WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?
At the 2019 Beyond Cinema Studio at the Sundance Film Festival, we sat down for a conversation with Where’s My Roy Cohn director and fellow journalist Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54; the Oscar-shortlisted Valentino: The Last Emperor).
An origin story, if you will, about how we came to have Donald Trump as the President of these United States, and a look up the food chain from Netflix’s 2017 doc Get Me Roger Stone, Where’s My Roy Cohn is an unbridled, paralyzing portrait of a man who preceded and, perhaps, crafted the careers of Stone and Trump - a man whose life was lived alongside the villainous Joseph McCarthy as that senator persecuted communists and homosexuals during a darker period of this young country’s history.
Beyond Cinema: Whenever we have a filmmaker like yourself to talk to, we try to look at the films that led them to this one – we are fans of Studio 54 and were wondering whether or not this film, the Roy Cohn documentary, was born a little bit out of your work on 54?
Matt: As you know, when you're making an archival doc, you watch hundreds of hours of archival footage and, during the election year of 2016, I was making the Studio 54 film and Roy Cohn was a major player in that story and there happened to be a lot of great archival footage of him cause he was a, as you might say, media whore [who was] all over New York media in the 70s. It was obviously way pre-digital and I'm sitting there watching this saying, “Wow, that is a character."
I knew about Roy Cohn but I didn't realize there was so much of him on film as this pitbull lawyer in the middle of the whole Studio 54 mess. So, thinking to myself, well, no one's done the Roy Cohn doc, obviously Trump's not going to win, so we'll never have to think about Trump again and the only thing that makes Roy Cohn relevant and financible as a film topic is if Trump wins and that's not going to happen. So, that was on my mind, I really was thinking about that and having a kind of whoof, I'm so glad that I won't be making a Roy Cohn movie because no one will ever finance it. Then, on election night, in my misery and mourning for the result, I thought this is the film I should do because it's suddenly massively relevant - the next day I wrote the treatment and we were off.
Beyond Cinema: In almost a strange way, it's like the stand-up comedy mantra that what's good for the world is not good for me, but what's bad for the world is great for my art.
Matt: Well, yeah, that's a good point.
Beyond Cinema: Let's talk about this film from a filmmaking standpoint. What were the challenges that you encountered for this one in particular.
Matt: Well, there are two genres of documentary that I make – one is cinema verite, the other is archival and this is an archival documentary. So, the challenge is just very different in those two forms. This is a sprawling narrative, so that's really where the challenge is. You're condensing the second half of the 20th Century and then bringing it into the 21st, and the subject is politics and society, and sociology, which are not innately sexy to a general audience. So, figuring out what the story is, is always the principal challenge of any film and making a political documentary for a mass audience that doesn't get dumbed down in any way, is the biggest challenge.
This is the most overtly political film I've made and politics is a huge interest of mine and I would argue that all of my films are political, but you would have to be from another planet not to realize that this one was more political.
For this film, I quote two brilliant platitudes. First is the George Santayana quote which is,
“Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it,”
And the second is the Gore Vidal quote,
“We live in the United States of Amnesia.”
This film is meant to be the antidote to that. If you're a filmmaker, you have a really extraordinary platform. Take it from someone who's been a writer for a very internationally known magazine and also the maker of independent film that even the smallest film is an exponentially more powerful platform than anything written. So, there's a huge opportunity for anyone that has the platform and can find distribution for serious documentary film, or any film, to speak up when it's viable to do so and, after the election of 2016, there was only one story I thought that was worth telling and this is it.
Beyond Cinema: We would love for you to talk about how you approach the idea that, as the center of this film, you’re possibly at times creating sympathy for the devil.
Matt: It's all story, really. I learned this from Bob Eisenhardt who was an editor I worked with, he cut my first film, Valentino The Last Emperor. I think he's the grand master of documentary editors and he's a man of few words but, in his work and in my collaborations with him, I've learned the essential I think, which is that story is everything and if it's not serving your story, it must go. So, sympathy for the devil wasn't my mandate here or my desire but what makes your character tick is an essential part of crafting your narrative and, in that, you find glimmers of sympathy for the protagonist. They're not made up, they were essential to the story and to understanding who this person is, where he came from, why he became the person is and what he did.
