election was decided. You have underplayed it when describing the letter you sent to cast that leaked to journalists and put pressure on them to change course. Describe that day when you were told that a decision had come from the top of CBS that not only were you not going to be seen on CBS All Access, but that basically you were not going to air on Showtime until after the election. You’d made promises, including one that got Jeff Daniels to move right from his To Kill a Mockingbird Broadway run into this, so it would be ready to air in election season. What did it feel like?
RAY: First of all, everybody involved with this production signed on with the understanding that we were airing before the election. If I had said to Jeff Daniels hey, we’re going to air in January, he would have said, no. And that’s true of every single member of the cast. Every single member of that cast told me during the shoot they were there because they felt it was their civic duty. Start with that. Then, add in that we were getting pressure from the network to deliver fast, by May 15. Which required an incredibly compressed post schedule. We were shooting four scenes a day. We essentially made two movies in 51 days. So, start with that as the baseline.
Then around March we started to hear rumors that the show might air after the election, and at first I didn’t really believe it in the same way that I didn’t really believe Donald Trump would be elected president. It just seemed like such a bad idea that there was just no way that could be the ultimate result. And the reason I felt that way was because when I think about the amount of attention that this series is getting right now, six weeks out from an election…we’re white hot. Air us in January and we’re an historical artifact. Either [Joe] Biden has been elected and therefore it’s really not necessary to tell this story, or Trump has been elected, in which case the United States is in so much trouble nobody could stomach this story. So, January was just an insane idea. We went through all the proper channels, and to my shock, we just ran into a brick wall.
DEADLINE: You realized it was true.
RAY: And we were told that the conversation itself was a non-starter, and that we were not going to be allowed to seek another network. Having taken it as far as I could take it, I wrote a letter to my cast that essentially said, I have failed you. It was my job to win this fight and I didn’t, and the thing that I promised to every single one of you I have now failed to deliver. We are not going to air before the election and I’m sick about it. And I was sick about it. So, here’s the part of the story that nobody knows. I sent that letter 10 or 11 at night, and the next morning my phone rings at seven o’clock. It’s a reporter from the New York Times saying, did you send this letter? I said yes, and then she says to me, where did you get the idea that Donald Trump had personally pressured Shari Redstone into pushing this off? I said, I have no such information. She said then why did you say it in your letter? I said I did not. She reads to me the end of my letter as she had received it, and someone has added a line saying it was from me. The line said, ‘did Donald Trump pressure Shari Redstone to move this air date? You bet he did.’ I jump out of bed. I race to my computer and turn it on, and I say to the reporter I am now going to send you the letter that I actually sent, which does not have that line in it because I don’t know that to be true. I said, now I need you to read this back to me so that I know you have this. She did, and then I just lay on the floor with my heart pounding thinking oh, my God. Not only has this letter leaked, but someone has doctored it.
DEADLINE: Did you figure out who?
RAY: No, I never found out who did that. So, where this winds up is a very nervous morning, waiting to see what the reaction will be. I know Viacom is not going to be happy about this, but I felt it was the right thing to do, and it turns out that there had been a movement inside Viacom and Showtime to air before the election because they obviously knew just as a commodity it would draw so many more eyeballs in September than it would in January. I think my letter had given that particular movement some cover. I don’t think my letter changed the world.
DEADLINE: I’m sure you probably were aware there was precedent when CBS made the miniseries The Reagans, and when it was too biting for its audience, the network delayed it and wound up airing it on Showtime, as yours will. You don’t have to go far in a Google search to see the mutual admiration society that exists between Shari Redstone and Donald Trump. Do you think Trump made a personal request to render your miniseries a post-election afterthought?
RAY: I really have no idea, sincerely. What I think was actually the deciding factor, and this is a pure guess…if you go back and look at what was happening historically in that moment, [Trump] had just taken that disastrous trip across Lafayette Square to the church and held the Bible upside down. And he had peaceful protesters tear-gassed and called in the military. If you go back and look just at the context of it, you could make the argument, this was the week that cost him the election. Perhaps someone at Viacom was thinking, why are we so afraid of Donald Trump? He’s not going to win. That’s possible. I just don’t know. What I do know is that there were clearly forces working within Viacom that always knew this was the right air date and thank God they prevailed.
DEADLINE: Has enough been done to promote it? They broadcast football and I don’t recall seeing spots last Sunday.
RAY: Yes, they have done enough. One thing I will say about the results of all this is that because so much attention suddenly fell on Showtime in terms of the air date, this had to be a hit. They had to get a great number, or they would have called all the wrong kind of attention upon themselves. So, the people that I have worked with at Showtime to get this thing out there have been hugely dedicated, very committed to the success of the series. And gratifyingly, they love the show.
