Success a long time coming for 'Dinner for Schmucks' director

Jay Roach: Big break at 40.
Jay Roach: Big break at 40.
Posted: August 06, 2010

LOS ANGELES - Hollywood has always been madly in love with its boy wonders. Everyone knows the stories behind how Orson Welles made "Citizen Kane" at 26 and how Steven Spielberg directed "Duel," his breakthrough TV movie, at 24.

But in reality, when it comes to Hollywood success, there have always been the tortoises as well as the hares. The tortoises just don't end up being splashed on the covers of magazines as often.

A textbook case for the tortoise school of success is Jay Roach, director of the comedy "Dinner for Schmucks." Roach is Hollywood's reigning king of comedy directors, having become famous for directing a trio of "Austin Powers" movies and the first two films in the "Meet the Parents" series. People are far less aware that Roach, who was 40 when he directed the original "Austin Powers," spent a dozen years in obscurity before he got his big break.

Born in Albuquerque, Roach didn't have his heart set on becoming a filmmaker. He ended up with a degree in economics. His first real exposure to film came when he got a job shooting instructional video for engineering courses in Silicon Valley.

He applied to several graduate film schools, eventually attending Southern Cal. Even today, he seems like an unlikely showbiz type. At 53, he comes off far more like an economics professor.

In the mid-1980s, Southern Cal had as much talent in its film school as it had on the football field. Roach's peers included the likes of filmmakers Phil Joanou, Michael Lehmann and Ken Kwapis, who were all young Hollywood hotshots long before Roach got to slip into a director's chair.

But while Lehmann became a star, directing "Heathers" in 1989, and Joanou and Kwapis got hired right out of school to shoot episodes of Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," Roach found himself cruising around town in an old VW bus. Roach spent more than a decade as a writing assistant, low-budget film and TV editor, second-unit director and cinematographer. He even edited Air Force training movies.

The film that became the catalyst for his belated arrival on Hollywood's A-list was a strange art film made by Barry Hershey, a pal from film school. Called "The Empty Mirror," it was about what might have happened if Adolf Hitler had to come to terms with all his misdeeds.

Roach shot second-unit footage for the film, which as it turned out, had at least one huge fan - Mike Myers. The men became friendly, and Myers asked Roach to help him compile a list of candidates who could direct "Austin Powers." Unable to find anyone he really wanted, Myers finally said to Roach, "Why don't you do it?" Roach jokes: "It was like Dick Cheney, when Bush asked him to recommend vice presidents and then he ended up with the job."

Roach joined Myers at a meeting with then-New Line Chief Bob Shaye. As Roach recalls, the meeting began with Shaye, never known for his bedside manner, abruptly saying, "Look, who are you? There's nothing in your reel that suggests that you're remotely funny. We're not going to hire you just because you're Mike Myers' buddy."

When Myers left the meeting, he told New Line not to bother to call him again unless they were willing to hire his friend. So Roach got the job, and the rest is history. Even though his big break was a long time in coming, Roach insists he never felt like a failure. "In a way, it was really the right thing. I never became a very good cameraman or a very good writer, which made me perfect to be a director, because it's a job where you don't have to be an expert in anything specific. All you have to do is love telling stories, which was just right for me."

Roach believes his struggles prepared him for the vagaries of the movie business. "Surviving all the politics that were part of film school really prepared me for what you have to go through in Hollywood."

"It just hasn't gotten remarkably easier to get a new film launched, even at the level we're working at. So I guess all those years of working in the darkness were great preparation." He laughs the bittersweet laughter of the late bloomer. "Nothing scares me anymore. After what I've been through, I don't lose a lot of sleep. I feel I can handle anything now."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|