While most of you know Jason Bateman as an actor, over the past few years, Bateman has done some incredible work behind the camera, directing numerous episodes of his hit Netflix series Ozark, and more recently, a few episodes of HBO’s Stephen King adaptation The Outsider. While Bateman showed he could direct when he helmed the feature films Bad Words, and The Family Fang, I feel like the past few years he’s shown amazing growth as a filmmaker, leaning into much darker storytelling. While I love his work as an actor, I’m now more excited when I see his name as director. And I’m not alone in singing his praises, because last year Bateman won his first Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for his work on Ozark. Trust me, if you haven’t seen Ozark or the first two episodes of The Outsider, give either series a watch and you’ll immediately understand why Bateman is an exciting filmmaker in his own right.
With Ozark Season 3 just having been released on Netflix, the other day I got on the phone with Bateman for an exclusive interview. During the extended conversation, Bateman went in-depth on his process as a director and the way he collaborates with his Director of Photography, the way he breaks down a script, how he designs his shots, and so much more on his process including the way he works with writers.
In addition, for fans of Ozark, he described the way he works with showrunner Chris Mundy, his thoughts on the bloody Season 3 finale, how many seasons he thinks Ozark should be, how long it actually takes to make a season, why Season 3 looks brighter than Season 2, and so much more.
For fans of HBO’s The Outsider, Bateman reveals how he got involved in the HBO series, why he could only helm a few episodes, how he created the look of The Outsider, the possibility of a second season, and more.
Finally, towards the end of the interview, Bateman talked about why he had to drop out directing the Clue remake that would have put him opposite Ryan Reynolds, the status of him directing the thriller Shut In, and how he’s excited to direct bigger films once he’s done with Ozark.
Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: First of all, I want to say thank you for getting on the phone with me to talk about Ozark and directing. I was looking online and I don’t think you’ve done too many interviews.
JASON BATEMAN: Yeah, no, I don’t think I’ve done any. I figured everybody was shut down. But some stuff, I suppose, still needs to keep going.
Jumping right on in. I want to start by saying congrats on the Emmy win for Ozark last year. You won over some big names and some big series. Do you even remember walking to the stage and going to the press room?
BATEMAN: Yeah, it was very surprising. I thought Julia [Garner] had a really good chance and some of the sort of handicapping articles or comments or whatever seemed to put me in somewhat to have kind of a chance as an actor. But, the director thing, I mean, I think I was right at the bottom. So, that was a big surprise to me. It just really knocked me out because, as I think you and I talked about before, the original plan was for me to direct all the episodes of Ozark and that’s what got me to say yes to doing the show.
Then, as we got into trying to schedule that and budget that, we realized that it would take too much time for me to prep all the episodes before starting shoot and then editing all those episodes before they air. It was just to treat it like a movie, like I wanted to, it was just too large with it being 10 episodes. If we were doing eight episodes or six episodes, I could have done it. So, I say all this to say my big interest in the show was directing; it wasn’t acting. So then to get an award for directing was really exciting for me.
I really do love your work behind the camera. When did you first realize that directing was something that you really wanted to do?
BATEMAN: I mean, it’s a kind of a long, boring, somewhat earnest story about my dad taking me to movie theaters instead of the park when I was a kid and showing me what acting is all about and what directing is all about. The acting part sort of came quicker and easier for me since it was just basically me being a smart-ass in front of the camera and getting jobs and comedy and TV shows and stuff like that. The directing part was something that I always had my eye on. I was always talking to crew members, you know, cameramen, sound men, editors, gaffers, scripts. Asking them how they do everything that they do since I was noticing that the director has the responsibility and the privilege of guiding all those departments. So, that was always a part of the process that I was always monitoring as a kid and as a young adult.
But I couldn’t really make the two sides of the circle meet. I didn’t really understand the full concept of what it was to manage all of that and put it all into one funnel so you could shape something for an audience. I’ve always been kind of observing it for a while and then, eventually, got myself into a position through my acting access and success to create an opportunity to see if I absorbed enough to not fall on my face. Then it just kind of became a process of doing a little bit each time. Fortunately, I started in multi-camera television, which is really dealing mostly with performance and making all the writing work. There isn’t as much focus on camera work by virtue of the format. By the time I got to directing single camera stuff, I was more comfortable and confident and knowledgeable.
