Last month I had the opportunity to speak with directing team Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory) about their upcoming movie The Switch. Before I continue, let me advise you to rid yourself of all your expectations now. The Switch is nothing like either Blades of Glory or what it’s advertisements seem to show. It’s more serious, poignant and overall much, much better than it’s ads led me to believe. When it’s funny, it’s funny, but this is a real movie, not an absurd goofy comedy. I was very surprised by how much I liked the movie and I would definitely recommend it.
In my 20 minute talk with Gordon and Speck, we were able to cover a wide variety of topics, including how they met, how they divide up duties as a directing team, what exactly directors do on the set of a comedy or dramedy, working with a child actor as well as Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, their future, and much more. Gordon and Speck were two very smart filmmakers and a had a lot of interesting stuff to say about not only their film, but the moviemaking process as well. Continue reading to check out the interview. The Switch hits theaters August 20th.
Talking about how they first met:
Josh Gordon: We met at NYU in undergraduate film program and they put you with kind of a crew and this one just kind of stuck.
Will Speck: I think we have a shared sense of humor. It’s like we were doing short films on our own and we kept saying, one of us would show the other and the other would say “you know what would’ve been a fun thing?” and it’s like “oh yeah, totally” so it’s like we started to realize we had a real sense of a shared take on things that our sensibilities were totally in line and we were like “why don’t we try something together?” and we did it and we had a blast.
Gordon: Also, directing is a lonely and exhausting job and having somebody there with you as both a sounding board and as somebody that always has your back, it’s very useful.
Talking about what exactly a director’s role is on the set of a comedy:
Speck: I think it all comes down to the story and the story you’re telling and the moments you’re servicing. I think that in this movie there’s actually some comedy and some drama and there’s a good balance but I think comedically its sort of figuring out for us what we think is funny and what we think is the best way into that and trying to hopefully keep people’s feet on the ground where it needs to be and guiding the actors appropriately to take chances and do things that you don’t normally expect that a script might call for or might not call for…We love improv. When it’s correct, there’s nothing better but you always run into the danger of those scenes that don’t need it and it just happens…and in those scenes especially in the first act Jason [Bateman] was just all over the place…Jeff [Goldblum] in fact is a really huge improviser.
Gordon: So much of directing is about creating a tone for a movie and this movie really has two tones and sometimes it’s in the same scene and for us as directors its about creating a mood on set and also a tone of the movie that allows the audience to accept sometimes a switch in tone, something that goes from comedic right into drama.
Speck: We divide it up, again we share a sense and a taste and a take on things so we usually by the time we get on set, Josh can pick up the camera and I can work with the actors. That tends to be what happens but we’ve talked about it all before and we trust each other and have each others’s backs.
“As directors, normally in a Jason Bateman movie he’s the character that we see in the first act where he’s the isolated, lonely guy and there’s just a lot of comedy that’s based around it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bateman cry, I’ve never seen him so serious, so as a director, what is it that you guys did to pull this performance out of him, this performance that I’ve never seen before?”
Gordon: Well the amazing thing is, I think Jason has always had this in him. He’s a really fine actor and a very very funny guy and I think one of the things that was so appealing about him in this role was that you essentially got to see the evolution of Bateman, but in this movie. You’ve got the Bateman that everybody knows and in an essence his character Wally was kind of hiding behind that, he’s funny, he’s snarky and all that but beneath it was this deep reservoir of emotion and that was so satisfying about it.
Speck: And we also tried to create an atmosphere on set where it felt safe for him to go to those places. When you shoot a comedic scene there’s a different energy in the air and when you’re doing something more dramatic we tried to make it more intimate and allow for as much success as possible.
On taking the unusual approach of shooting comedy with a lot of long takes without cuts:
Speck: Sometimes it was time and sometimes it was also with improvisation it can really kill the mood to split that up with a lot of coverage and you’re matching back to an energy and I think certainly in scenes with Jeff and Jason, like the treadmill or the walk through the office, we really wanted to let it roll and see what comes with these two great guys. To sort of hinder them by slicing it up, different actors have different needs and coverage can be your friend or it can be your worst enemy.
Gordon: Also for us, we don’t believe that comedies have to look like comedies. We love movies from the early 80s like Tootsie or Down and Out in Beverly Hills and we sort of take the Sidney Pollack approach which is you can shoot a comedy like a drama and let the comedy come from what’s funny, you don’t have to telegraph it with a cheap sitcom look.
On the possibility of directing separately:
Speck: Probably at some point but I don’t think either of us have a desire right now in this moment to split apart from each other because we’re still learning from each other, we’re still having fun, we’re still engaged in our process. So I think once that shifts there will be a point in time in which we do as well but right now it feels like it’s working and we like it.
Was there ever a point in the film’s production where the movie was more of the goofy comedy that’s advertised or was it always as dramatic as the final film?
Gordon: No it’s always been like this, the script was a very respected script around Hollywood, it’s always been this and the producers give you a sense of this. And besides Jen [Aniston] and Kristen Hahn it’s also [Albert] Berger and [Ron] Yerxa who have a great track record and pedigree with Little Children so I think the movie always knew what it was which is a surprise. It’s got a big comedic hook but it’s a grounded, emotionally resonant comedy.
