Why the James Comey miniseries both wowed and terrified buyers, wooed and then infuriated star Jeff Daniels, and now has its showrunner bracing for big blowback from Trump: “I’m almost certainly going to get audited, and that’s the best-case scenario.”
Billy Ray spent the final weeks of 2016 castigating James Comey.
Like every other Hollywood liberal, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter had been devastated by Donald Trump’s win and faulted the former FBI director for throwing the election his way. It had been Comey, after all, who reopened the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails just 11 days before the 2016 election, only to announce he’d be clearing her (again) two days before voters hit the polls. Even Clinton herself blamed Comey for her loss.
But less than two years later, Ray was on the phone from Los Angeles, trying to convince the man himself and a coterie of agents that he was the guy to adapt Comey’s 2018 memoir, A Higher Loyalty — or at least its portion about this period, which ended with Comey’s unceremonious firing. The pitch was going exceedingly well, too, up until when Ray was asked how he planned to address the Clinton email saga.
Head-on, he said. “Dramatically, it’s Frankenstein,” Ray explained. “You created the monster, and the monster destroyed you.”
“How did I create the monster?” he recalls Comey asking.
“Well, sir, you got him elected,” said Ray.
The line went silent.
What Ray wouldn’t see until later was a flurry of furious emails from producer Shane Salerno, who had painstakingly convinced Comey to let his book be adapted for television, and then put Ray up for the job. The screenwriter, best known for penning Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games, had been prepped within an inch of his life for the call. Telling Comey he’d lost the election sat high on Salerno’s list of what not to do.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, God, no, no, no, no, no, no,’ ” says Salerno, recounting his horror. “And then I thought, ‘Well, that was going to be a really cool project.’ “
The conversation didn’t end there, however. Ray continued to challenge the former FBI director, who said he liked to think there were additional factors in the election results — and then he agreed to let Ray tell his story anyway.
When The Comey Rule premieres on Showtime as a two-part event Sept. 27 and Sept. 28, it will attempt to shed light on the consequences of Comey’s decision to publicly reveal the Clinton email probe while staying quiet about the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. Its path to air has itself been a major source of controversy as parent company ViacomCBS initially announced that it would be releasing the $40 million miniseries after the 2020 election — only to reverse course in the wake of actor outcry and a leaked letter from Ray. Now he and his cast are bracing for blowback from the White House. “I’m almost certainly going to get audited,” says Ray, “and that’s probably best-case scenario.”
James Comey’s Hollywood journey began on a late January evening in 2018, when Salerno, a seven-figure screenwriter who moonlights as a top literary rep, received an email from a book agent on the East Coast. The subject line: “Would you be interested in representing James Comey?”
But like most things in Hollywood, it wasn’t that simple. Convincing Comey to sign off on any kind of adaptation would prove a Herculean task, as he had a litany of concerns, not the least of which was, What if the show wasn’t any good? Ultimately, Salerno sold him on the power of the medium — “[He] convinced me it was the best way to reach young people,” Comey says via email — and then Salerno agreed to give the former FBI director approval over the title, writer and script, though he insists Comey abused none of them.
Comey’s wife, Patrice Failor, would require coaxing, too. Ray worked every angle he had, even enlisting his own wife at one point in the wooing process. He stressed his track record, too, citing his collection of true-story adaptations, from Captain Phillips to Shattered Glass, and the relationships he’d managed to maintain with the subjects of each. And then Ray told Failor what he’d told Comey: “I want people to understand in a visceral way what happened in 2016 so that they can make an informed decision about 2020.”
Once the pair was on board, Ray set off for Washington, D.C., where he interviewed anyone and everyone he could, filling a prep document 144 pages long. He connected with the White House, too, but it quickly became clear that any access to Trump himself would be granted only in exchange for showing his team the script, which was a nonstarter as far as Ray was concerned. So he returned to L.A. to write, and then to sell Hollywood on what would be the first scripted dramatization of Trump’s rise to the presidency.
There was a feverish rush to hear the top-secret pitch, which required that buyers come to a CAA conference room over a matter of days in late summer 2018. But most of them, or at least their corporate overlords, ultimately would be scared off by the potential repercussions of adapting a controversial story about a sitting president, particularly one with a penchant for punching back. Still, for a select and brave few, the Comey tale was simply too juicy and powerful to pass up, though even they would need assurances.