You’ve obviously worked with some extremely talented filmmakers. Do you remember any key lessons along the way that stuck with you?
BATEMAN: I guess I’d have to say most of the lessons that I learned really came from my experience with certain directors as an actor and remembering how I like to be directed or not directed or just observing what certain directors would do or not do with the cinematographer or the camera operator or the gaffer. There really wasn’t any one particular thing that I could say left a big lesson mark for me. Actors have, like anybody else that works on a set, an opportunity to kind of cherry-pick all the good things and leave the bad things that you see from working with multiple directors.
Actually, the only people that don’t get that opportunity are directors themselves. Because directors never direct other directors. They’re never on another director’s set. Crew members and cast members, they’re working with multiple directors every year. So, they’re actually accruing a bunch of potentially very helpful ways in which to do that job because they’re seeing a bunch of different directors do it.
Before I get into Ozark, I wanted to touch on The Outsider. How did you first get involved in the series?
BATEMAN: Well, that is a show that is the same studio, MRC, that does Ozark. So, when Ozark came my way, when I pitched myself as the director of Ozark, I had to sit down with the head of the company, Modi Wiczyk, and basically pitch him for me to direct them all. They were not looking at that me as the director for Ozark. They had their eyes on some real fancy-pants directors. I really had to kind of talk them into it and ended up doing that. So, I kind of earned their trust with the directing stuff. So, Modi brought me The Outsider and he said, “Are you up for doing two shows? Do you think you can start this one off and oversee it just like you’re doing Ozark? Can you do it at the same time? If we shoot it in Atlanta, as well, and find some sound stages that are near Ozark, do you think you might be able to do both?” And I said, “Absolutely. I’d love to try.” So we’ve pushed the start of Ozark a few months, so that I can start Outsider.
I decided to play the part that I played in it [the character of Terry Maitland] since it only lasted a couple of episodes. I obviously directed the first two and put the whole crew together. A lot of the same crew that I had worked with on other projects, some from Ozark. I cast the whole thing and scouted all the locations and started the whole show. Then I hired a producing director that I’d worked with from Ozark and asked him to be my kind of boots on the ground for the moments I couldn’t get back and forth between Ozark because Ozark‘s production would start a couple months later, while Outsider was still going on. We just basically trail them by about three or four episodes.
So, that’s the way that show came to me and I really had obviously much, much more to do with Ozark since that’s where I was all day every day. But I tried the best I could to provide the kind of oversight that I wanted to do and committed to doing on The Outsider. But, obviously the people that were on the set there every day deserve the lion’s share of the credit.
That has to be such a cool feeling to be approached as a director for another series, especially after really having to go to bat to land Ozark.
BATEMAN: Yeah, I mean, truly I appreciate you saying that. You don’t want to let people down. You ask for a bunch of rope and they give it to you and not only do you not hang yourself with it, but they give you another big huge piece of business. And then to get the trust from HBO, as well, it was…they’re an incredible company. They didn’t have the same reason to trust me that Netflix did because Netflix has been working with me for these last few years and I was new over there at HBO, so I really appreciate them giving me the trust as well. I’m super proud of how that show ended up coming together. All the incredible work from the crew I hand-picked to come together there; they just crushed it. Those performances from that cast, they were just incredible as well.
Agreed. If you weren’t doing Ozark, do you think you would have helmed more of the episodes of The Outsider?
BATEMAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I would have done probably every other episode just simply because you can’t do them all, from a prep standpoint. But I would have been on that set every single day like I am on Ozark and overseeing the whole thing.
How did you work on Ozark contrast with creating the look of The Outsider on HBO?
BATEMAN: Well, that the whole sort of dark and moody tone of Ozark was what attracted me to it as a director. Having gone through two years at that point on Ozark really helped me fine-tune some of the things I was experimenting with and I just got more knowledgeable and a little bit more courageous with some things and then more subtle with other things. When you’re looking to kind of create these aesthetic worlds for an audience, there are obviously different levers you can pull. When you’re dealing with the color desaturation or focal length or music or editorial pace, the difference between good and great really kind of lives in a almost unrecognizable margin. You really can’t figure out where great is (versus good) until you go through the process with all your trusted colleagues. So, it benefited me on Outsider to have gone to those first two years on Ozark. I look forward to doing more stuff in that world and that genre. I’ll also be really excited to pull some of that stuff into doing comedies and doing big action things. I look forward to switching it up on forward.
