Bad Words, the feature directorial debut of Jason Bateman, is the subversively funny story of Guy Trilby (played by Bateman), a 40-year-old man who finds a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and decides to hijack the competition. The overly ambitious 8th graders are no match for Guy, who is determined to crush their dreams of winning. The film also stars Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall and Rohan Chand.
At the film’s press day, actor/director Jason Bateman spoke at a roundtable interview about why he wanted to take on the responsibility of directing a film, finding the tone of the story, bringing the flaws and vulnerabilities out of the character, having so many swear words, the process of directing himself, making the best use of pre-production, working with his young co-stars, and coming from a funny family. He also talked about going into production on his next directorial effort, The Family Fang, in May, why directing is the greatest job in the world, and that he prefers contributing to an already existing script over writing something himself. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: Have you always wanted to direct, and did you look back on all the directors you’ve worked with, in television and film, to draw on those experiences?
JASON BATEMAN: I don’t want to get caught saying the cliché, “I always wanted to direct,” but in any profession, you look at the jobs of the people around you, and some that are above you, and you spend enough time doing what it is you’re doing that you want to challenge yourself to see if you can do a little bit more and maybe even help the process of those that would be doing the job you’re doing now. It was always just about me appreciating how complicated that position could and should be. And the more I learned about all the contributions of all the departments, the more I wanted to have the privilege of that responsibility. I didn’t want to get the opportunity as a result of some sort of contractual perk. I wanted to earn it. I wanted to not be asked, but I wanted to make sure that it was the appropriate time. I asked people who were brutally honest and very objective, and they said, “I think that the industry would welcome that. I think you could attract a group of actors that you would be proud of. I think you could attract a bunch of people below the line that would be incredible.” And so, I started looking at some scripts – three, in particular – and this was one of them. I said, “This seems like the kind of scope that I could be responsible to take on, and this is the kind of comedic tone that I think I could navigate well.”
The tone is so important. Did everybody understand that’s what the script called for?
BATEMAN: I think I was pretty clear with the few people that I had to talk to. It’s not a huge cast, so I spoke as specifically as I could to them, and also to the department heads, and gave them some films to compare it to. I thought the visual style of it was very, very important for the audience. Consciously or subconsciously, as audiences, we are aware of what to expect based on a palette that you’re looking at, and certainly with music, so I was really excited to be the person that guides all of those efforts.
What films did you recommend?
BATEMAN: The kind of comedies that are character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven or concept-driven. This has a pretty sticky concept, but it succeeds or fails based on the authenticity of the characters in it. In other words, it’s a straight drama to everyone that’s in the movie. So, I recommended character comedies that are done by people like Paul Thomas Anderson or David O. Russell or the Coen brothers, or even Quentin Tarantino. Those guys are incredible craftsmen with their filmmaking, but they also have a very keen sense of a comedic tone that is not reliant on some big, broad concept.
As a young actor, you excelled at adversarial relationships with adult characters, but in this, you got to flip it and be the adult in that situation. Was that on your mind, at all?
BATEMAN: That’s interesting. Not really. From playing little assholes, I was aware that whether you’re a little asshole or a big asshole, you need to be somewhat excused for your assholiness, in order for people to enjoy it, otherwise you’re just hateful and people won’t like you. You need to like the person that’s doing these things, so you can laugh with them, instead of being repelled by them. So, there’s an obligation, as an actor, to play flaws and vulnerabilities in humanity, inside of a character, whether it’s written in the script or not. Sometimes it’s just a vulnerable look that you can wear on your face, as opposed to one of arrogance or cockiness. That’s very hard to write in a script. I knew there was that cocktail that we had to play with.
Did you ever think about not using so many swear words in this?
BATEMAN: There were certain drafts of this script that went a little bit too far, at certain points, and there were plenty of points where it didn’t go far enough. As Andrew [Dodge] and I worked on the script for a long time, we just always tried to make those adjustments, those ads or those cuts, through the lens of, why is this guy here? What’s going on? How is it a drama for him and not a comedy? At the core, this guy has had his feelings hurt. He is lashing out and he’s trying to get back at whoever hurt his feelings. He’s emotionally injured. If the spitefulness and the petulance is coming out of that, as opposed to just being arbitrarily mean to somebody, then it was fine. If it was just arbitrarily mean, then it had to go. As far as the number of F-words we did not try to hit a certain number and we didn’t try to keep it under a certain number. But, no one needs to see another spelling bee movie, and no one needs to see About A Boy again. It was a great movie, but we were trying to do something different here. A spelling bee happens to be the environment where this bad decision plays out. But, there was a necessity to keep some edge to this film and some dirt under its nails because it’s an adult going through something that’s deeply emotional to him. Oftentimes, that’s not pretty, and one can lose one’s dignity. That should feel dramatic at times as well as comedic.
How did you enjoy directing yourself?