“The thing I was concerned about is [whether this is] just going to be a diatribe, an apology, a love letter to James Comey,” says CBS chief creative officer David Nevins, a political junkie who was running only Showtime back then. And while it was Ray who drove the pitch — a masterful 43 minutes, according to several who heard it — he’d cede the floor to Comey at the end of every presentation to field questions like Nevins’. To that, the former FBI director made clear that he wouldn’t be the author of this story — that fell exclusively to Ray, who also directed all four hours. Rather, Comey’s presence in that room was to make apparent that he’d be a resource and, just as important, not an obstacle.
Plus, being able to look the former FBI director in the eye and pepper him with questions would be valuable, particularly for those “who felt, ‘I raised money for Hillary, I donated to Hillary, I had a bumper sticker for Hillary, how can I possibly do this?’ ” says Salerno, who’s gotten some version of the “how could you” question a few dozen times himself. He responds the same way every time: “All you know is what you saw on CNN and C-SPAN. You have no idea what was really going on. So just watch — it’s not what you think.”
In the end, a consortium at what was then just CBS, led by Nevins and Julie McNamara, scored the project on the basis of its passion, to say nothing of its willingness to write the eight-figure check. What wouldn’t be clear for some time, however, was where, when and, per a few involved, if it would ever air.
For many months, the series’ green light flickered on and off and on again.
On its face, the contention was often over the ballooning budget of the project, which very likely would have aired on CBS proper had it been ready a year earlier. But not lost on anyone involved was the vindictiveness of the president, who not only touted a cozy relationship with the company’s chairman, Shari Redstone, but also was actively trying to interfere with the Time Warner/AT&T merger at the time and could just as easily have done the same with CBS and Viacom. Too many times, there would be meetings or conversations about the project that would come on the heels of Trump behavior so ghastly, it left many involved wondering, “Is this what we’re in for?”
The feedback would mirror that uncertainty. “Someone would call and go, ‘Oh my God, I read the scripts, they’re amazing,’ and then someone else would call and say, ‘I don’t know how we could possibly make something this politically charged with a sitting president,’ and they’d come on the same day,” says Salerno. “Or someone would call and go, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be big,’ and you’d go, ‘Oh, thanks,’ and then they’d say, ‘But geez, I mean, you think we’ll really make it?’ “
Desperate to keep the project alive, Salerno advised Ray to just keep hiring actors. “There’s going to be a [budget] number that they can’t come back from,” he’d say, “because that’s how it works.” Of course, moving quickly wasn’t always as easy as it sounded. In fact, Ray came dangerously close to decamping to Toronto, where they filmed the series last winter, without an actor to play Trump.
Brendan Gleeson had turned down the offer initially, and, according to multiple sources, Anthony Hopkins was attached for a time before dropping out. At least a few others said no without so much as reading the script. “The truth is, from an actor’s point of view, who needs it?” says Ray, who acknowledges that “it was hard to make an argument to an American actor, ‘No, this is going to be great for your private life, great for your family.’ You can’t really say that in a truthful way, so we were scrambling.”
In the end, Ray and his team wore Gleeson down, convincing the Irish Emmy winner that the project was powerful enough to make it worth his while. He was also assured that his iteration of Trump wouldn’t be cartoonlike in any way. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to ask you to do something that makes you a target,’ ” says Ray, who himself was ordered to dial back his anti-Trump tweets. “I said, ‘Our makeup is going to be more real-life than his, our hair is going to be more real-life than his and our suits are going to fit you better than his [fit him].’ ” Gleeson said yes on the condition that he wouldn’t need to do any press around the series’ airing.
They wouldn’t get so lucky with their Barack Obama, at least as far as a star. “We literally went through, like, 80 people — big actors, too,” says Salerno, recounting their collective naivete in the casting process. “We were so excited, like, ‘We can get anybody. Who’s not going to want to play President Obama?’ And then we’d call people, and they’d be like, ‘Are you insane? No thanks.’ ” The role ultimately went to Kingsley Ben-Adir, a talented British actor best known stateside for his work on Hulu’s High Fidelity.
Comey himself would prove an easier sell, though first choice Jeff Daniels wasn’t immediately available because of his Broadway commitment to To Kill a Mockingbird. Other names, from Kyle Chandler to Liev Schreiber, were bandied about; but as production plans dragged on, Ray circled back. As he saw it, Daniels was ideally suited, and not simply because he’s only a few inches shy of Comey’s 6-foot-8. “You wanted someone who has instant, solid, Midwestern credibility — and you can’t bring that if you don’t have it, and Jeff had it,” says Ray. “And he’s a marvelous actor.” So he flew to New York, where he met Daniels backstage in his Mockingbird dressing room and convinced him that The Comey Rule was going to matter.
