Documentarian Alexis Bloom took on a giant task when she decided to make a film about Roger Ailes, the former Fox News executive who died in disgrace last year, having been ousted as CEO after at least 20 women, including network stars Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, accused him of sexual harassment and assault.
But Ailes’s impact on the American political landscape is hard to underestimate; as Bloom’s film Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes shows, it was his media expertise, showmanship, and proclivity for pushing hype and fear that in many ways paved the road for Trumpism and the current state of the Republican Party.
Divide and Conquer is not content to skim the surface of Ailes’s life. It dives deep, relying on copious archival footage and interviews with Ailes’s friends and foes, including extensive interviews with Glenn Beck to piece together the story of a man whose paranoia and power went hand-in-hand.
It chronicles an especially weird incident involving the quiet upstate New York hamlet of Cold Spring, where Ailes — already Fox’s chair and CEO — bought the local paper and tried to sway local elections, then became bizarrely vindictive when his efforts failed. And it reveals the many ways that Ailes often elaborated or exaggerated stories that were fascinating enough on their own.
I recently spoke to Bloom by phone about Ailes and the film — which she joked would be a “great twofer for date night” with the recent Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG. We talked about Ailes’s self-mythologizing, and she relayed a story that Glenn Beck told her that didn’t make it into the film but that helps further illustrate Ailes’s proclivity for embellishing the truth if it served his own purposes.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Why did you start making a documentary about Roger Ailes?
Because it was apparent that we’re living in a world that’s somewhat of Roger’s creation. And if you want to understand Fox, and you want to understand the rise of conservatism today, Roger’s life story is a good way to look at that — an engrossing, non-didactic way of exploring a lot of big ideas, because he’s really fascinating as a human portrait. He’s a fascinating person, but what he’s done is pretty epic and large.
So doing a film about him was both satisfying as an individual character study and as a way of understanding where we are in America today.
A lot of people only really remember Ailes from the end of his life, when he was under fire for allegations of sexual misconduct from a lot of women who had worked at Fox News, including network stars like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
But in the film, you bring in lots of other stories that I think would surprise people. For instance, I was totally unfamiliar with the wild story about the tiny local newspaper he bought in Cold Spring, New York, and how he used it to try to sway small local elections, for reasons that are really hard to understand.
As you were working your way through that story, how much of it did you previously know? How much of it was discovery for you? And how did you dig it up in the first place?
It was a strange film to make, because so many people have no idea who Roger Ailes is at all. When I was walking around in my regular life, meeting other parents at school or bumping into people through work or whatever, they’d ask me what I was working on. I’d say, “A film about Roger Ailes.” And more than half of the people I spoke to had no idea who he was. The people who did know who he was knew him mainly for the sexual harassment stuff.
Of course, people in the media were fairly obsessed with him, because he was such a powerful and somewhat thuggish character. So there’s a portion of the population who knew almost everything about him — well, not everything, but a lot about him. And then there was a much bigger portion of the population, the general public, who knew nothing.
So we had to go back to the beginning and show some stuff that was already public information about Ailes. But even in those details, there were always revelations. Did I know he was from Warren, Ohio? I did indeed. But did I know that he grew up with Austin Pendleton? Austin Pendleton is a well-known character actor and a liberal guy. I had no idea. Austin’s mother taught Roger acting. He went to acting classes with Austin Pendleton’s mother.
I think about those details like character development. It’s not incidental to the narrative. And his character, to some extent, was unknown to me. It was only by spending a lot of time with people who knew him very well that that all emerged.
There was tons of stuff I didn’t know. The extent to which he was a fabulist, a self-mythologizer — I didn’t really know about that. He had a fairly extraordinary life! Why he had to embellish it further remains somewhat of a mystery to me.
He was paranoid. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know the number of people who covered up for him. That, to me, was quite a discovery — the apparatus of enablers, and how many of those enablers were women, I found surprising. There was tons that was surprising.
Of course, I read everything that was written about him and listened to everything. But the revelations are always in the conversations you have with people who spent a lot of time with your subject. I did not spend time with Roger Ailes, so I started off in a position of ignorance. You kind of know what’s being read and written, and you have to be prepared to discard all of that. Because the truth is often just far fucking stranger.
One of the stranger things that most viewers will discover watching the film is that Ailes was obviously committed to an ideology, but it was only insofar as it bolstered his showmanship and his power. Did you know that going in?
He was definitely conservative — he believed, I would say, a large portion of what was on Fox. But I think that first and foremost ... I don’t know. I struggled with this question. Was he an ideologue or was he an opportunist?
What he believed served Fox, and served the money-making machine. Primarily, he was a money maker. He wanted to get as many people watching Fox as possible.
He was definitely ideologically conservative, but his first loyalty was to the audience, to manufacturing outrage, to weaponizing division.
I was under the assumption for much of the project that he must’ve been, underneath it all, quite rational. Then I talked to people who said, “No. He genuinely thought Obama wanted to ruin America and he genuinely thought Obama was gonna send the TSA to come and get him. And he was preparing for that.”
