A vibrant film about a very serious subject.
In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
The film Trumbo recounts how Dalton (Bryan Cranston) used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) to John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.
The film is directed by Jay Roach, the winner of four Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award, who is best known for directing such comedy classics as the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and The Campaign. The screenplays was written by John Mcnamara (Writer, Producer) is a writer, producer, showrunner and television creator.
Screenwriter John McNamara first heard the story of Dalton Trumbo when he was studying screenwriting under formerly blacklisted scribes Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt and Trumbo supporter Ian McClellan Hunter.
“I told Hunter how much I enjoyed his screenplay for Roman Holiday,” McNamara says. “He told me that he didn’t write the script. Dalton Trumbo did.”
Hunter realized that not only was McNamara unaware of the far-reaching impact of the HUAC hearings and the blacklist, so was the rest of the writing class.
“For the next two days, these men, who had lived through that era, told us the story from their point of view,” McNamara remembers. “When Ian suggested I read Bruce Cook’s biography of Trumbo, I immediately did.”
McNamara saw an opportunity to create a film that could encapsulate the turbulent politics of that volatile era in American history in a personal story. “It’s that rarest of things – a true story with a happy ending,” he says.
“In Hollywood, we concoct happy endings to make up for the fact that there are so few in real life. This story got inside me and wouldn’t let go, but I couldn’t get what I saw in my head on paper until I came across an article written by Trumbo’s oldest daughter, Nikola.”
Reading that short, poignant essay, entitled “A Different Childhood,” McNamara realized he had been seeing his subject as a writer and a political activist, but he had no idea of the man. “Niki’s article showed me a person full of real flaws and contradictions. She wrote about what kind of father he was, what kind of husband and what it felt like to be part of his family when those subpoenas arrived. It opened a huge door for me.”
As McNamara was beginning to discover, Dalton Trumbo was many things to many people. “He was an outsider and an underdog,” says producer Michael London, an early champion of the film. “He was both a capitalist and a communist. Those kinds of contradictions make for a great character. More than anything, I loved his willingness to stand up to power and sacrifice his own career for the greater good. Trumbo hated bullies. He refused to tell people what they wanted to hear if it meant being disloyal to his friends. And he paid a tremendous price for that.”
Eventually McNamara reached out to Niki Trumbo to get her insights and her opinion of his work-in-progress. “She wrote back the most gracious email with very specific critiques of the script in general and her character in particular. I’ve never had such an instantaneous connection with anyone who ripped my work apart! She gave me cogent, insightful, emotional and logical notes that have really helped the screenplay be better in every way.”
Niki Trumbo and her younger sister Mitzi became integral to the creation of the script. “They are the last living members of the immediate family, so it was essential for us to have their full participation,” says London. “Early in development, we asked them for their comments and they gave us a tremendous amount of material. Major new story beats came out of those conversations. It was not always easy for them. The family endured such trauma and hardship, but Niki and Mitzi were both incredibly generous and devoted to helping us make the most truthful movie possible.”
Niki is still fiercely proud and protective of her father’s legacy. “Trumbo is still known as a communist, but people don’t realize that he was actually a patriot,” she says. “He was a communist in the late ’30s and early ’40s, when that meant you were pro-labor and anti-Jim Crow, and you fought for civil rights for African-Americans. It had nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with how an already great country could improve itself.”
“He believed Congress had no right to compel him to give testimony about his political beliefs,” she says. “I think he was stunned to have lost that battle. This is a story about a man who held true to his own beliefs and principles. We can all aspire to be that kind of hero, whatever our flaws and weaknesses may be.”
At Groundswell Productions, excitement was building for the project. “It’s one of the best scripts we ever read,” says producer Janice Williams, the company’s president of production. “It didn’t matter that it was a period piece with a huge cast and a subject that could be seen as ‘political.’ We were so in love with it that no matter how hard it was we were going to do whatever it took to put the film together.”
Williams describes Trumbo as an unexpectedly vibrant movie about a very serious subject. “It isn’t a political film at all, but it is a story about the right to free speech. It’s entertaining, interesting and full of amazing, real-life characters. We are portraying an incredible time in Hollywood history, both the beautiful, glamorous part of that world and the dark side, including the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
ShivHans Pictures founder Shivani Rawat was drawn to the project by the incredible story and Jay Roach and Groundswell Productions’ involvement. “As soon as I read the script, I knew we had to make this film,” she says.
