Earlier this week, as Donald Trump bowed in front of Saudi Arabia’s King Salaman after being bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor, Roger Stone was reaching for the Gravol. “Candidly this makes me want to puke,” Stone tweeted upon seeing the man he helped catapult to the nation’s highest office look submissive in front of the leader of a country Stone has called “the enemy.”
These days, Twitter is perhaps the most direct line Stone has to the President, who has continued to distance himself from his polarizing former campaign adviser and confidant in the wake of the Russia investigation, in which Stone is a key player. Just this week, Stone — along with his associate and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort—turned over documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee in its investigation into whether or not members of Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election.
Stone’s ubiquity in the current news cycle couldn’t have come at a better time for Netflix, which released the decades-spanning documentary Get Me Roger Stone on May 12. But when filmmakers Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme set out to make a film about the notorious political provocateur five years ago, they had no idea just how timely it would become.
Stone’s political career came of age in the Watergate era, when he was one of Nixon’s most outspoken acolytes. In the decades that followed, Stone gained a reputation in Washington as a dirty trickster who’d stop at nothing to see his candidate elected. But since being banished from the Republican party in 1996 when it was discovered that he and his wife were into swinging (no, really), Stone was relegated to the political sidelines—a washed up misfit whose bark had become much louder than his bite.
Then Trump happened. In Trump, Stone saw a “prime piece of political horse flesh,” as he says in the documentary, someone who could enact his powerful blueprint of misinformation and attack-dog politics. But what began as a portrait of a political puppet master and his fringe candidate, mutated into something far different as Trump steamrolled through the primaries. Here, the directors of Get Me Roger Stone discuss having to adapt to a breakneck news cycle in real time, and how Roger Stone helped orchestrate the stunning rise of Donald Trump.
You guys can’t possibly be pleased with the state of the country, but the fact that Roger’s back in the news cycle must be a dream come true.
DYLAN BANK: We were certainly afraid at certain points, as we were editing the film together, that people would have Trump fatigue. But it seems like the opposite has happened. The entire world is entranced by Trump. And many people are asking themselves “How did this happen? How did we get to this point?” and we think our film gives a very good answer to that question, that Roger had a lot to do with creating the conditions that made that happen, as well as being the person who brought up the idea of Donald Trump running for president to begin with.
How did the timeline of making the movie coincide with the rise of Trump?
DANIEL DIMAURO: When we first started making the film five-and-a-half years ago, Roger was really at the nadir of his career — he was on the fringe of politics. He was really at a low point, a washed up, down-and-out dirty trickster who was looking for his next score. He always had a lot of schemes going on the side, hoping that one of them would stick, and one of them was running Trump for President. And five-and-a-half years ago, just like everyone else, we thought that was ludicrous but it shows his brilliance. Since the eighties, he’s been saying Trump could be president, so obviously we followed him for a long time and we saw him in what we thought was the twilight of his career, and we were there for his sort of rebirth, and now he’s at the apex of his career.
Were you constantly having to adapt to the news cycle?
MORGAN PEHME: Absolutely. We shot enough to make a ten-part miniseries and we found so many fascinating episodes in Roger’s career over the time that we were with him, many of which ended up completely on the cutting room floor. Just in terms of the final version of our film, it went through three very distinct iterations. The first was “Oh, what a surprise, after all these years of Roger trying to get Trump to run for president, he did and it was a self-destructive lark and Trump went down in flames but Roger got the attention he wanted. That’s how we thought it would unfold. But after Trump caught fire and surged to the front of the polls, we thought this would pretty much end at the RNC convention, which we were at with Roger. Trump would be the nominee and he would get slaughtered in November. And then of course, after Trump’s victory, we again had to go back into the editing room and rethink what we had done to tell the totality of the story. So our film was reshaped on several occasions as we responded to unfolding events.
How integral of a roll do you think Stone played in the election of Donald Trump?
BANK: Roger was the one really pushing Trump to really go hard against Hillary Clinton, attacking Bill Clinton for his so-called “27 rapes.” And it was really only when the Access Hollywood video came out — when Trump really felt like his back was against the wall — that he really embraced the Roger Stone playbook: “attack, attack, never defend”. That’s when we heard him in the debates basically echo Roger’s own words of Bill having a real problem with women and Hillary being the muscle to cover it up.
DIMAURO: A lot of people want to ask, “Who made Trump President? Who is the mastermind behind Trump?” and a lot of people close to the President would say that Trump made Trump. There is no single one person who made Trump president besides Trump. Our film definitely makes the argument that if there is one person second to Trump that made him president, it’s Roger Stone. Roger’s career created the conditions which allowed a candidate like Trump to become president, and Trump fully embodies Stone’s philosophy of “you must do anything to win.” As Paul Manafort says in our film, it’ll be a Trump Presidency that was influenced by Stone’s philosophy
What do you think Roger saw in Trump that made him bet on that particular horse?