BATEMAN: There was a checks and balance system that was eliminated, which is not terribly responsible or advised, in most circumstances, but this was a character that I felt I could handle. There is a part of me that is this guy. I’ve got him where he needs to be, in a cage, but I knew how to access that guy, and I felt like I had a good shot at playing him in a way that was vulnerable and somewhat redemptive. That was the biggest challenge. I took a couple of big swings at some actors that could definitely do it, who are much, much bigger stars than I’ll ever be, but they were busy or not interested. So, before we started going to people that might be a little bit more risky, as far as hitting that narrow target, I said, “Well, why don’t I just do it? I’ll increase my chances of hitting the snare on target of tonal accuracy, since I’ll be able to control it in front of the camera and behind the camera.” And since we had this truncated shooting schedule, I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of time to do four or five takes, where you work out a creative negotiation with the actor.
You’ve worked with some amazing directors, you’ve been on sets for your whole career. Did anything surprise you about directing?
BATEMAN: Pre-production and post-production is something that I’ve never been exposed to. I was pleasantly surprised that you could accomplish a lot during pre-production. There are so many things that you want to do with every department on the set, that you just don’t have time to either execute or discover. So, you’ve got these weeks and weeks to live with these people and the script, and to figure out, “Okay, how do we communicate what are we trying to do in this scene without saying it? If we pull the dialogue out, can we do it with a lens? Can we do it with a light? Can we do it with a piece of music? Can we do it with a location?” Sure, you have time to discover that stuff on set, sometimes, but for the most part you don’t. You just have to execute. So, it was really fun and gratifying to pick how we got to shoot every single scene, so that we didn’t lose those creative opportunities. We were still malleable on the day, but everything was shot-listed, storyboarded, and planned out. We could have fun and not be so pressured that we would miss something that might be a better idea, on the day.
How was your experience working with your young cohorts?
BATEMAN: They were great. The kids on the stage were very into it and very professional. Rohan [Chand], who played Chaitanya, I think he’s 19. You’ll have to check his papers. He was very professional. He knew all of his lines, and my lines. He was a very skilled actor without being obnoxiously precocious. There wasn’t that switch with the kids, where they’re like ,“This is great!” I encouraged him to be every bit of the kid that he is. A lot of that was helped by me remembering how I liked to be treated when I was that age, acting. You wanna be treated like an adult, but you also want to have fun. You want to feel safe. I was his buddy, as much as his director, and as much as his co-actor. We had a really, really good time. I’m so proud of him, and I’m really excited for people to see how good he is in this film. He’s the heart and soul of the movie. It’s tricky. You want to lead with that, and you want to tell everybody how great the kid is, but then people are going to think it’s About A Boy, literally and figuratively. The film is not soft, but there is a great emotional, heartwarming by-product of this very prickly journey that you have to go through to then see it and appreciate it. But, if you lead with that, you’re like “I got it. I’ll go watch the Disney channel and get the gist with that.” This was not that.
Were his parents or guardians on board with everything that he had to do?
BATEMAN: Yeah. His dad was with him the whole time, and he was a part of every single decision. He was in there with us during rehearsals, and I kept checking with him about Rohan’s comfort level with hearing these things, seeing these things, and saying these things. They live in New York, and his mother had to stay in New York, but she called in, every once in awhile. We were very sensitive to that. He wasn’t there for any unnecessary coverage. We tried to be really responsible with that.
Is there something you learned about acting, from having this experience, as a director?
BATEMAN: You get a sense of what a director’s challenges are, on the set, but all of those assumptions were verified, like why, after lunch, the stress level goes up, or why you point the camera one way in the morning versus another way in the afternoon. It was verified to me that it is beautifully complicated. It’s a deep responsibility that I was just so lucky to be given.
How funny is your own family, and is that where you got your appreciation for comedy?
BATEMAN: My family is pretty funny. My mother is British, so she’s got a very dry sense of humor. That’s where I got that from. And my sister (Justine Bateman) is very, very funny. She spent a lot of years on a really funny show (Family Ties). My dad has got a very dry sense of humor, too. I really appreciate comedy a lot.
And you’re doing it again, with The Family Fang?
BATEMAN: Yeah, we start in May.
So, you really liked it?
BATEMAN: I would never want to do anything else, yeah. It’s the greatest job in the world. You get to create worlds for people. We all go into a movie theater and ask to be taken somewhere, and it’s nice to be asked to drive. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that, so you have to make sure that you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, it’s your responsibility to ask. It’s very, very involved. It’s 360 degrees. It’s all senses, and you’ve gotta keep the ball in the air for an hour and a half. It’s a deep challenge. It asks me to call upon everything that I’ve learned since I started. Would you all want to be in a position where it demands that you utilize all that you’ve learned? We all try to mold our position into demanding that. Certainly, directing is that for me. I would hope everybody has an opportunity to be able to use all that stuff.
Would you like to try writing, as well?
BATEMAN: I like contributing to the writing, as a director. Quite frankly, that’s a lot easier. Writers have one of the more difficult jobs in the world. Whether it’s screenwriting or being a novelist, or whatever, you’re dealing with the blank page. It is all about disciplining all of your choices down to a certain funnel. You can write anything and go anywhere. There are so many forks. And distilling all of that down into something that truly works is a big challenge. So, I like to come in and attempt to fix things that are already there, as opposed to creating them.
Bad Words is now playing in limited release.