Daniels spent whatever time he had between Mockingbird performances reading and listening to Comey’s memoir and devouring as much as he could on YouTube. But he wouldn’t actually meet the man he was portraying until production was well underway. The former FBI director visited the set with his daughter the day that Daniels shot the scene featuring the infamous private dinner that Comey shared with Trump in early 2017. Once Daniels had gotten in a few reps with Gleeson, Ray brought Comey over for a proper introduction. “He goes, ‘I want you to meet somebody,’ ” says Daniels, who then stood up in his 2-inch heels and shook Comey’s hand. “And he says to me, ‘You brought back the emotional nausea that I felt having to deal with what I was dealing with — you brought it all back. I’m nauseous.’ “
Early this Spring, with the series almost entirely in the can, rumblings of trouble began. First it was just hints, then came official word. A decision had been made at the highest levels of the newly merged ViacomCBS: The Comey Rule would debut in late November, several weeks after the election.
The simple explanation provided to its producers was that the company didn’t want to air something so politically charged in the lead-up to the election.
“But we knew it was Viacom,” says Daniels, “that they were supportive of Trump in the past.” So the series’ star said he looked forward to seeing the completed show but he wouldn’t be promoting it. He’d been around long enough to know it was the only card he had, and he was pissed off enough to play it.
“Listen, if Billy had sat in my dressing room that day and said, ‘You get to play Jim Comey and, good news, we’re going to release it after the election, when it’s irrelevant,’ I would’ve passed. Everyone I worked with would’ve passed,” says Daniels. “And it’s not like, ‘Let’s get Trump.’ It’s, ‘Let’s be part of the conversation, let’s matter,’ so that people who are out there voting — in particular, the ones in the middle, if they still exist — might see this and go, ‘Now wait a minute.’ “
Ray and his fellow producers tried to plead their case for a reversal but were told in no uncertain terms that any such discussion was a “nonstarter” — as was getting the project back to try to sell it elsewhere. Then Ray played the card he had: He wrote and circulated an impassioned letter, explaining to his entire cast and crew what had happened. “When you direct something like this, where anyone who signs up to do it is risking something, you are asking for their trust. You’re saying, ‘See that mountaintop over there? I know how to get there, follow me, we’re going to succeed,’ ” he says now. “And everybody on that production placed their trust in me and I felt I had let them all down, and so I wrote them a letter to apologize.”
Inevitably, that letter leaked to the media, infuriating Nevins, one of the project’s biggest champions, who was said to already be fighting that same battle internally and was now embarrassed externally. What happened next was a shock to Ray and everyone else. One day after his letter made the rounds, the company announced that it had reconsidered and would now air the series in late September.
“It’s flattering that people would think I had any kind of sway,” says Ray. “If anything, I think what I did gave them cover to make a decision that they wanted to make anyway.”
Nevins isn’t particularly interested in rehashing the saga, except to say that there had been plenty of conversations along the way about premiering the series in January, too, just ahead of the inauguration. And no matter who ultimately wins the upcoming election, he believes the story would have been relevant then — though, he acknowledges, “not as relevant” — just as it will continue to be as it’s told again and told again for years to come. Still, he’s pleased it landed where it did, giving Showtime a real shot at “entering the fray” and not appearing to avoid it.
Now, with only a few days to go, Ray and his cast are out banging the drum for people to watch. The talking points will almost certainly include a popular Ray line about how he’s made plenty of movies about his country before but never, until now, one that’s for it.
However painful the chapter has been for Comey to relive — first as a spectator for a day of filming and, more recently, as a viewer of a Showtime promo featuring the viral folk song “Fuck You, James Comey” — he, too, is eager for people to tune in. “I wrote a book about leadership and institutional values because I thought Americans, especially young people, would benefit from those lessons at a time when we are poorly led and our institutions are under attack,” he says, without citing Trump by name. Then, he adds: “In September 2020, the lessons about the need for ethical leadership and support for the rule of law and our institutions couldn’t be more relevant.”
It’s hard to envision Trump not watching The Comey Rule — or at least watching the feedback to it. And at this point, Ray would welcome a few fiery Trump tweets. “I can’t imagine better free media,” he says, “than Donald Trump unloading on this series.”
As for Daniels, he’s prepared a response if it comes to that. “You have to,” he says. “If he’s going to take a swing, I’ll swing back.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.