DEADLINE: When the book was shopped, a number of outlets stepped up to bid on it, and then vanished. And you went through talks with director Ron Howard, with Ray Donovan’s Liev Schreiber to play Comey, with Anthony Hopkins to play Trump. How much of the hot potato nature of this project led to people and broadcasters to back away?
RAY: You’d have to ask them. I understand that fear, that risk. I’m not a thrill seeker. I don’t want a public life. I want to be able to write and direct and tell stories and live quietly. Twitter tirades aside, the only time I’m ever doing interviews is in support of a project. The risks attached to criticizing this president are very real, and of course they would scare people away.
DEADLINE: We just saw protesters in front of Mitch McConnell’s home over a quick appointment of a nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And before social media, the opening of Last Temptation of Christ was rushed because protesters dragged crosses in front of the homes of Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg. How does this manifest itself in the social media age?
RAY: Well, we’ll see. It has to air first. Part of the danger of Donald Trump is the way he responds to criticism. Oliver Stone made the movie W. while W. was still president, and to the best of my knowledge, W. never commented about it publicly.
DEADLINE: Hopkins played Nixon for Oliver Stone. He played Hannibal Lecter, so he’s pretty fearless. Given that his wife is of Colombian descent, and Trump’s anti-immigration and separating children from parents trying to sneak in, was that a factor in the actor’s exit?
RAY: I don’t want to speak for Anthony Hopkins and why he chose not to engage. He and I sat down. We talked. We exchanged emails. He was in, and then he was out. That said, we wound up with the right guy. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have skipped the Hopkins step and just gone right to Brendan Gleeson. That part could not have been played any better.
DEADLINE: He did a hell of a job. You’ve taken on a number of movies and now a mini based on real people, from Shattered Glass to Captain Phillips to Richard Jewell. The latter got caught up in controversy over the depiction that Atlanta Journal Constitution crime reporter Kathy Scruggs slept with an FBI agent to get the tip that Jewell was being investigated as a possible suspect. What did you learn from that, and what, as a writer and director, do you owe to truth and your characters? After all, you’re not creating a documentary, you’re creating a storytelling experience that has to be entertaining.
RAY: I’m not a documentary filmmaker, and I’m not a journalist. My job is a dramatic interpretation of events, and if I don’t do it in an entertaining way then I’m not going to have a career. It has to be compelling, and harrowing and powerful. It has to be oddly hopeful. That’s the job. In this case, all I had to do was report the facts. The drama was there. The stakes could not be higher. You learn lessons on every movie. I certainly learned an important lesson on Richard Jewell. That said, I am enormously proud of that movie. I believe it will have a great afterlife, and I think that when people look back on the totality of Clint Eastwood’s career, they’ll say that Richard Jewell was one of his best films.
DEADLINE: Will you be watching for Trump tweets as the miniseries airs beginning Sunday? Will it be a signal of success if you’ve gotten under his skin?
RAY: I think that anybody who bases their happiness on Donald Trump’s responses is asking for a lot of unhappiness. He’ll either be aware of it or he won’t be. He’ll either see it or he won’t. Either way, I’m so satisfied with what this series is and I’m so excited for the American public and the world to see what my actors did. I think those performances are spectacular. They deserve the largest audience possible. I’ve personally shown the series to maybe 100 people, and what I find is the same experience over and over. Before they’ve watched it, people say, ‘Do I really want to relive this?’ And by the time it’s over, they somehow feel more American than they did three and a half hours before. They feel more connected to the ideals and the ideas that make them love this country. That’s a big success for me. That matters a lot more than Donald Trump’s response.
DEADLINE: Things seem darker in American than four years ago, with coronavirus killing 200,000 Americans, with protests in the streets over police brutality toward Blacks and other minorities, to the president saying he might not step aside if he loses to Joe Biden. Based on what you just said, is there reason to be optimistic about America?
RAY: That’s a complicated question. Yes, I am absolutely hopeful because the numbers, whether Donald Trump wants to acknowledge them or not, are painting a very clear picture. Look at the percentage of Americans that think America is going in the right direction. It’s miniscule. Look at the percentage of Americans who feel that their children are going to do better than they’ve done. It’s tiny. America is by nature a forward-looking country, and Donald Trump has killed that. I think he’s going to pay a price for it on November 3. I believe that what will follow will be a national conversation about what we let happen to our democracy for the last four years. It’s going to require a lot of people to ask themselves a lot of very, very hard questions about our willingness to participate in a cult of personality.
America has been in dark places before and has emerged because America is an ideal. America is about values that unite us, even if we ignore those values for a short period of time. James Comey, like him or not, speaks for those values. Donald Trump does not. That’s the difference.