Jay Roach’s education as a director of comedies came not in college or film school, but in self-imposed study shortly before making "Austin Powers."
Having studied prelaw as an undergrad at Stanford and mostly struggled for a decade as a screenwriter and cinematographer after film school at USC, Roach’s path to becoming one of the top comedy directors in Hollywood was far from assured.
Having hit it off with Roach at a dinner party, Mike Myers insisted Roach — despite his little notable experience — should direct the film.
To cram on comedy, Roach studied silent films, taking notes on movement and physical choreography.
He gravitated toward a "Woody Allen form of farce" and character-based films by Hal Ashby such as "Harold and Maude" and "Being There." He found a taste for French comedy, such as "La Cage Aux Folles."
Roach’s homework has served him well. He has since directed all three "Austin Powers" movies, "Meet the Parents" and its first sequel, "Meet the Fockers." Collectively, his comedies have grossed nearly $1 billion, and that’s not counting those he’s produced, including "Borat" and "Bruno."
He has made farce a specialty by giving actors room to craft absurd, heightened situations that Roach enjoys stretching toward calamity — like slow-motion train wrecks.
"I love anxiety as a driving energy for comedy," says Roach during a recent interview over coffee. "That gap between whatever you make up for yourself and reality is where almost every moment in comedy comes from."
Roach’s latest is "Dinner for Schmucks," which is roughly based on the 1998 French film "The Dinner Game." It stars Paul Rudd as Tim, an ambitious businessman whose boss invites him to a "dinner for idiots," where everyone is expected to bring a particularly outrageous fool as a guest. He finds his date in the delusional but earnest Barry (Steve Carell), who proceeds to accidentally ruin almost everything in Tim’s life.
It’s a dark premise, but Roach keeps the tone light and good-natured, with things enlivened by appearances by Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords") as an erotically charged artist and Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") as an overly confident IRS agent.
"Meet the Parents’ and Austin Powers’ are both movies I watched several times before I really did a lot of comedy," says Clement. "When you love films like that, I feel kind of indebted to those people even not really knowing them. So if Jay asked me to do something, I would do it as a fan."
The New Mexico-raised Roach, tall and gaunt with a gentle, polite manner, wouldn’t seem like an obvious shepherd of over-the-top comedy. His most natural subject is politics, a muscle he finally got to flex in the acclaimed 2008 HBO film "Recount," which won three Emmys, including a directing award for Roach.
He has two more political films in the works — a film about the 2008 election, and one about Mark Felt, the FBI agent known as the Watergate source "Deep Throat."
"Because I got addicted to comedy, because I was getting offered comedies, I enjoyed writing that way," Roach says. "But I think I always hoped to do a wide range of films."
With "Austin Powers," Roach realized he was best off giving his actors, many of whom were talented at improvising — Myers, Will Ferrell, Seth Green — space to riff.
"Directors get too much credit, in a way, in comedy," he says. "You just have to give it room to have its life and then just watch it live and thrive and try to keep spinning it a little bit."
For "Schmucks," Roach shot more than 900,000 feet of film, which is several hundred thousand feet more than normal. One key, Roach says, is that he typically rehearses on film, which means a scene’s technical aspects are already in place as the actors improvise.
As far as the cutting of all that film, Rudd called Roach "the ultimate collaborator," asking for input on which takes to use.
The professional low point for Roach, 53, came with "Used Guys," a comedy he was to direct starring Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller. After months of preparation, Fox and Sony Pictures Entertainment, wary of its $112 million budget, shut it down just weeks before it was to begin shooting in 2006.
"Used Guys" was set in a future where women had taken over the world after men had destroyed themselves with war and performance-enhancing sports drinks.
"That was a hard one to face," says Roach. "I was trying to do spectacle and maybe there is a predisposition towards futuristic comedies in some places that they aren’t bankable."
Roach stops himself: "Let’s talk about the films that lived."
"Schmucks," broad and crowd-pleasing, seems likely to continue Roach’s box-office success. It steadily progresses, piling on the farce until the climatic dinner scene, which took two weeks to shoot and which comprises about a quarter of the film.
Having characters gathered round a table is a familiar setting for Roach, who turned to it memorably in "Meet the Parents" and early on in the "Austin Powers" series. For Roach, it’s a kind of "cage match" where each character’s delusions collide.
"One of the important parts of drama and comedy is to take two characters that would never be together and force them together so you’ve got the conflict that you need," he says. "You can do it by handcuffing two people together in The Defiant Ones’ or you can do it at a dinner table like in Meet the Parents.’ You can’t really escape — you’re stuck."