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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Jay Roach on life before he was a star director: 'It's good to learn to be miserable'

July 26, 2010 |  4:27 pm

Jay_roach Hollywood has always been madly in love with its boy wonders. The mythology of show business is all about celebrating the wondrous tales of overnight stardom. Everyone knows the stories behind how Orson Welles made "Citizen Kane" when he was 26, how Irving Thalberg was 25 when he became head of production at MGM and how Steven Spielberg directed "Duel," his breakthrough TV movie, when he was 24.

It's the wunderkinds who get all the ink. It's why the filmmakers who are seen as emblematic of their generation are the ones who started young, whether it's Francois Truffaut, who made "The 400 Blow" when he was 27; John Landis, who made "Animal House" when he was 28; Quentin Tarantino, who made "Reservoir Dogs" when he was 29; or Paul Thomas Anderson, who made "Boogie Nights" when he was 28.

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. It isn't as often remembered that Clint Eastwood was 41 before he directed a movie. Or that Robert Altman was 45 when he made "MASH" and that Oliver Stone was 40 when he catapulted to fame with "Platoon."

In fact, it's hard to imagine that anyone had to struggle more mightily before getting their big break than Jay Roach, whose new film, "Dinner For Schmucks," opens Friday. In many ways, Roach is Hollywood's reigning king of comedy directors, having made untold zillions 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 finally got his shot at directing the original "Austin Powers" movie, spent a dozen years kicking around in obscurity before he got his big break.

Born in Albuquerque, Roach liked movies — he remembers watching "The Pink Panther" films at a local drive-in when he was a kid. But he really didn't have his heart set on becoming a filmmaker. In fact, when he went to Stanford, 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 USC because it offered him a scholarship. Even today, he seems like an unlikely showbiz type. At 53, with long, graying hair and a propensity to offer thoughtful answers to even the most mundane questions, he comes off far more like an economics professor than a celebrated comedy director. To hear Roach tell it, he was hardly a film school star. The professor who taught the now legendary "480's" directing class wasn't impressed by his work. "He just didn't like me, so I got rejected over and over," he says.

It's possible that Roach is simply being modest. In the mid-1980s, USC 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, Ken Kwapis, Greg Beeman and screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, who were all highly touted young Hollywood hotshots long before Roach got to slip into a director's chair.

"After seeing Jay's stuff, which was so polished and smart and professional, I expected that he'd be hired by Fox and be doing a big studio film right away," recalls Alexander. At the time, only five students could make a film each semester, so it was a big deal that Roach was in such select company. "The other four of us would talk behind his back, basically saying, 'Why can't our stuff look as slick as Jay's?' " says Alexander. " I can still remember his tracking shots, because they were so extraordinary. After you watched his dailies, you just wanted to go up and kiss the screen."

But while Lehmann became a star, directing "Heathers" in 1989, and Joanuo 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 whose engine would catch on fire if he didn't drive it at the right speed. Instead of getting that cushy directing job at Fox, Roach spent more than a decade as a writing assistant, low-budget film and TV editor, second-unit director and cinematographer. He did writing and second-unit directing for the short-lived sci-film TV series "Space Rangers." He was the camera operator for the low, low-budget horror film "Zombie High." And he even edited Air Force training movies about fighter jets.

So how did he finally break into the big time? Keep reading:

The film that became the catalyst for his belated arrival on Hollywood's A-list was, of all things, an almost transcendentally strange art film made by Barry Hershey, a pal from film school. Called "The Empty Mirror," it was a movie about what might have happened if Adolf Hitler had to come to terms with all his horrible misdeeds. The film featured Hitler being interviewed by Sigmund Freud and revisiting his relationships with such Nazi collaborators as Josef Goebbels, who was played in the film, if you can believe it, by Joel Grey.

Roach shot second-unit footage for the film, which as it turned out, had at least one huge fan — Mike Myers, who was something of a World War II buff. The men became friendly, and Myers asked Roach to help him put together 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 put together some of his work, along with references from comedy films that might reflect his stylistic interests, and 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." (Asked if this were accurate, Mike De Luca, who was then New Line's head of production, told me: "It did require something of a leap of faith for us. Jay's reel wasn't that impressive, but he was really incredible in the room. He was just someone who inspired confidence.")

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. "Having that one professor who had a bug up his ass for me and surviving all the politics that were part of film school really prepared me for what you have to go through in Hollywood." Although Roach is too polite to say it, he's still frustrated by putting years of work into an ambitious sci-fi comedy — known as "Used Guys" — that never came to fruition, largely because of budget battles that Roach had with its studio.

"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. "It was good to learn to be miserable and be OK with it," he says finally. "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."

Photo: Jay Roach photographed in New York while doing publicity for "Dinner For Schmucks."

Credit: Charles Sykes / Associated Press