Identity Thief is the hilarious new comedy, from director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2), that follows what happens to a regular guy when he is forced to extreme measures to clear his name after a woman who loves to live it up steals his identity and ruins his life. When Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) is accused of a series of crimes, the innocent man realizes that a woman named Diana (Melissa McCarthy) is using his ID to do and buy whatever strikes her fancy, and decides to track the woman down and confront her, in order to get his life and name back.
At the film’s press day, Seth Gordon spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he came to direct this, what aspects of the story really spoke to him, developing Melissa McCarthy’s look for her character, assembling such a talented cast of actors, in even the smallest role, how important the test screening process is for comedy, the friends and family he likes to get feedback from, and how much fun the big action moments were to do. He also talked about his remake of WarGames, which has a script and is now waiting to go forward, whether The King of Kong narrative feature might ever happen, making sure they find a plot for Horrible Bosses 2 that lives up to the first, and the TV pilot he’s going to be directing about a dysfunctional North Eastern family in the ‘80s. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: When you were approached to direct this, were you immediately interested, or did you want to read the script first?
SETH GORDON: Well, Jason [Bateman] approached me at the Horrible Bosses’ press and said he was working on this thing and that it was going to be him and another guy, but it was being overhauled for [Melissa McCarthy], specifically. I thought that was a pretty cool idea and a cool pairing, and I talked to him just abstractly. And then, I met with the studio based on the outline for the intention of the script and explained what I would like to do. But, you never know until you read it. I read it just over a year ago, for the first time, and it was amazing. It was a script that was so good that it was just undeniable. We were almost immediately headed towards production, and you don’t hear that much. You hear, “Oh, we were sweating it for five years.” That was great.
When you did finally get to read the full script, what were the things that you felt really stood out and spoke to you, with the story and humor of it?
GORDON: The thing that hooked me was the heart. The presumed antagonist is no longer that, by the end of the second act. You care about her and are rooting for her. I never expected that, so I completely connected to that. And then, I loved the general comedy premise of two opposites trapped in a small space. I just think that’s always going to be great. Even though you’ve seen road movies that have fun with that issue, I just felt like because it was her and because her whole role was to steal his identity, that’s a different dynamic than I’ve seen before. It turns all of the expectations for the genre on their head. And they are so good that they found that rhythm with each other, immediately. It got better and better, but from moment one, it was like, “This is awesome!” No matter what curveball one threw the other, they could hit it, so it would go these great places that you didn’t expect. Most of it was scripted, but there were certain gems that weren’t. The Bermuda triangle thing was not written. Throwing a punch at the end, at the prison, wasn’t written. Getting hit with the guitar was never written. There were countless, but memorable ones.
When you do a movie like this, with a subject that is so relevant, do you find yourself thinking about the length you would go to, if someone stole your identity and was doing all of these awful things?
GORDON: I had done a doc that touched on this story of a woman whose identity had been stolen, in this exact way, who lived in San Diego. She ultimately didn’t feel comfortable having her story told in the doc, but learning how devastating that was from her, made me feel like there’s something really powerful here. To me, it’s almost the extreme of undeserved misfortune, to have that happen to you. And just the nature of the way business is done and consumerism is structured, you can’t help but use a credit card to just survive in this country. We’re all vulnerable, and it’s all hackable. If someone wants you and has targeted you, you can be taken down, and that fact is really scary.
Did you spend a lot of time thinking about Melissa McCarthy’s look for the film?
GORDON: It was a struggle in the sense that her ideas were so raw and new and fresh that they were, at first, hard to digest. So, it was about finding a blend of where we talked about going and where it is. That’s such a bold choice that it was a little scary, at first, but I loved it. I come from the Midwest, so that farmer’s daughter, red state, picnic shirt look is a very familiar thing for me. I knew people like that. She even drew inspiration from family members, not to be named. I think it’s really awesome. It’s so original. It’s so vibrant. It was just fun, the whole time. Figuring it out was fun. The initial idea was that we would have all these crazy looks, so that you saw a series of identities that she was stealing and she was always in a crazy look. But, it just ended up becoming her. All the stuff together was just her. That just ended up feeling right.
When you do a comedy, every character is important, no matter how small. What it a huge sigh of relief, when you got such great actors to play even the smallest roles?
GORDON: Yeah. Frankly, we weren’t jammed into people who weren’t good for the parts. Eric Stonestreet is an amazing, inspired Big Chuck. I’d done an episode of Modern Family, and it happened to be one of Cameron’s episodes, so I knew how amazing he was, as an actor. And I also knew that he’s really far from that character. As soon as he snaps out of character, he’s just this macho guy from Kansas. So, Big Chuck really made intuitive sense to me. That was true for Robert Patrick and even Ellen Kemper, who I thought was awesome in her cameo, as was Ben Falcone, [Jon] Favreau, [John] Cho and Morris Chestnut. Everybody was so strong in their parts.