The Outsider did really well for HBO. Have you heard anything about a possible Season 2?
BATEMAN: Well I know that they’re talking about it and Richard Price is playing with some ideas and taking some first steps as to what that second year might and feel like. Obviously, it’s a complete free-ball because the first season exhausted 100% of [Stephen King’s] book, the IP. So, it’s really all up to him. I never like to step on the lawn of the writers. It’s something that I’ve always stuck with on Ozark. I leave Chris Mundy completely alone and I do my job as a director once I get the script. I chime in every once in a while and offer my opinion, but it’s always for the writer to take if they want and discard if they want.
But then the rest of that equation is once it comes to me now it’s mine. You get your chance with it now I get my chance with it. It’s much more of sort of a feature film dynamic where the screenwriter writes his or her script and then the director comes on. Now it’s their turn, along with the crew and the cast.
In regards to helming something, let’s just use Ozark or The Outsider as examples. When you get the scripts, what’s the first thing that you do when you get them to prep for an episode or to prep to make the show?
BATEMAN: Well, it usually takes me obnoxiously long amount of time to read the script because, I think it was [David] Fincher that said once — and I’ll be paraphrasing the hell out of this and not really do it any justice — but the basic spirit of what he was saying was: You only get a chance to experience the script and the story for the first time once, in the same experience as an audience has.
In other words, the audience has not read the script before they experience the movie or the show. They have no preconceived notions whatsoever. So, that first time you read a script is the closest to the experience that the audience is going to have with it. I really try to create enough time and enough concentration and focus to really dig in and not kind of half-ass it and stick with it all the way through. It takes me a long, long time because I’m trying to shape shots and lighting and locations and actor types and all that kind of stuff. Because the second time I read it, it’s not a fresh experience; I know what’s coming. It’ll start to sometimes, in a negative way, affect the way in which I’m reading it. I’ll start to take certain things for granted things that I already know. I just try to concentrate as much as I can and get inside of it, as opposed to just kind of watching it, to try to get in there and vet all the things I’m going to need to fully understand as I go through the process of directing.
Can you talk about the way that you collaborate with your Director of Photography on whatever you’re directing. Do you like to storyboard? Is it more a case of finding it on the set?
BATEMAN: Yeah. The acting part is less interesting for me only because that’s the part that’s obviously most familiar and most comfortable. So, it is the camera work that is everything to me. I will do a lot of work on my own to create every image that we end up doing. I have everything worked out in my head as far as where the actors will walk, where they’’ sit, where they’ll talk, or where the cameras are going to be —all the images. [I do this so I can] discover the best way for the visuals to amplify — or the opposite, offset — what the scene is about. That, at least for me, takes a long time to figure out, what the best way to do that is. There isn’t enough time budgeted on an average set to discover the best way to shoot something. The amount of time needed for that is all the time you have during pre-production, all the time the Sunday before your week’s work, all the time the night before the day’s work, and then all the time the morning of that day’s work.
I’m constantly going through it, and redoing it, and redoing it and trying to find the best way to shoot something and the best way to block the actors. Obviously, once you get on the set, there are a million variables that go into try to destroy all that and you need to be comfortable with that. If an actor wants to do something different or if the sun is in the wrong spot or if there’s some sort of, or something is going on with the location, you have to be able to pivot. Having gone through all that process, you’re able to pivot while still keeping an eye on what the real spirit of the scene is and what you need to really frame up. So, I create all the composition and all the shots that we do. Then I’ll frame that up for the camera operator, and I’ll frame it up to the DP.
I’ll say, “Now, if you have a better version of that, then please plus it. But a different version of that is actually disruptive to the day because there’s a million different versions, and they’re all valid, and we can’t possibly do them all. But if you’ve got a better version for what I’m trying to do with the scene, then please let me know.” At that point, the camera operator will adjust it a little bit, or maybe we’ll go on dolly track instead of handheld, or maybe the DP will say, “I think we should just like this all with the candle on the table instead of doing this having sunlight coming in.” So there’s a bunch of different ways for them to chime in, but I’m a big advocate of coming in with a fully-baked plan while still being open to a quote “better” version of it on the day.