Then I thought, “Wow. He was not rational.” That was a surprise for me.
I don’t want to psychologize too much, but I do think it’s significant that, while watching the film, I kept feeling like I was kind of watching a biopic of Donald Trump, by proxy. People wonder if he a real true believer, too, or just an opportunist. There’s something in Ailes’s approach to Fox that feels similar to what we see in the White House.
It’s this love of conflict — conflict is the endpoint. You can disguise everything if the conflict surrounding it is big enough. The facts don’t matter. It’s about the drama and the bombast. And the drama will so engross people that the facts fall by the wayside.
These things have become so mainstream.
What do you think Ailes wanted, at the end of the day?
There’s a line in A Streetcar Named Desire that says, “The opposite of death is desire.” I felt like he was compulsively hungry. He had compulsive desires, and I don’t know that they were rational. From youth he was very well-acquainted with death — and I feel like he lived his life with this reckless abandon and this unending desire.
It was especially wild to see that play out in the episode with that little newspaper in Cold Spring.
He hacked the copy editor — who, by the way, is the nicest woman on the earth. I was so relieved. Totally upstanding, really nice, mild-mannered, thoughtful. She decided to leave the paper and they hacked into her Facebook account, and Ailes personally called up her friends.
I just think, “Why would you ever do that?” Are you so thin-skinned that this stuff drives you crazy, that the apparent disloyalty of an employee will drive you to hack into their Facebook and call up their friends?
It feels less Machiavellian, more just—
Like chaos! Just trying to create chaos.
Near the beginning of the film, several people you interview refer to a specific myth that Ailes would tell people about his childhood. He’d tell it to people as if it was fact, and people tell you the story on camera as if it’s fact, too. Then, near the end, the film reveals it to be a myth, before deconstructing all of these myths that Ailes told about himself.
Did you find yourself hearing lots of different versions of stories about Ailes that he told his friends, his enemies, and the people who used to be his friends, like Glenn Beck?
Yes. You have to be careful in a film like this — we don’t have the benefit of vérité, or of having posthumous accounts of someone’s life. It’s a tricky business, and you bear quite a lot of responsibility to get it right. If I’m going to say that this guy’s a fabulist, I have to know that he is. But I kept hearing multiple versions of stories time and time again.
Glenn Beck tells a story that unfortunately didn’t make its way into the film, because there wasn’t time. But Beck was at Ailes’s house in Cold Spring, going to the toilet, and noticed that there was a photograph behind the bathroom door. He looks at it and says to Roger, “What’s this?” It’s a photo of Richard Nixon and Neil Armstrong, when he’s walking on the moon for the first time. There’s a line between the two men — it’s a split screen.
And Roger Ailes says to Beck, “Oh. Yeah. I was doing a shoot when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Richard Nixon called him and spoke to him. That “small step for man, giant leap for mankind” thing.” Ailes said, “We didn’t know which way Neil Armstrong would be looking and we wanted him to look at Richard Nixon. So we didn’t know whether to put Nixon the right or Nixon on the left and we just had to guess. It was the first time split screen had been used. And we just got lucky.”
Glenn Beck told me this story earnestly. He was like, “For everything you want to say about Roger, this man lived an extraordinary life. But this is a photograph by his bathroom, not a mantelpiece. It’s just one of many episodes in Roger’s life.”
And then I said to Glenn, “But the split screen had been used before.” Glenn said, “No. I don’t think it had. I think that was the first time. That’s what Roger said.” I said, “No, it’s definitely been used before. And in fact, it had been used before in the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. So Roger would’ve known.”
Glenn was like, “You’re kidding.” I said, “No.” He said, “You’re joking.” And I said, “No. No. It’s definitely been used,” and we Googled it and everything.
He was like, “Oh my God.” Then Glenn Beck said, “Isn’t that sad that he produced this shoot, and it’s extraordinary enough as it is, and that he has to lie about it?”
[For Ailes it was] the difference between being the most important man in the world, versus the most important man in the media.
So having made this film, what do you take away from the story of Roger Ailes?
Glenn Beck says in the beginning, “It’s easier to say someone else is a monster and it’s hard to know when you’re on that path yourself.” In some ways, it’s a fable like that. It’s a cautionary tale. There but for the grace of God go we.
I kind of tried to unmask things so that you see Fox for what it is and Roger for what he was. It’s a dream-slash-nightmare factory, and it’s really about showbiz. He was a showman, and it’s a dark show — the monetizing of hate and outrage.
And that is so fucking effective. It is so much easier to have heat than light.
I hope it is a cautionary tale because in dealing with Trump, the left risks becoming fairly hate-filled itself. You end up being like the people you criticize.
Roger Ailes was a human being. He was capable of monstrous acts, but he was human. I try to bring out his humanity a bit, and I think that that’s what we’ve gotta do. As much as people can’t stomach Donald Trump, he is human. It might be an awful, uncomfortable truth, but he is. And the more we embrace the ambiguity, the better we can deal with what’s going on at the moment.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes opens in theaters on December 7.