A Conversation with Alexis Bloom (DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES)

I interviewed, by phone, director Alexis Bloom on Monday, December 3, 2018, to discuss her new documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, (which I also reviewed). The film explores, in great detail, the life, career and legacy of the late founder of Fox News – who was fired from the network in 2016 for sexual harassment (thanks to a lawsuit by former anchor Gretchen Carlson) and died in 2017 – with emphasis on his undeniable media successes and irrefutable distortions of truth and crimes against women. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: So, you started filming back in 2016, right? What was your initial motivation for making a film about Roger Ailes at this particular moment?

Alexis Bloom: It became clear that we were living in Roger Ailes’ world way before Trump was elected. He was a seminal influence on politics and culture for a while. Fox News was fabricating a reality that we were all living in, whether we liked it or not, and that seemed as good a reason as any to do a story about him, since he was Fox and Fox was him. On a more granular level, he was a really fascinating person: colorful; said to be charming and warm, but also very outwardly thuggish. It started off really as an exploration of Rupert Murdoch, looking at him and having Roger as part of that, and then very soon it became apparent that Roger was a film in his own right, and his influence on American politics and culture is so profound that it’s worth unpacking.

HtN: Interesting that you started broader and then realized that you just wanted to focus on Ailes.

AB: Yeah, projects go organically. It’s not like I realized, in a vacuum, that I just wanted to focus on Ailes. There are all sorts of reasons, to be honest. Rupert Murdoch is not, himself, a particularly mesmerizing on-camera presence, so I was watching a fair amount of Murdoch and it wasn’t terribly compelling, although what he has done in the world is incredibly important, and certainly bears analysis. But I found that every time…you know, Roger’s a bit of a focus puller, let’s put it that way.

HtN: Understood. So, I learned a lot, watching the film. I’m certainly no aficionado of Roger Ailes. I’m curious what interesting things you learned about Ailes that you didn’t know beforehand.

 AB: I learned a lot of things about Ailes, himself. For instance, he was deeply paranoid. I was surprised by that. I knew that he was suspicious of the mainstream establishment, but I didn’t understand how truly paranoid he was, in terms of his own personal safety. He kept guns in the office drawer, he had a security detail and an elaborate orchestration of his security on a day-by-day basis. I was also surprised, to be honest, at the cover-up that was around him.

People knew what he was doing and knew the trouble afoot, in terms of the sexual harassment at Fox, which was pretty serious and pretty ongoing. Legal counsel covered it up, PR covered it up, people shamed the women or got rid of them. There was a whole apparatus in place, covering up sexual harassment, but also covering up Roger’s more outrageous beliefs. People who came into contact with him knew that he was somewhat unhinged but allowed him to carry on in his capacity as head of Fox News because he was making money.

HtN: Yes, in some ways his universe was not unlike the one that Harvey Weinstein created around himself, at Miramax and beyond.

AB: Yeah, that is the fascinating part of all of these stories. I work with [documentarian] Alex Gibney, and he’s always saying, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.” Yes, it’s the crime, but it is also the cover-up, and that is fascinating. You look at the tentacles, and how far they reach. It’s jaw-dropping.

HtN: And often the cover-up does, in fact, make things worse, which is where, I guess, that phrase that Alex Gibney likes to say comes from. So, how much did Ailes’ death affect the final stages of this film? What kinds of readjustments did you have to make? How close were you to already wrapping things up when it happened? How did it affect your storytelling?

 AB: You know, it didn’t affect the storytelling too much. We approached the story like a parable, like a great American tale, and I don’t think his death changed that. There was a sort of ironic twist in that he fell and sustained a head injury and it didn’t stop bleeding, and his hemophilia that had plagued him all his life was a big factor in his death. But it didn’t really change the substance of the film, because we were focusing on what he had done in his life.

It did, notably, however, change the kinds of people we were able to talk to or, rather, what they were willing to say, on camera, because he was a sort of terrifying kind of figure. I think people were scared to talk about him. He was litigious and personally intimidating. His death allowed people, for the first time, to open up about him, at least on the record. Before, you were able to get a lot of off-camera, off-the-record revelations about him, but who was going to actually sit down and say it on camera? The numbers were few. When he died, that shifted a little. We still ran into many people who refused to talk, though.

HtN: That’s interesting. I don’t know if you saw the film The Death of Stalin

 AB: I did!