I completely understand and that’s probably why I’ve been so impressed with your work recently.
BATEMAN: Thanks pal.
Everyone has seen so many of the same camera shots. How important is it for you to find new and unusual shots versus the keeping the camera on sticks and doing things that people are familiar with?
BATEMAN: I would be really overwhelmed if what I was trying to do with every scene is to come up with “What’s a cool shot here?” Fortunately, well, I should say unfortunately, the only thing I think I’m fairly decent at in my life is my ability to close my eyes, see things, and imagine the way in which I’d like to see it on the screen. When I’m reading something, like many people, when you read a book or when you read a script, it’s perfect. The camera’s in the exact spot you want to see the scene done. The perspective that you as a reader want to see, the time that it can cut from this person to this person, or does the camera stay behind and watch this person listen to what the other person is saying?
All of these decisions are being made by you the reader, and that’s all I’m trying to do. I just happen to be reading a script in a way that hopefully is interesting visually. The pictures that are going through my mind are hopefully compelling and interesting, and that’s all predicated on what that location looks like, what that room looks like. Once we go in and we scout all these locations during pre-production, I’ve got all those images in my head, or I’ve got pictures photographs of it, or actual blueprints of a set or something. I’m able to just kind of shuttle through those pictures and think about, “Well, where would be the most interesting way to put the camera while these people are talking? What’s the background I want here? Which direction do we need to be shooting at that time during the day, where it’s going to be backlit so that it’s not looking flat and ugly being frontlit?’ That’s going to dictate what side of the set we’re going to work on, depending on where it’s going to fall on the day.
All of these things are, fortunately, with having just been on a set for so long, these things aren’t a huge effort for me to kind of call on. It’s a little bit more, sort of, muscle memory. Then I can just execute the visuals in my mind, as any reader might, when you’re reading a book or script.
As an actor, you have a completely different insight into that part of the process than most directors. Could you sort of talk about that dynamic on set when you’re working, especially with actors that don’t have that much experience, and being able to bring out such good performances?
BATEMAN: First of all, the whole notion that a director can “bring out a performance in an actor,” I always have found is a bit of a… I mean, I get what people are saying with that. But a director can’t make an actor act well. An actor has the things they do really well and things that are just simply not something that they think about. It’s not a question of whether they’re good or not. It’s just a question of what ideas are going through their head. As a director, I’m just trying to assess what is that particular skill set that each actor has? What are the ideas that goes through their head? How do they think? Do they know how they come across or not? Then I just try to direct them inside of those goalposts.
If a director tries to pull or push an actor outside of what really makes sense to them, or what they’re able to manage themselves, you’re going to start seeing a lot of acting. So being able to quickly identify what the width is between the goalposts for each actor is really the first thing I try to do. Once I identify that, then I just try to keep them inside that and keep them comfortable. If you’re inside those goalposts, you feel great. You can operate to stall on instincts. Lastly, I try to kind of let them in on what the directing perspective is, with respect to camera. I’ll try to really give them a good sense of what the camera is seeing so that they are assured that the camera is watching. That the camera can see what they’re doing, that they need not throw to the back row, that the camera is the front row. That’s as far as you need to send your communication.
It keeps people small, just assuring them you don’t need to do a lot of acting, you just need to do a lot of thinking, and the camera has an ability to kind of reach your mind. If they trust it, things end up coming across in a pretty subtle way, which is my personal taste. If it gets too subtle, then I’ll just move the camera. I’ll never make an actor overact because of where the camera is. I’ll just make sure I get in there and get a close up so that they can be as small as they want to be.
Jumping into Ozark: When you first signed on, did you have any sort of idea of how many seasons you guys wanted to do and the overall arc for the characters? When I spoke to Vince Gilligan early on while he was making Breaking Bad, he said his goal was to have the audience watch someone do a complete 180 from who he was to where he ended up and how he got there. I’m just curious if there’s some sort of plan like that for the Byrde’s.
BATEMAN: That’s really a question for Chris Mundy, who I know would be more than happy to talk to you if you ever wanted to. But I think I’m safe to say that, by design he never really got fully pregnant with the finish line. He kind of knew, I think, where he would like to eventually land the plane, but didn’t have a specific runway mapped out. There’s been this sort of this character arc that he’s been incredible at staying on. I think somewhere around here, I think there’s always been the presumed area [of] three seasons, four seasons, five seasons, something like that. [Ozark] was never going to be a limited series of just 10 episodes. I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be something that we would want to end in 20 episode.
