How a Filmmaker Documented Corrupt Power in 'Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes'
With great power can come great misuse of it.
A man who believed he was more important than the country his news channel covered, Roger Ailes was, up until and following his death in 2017, a controversial figure. The former CEO and behind-the-scenes voice of right-wing news empire Fox News, Ailes was a kind of devilish individual who knew that the "medium was the message" and was hellbent on crafting that message to his liking.
A conservative at heart, Ailes reached prominence working as a media advisor for several presidential campaigns; he was, in part, credited with securing the presidential victories for Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Trump. Ailes knew that in order to appeal to the masses, you had to be media savvy and instill a great sense of fear within your viewership. Create the "Other" so that you're considered the good guy when you warn folks of the threats destined to invade our communities. The viewers will believe and ensure their trust in you. That's when you can pull the wool over their eyes.
Ailes took that belief to primetime when, after a series of misguided attempts to conquer cable news got off to a false start, he served as Chairman and CEO of the Rupert Murdoch-run Fox News. A cable news network that goes by the motto "Fair and Balanced" but could more accurately be described as Angry and Crooked, Fox News became (under Ailes) a conservative safe haven that was critical in electing Republican officials into office. It also became an environment fueled by sexual misconduct and harassment, a coliseum designed for powerful, hormone-raging men to exert their power on the young, "TV friendly" women they selected to appear on air.
As filmmaker Alexis Bloom's documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, gets set to open in theaters on Friday, No Film School spoke with Bloom about her interest in this subject, irony found in archival material, and giving a voice to a morally corrupt narrator.
No Film School: As reports of sexual misconduct within news media outlets grow by the day (Les Moonves of CBS is currently the most prolific), what made you want to make a film about Roger Ailes specifically?
Alexis Bloom: Well, it was in the works well before the "Me Too" movement, I have to say. We always found Ailes fascinating because he was such an intriguing psychological portrait. This bombastic, thuggish CEO who had an apparent vulnerability, etc. and for me, he was fascinating in a very granular psychological sense. He was also really important in terms of how he shaped America politically and culturally. So, I think, along with that sexual harassment piece, he was worth a film.
We started making it in earnest after Gretchen Carlson had launched her suits and after it became clear to us that, for the first time, there was a sort of chink in Ailes' armor. We could potentially report on him now because previously he lived in a hermetically sealed world that would have been impossible [for us to penetrate]. But after the suits, we thought that now would be a good time. The sexual harassment part of it is a key to understanding him, don't get me wrong, but he had a whole other arch that begged examination.
"It's not like you can just leave your personality and your existence at the door when you go to work, you know? You bring all of that stuff with you."
NFS: Were you looking for specific, personal traits, such as Ailes being a hemophiliac, to tie into the narrative of his rise to power?
Bloom: I was not really looking for anything in particular. I think that character isn't incidental to narrative, so who he was is really important to understanding what state his own personal civilities and hang-ups and insecurities were. The fact that he was a hemophiliac, the fact that he was grossly overweight at the end of his life, the fact that he was a control freak, the fact that he was paranoid...all of these traits directly entered his professional life.
You can't separate the two. It's not like you can just leave your personality and your existence at the door when you go to work, you know? You bring all of that stuff with you.
NFS: How did the decision to use Ailes's own words, in effect making the late CEO a kind of reflective narrator, come into play? What did you want it to bring to viewers' understanding of the man?
Bloom: Well, necessity is the mother of invention and he died before we could interview him, so there is that! He had spoken so eloquently and on such a far range of subjects over the course of his life that we had this treasure trove of statements. A lot of them were from his days on camera, from CSPAN or interviews at the institute or amazing commencement addresses at schools, etc. He was very introspective.
At first, we began with clips [of Ailes] on camera and it was really disjointed; they were from such a wide range of settings that it didn't have such a fine [flow].] We then took his own words and cast Peter Garrity, a wonderful actor whose practically the same age as Ailes and lives in a town called Beacon that was very close to where Ailes lived, and he was amazing in terms of his understanding of the man.
We found that the story was best told in Ailes's own words. I didn't want to have a narrator and I didn't want to have a voice of God talking for Roger. I wanted him to tell the story in his own words. When we had an actor reading the words, we decided not to use them as [a form of] journalism; it's more poetry than journalism. We did a very deliberate edit where we held it back and used it very sparingly for when we needed some introspection. Ailes is fascinating as Ailes.
"We wanted to see him in the glow of the television monitor because he was a hemophiliac and he watched an inordinate amount of television growing up and stayed indoors, as sick, ill children do."
