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Farce Majeure

Jay Roach, director/producer

Photo: Joe Pugliese

By Ann Marsh

Jay Roach dashes into his office, late and disheveled. Just off the bicycle he rode from a tennis match, he sports longish black shorts, a loose shirt and shaggy hair. He prefers to get around Los Angeles on two wheels instead of four.

“I wish more people rode bikes,” says Roach, ’79, offering a slightly sweaty hand.

Despite the co-op grocery-manager look, Roach is, in fact, a Hollywood King of Comedy. He directed some of the most successful comedy movies ever made, including all three Austin Powers films, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. At the moment, he is preparing to direct Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen in the irresistibly titled Dinner for Schmucks.

“I like to work with the funny guys,” Roach says.

And they like to work with him. Roach is known for a creative process that extends great license to comic actors such as Mike Myers, a longtime friend and collaborator. “I love him like a brother,” Myers says. “He empowers everyone around him and brings out the best in them. He’s a joy to be around.”

Roach’s guiding hand helped make Baron Cohen’s much-talked-about Borat possible. To make the movie, which Roach produced, Baron Cohen posed as a Kazakh filmmaker shooting a documentary about America. Every member of his crew was essentially in character at every shoot, along with the star. Law enforcement officers from the Secret Service, FBI and local police departments descended on the film’s various locations some 40 times over the course of the shooting. “For Sacha, a scene doesn’t really start working until someone’s about ready to be arrested or get into a fight,” Roach explains.

He fielded daily calls to smooth over crises. “Someone had to stay out of jail,” says Roach, who is unfazed at being named in half a dozen lawsuits filed by people who unwittingly played roles in the mockumentary. The studio indemnified him before shooting began.

Roach’s most important collaboration began in 1991 when he met his future wife, former Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs, at a dinner party arranged by mutual friends. The fact that he didn’t know much about The Bangles—the 1980s all-female band whose hits included “Walk Like an Egyptian”—worked in his favor.

“When he told me he was from Stanford, I had a moment,” Hoffs recalls. “It was very visual, like at the carnival when the strong man swings the hammer. It was like ‘Bang’ and the bell rang.” Says Roach, “It’s the only time my degree mattered to anyone in this town.” The couple has two sons, ages 8 and 12.

Hoffs, whose parents met at Yale, haunted San Francisco rock clubs during her college years at UC-Berkeley. Meanwhile, Roach was working up to seven part-time jobs to fatten his slim work-study income at Stanford. One of those jobs was at the Stanford Instructional Television Network, where he shot minidocumentaries about campus life. He also ran Sunday Flicks. After earning a degree in economics, he went to USC for a master’s degree in film production. He worked 10 years as a writing apprentice, sound editor and cinematographer and as an adjunct film professor at USC. (Roach is a strong supporter of Stanford’s new undergraduate film studies program, which he calls “a healthy alternative to the L.A. film schools,” in part because it lies outside Hollywood’s orbit.)

Myers met Roach and Hoffs by chance at a bar in Hollywood, and they became close friends. Myers concedes his attention went first to the doe-eyed rock goddess with the come-hither style. “Every straight man in America was in love with Susanna Hoffs,” he says. After telling her that he owned the three-quarter-size Susanna Hoffs Rickenbacker guitar with black and white piping, Myers recalls, Hoffs replied, “Oh my God.” And then: “This is my boyfriend.”

He and Roach “hit it off immediately,” Myers says. “When you’re able to talk at the top of your reference level and intelligence level with somebody, it’s thrilling. That’s Jay.”

Myers and Roach discovered they knew a lot about the same films and shared comic sensibilities. Roach read Myers’s first Austin Powers script and gave him incisive, kind and enthusiastic feedback. Unbeknownst to Roach, Myers went to New Line Cinemas and insisted Roach direct Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Roach had never directed a feature before. The 1997 hit catapulted both Myers and Roach onto Hollywood’s A-list.

Later, while Roach was making the second Austin Powers film, Hoffs was reconnecting with her former Bangles bandmates, who had split acrimoniously in 1989. Roach thought a spot in the film needed a song, and as the group rehearsed in the family room one day, he walked in and asked if the Bangles would like to take a stab at writing it. A new partnership was born and an old one cemented.

If the Powers and Fockers movies established Roach as a force in the film industry, Borat solidified it. Roach convinced Fox to bankroll the film without a script, a move virtually unheard of in the industry. Working from a basic outline, Baron Cohen improvised the rest.

“I just felt like it would be hilarious,” Roach says. “We were asking (the studio) to take a leap of faith.” His instincts were validated when the film became a popular and critical smash.

At one point in the shoot, Roach flew to Washington, D.C., to supervise a “press conference” Baron Cohen-as-Borat was holding in front of the Kazakh embassy to welcome the actual Kazakh premier on his state visit to see “Mighty War Lord Premier President George Bush.” Tipped off by the filmmakers, 40 real-life journalists turned up, as did real-life members of the Secret Service and ex-KGB guys from the Kazakh embassy. Of course, somebody called the cops.

In the middle of it all was Roach, out from behind the camera, posing as a PR guy.

“It was,” he says, “the most fun I’ve ever had.”

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