I’m sure it’s somewhere that, based on the sort of the pitch line of what these characters are doing and the rate of escalation in danger and plot, there’s a certain pitch to that. And, if you keep going on that pitch for a whole lot longer, you’re going to go over the cliff, or up over the peak of the mountain and you end up jumping the shark. So, given the intelligence of Marty Byrde and Wendy Byrde [played by Laura Linney], if they keep going at this pitch for much longer, they’re either going to be killed or put in jail. The alternative is to flatten out that pitch so that you don’t end up jumping the shark, but then you start stalling just for additional episodes and seasons. So, I’m not sure where and when it’ll end, but given their intelligence, it doesn’t feel like it’s a 12-season show.
How long does it actually take for you guys to make a season of Ozark? When does the pre-production start? When do you wrap? I think a lot of people don’t realize the time it takes to make something like this.
BATEMAN: Well, each episode takes 11 days, so that’s two weeks. It takes us almost two weeks to prep each episode. Since there’s overlap on each one of those blocks, actually two at a time, each episode ends up taking five months to shoot 10 episodes. For prep, it usually is about a month before that starts for those first two episodes. So it’s about six months of production. The writing of those episodes takes about four months. The editing of all of those goes on while we’re shooting, but then there’s also a tail to it once we wrap of another three months. I think the fastest we can turn around a full season, from starting the writers room to having Netflix push it out (because then Netflix also has to dub all the episodes and all the different territory languages so it can go out on the same day), is basically 12 months. There’s just no way to do it any quicker.
I was going to say 14 months. So a year is still impressive.
BATEMAN: Yeah, I think we do incur some rush costs to get it done in 12 months. But it really is more like a 14-month thing. I understand audience members get a little frustrated because the way that they’re released, I mean, you can gobble them all up in a weekend and then you’ve got to wait an entire year. Whereas with broadcast shows, they kind of piece it out, one a week. With the 10-episode season, it takes you two-and-a-half months to watch a season and then you don’t have long to wait for the next one.
Visually, what did you set out to achieve this season that you hadn’t in the past two seasons? Because — and it could have been me — I felt like the show was a little bit brighter this year.
BATEMAN: Yeah, I read everything and anything because I feel that’s part of my job. We’re doing something for the public, so I like to hear what the public has to say and what the critics have to say. I did read a few critiques last year of how dark the show was. One of the few things that’s the downside of doing something for streaming, as opposed to in a movie theater, is that you don’t have the pristine dark room conditions that you can count on for a feature. You have to factor in there’s going to be ambient light, perhaps in a room that someone’s going to watch a show in during the day. Or, they’ve got their brightness turned down [on their screen]. From a sound perspective, you do a sound mix where you’re mixing for multi-channels, but oftentimes people are watching something on a device that only has left and right channel.
So, there’s a couple of things you’ve got to factor in and obviously one of them is a darkness on a contrast variance. I think there was also something that Netflix did with a standard definition and high dynamic range definition starting last year. So, we had to do two different files for HDR and SDR. There may have been a little bit of a mix-up with the values that we put on one versus the other or one versus the other as they were outputted from Netflix. I’m not sure, because on the HDR there’s much more information and in highlights on HDR. In other words, the brights are brighter.
You have to knock those down a little bit. But if those values get put on the SDR, then you’ve got a real dark image and. We were kind of working the kinks out a little bit last year. I did go into the DI suite this year and basically bumped it up a couple of notches so that people can can see not only the key light eye. but also the fill side eye, a little bit better. There is fortunately some subtle acting going on every once in a while, so I’m assuming it’s a bummer to not give people all the information they can get when we the actors are trying to hide it just a little bit.
I know I don’t want to touch on hardcore spoilers, but I’m going to try to talk around it. I love the Ozark season three finale. Can you talk a little bit about sort of figuring out where you wanted to end the season? I’m not sure if Chris asked you for feedback on this. Did you guys have another place where you thought about ending it?
