Screenwriter Charles Randolph was born to write the screenplay for Bombshell, based on a real scandal, it’s a revealing look inside the most powerful and controversial media empire of all time and the explosive story of the women who brought down the infamous man who created Fox.
Randolph is familiar with real-life scandals and corruption, received an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of The Big Short, which was co-written by director Adam McKay tied to actual events and individuals depicting the impenetrable muck of high finance concepts, exposing the human toll of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
At the heart of Bombshell lies an exhilarating portrait of how courage is forged in the moment, as three very different women resolve to fight back against unchecked power and abuse.
No one saw it coming. Not a soul could have predicted that one of the first strikes in the catalytic movement to overturn the long history of workplace harassment would come from inside the least likely place: at the core of deeply conservative, profoundly loyalist Fox News. Yet, as the world would soon come to see, this was not an issue of right, left or center, but of righting a legacy of wrongs.
The fuse was boldly lit in the summer of 2016 by Gretchen Carlson, once the unswervingly perky co-host of influential “Fox & Friends.” When the recently fired Carlson slapped Fox News’ founder Roger Ailes with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, most expected Carlson to get crushed. After all, Ailes was the untouchable master of the media universe—ready to use his influence and resources to defeat any foe.
Instead, what happened next reverberated around the world.
In just 16 wild days, Ailes would take one of the most dizzying falls from elite heights in corporate history. For even he could not survive the force of multiple women coming forward with their own stories, including superstar Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly.
But it was never just about the women at Fox. What happened in those two weeks—as Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and the women of Fox rang the alarm bells of cultural change—became a harbinger of a defining moment of our era. Just over a year later, in October 2017, the New York Times would report multiple accusations against entertainment titan Harvey Weinstein, a story that would then combust, growing the small, pre-existing #MeToo movement into a massive global phenomenon. By then, it was clear the corporate codes of silence were being detonated across every industry.
When Randolph began drafting the screenplay, he couldn’t have known such a massive cultural sea change was at hand.
He increasingly sensed something boiling under the surface when he heard stories from female friends about the systematic sexual pressure and even assault they experienced at work, including in the news business.
In 2016, Randolph learned about how Ailes plummeted from a veritable kingmaker to resigning in disgrace from the network he helped to build. If this was happening at the heart of Fox News, Randolph reasoned, then it was potentially happening in other places too, and he suspected it was a sign of things to come.
Randolph was inspired to dig deeper—and also to rethink how to tell this kind of story. “I felt this was a story that not only needed to be told for women, but also for men ,” Randolph explains. “I thought, if I can put male audiences inside the subjective experience of harassment and what that means and how it feels, that’s what I really would like to do in a film. Women will recognize these experiences, but men may encounter something they hadn’t realized.”
To learn more about what spurred the women’s decisions to take the leap, Randolph embarked on a research operation. He sat down with a stream women to get their first-hand accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace. These very personal and individual experiences helped to significantly inform the screenplay. “I was interested in finding a way to glean something more morally complex than what
you saw in the news, something funnier at times and also sadder at times. I was looking for the larger truths.”
Those larger truths resonated with Emmy®-winning director Jay Roach ( Game Change , Outstanding Directing—Limited Series/Movie, 2008; All The Way, Trumbo ).
Drawn to the places where political events and human revelations cross, Roach is best known for a string of deftly researched projects based on real-life incidents, including HBO’s Emmy®-winning Recount about the 2000 presidential election, and Game Change about the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign. Still, taking his cues from Randolph’s screenplay, he felt this film demanded a stylistic approach that might break down walls and perceptions—that might invite audiences to engage with life inside the Fox News world in ways they maybe never anticipated, regardless of how where they came down on the network’s slant on the news.
Roach also spent a lot of time thinking especially about what approach he should take as a man addressing a story in part about three women tapping fully into their agency. “I have a real interest in issues of gender equality, but I can’t even begin to pretend to imagine what it’s like to go through the things working women go through,” Roach openly admits. “But the thing that convinced me that I could do this is not only that Charlize was asking me to do it and trusted me to do it. It was also this idea that when it comes to changing things, men really have to start talking more to other men. There aren’t enough men right now asking all the hard questions about this issue.”
Like Randolph, Roach dove into his own intensive bout of research, much of it also first-hand. I watched hours and hours of footage, read many books, but especially I did my own interviews with people about their personal experiences,” says Roach. “I get so much out of talking to real people.”
The minute Charlize Theron finished reading Charles Randolph’s script for Bambshell, she could not wait to produce it. Just as Randolph had shattered the mold of the current affairs movie with The Big Short , Theron saw him doing it all over again, turning another slippery, challenging but absolutely watershed moment of our times into an intense and incisive human drama.
“Coming to the film as a producer was really a no-brainer,” says Theron. “Charles’s script was just spectacular. The research he did was phenomenal, and he took such a broad view on how change is created. We were expecting something great and it surpassed all our expectations. On top of that, I was just totally moved that a man had written this story, because it proves this is a subject for all people.”