BANK: Not only did Roger foresee that Trump would be a successful presidential candidate, but all throughout the time we spent with him, he articulated why that would occur. He identified, as early as 1987, that Trump had the outsider image that could make him a really strong contrast to career politicians in DC. He had the businessman mystique — that he was going to come in and clean up an incompetently run government, and he also had this outsized charisma and celebrity that would make him attractive to rank and file voters. And those are the three components of Trump that Roger always zeroed in on, and ultimately he was vindicated because those were the elements that elected him President of the United States.
Did you believe Trump when he recently tweeted that he hadn’t spoken to Roger in awhile?
BANK: The biggest mistake that anyone came make in Trump-land is to claim that you’re guiding Trump, that you get more attention than him, that you are his brain, so pretty much no matter what said, if it’s taken out of Donald Trump’s hands, Trump will for sure say, “Oh no, he didn’t help me make that decision. In fact, I made that decision months ago.”
Do you think Stone played any part in Comey’s firing?
DIMAURO: We can’t say that definitively, but what we can say is this: When Trump fired off the letter explaining his rational for firing Comey, he said very clearly that on three distinct occasions, Comey had told him that he wasn’t under investigation. So that clearly was a sore spot for Trump. The fact that he felt like he needed to put out a tweet discounting Roger’s effect on his decision to fire Comey is suspicious to say the least.
What did you learn about Stone’s relationship with Russia? Do you believe that there was collusion with Trump surrogates and Russia?
PEHME: There’s a significant amount of smoke around the various connections that may not be related to one another. Certainly we know Roger Stone and Paul Manafort have connections in the Ukraine. Paul Manafort certainly has connections to Russian oligarchs. We’re as curious as the next person to see the results of these investigations. We know for a fact that Stone was actively seeking to communicate with Assange. Whether he actually did or how he did, we have no idea. So we’ll just have to wait and see like everyone else.
Do you think someone like Roger Stone has an ideological belief system? Does he have a moral center? Or does he operate completely out of self-interest?
BANK: Roger wakes up every morning wanting to destroy his enemies and win elections and get into a debate or a fight so he can get on TV and get some attention. People often want to find a set of political beliefs behind him, going all the way back to when he was a fanatical Goldwater conservative and, in his Nazi/Hitler Youth phase, was much more of a true believer then. He believed all hippies should be killed and that the Vietnam War was great. Over time, Roger has very much changed. He marches in gay pride parades. He’s very pro marijuana, and has many other so-called liberal beliefs. But Roger has stuck with the same team and he still wants to win on the Republican side. And we’ve heard Roger go back on some of those things he believed, very notably not pushing any sort of borderline racist ideas or race-baiting. Very specifically, when he denied his involvement in the Willie Horton ad, which was a late-‘80s George H. W. Bush ad basically saying “Fear the black man; I’ll save you,” and Roger always said “I had nothing to do with that and I don’t do that.” But the moment it became convenient to do that with the birther movement, he dove right into it because it just might get him a couple more votes.
You obviously spent a lot of time with this man. Did you develop a friendship?
PEHME: We wouldn’t characterize it as a friendship. Roger is immensely charming, he is a great raconteur, he is a fun person to have a drink with and to hang out with. We enjoyed the time that we spent with him because he’s not some boorish, Carl Rove-type monster in the personality sense. But that certainly never blindsided us to all of the odious things that he’s done. We were very careful to never be taken in by his charms and forget that he has been integral to the degradation of our nation in every significant election since Watergate.
Has Roger seen the film?
DIMAURO: Roger saw it for the first time when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival about two weeks ago. He said there was some parts that he didn’t like but overall the thought it was great. He recently said on a radio show that it thought it was the greatest political documentary of all time, and that his chest looks great.
BANK: One of the things that Roger loves about the movie is his own explanations about things. When we talk about the so-called “Torturers’ Lobby”, where Roger and Manafort represented very dubiously moral dictators, many people consider that one of the low points of his career. But when you ask Roger “How do you feel about it?” he says “Well, I’m proud because I made a lot of money!” For Roger, that’s a great explanation and for many other people, that’s the greatest indictment of Roger.
What was it like when he walked into a theater full of New York liberals?
DIMAURO: People are always fascinated by Roger. He understands that outrageousness is the way to get people’s attention and to have an impact, so whenever Roger steps into a room, all eyes are on him and that’s exactly how he likes it. When we were in the green room with him today at The View, he said that last night at a bar, some drunk guy saw him and tried to take a swing at him. And he said “That’s being Roger Stone. People spit at you, they curse at you, but I love it.”