Is the test screening process important for a comedy, so you can find out what works and what doesn’t?
GORDON: For me, absolutely! There’s the story we intend to be telling, and then the audience feedback tells me if what we mean to be telling is coming across. That’s a really dynamic, layered, nuanced process. It’s not something where I can just guess. I want to find that balance. You want to make that family, at the beginning, relatable and believable without getting sappy. And you want her to be evil, but remain innocent. All that stuff is just a careful balance. All the way through production, we were giving ourselves options to shade it a little bit this way, or a little bit that way. That’s something that took awhile to get to that place. It’s a hundred moving parts. This movie was going to come out in May, but then it got moved up because this date was perfect for it. That was like, “Okay, we have to double down and rush through it,” but we got to a good place. It was like cramming for a test.
Did you do a bunch of different test screenings?
GORDON: I do it more for friends and family. The first people I show it to are the guys I made The King of Kong with. Then, I show it to a larger group. I’m in a bowling league, so I invite the bowling league. There’s a process that we go through. I know the people well enough that, even when they don’t like something, I can tell in how they do or don’t say stuff. They don’t want to be rude, if something didn’t work, but I can learn through that. And then, you start getting it in from of 500 people, which we did a couple of times, and there’s such wisdom and honesty in crowds. It’s the way comedy is meant to be seen. I like that balance of the funny that enables the heart to come out.
Was it fun to also add in the big car chase and action moments into a comedy?
GORDON: Yeah, totally! Who wouldn’t enjoy blowing up a car?! My son is obsessed with Hot Wheels and one of his favorite things is Crash n Smash, and that’s essentially what was really fun about this movie. We have that van roll, and we have that car explode and get hit by the truck. All that stuff is fun to do.
What’s the status of WarGames now? Are you still developing that?
GORDON: Essentially, [Identity Thief] moved so fast that it just beat it to the punch. That script has now been written. Before, I had pitched the idea and we were finding a writer. Now, the script has been written and MGM is deciding what they want to do. To me, it’s so clearly an awesome idea and it’s gotta be made, as far as I’m concerned. I want to direct it, for sure. I just feel like the amount I know about geek world and def-con, and the places where this kind of stuff happens, makes me especially suited to bring it to life, I think. So, I’m certainly going to keep pushing that forward.
Are you also still hoping The King of Kong narrative feature will eventually happen?
GORDON: That’s just never going to die because there’s something pied piper, siren song about that doc where people want to try to remake it. I think it would be cool as a musical. Having people sing about that stuff would be amazing. It’s just so suited for melodrama that I think that would be great. But, the theatrical script is still in development. This woman, Melissa Stack, wrote it and literally handed her draft in not two weeks ago. I haven’t even had a chance to read it because I’ve been finishing [Identity Thief], but it’s not dead.
Is it frustrating for you to know that so many people are interested in that and want to see it happen, but it hasn’t been made yet?
GORDON: In that particular case, no. I feel like there’s always going to be a lingering fear that we’re chasing our own tail, even in rebuilding it. It’s hard to imagine making it truer and purer than the original, which just felt like right place, right time, right team, right set of serendipitous events, falling in line in a way that you could never really recreate. You can try. To me, that one is a special case where, if it were the right actors and the right ensemble, then I think it could take on a whole new life that would make it worth exploring. But short of that, I get nervous that we’re just trying to commercialize something that was meant to be what it was and nothing more.
How are things coming with your TV series?
GORDON: There’s a pilot that we’re doing, but I don’t know what the title is going to be. It’s basically The Wonder Years in the ‘80s instead of the ‘60s, about a dysfunctional North Eastern family. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun. That will be in early March.
Do you know which film you’ll direct next?
GORDON: It could be Horrible Bosses 2 or WarGames, or something else could come up. I love this hybrid tone and doing more complicated, nuanced character work, so I’m really hoping to find something like that.
With as successful as Horrible Bosses was, do you worry about being able to top that?
GORDON: Yeah, that’s tough. The thing is, those three guys are so good together, and so much of that movie was unscripted. We completely riffed and discovered stuff that wasn’t on the page, and I feel like we’d be able to do that again. I just want to make sure the plot holds up. That plot of the first one was really good. You didn’t see that gunshot coming. You didn’t see some of those turns.
Identity Thief is now playing in theaters.