Likewise, though set in the belly of partisan TV, the story wasn’t about politics. Instead, it insisted on being about something deeper: how very different kinds of people can choose to stand up against powers that seem greater than themselves. Theron has always been drawn to films with tricky characters and complicated situations. In 2005, she starred in North Country , the story of the very first major sexual harassment case in the U.S. But the story of how the Fox News women took down their seemingly invincible boss went even further. It showed how three hugely competitive women ultimately upended the attempt to pit them against one another and instead turned against the power structure itself.
Also impressive to Theron was just how true Randolph’s depiction was of what the women at Fox went through—the exhausting process of constantly trying to deflect, or develop entire personal strategies for handling day-to-day adversities when you’re in an abusive situation. Yes, the story took place in the heightened pressure cooker of a newsroom—and reverberated with reflections on the whole idea of public image and media power—but it took aim at a bigger phenomenon. It was at its core, Theron felt, about that take-charge moment when a group of women found the freedom, whatever the results, to say “enough.”
“What felt important was to go back to the story of these women who actually catapulted us into this movement that continues to grow,” Theron says. “This was one of the first workplace harassment suits of its kind. It was over a year before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, so it was truly the precursor. And Charles had brought it all to life as a story that lets you get angry, that gets emotional, but that also lets you laugh at the absurdity. I saw in it a human story that was really complex and well-rounded.”
Much as she was keen to help shepherd the project, Theron was torn about the possibility of playing Megyn Kelly. Her struggle with the decision inspired her to send the script to her good friend Jay Roach, at first just angling for nothing more than his always-welcome insights.
Roach was also an immediate fan of the script. In fact, he couldn’t help but envision it coming to life— with Theron as Kelly. Though Roach knows well there’s a distance between the way Kelly and Theron see the world, he also felt that this could push Theron into exciting territory, as she explored Kelly’s internal drives and contradictions. Recalls Roach: “I said to Charlize, ‘I know it’s probably not the first thing on your mind to portray Megyn Kelly, and you probably don’t agree on very much with her. But this is such a powerful story with a chance to reach a broad audience. I just knew she’d be great because Charlize always rises to the most complex challenges.”
Theron then turned the tables. “She said, ‘I’ll do it, but only if you direct it,’” Roach remembers.
For Theron, Roach’s agreement was the key to it all. “It can be a scary thing for an actor to play someone so removed from who you are,” she admits. “But I feel incredibly safe with Jay. So, I felt if he were at the helm of this, then I would feel comfortable pushing myself and taking the risks.”
Theron’s commitment to working on both sides of the camera quick-started the production. “Charlize was truly the most profound creative force on Bombshell,” Randolph says. “She was vital in getting it to the screen. And even as she was giving such a great performance, she was a very hands-on producer, delivering notes on every scene.”
As development of the project deepened, Roach, Randolph and Theron conversed at length about tone. As he had in The Big Short , Randolph had taken a lot of creative storytelling risks –from utilizing six women narrators whose explanatory voiceovers serve as the connective tissue of the story to bursting through the fourth wall to address the audience. But Roach also knew he had to walk a tightrope. “It’s not a film that’s preachy, but it’s about something hugely consequential. There’s a lot of humor in Charles’s writing, but the characters are going through crucial dilemmas. I really wanted to connect to the spirit of the writing and find that balance,” he explains.
Roach, Randolph and Theron all agreed that one of the things that had made the script so exhilarating was that it avoids a singular point-of-view. Instead, it mirrors the chaotic, often clashing, mix of personal motives and decisions that are the least-talked-about part of social change. Each of the main characters starts in a different place from the others and wrestles very personally with the perils of speaking out.
“Megyn is the film’s narrative center,” Randolph describes. “She is our Dante, who takes us deep into this world. Gretchen is the moral center in that she frames the issue and makes the most heroic choice. And Kayla is the emotional center of our story—someone we identify with as she experiences harassment. Kayla’s is the story we least often hear: the story of the woman who gives in to a harasser, and what that means to her life. I didn’t want to put that burden on a real person, so I made that character fictional.”
Also important to the filmmakers was taking the opportunity to examine just how many strikingly different forms of harassment exist, from the casual to the criminal. “We address about two dozen different types, from an unwanted backrub to a face-to-face proposition of ‘you’ll get this job if you do this,’” Randolph notes.
On set, this led to some intense moments, as the filmmakers tried to cultivate a safe place for volatile emotions. One scene that hit especially hard was when Margot Robbie as Kayla “auditions” for John Lithgow as Roger Ailes, in what becomes an alarmingly sexualized encounter based on real-life stories about Ailes’s infamous insistence that his on-camera talent twirl before him.
Recalls Roach: “Unusually, I was a camera operator in that scene and there was something about watching it through the lens that made it even more empathetic, I was shaking with emotion, because I just could feel what these characters were going through.”
Later, while editing, Roach found a singular shot that makes the scene work without needing to become explicit. “It was all about that tilt up and reveal that Kayla is just as horrified by this moment as you are,” he says. “In that moment, Margot reveals all the horror, the humiliation and off balanced confusion that Kayla feels. It’s one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film.”
