It was two weeks before cameras were to start rolling on a film about the sexual misconduct scandals at Fox News that ended the reign of Roger Ailes and things were rolling along smoothly.
The subject matter couldn’t have been timelier. The leads, including Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and John Lithgow as Ailes, were top notch. Even the supporting cast was full of known names like Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon and Connie Britton.
Then, Theron, who was producing, and director Jay Roach got some unwelcome news: Their studio had pulled out. “Bombshell” was effectively dead.
“It felt like getting sucked out of an airplane at high altitude and just falling,” Roach said, shaking his head. “Has any film ever come back together two weeks out?”
There was a lot on the line and schedules for people like Theron, Kidman, and Margot Robbie were not exactly flexible. If it didn’t happen then, it might never happen.
But within 24 hours, Theron had found a lifeline in Bron Studios, a company that had earlier just been a small partner. Within 72 hours, Lionsgate was on board too. Not only did “Bombshell” (playing in limited release starting Friday; wide on Dec. 20) hit its original start date. They wrapped on time and under budget too.
The last-minute panic gave everyone an even greater sense of purpose — not that they really needed it. The story itself was a stunning tipping point in the ongoing movement against sexual harassment in the workplace that happened over a year before the Harvey Weinstein story broke.
In July 2016, Carlson filed a lawsuit alleging Ailes had forced her out of Fox News after she spurned his sexual advances. Soon there were more women with similar stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew. He firmly denied the allegations, but in just a few weeks he was out. The scandal has also inspired a documentary and a Showtime miniseries.
“It was part of the appeal to me that it was at Fox,” said Roach, who was hand selected for the job by Theron. “It was surprising that an institution like that that is so male-centric, so Roger-cult-of-personality, would be the place that this happened. But sexual harassment is non-partisan.”
Theron was even surprised at just how much she related to Megyn Kelly, despite political divides, “as a strong, independent woman who has a real drive and ambition and (who has) had those things turned on me and weaponized.”
Kelly makes for a unique protagonist in the story. Her alleged harassment from Ailes had occurred years earlier and she had since become a star under his mentorship. Kelly also, Theron said, liked him.
“We don’t talk enough about that kind of relationship that a victim can have,” she said. “I love that this story happened in such a gray zone.”
The nuance of “Bombshell” is showing all the different facets of sexual harassment in the workplace. For every famous woman who has resources to survive making a public accusation, there are scores of powerless victims too. In the film, the latter is embodied by Kayla, a composite character played by Robbie. She’s an ambitious, young Evangelical millennial who worships Fox News. Kayla gets an impossible meeting with Ailes, but it quickly becomes inappropriate. Although the movie has yet to be released to the public, it has emerged as one of the film’s most talked about scenes.
“It’s so quietly disturbing and so unquestionably wrong. And yet if she walked out of that room and tried to explain what happened I think it would be very easy for people to question what had happened and not classify it as sexual harassment,” Robbie said. “And it’s not until you really live in that moment with her that you can truly, without hesitation, say that is not OK ... I think that the most powerful and potent thing about it is letting men, particularly, have a moment to share that experience with her.”
Roach remembers operating one of the cameras and being worried that he was going to start to shake.
“I was so upset by it and I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “I didn’t know that I would be able to connect at that level. ... Part of the film is to make men feel that discomfort.”
Theron, seated next to Roach, gets a big grin on her face: “We’ve opened up a can of worms and it’s (expletive) beautiful. And it’s what makes me feel like there is going to be real change because we are now going into those areas that are a little bit more uncomfortable.”
There was also Theron’s physical transformation that was necessary to embody someone as recognizable as Kelly. Kazuhiro Tsuji, who won an Oscar for helping Gary Oldman become Winston Churchill, was responsible for making Theron almost unrecognizable through prosthetics only.
“It’s actually not as much as people think,” Theron said. “The thing that makes Kazuhiro so amazing is he almost works backwards: He strips a lot of stuff away and what he chooses to put on your face is really specific and really delicate.”
There was also the voice work, getting her physicality down and finding the nuance in Kelly’s public and private personas.
“Nothing about this process or this movie was easy, but in a strange way I think that’s what all of us loved about it,” Theron said.
Awards season audiences have taken notice. “Bombshell”on Wednesday earned four SAG Award nominations, including a coveted best ensemble nod. Theron, Robbie and Kidman also got individual acting nominations.
Now, the movie that almost died is not only an awards contender, but also one that’s inspiring and furthering important conversations.
“Some movies are just meant to be, and the universe was not going to let this one not happen,” Theron said. “You could feel it and I’m so not a hokey person.”