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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Trumbo

by director Jay Roach

When I first read an early draft of John McNamara’s script for Trumbo, I was astonished by its power. And by the fact that so few know this story.

I grew up admiring Dalton Trumbo’s films. I first saw Spartacus in re-release at a drive-in in Albuquerque. For weeks, if we got in trouble with our Dad, we would run around the house shouting, “I am Spartacus!”

Roman Holiday and Lonely Are the Brave are beloved, too. That’s what struck me. Trumbo wrote mainstream, hit films. And he wrote a famous novel, Johnny Got His Gun. But in the late 1940s, he was called an enemy of the state. He was jailed and blacklisted, stripped of his right to work. Some of his peers assisted in the persecution. His ‘crime’ was to refuse to give up his constitutional right not to reveal his political affiliations, and not to name the names of friends and colleagues with similar affiliations. Trumbo was a war correspondent, and he wrote patriotic films like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. How, in America not long ago, could an artist who loved his country be branded a traitor?

That’s the thing with historical projects: curiosity gets you started. But the more you learn, the more the passion to tell the story as compellingly as it deserves to be told—on every level—overtakes you. I had to know more.

Who cast this spell of disinformation and launched this inquisition that damaged or destroyed the careers of so many American artists? Why and how? How is this story relevant to now? (Sadly, there are numerous examples in our daily headlines of fear-mongering witch hunts akin to the Red Scare).

By the late 1940s, the Cold War was intense, and the threat from Totalitarian Communism was real. But Hedda Hopper and other patriots in Hollywood began to exploit that threat to smear dissenting artists involved in progressive causes and workers-rights movements. The “Real Americans” claimed that mainstream Hollywood movies were being written or directed by these “Un-Americans,” who had gone around the studio heads to secretly hypnotize the public through mainstream movies, into sympathizing with the Communist manifesto.

Hopper, along with Walt Disney, Ward Bond, and John Wayne, among others, supported or ran the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), to rid Hollywood of these “subversive” artists. It was the MPA who first invited the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to Los Angeles to investigate Hollywood artists, and they urged Congress to subpoena The Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo’s national predicament was riveting, but it was this man, this larger-than-life man with incredible writing talent, who became most compelling to me.

Trumbo was, in fact, the highest paid screenwriter in the world when he was blacklisted. His style—in his screenplays, and also in the many unforgettable letters he wrote from jail—is captivating and full of heart; deep and wise and funny. He could be cantankerous and annoying and aggressive. Yet he was prolific and outspoken. The letters were funny, too. Inconsistent and paradoxical. Complicated and confounding. But always irresistible.

During our extensive research for the film, we got to know Trumbo’s daughters, Mitzi and Niki Trumbo. They gave us insight into what it was like growing up in the home of a blacklisted writer, one who refused to stop writing. They described collaborating in the “family business” while Trumbo was secretly writing and submitting screenplays on the black market; what it was like to have multiple phones assigned to different assumed names or fronts; the fear of letting slip what their father did for a living; how it felt to walk in on Trumbo after he was writing for hours in the bathtub, his bottle of scotch and one of his cigarettes in its fancy filter close by. They never called him Dad, or Dalton—just Trumbo.

Mitzi and Niki told us stories about him—and about their amazing mother, Cleo, and their beloved brother, Christopher—that were painful, tragic, but also sometimes very funny. Trumbo could be deadly serious, but in his letters, he became a man of boundless wit (look for the letter to Christopher, about masturbation). Trumbo and all of The Hollywood Ten were pranksters. His writer friends converted Trumbo’s memorial service into a roast. To be faithful to this man’s story, to portray him authentically, the film had to capture the injustice and the sacrifice and the damage and dysfunction, but it also had to be as entertaining as Trumbo was. Which is why we were so fortunate to cast someone as versatile and compelling as Bryan Cranston and, for the other characters, to find actors with similar range in dramatic and comedic performance—Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K, Elle Fanning, Stephen Root.

Trumbo knew how to get a message across, but he knew how to make people laugh, too, even under pressure, and in danger. Which helps explain how the man could win two Academy Awards for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, and write Spartacus—while blacklisted. In fact, he and other blacklisted writers wrote so many of the best films of this era under assumed names, they ultimately exposed the lunacy of the blacklist and embarrassed the studios into dropping it. When Trumbo’s name finally appeared on Spartacus, thirteen years after the HUAC blacklist began, and the film was then blessed by President Kennedy, it was the beginning of the end. Trumbo helped throw water on the Wicked Witch. The spell was broken.