Moments like that are why Theron is extremely grateful that she and Roach connected in that first call. “I can’t imagine now having made this film with anybody else,” she says. “Jay can tell a complicated story in way that you feel transported into the room with these people. That’s an incredibly powerful gift.
Despite sharing so little in common with Kelly on so many issues, Theron says that this never really became a barrier to feeling passionate about telling this story, always a prerequisite for her. “Megyn was an important part of what has become an important moment in history. That doesn’t cancel out everything else she has said or done, or how I feel about those things,” Theron says with her typical honesty, “but in making the decision she did, she was part of something remarkable.”
That passion kept Theron motivated during the rigorous daily makeup to subtly shift her into Kelly’s square- jawed profile. Special makeup designer Kazu Hiro, who Theron brought aboard to design all the film’s prosthetics, notes: “Charlize spent about 3 hours every day in makeup chair, and she did it because she was so committed to becoming this character completely.”
Like Theron, Nicole Kidman came to the project with many ideas and a deep commitment to capturing the essence of Carlson, despite not having a chance to consult directly with her in preparing for the role, since Carlson’s settlement with Fox News prohibited it.
The script that she absorbed was a magnet for Kidman. “What interested me is that it captures a moment in history that was the catalyst for change. And that the storytelling was so strongly from a female POV. The fact that it felt so entertaining yet still very hard-hitting was really appealing,” Kidman explains.
The fictional character of Kayla Pospisil was created by screenwriter Randolph inspired by the reported experiences of a number of women. A fresh-faced young weathergirl from Florida, Kayla is a hyper-enthusiastic newcomer to the cut-throat news business—prepared to do whatever it takes to emulate her idols Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, as she climbs up the Fox News totem pole. But when Roger Ailes takes an interest in boosting her career, Kayla faces pressure she did not know was coming.
For Margot Robbie, playing Kayla was a chance to spark a conversation she feels hasn’t gotten deep enough yet. “I don’t think we’ve had the chance to really explore the murky grey areas of the MeToo revolution, so that interested me,” she says. “I like that this film isn’t a story of victimization—it’s so much more complicated than that. I was really struck by how Charles Randolph approached this subject by exploring characters who each react to what’s happening in honest and unpredictable ways.”
To play Roger Ailes—and a man famously possessed of both a volcanic fury and a supremely personable charm—it was clear Bombshell was going to need an actor of unusual facility. Everyone involved was thrilled when John Lithgow joined the production.
Ailes presented the kind of hugely challenging, multichromatic role Lithgow loves to sink his teeth into. The character was so full of contrasts. He was a man loved for his generosity, but who also installed closedcircuit cameras to spy on his employees. He was known for giving undiscovered talent a chance, but also for taking control of the length of their skirts. He was revered by some as a brilliant strategist and reviled by others for unravelling TV news into partisan echo chambers. If you crossed him, Ailes could be the most ruthless enemy. On the other hand, if he liked you a lot it could be equally perilous.
By his final days at Fox, Ailes was a divided soul. And that’s what Lithgow embodies: an ailing commander who, with a mix of hubris and classical tragedy, still believes in his immense power even as his troops lose their loyalty. To start finding the character, Lithgow looked for documentation, but he notes that famous as he was, Ailes avoided being filmed. (Aisles passed away in May of 2017 at the age of 77.) “I found as much video as I could find but there’s not a lot of it. Ailes was not a showman. He was a kind of ringmaster behind-the-scenes, but he didn’t like to be seen.
Though the character was endlessly fascinating, a real draw for Lithgow is that Bombshell is decidedly not Ailes’s story. “The real story here is the women who, following the lead of Gretchen Carlson, found the courage and the confidence to come forward and put an end to this poison.”
When production wrapped, the intensity only continued for Roach, who entered the editing room with his long-time editor Jon Poll and additional editor Nina Kawasaki. “Jon is such a great selector of performance,” says Roach. “So often I would find that he chose the exact moment I most was looking for. He made the feel and pace of the movie that much richer and faster.”
As the film was finding its dynamic structure, Roach was finalizing the score with composer Theodore Shapiro, who had worked with him on Dinner for Schmucks . This was a completely different challenge. Echoing the risks of the writing, Shapiro and Roach went for an unconventional score that incorporates women’s voices, like a Greek chorus commentating on the events.
“Teddy had the idea of using instrumentation that is nearly all voices,” explains Roach. “It’s really playing with the idea of women both as individuals and as a unified force. I’m grateful to Teddy for creating such amazing music for us.”
The final touch was Regina Spektor’s original end credits song “One Little Soldier.” Roach was taken aback when he first heard the song. “I said, Regina, you’ve channeled the whole movie–how did you find that? And she said, I just remembered what you said mattered most was connecting to the idea of a lone woman stepping forward to take on this whole institution.”
Indeed, that idea—simple but very big—became the inspiration for nearly every element of the film. “I think that we all were thinking about the fact that a lot of women are in this situation right now where if they step up, they don’t know if anyone will support them,” says Roach.
For Roach, there is a lot of hope that more support and more change is coming. “There’s still so much to be talked about, and this film is just part of the conversation,” he says. “But you never know—as this story shows, sometimes it only takes one person speaking out to start something.”