It is a larger-than-life tale of triumph over adversity that producer Monica Levinson found difficult to believe was true. “Trumbo’s story really breaks down to our right as U.S. citizens to free speech and assembly. Trumbo and the other blacklisters were not only denied those rights – but persecuted without having committed any crimes. Trumbo was a true patriot – he loved this country. But the system failed him.” Rawat adds, “His story is still relevant today, as the world in which we are living has many people facing too much intrusion from their government.”
Director Jay Roach was tapped to helm the film early in the development process. Well-known for comedies including the Meet the Parents franchise, Roach had made a transition to more weighty fare including the HBO films “Recount,” a political drama about the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election, “Game Change,” which centers on Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 presidential campaign, and the upcoming “All the Way,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway play with Bryan Cranston reprising his Tony-winning performance as Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Those films are about serious historical events,” says Williams. “Jay is very skilled at making true stories entertaining to watch. We wanted Trumbo to be accessible and entertaining. I can’t imagine a director who could have done that better.”
Rawat agrees. “It was an honor to work with Jay because in my opinion he is one of the best directors working today. I knew he would do an amazing job handling such a sensitive story. Jay was the perfect person to carry on Trumbo’s legacy by bringing his story and struggles to life.”
Roach found the script an extremely compelling take on an important and fascinating story that needed to be told. “I think most people have at least heard of the blacklist,” says the director. “They may even know the name Dalton Trumbo and be aware that he was a phenomenally successful screenwriter who was blacklisted in 1947 for his political beliefs. He was, in fact, the highest paid screenwriter in the world when he was blacklisted. He was talented, prolific and outspoken about what he believed. He could also be cantankerous and annoying and aggressive. On top of that, he was a communist – a very wealthy communist, which makes for a complicated and interesting story.”
Roach was fully hooked once he began reading Trumbo’s letters. “His writing style is so captivating and sincere: deep and wise and funny,” says the director. “He was sometimes inconsistent and paradoxical but always irresistible. I wondered how a person this talented had gotten to a place where people thought he should be prevented from writing. One of the questions that I hope the film raises is how this very patriotic man, an artist who loved his country, could be seen as a traitor worthy of being sent to jail.”
“The extensive interviews with the Trumbo sisters during development and filming ensured that the portrayal of the family was as authentic as possible,” adds Roach. “Niki inherited feistiness and a passion for ideas from her father, but that often put them in conflict. She talks about him with tremendous respect and admiration, but there was a lot of stress and strain on the family.
According to Mitzi Trumbo, Roach listened carefully to what the sisters had to say and made a number of adjustments to the script based on their input. “A biopic is a complicated thing,” she observes. “You’re seeing someone else’s version of the life you actually led. Jay was extraordinarily sensitive. He was concerned about the same sorts of things I was. My father’s story can be a lightning rod for many people and he wanted to make sure he told it truthfully.”
What will make Trumbo’s story resonate to a generation not familiar with the history of the Hollywood blacklist, says Brown, is that everything he was fighting against still goes on today. “Even in America, and certainly in other parts of the world, people are being persecuted for what they believe,” he says. “The message of this movie is sadly still relevant today. Free speech is not yet a universal freedom.”
Screenwriter McNamara calls Trumbo “the most complex human being I’ve ever tried to render,” adding: “I miss him now that the film is done. I sure can relate to being a short-tempered writer who spends too much money, gets too far behind on deadlines and yells at his kids for interrupting him. But I’m not as brave as Dalton was. I don’t know that I would go to prison for an ideal. I don’t think there’s another story quite like his in Hollywood.”
After reading dozens of memoirs published about the blacklist by those who were there, he says that a comment from Arthur Laurents, the playwright, director and screenwriter, stays with him. “It was the most poignant observation I came across. Laurents said that an entire generation of writers and directors, of actors, and producers of a certain political bent were suddenly silenced. But what if the blacklist hadn’t happened? What would Trumbo have written with his name on it in 1955? What would Ring Lardner have written with his name on it? What would Michael Wilson have written?”
Many thousands of people in Hollywood and elsewhere were impacted by the blacklist, but Dalton Trumbo was one of the few with the talent, perseverance and personality to fight back successfully, according to Brown. “He was willing to face the consequences,” the producer says. “There were a lot of other people writing under assumed names and using fronts, but they weren’t fighting for a larger cause the way he was.”
According to McNamara, it is no accident that Trumbo is the writer of Spartacus, a film about a gladiator who turns on his masters and leads his fellow slaves in rebellion. “That film is the greatest collectivist fantasy ever produced by Hollywood,” says McNamara. “And it is a masterpiece, because it shows that collectivism might not be the dream in the end, but it’s so much better than being a pawn in a game designed to enrich somebody else. I think what Trumbo was really saying in that film was if you have to die, die on your feet, die fighting and die together.”