HtN: … but I just saw it yesterday, and any time a tyrant passes, it takes time for people to become accustomed to the fact he – it always seems to be a “he” – is not around anymore to punish them for speaking their mind. Watching The Death of Stalin, I thought of your documentary and Ailes and…

AB: There’s also this kind of Dr. Strangelove quality to it. I don’t mean to make light of what Ailes has done. Believe me, I take it very seriously and made a film about it that is pretty serious. But there is another film to be made that is the “Death of Stalin” or “Dr. Strangelove” version, you know, because some of this shit you just cannot make up! He thought that Obama was going to come and get him, and he was going to use the TSA [Transportation Security Administration]. I have no idea why he thought it was going to be the TSA! Maybe he had a bad experience in the airport once, or something, and thought that the TSA was out to get him? I felt like saying, “Oh, no, don’t worry, we all have bad experiences in the airport.”

 HtN: (laughs) That’s hilarious!

AB: Somebody said that he used to keep Danishes – you know, like the pastry – in his safe. So I always thought about the fact that he had guns in his drawer and Danishes in his safe…there’s an absurd quality to it. On 9/11, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were together, and Roger said to Rupert, “You’ve got to get out of the building! They’re coming for us next!” And, yes, it was a very frightening day, but Roger had boats ready on New York’s West Side, and he kept them there, apparently, on standby, for just such an occasion, and he took Rupert Murdoch, in a boat, across to his house in New Jersey, and Rupert Murdoch stayed with Roger for a couple of days. So, the levels of paranoia were Strangelovian, if that’s a word.

HtN: Well, it is now, and I like it. (laughs) So, every documentary has challenges, in terms of finding people to speak to their subject. You just addressed this a bit, but I’m curious, since you’ve made other documentaries before this, how you pursued the people, like Glenn Beck, who did agree to speak on camera. Was Glenn Beck willing to talk right away? I really liked his interview, by the way. What were some specific challenges you faced?

 AB: Well, we had to pursue most people, I would say, and Glenn Beck, certainly, although pursue sounds a bit undignified, like I’m chasing after them in a corridor. Everything has its way, so you approach the PR people and then they say no, and then you approach colleagues you might have in common or people that the person trusts that you happen to know, and you work your way around the PR people. You then hope you get an “OK, you can come and see us,” and then you go and present your case in person, and then you might talk on the phone, afterwards, and your hope is that you can build a relationship and start the conversation. And that conversation goes on for quite a while, which is fine and one of the benefits of making documentaries, which is that both parties can get to know each other and understand the endeavor at hand. And I would say that, with most people, this was the case.

HtN: I was very moved by the women whom you interviewed, such as Marsha Callahan, Alisyn Camerota, and Kellie Boyle, talking about the sexual harassment. Their stories really bring home what a terrible human being Ailes was. Did you know about some of these ahead of time? It’s such a well-researched film that I’m just curious how you found some of them, especially Marsha Callahan, whose story dates back 50 years.

 AB: She’s a queen! As dignified and thoughtful as she is, Roger is the opposite. I found her just incredibly moving. They had actually contacted Gretchen Carlson’s lawyer when Carlson launched her suit. When it became public, a group of women called up the lawyer and said, “This has happened to me, too.”

HtN: And, again, they really are quite moving. So, my final question is about the cinematography and the recreations in the film. It’s a very well-photographed film. You have some Super 8 footage in there, as well as a great variety of other kinds of shots. How did you plan out the production, recreations and all?

 AB: The only things that we had to recreate were the sexual-harassment stories: women telling stories of what had happened to them, years before. I felt like that needed to look different from the rest of the film and be impressionistic, because memory is fragmentary. I shot it from their point of view, so all the Super 8 stuff is shot as if the camera is on the woman’s shoulder: you never see her directly. That’s how it would have been experienced. We tried to make them a bit dreamlike, because sometimes it was a long time ago; sometimes it wasn’t, and they remembered pretty accurately. In Marsha’s case, it was in the late ’60s. And, you know, these scenes are in stark contrast to the world of Fox, where everything is brightly colored and hyper-realistic and saturated. That’s pretty noisy, and so when you hear the testimony of the women, you have to stop all that noise and make it very quiet.

HtN: Well, it’s very effective, as is your film. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for talking to me, and for making the movie.

AB: Thank you for your interest. It’s always very appreciated!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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