BATEMAN: No. As I said, I leave [Mundy] completely alone. I mean, he does all of that and has completely autonomy over that and I do all the rest. If I’ve got something that I really think is kind of bumping me, of course I speak up and then he does the same for what we do down in Atlanta, on the set and with cameras, performance, casting and all that stuff. But we’ve got this great partnership where basically, if he hates something more than I like it, and vice versa, then that person wins. But aside from that, he’s free to do whatever the hell he wants, from a story standpoint, a dialogue standpoint, character standpoint. Then he and his brilliant staff hand the scripts over and we go make it. So, I’m reading the scripts, of course, and I’ve got a full breakdown of what the season’s going to be. Then I see all the outlines as they come in and see all the early drafts of the scripts coming in.
But I very rarely give notes on those things. I just basically end up reading them as a fan, and get kind of excited that I get a first look at it just like a fan that I’m seeing it before anybody, it’s just kind of fun.
Can you talk about your reaction to learning about the season finale? What are your thoughts are on it?
BATEMAN: I mean if you’re talking about some of the deaths, that is something that obviously I know all about, before we even start the whole season, before [Mundy] even starts writing the first episode. The whole season is mapped out and we kind of know what the beginning, middle, and end is and what the deaths are going to be. Part of that is to also let the actors know. No actor likes to read a script and sneak up on the fact their character just got killed. So, everyone is told up front [which characters will die]. This is a lesson we kind of learned the hard way in the first year. It’s not atypical in television, where actors are not told until the week of their character’s death. But I just think that’s kind of shitty. So we let everybody know before the season starts what the future is for the character, or lack thereof, and away we go.
A lot of us are very curious what’s going on with this Clue remake which might have you and Ryan Reynold re-teaming? Is that thing happening? Is it not happening?
BATEMAN: That’s something that we were getting very close to starting, but as it turned out, something of that size takes much longer to do than what the seasonal hiatus was able to accommodate. It would have pushed back the start of the season too far. So, unfortunately, I had to step off of that. But if it’s still around when Ozark is all wrapped up, I’d love to do it. But who knows? They might put it a different director on it before then; we’ll see. Unfortunately, my ability to direct features really…There’s a certain size of a film that I just can’t qualify for because of the amount of time I’m able to take care of, in craft and shooting and in post.
I do think though, that you’ve really shone a light on your ability with Ozark and with The Outsider that when Ozark is over, I can absolutely see you helming something massive and showing everyone what you can do.
BATEMAN: Well, thank you. I’m still looking forward to that. It’s really so fun to start to scope up a little bit in days, in production complications, in effects and locations, and just sort of the whole sort of crew apparatus and all the different complications. I really look forward to learning about all that stuff.
I also have to ask you about Shut In. Do you think that could be the next film? Where are you in casting on that?
BATEMAN: Well, that’s something that we tried to get done real quick in between seasons because that was basically the opposite of Clue and it was a fully contained thing that takes place in a pantry. So, it’s definitely something that I could do on a soundstage and in a short enough schedule. But, unfortunately, we ended up running out of time with finding an actor that was available in the specific time we had to shoot it. So, again that’s another project that if it’s around during my next availability, I have a lot of great plans for that. We actually got pretty far down the road on that one so that will be a lot of fun but we’ll see.
My last question for you: Has Netflix officially greenlit Ozark Season 4 yet? Are you guys waiting to see how the show does in the first weekend? What can you tease people about? For me, I want the show to end where you guys want it to end. So, I’m just curious what you can tell fans about a possible season four or five.
BATEMAN: There is not an official pickup for Season 4. We’re all operating under the hope it will happen. It’s Netflix’s norm to wait for a show to premiere and collect the data for weeks 2, 3, and 4, and see if there’s an audience there to justify an additional season. So, I guess we’re in that period right now. But, I know Chris and his team are hard at work figuring out what that fourth season would be if that official pick-up lands.
If you guys ended up getting the Season 4 pick-up and Chris decides, “I think we can do this story in two more seasons.” Is there any thought in your brain about filming seasons 4 and 5 back-to-back? Or do you think that’s just too big of a ship to sail to bring it home?
BATEMAN: Well, I kind of leave all those smart and complicated conversations up to those who can manage them. My fastball, if I’ve got one, is more on the set. So, I’ll leave it up to Chris and MRC and Netflix to figure out what the life of the show is and what shape it will take.