A lot of that has to do with his upbringing and the person he was, which was a gay man who was born of great privilege and, for whatever reason, used his tremendous intelligence to act in really bad ways throughout his life. I don't know whether you agree or not, but I think most of the sympathy for the devil in this film comes from it being about a guy born in the 1920s to wealthy Jewish parents who, in the parlance of the time, had a problem. No one says that anymore but he had a problem in that he was gay, homosexual. I think a lot of his actions and a lot of his acting out and a lot of his arrested development comes from the really terrifying journey of gay men in the middle 20th Century, though I'm not excusing him by any stretch of the imagination.
Beyond Cinema: And the film doesn't. I want to throw some more current names at you and ask for your comparison to Roy Cohn – people like a Lee Atwater or a Roger Ailes or, maybe more obviously, Steve Bannon.
Matt: Well, part of what this film does is show you the origin of the forces that are shaping the world we live in now. The film, in its parts, argues that Roy Cohn was absolutely essential in the creation of the demagogic right wing takeover of the American government that we are enduring today, and Roger Stone and Lee Atwater are direct products of Roy Cohn. I think Roy Cohn would've been a bold footnote to American history had Trump not won. I think he would have been significant, but I really think he would've been a footnote.
That he was both the Svengali of Joseph McCarthy and the creator of Trump is of tremendous significance to the story of the right-wing political complex that is dominating the political culture narrative right now. So this makes him the modern Machiavelli. Stone is Roy Cohn, Donald Trump is Roy Cohn. They're the same entity really. Lee Atwater had other influences and comes from the southern fascist wing of transactional politics that Cohn wasn't directly involved in, but that isn't a part of the coalition that Cohn was an integral part of.
Beyond Cinema: See, it's interesting because I would not characterize a Donald Trump as Cohn as much as a McCarthy, because, as I was watching it, I was thinking to myself “Is Stephen Miller the next gen Roy Cohn?”
Matt: Yeah, he might be. I don't know enough about really what's being talked about in the White House right now but, you know, the film premiered two days ago, I've talked to some journalists here, and some people that are really day-to-day in the swim of political reporting, and Stephen Miller's name comes up a lot and he might be, but I don't think there'll ever be anyone that quite has the full spectrum of Roy Cohn's power base. I think the world's changed too much. Trump essentially swallowed Cohn's methods and philosophy whole, and the difference between them is that Cohn never was viable as a front man of a political candidate or an elected official because he had been discredited in his McCarthy period.
He certainly intended to run for office, and Trump, through an accident of history, becomes the most important politician of our time using Cohn's methods. So I see Cohn as… almost like a virus who infects empty vessels and supercharges them – and we can get into all the science fiction rhetoric here, it's almost like Ridley Scott “Aliens” territory - and Cohn did it with McCarthy and then the really, almost surreal fact is that he did it again a couple generations after McCarthy in the 70s and 80s with Trump as his apprentice, and Cohn dies in 1986 and a couple generations later this [presidency] emerges and it's directly traceable to the dark genius of Roy Cohn.
Beyond Cinema: I want to read something from your director's statement.
Matt: Uh-huh (affirmative)
"My hope is to help light the fires of cultural recognition. The film is intended to elucidate, educate and motivate people worldwide to act now and to reject the darkest impulses of the American psyche before they overwhelm us.”
Beyond Cinema: Do you have a fear at all that we've already gone past that moment for self-correction?
Matt: I think we're very close to the precipice. Most democracies have not made it very far past the 200-year mark, that's why I made the film. If you go and look at the very famous literature on the Third Reich, you can see that things can degenerate very quickly and the warning signs are all there. There was a book written last year called “How Democracies Die,” that, I think, lays this out very clearly.
I think things can fall apart in a million different ways, some of which we probably can't even perceive. All through the 20th century there were tripwires that no one recognized because people hadn't shaken off the 19th century… that's how World War I begins and the resolution of World War I lead directly to World War II only 20 years later. So, now, there are all sorts of tripwires that we haven't recognized yet and I think part of that can be attributed to Trump's rise because we're all drinking from a fire hose of information now and we can't see the forest from the trees and I think these [tripwires] exacerbate the dangerous inflection points of the times we live in.
So it's a really, really dangerous period but I think it's important - and this is really where documentary film comes in - since we are drinking from a fire hose of a 24-hour news cycle, and it's on our phones, in our hands and sometimes the phone's in bed with you – so, I mean, you're literally in bed with the news cycle. It's a very different thing but documentary film allows you to sit down for an hour, for 90-minutes, and really take a bit of a step back and get a greater perspective - I hope this film fulfills that.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]