On the difference between the perception of the film based on it’s advertising and the final product (I compared the film to another Miramax release, Adventureland, in that the advertising stresses the film’s silly, comedic aspect when the actual film is more serious and ultimately much better then the ads would lead you to believe):
Speck: It’s tricky, with comedy in any movie you’re hungry for an audience to embrace a movie and be a part of an experience that’s comedic, it’s the easier way to go in some ways. For the scenes that were comedic, there was a desire from us and the studio to make them as funny as they could be and conversely for the scenes that were dramatic, service them to. To speak to the Adventureland point, it’s hard to get audiences to come and see movies and it’s a hard time in the country and I think audiences want to escape and dramas sadly are not being embraced as much as comedies. So in terms of getting as much people in to the movie, it’s easier to market it for a broader audience to be comedic and like Adventureland we’re hoping that people go and they’re not turned off and it’s something they didn’t expect.
On their future projects (I mentioned a film they were once attached to called Don’t ____ My Sister:
Speck: No, that’s a Paramount movie that was about a story set against Wall Street and it felt of a time and it doesn’t really feel like it’s moving anymore. There’s a movie we pitched based on an idea we had at Dreamworks about an office Christmas party that we’re gonna be doing that we love that all takes place in one night that’s a comedy. Right now it’s the “Untitled Office Christmas Party” movie. And there’s lots of stuff we’re reading and developing and we definitely want to do a comedy again but it was nice to do something that felt like it had some sophistication.
On their original involvement on The Switch:
Speck: We pretty much chased it. We had just finished Blades of Glory and we we read the script and we thought we always wanted to make a movie in New York and there’s certain movies we always thought we wanted to make together, certain types of movies, and one of them was a New York City romantic comedy. We went to college there and we loved a lot of movies that were set in the city that were about relationships and we loved Woody Allen, we loved When Harry Met Sally, so when this came, when we both read this, we both felt there was something here that we really loved and we chased it and we got it.
Do they have any desire to complete the arc of directing a total comedy (Blades of Glory) to a “dramedy” (The Switch) to something purely dramatic?
Speck: I think comedy is always what we lean towards but I think we’re very material oriented, so like if something came into our orbit and it happened to be a drama, we would do that too.
Gordon: If we know what to do with it when we read the script, if we know how to win with it, then we’ll go after it.
How much of they’re personal experiences and Jason’s personal experiences were infused into the script to make Jason’s character so realistic:
Gordon: It naturally just happens because whenever you’re making a movie, everyone is asking themselves how would this be in real life. When it’s your life, you’re naturally putting yourself into the decisions that the characters make. A lot of it was on the page with the writer who first came with it but in terms of how to interpret it, I think there’s a lot of Jason in that character and I think there’s some of us.
Speck: I think all three of us, we’re really heady guys, we think more than we do. I think that’s a shared sensibility that when you see there’s a lot of scenes in montages where he’s actually taking in the world and decide what to do and that’s very similar to us.
Gordon: It’s really a story about a character that doesn’t want to jump into the stream, he’s on the sidelines of his own emotional life, of the world, and he’s safe there. And we always said this character throws his luggage on the train before he’s able to get on it, knowing somewhere down the road it’s gonna trigger in him this need to jump in after it.
On their relationship with screenwriter Alan Loeb:
Speck: We had a big relationship. Alan was with us every step of the way. We had him on set and whenever you bring actors on, characters start to change and shift and you look at the actors and start to think about their strengths and weaknesses and stuff gets rewritten to tailor to them and also stuff as you’re shooting, what’s working, what’s not.
On their relationship with writer Jeffrey Eugenides (who wrote the short story Baster which the script is based on):
Speck: It was really a germ of an idea that short story that Alan Loeb then turned into 3 acts, so he didn’t really have much to do. He came by the set, he’s gonna be at the premier, he’s seen the movie early, he likes the movie but he wasn’t there with us problem solving. It had really become Alan’s movie at that point.
On casting the role of Sebastian, the 6 year old child of Jennifer Aniston’s character:
Speck: We saw a ton of kids. It was less because we wanted to see a ton of kids and more because we realized how important it was to nail it. When you’re getting a kid especially that age, you’re entering into trench warfare and you better step up. And he had to look like a believable match for Jason. We saw a lot of kids and Thomas [Robinson] really rose to the top.
On approaching working with a child on set:
Speck: He’s really young, 6 is very young. I think for us it was trying to make him feel as much like a kid as possible and as relaxed as he could be. He was jumping around and drinking juice boxes and all the things kids do up until the last minute we needed him. We tried not to put him through an hour of hair and makeup and arduous wardrobe changes. We kept him usually on set in a bathrobe and slippers and he was playing and running around and being a kid. I think the only trick we tried to employ was not having this feel like a big bummer to come in and suddenly work.
Gordon: Funny enough if you meet him, he’s not like the character. He’s a very happy kid, Thomas. So it was all about talking to Thomas about what this character was going through and embracing how odd and funny this character was and Thomas was able to grasp it.
On their approach to carefully explaining to child actor Thomas Robinson his character (who is conceived through artificial insemination) while still protecting his innocence:
Speck: We actually kept that from him and I think that was his parents’ desire and that was good but I think he understood kind of.
Gordon: He understood all the things he needed to understand.