NFS: What kind of visual motif did you have in mind when you created Ailes's physical presence (as played by the aforementioned actor) for this project?
Bloom: We wanted to see him in shadow or in darkness or in reflections, as it's a posthumous film. Does that make sense? We wanted to see him in the glow of the television monitor because he was a hemophiliac and he watched an inordinate amount of television growing up and stayed indoors, as sick, ill children do. I know when my kids are sick and on medicine, they often won't eat. Ailes was indoors a lot as a child. That was his media, that was his spot, and so we always filmed him in the glow of the screens or actually in the screens themselves.
NFS: Ailes understood the power of the media, and so whenever he was on screen, he was most definitely "on" and performing. Did that provide any challenges for you as a filmmaker looking through archival material of this "larger than life" man?
Bloom: He was very astute in his presentation and rather than be "on", he was amiable in a slightly affected way. There was never a sign of anger. He was very, very smart in protecting [himself by appearing calm] which he was not all the time, so it was a little frustrating because we knew that he could be extremely volatile and yet you never saw that on camera. On camera, he was always your nice uncle from the Midwest. That was hard. I just wanted him to let his guard down once.
NFS: Were there certain bits of archival footage that felt ironic to you in retrospect? Perhaps "ironic" is the wrong word, but one can't help but watch that clip of Ailes chatting with Charlie Rose in the early 1990s and getting creeped out by the laughter of both men...
Bloom: I mean, the entire Rose exchange is just dripping in irony because both of them seem so smug and self-satisfied, you know? It's a laugh from the womanizers. The other archival footage that stands out to me is the cell phone footage that was taken of Roger in Cold Spring when he is lecturing the public about what George Washington had said and then he gets pissed off at the woman who's filming him, rattling her chair in a kind of menacing way. That's the other bit of archival material that at least hints at his real personality.
A bit of archives that we were chasing for ages was when somebody said that they had a telephone recording of Roger having left them a voicemail, using up the entire tape wailing and shouting at them. I was desperate to get that because it was him unguarded, but they ended up never being able to find it. I'm more bothered by the stuff we didn't get than the stuff we did.
"I feel like approaching [the subjects] in a direct way and just letting them be who they are is the only way to do it."
NFS: Was it difficult securing former Fox News contributors to be interviewed on camera? Were there any that refused for fear of backlash?
Bloom: Yes, there were plenty that refused because they were afraid of the legal ramifications of participating. There's no good reason to participate and there's a really good financial and legal reason not to. So many more said "no" than said "yes." The ones who said "yes" were very brave and independent-minded and I felt sufficiently motivated by truth to do it, however uncomfortable that might be.
NFS: Were you looking to show a more human or less "performative" side to these men and women who worked for Fox News? I think Glenn Beck, due to the footage we see in the film, is a very character-driven individual, but then we see him in a different light when he's speaking with you...
Bloom: You know, people have very different reactions to the characters in the film, and in particular, Glenn Beck. Some people have come away from the film saying "my, how he seems so open and honest" and other people come away saying "God, he's just totally dishonest and smug and moralizing! After all, he was on Fox." So you just let people talk.
I feel like approaching [the subjects] in a direct way and just letting them be who they are is the only way to do it. I don't know how Glenn Beck comes off. He has such a polarizing effect, you know? How he is in the film is who he is today. That's all I'll say.
NFS: What role did Impact Partners play in getting this film to the finish line?
Bloom: Impact Partners came on with grants and were incredibly helpful in getting the film made. They were very supportive. They're a great team that helped launch this film. It was a labor of love and Impact Partners was really important in that. A&E was as well, who came on right at the beginning when nobody else would. Jigsaw Productions was also important for this project and Maiken Baird gave us a financial leg up that proved impactful. This was a real team effort.
NFS: When crafting a portrait of a polarizing figure, you also have to show the person for who they are. In this film, you feature some of the people who were Ailes's high school friends, like the actor, Austin Pendleton, for example, and that helps to humanize Ailes. Is there difficulty in presenting a human side to someone who was responsible for such terrible things, or is it as effortless as it appears in the film?
Bloom: Well, these people are human beings. Roger Ailes was a human. He's not a monster. He did monstrous acts, but to cast him off of the dung heap of "Otherness", you first have to realize that he's one of us. For better or worse, he was a more uncomfortable [figure], but he was human. He grew up in a small town with Austin Pendleton and they did acting lessons together and Austin is the perfect sort of person to illuminate his humanity. You know, to show that other half. If you demonize people, you end up with the same kind of divisiveness that Roger propagated, and I'm not in the business of the demon game.