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BAD WORDS

Q & A With Screenwriter Andrew Dodge
"'You're such a weirdo':" Q&A with screenwriter Andrew Dodge

Q: What was your personal inspiration for Bad Words - perhaps spelling bees, or maybe a flashpoint at age 40?

Andrew Dodge: Well, when I was in high school I was part of the National Forensic League - which is, simply, debate. The world of high school debating is very close to - it has the same DNA as - the world of spelling bees: it's very insular, the kids are at a high competitive level, there's multi-million-dollar programs, there's high-maintenance parents and stressed-out coaches. I always found it fascinating - there are many events and a vast tapestry.

But I never knew exactly how to present that in a story, until I just happened to be watching the [spelling bee-themed] documentary Spellbound. That world is focused a lot more narrowly than debate, but it has the same flavor. At the same time, as I was watching the movie I was thinking to myself, "These kids are a bunch of weirdos." Then I thought, "It would be great if there was a person that told one of these kids, 'You're such a weirdo.'"

From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: put an adult in the world of a kids' spelling bee. People tune in to watch spelling bees, and even though a lot of them won't admit it, they're there to watch the weird kids. So I thought we could do this humorously; I didn't want to make fun of the kids, but I wanted to point out that this is its own quirky world with its own quirky personalities.

Q: Who were your creative inspirations when writing Bad Words?

AD: You may be a little surprised - John Hughes. On the surface, Bad Words seems critical, seems a little abrasive. But, subversively, it's very tender with a lot of heart; I've always appreciated that about John Hughes' films. I miss his touch in filmmaking today, because he was unique.

Q: Did you write Bad Words while still at a day job?

AD: Yeah - on my vacation time. I was at Columbia Pictures; I had been there for about 15 years, starting off as an intern. I was always in the story department, and by the time I left I was a story editor there. The story department was a fantastic place to learn about what works and, most importantly, what doesn't work. It was really an education, and I got a sense of what I liked in stories and what I was longing for in a movie.

At first, I didn't know what to do with my script. My manager started showing it around and ultimately it got to Jason Bateman.

Q: In writing the furious invective that is spewed, did you feel that would be a lure and attract actors who liked a challenge?

AD: When I wrote it, I wasn't even thinking about that. It was just, "This is what I would want to see, this is what I want characters to talk like." When it was time to start looking for participants in the project, I was delighted that people were gravitating to it; I would be told, "This is what everybody wishes they could say!" I was pleased that I wasn't the only one interested in having that type of thing on the screen.

Q: Even so, were there any scenes or dialogue where you felt, "I've gone a little too far?"

AD: Would it surprise you if I said no? [Laughs] Somebody read the script and said to me, "You're an extreme personality." I thought, "Really?" This is what interests me, and I didn't think I was dancing up to the line at all.

Q: Without giving away the turns in the screenplay, can you address the thematic element of father figures?

AD: One of the ideas that I always wanted in the script is a person starting off without anybody or anything, just isolated. Now, whether or not that's an isolation which he has created on his own, or is because of some other reason, can be factored in. By the end of this story, he ends up with a family that may or may not be his own - but he does end up with people in his life. To me, that's what it's all about, almost like A Christmas Carol: Scrooge has pushed everybody away at the start of the story, but at the end he is surrounded by people.

The idea of a person wrestling with, and searching for, his own identity and what that means has always been something I've been attracted to as well. I think every man goes through that; it's a rite of passage. When in that man's life it happens is a very individualized experience. I really relate to that, and I thought that a lot of people would as well.

Q: Did you refine the script further, revising for Jason as director and producer?

AD: Well, when I first met Jason it was also the first time I was meeting producer Mason Novick, whose attitude was, "This is great. Let's do this." Originally, the script was set in Washington, D.C., and Jason wanted to set it in Los Angeles. In changing the setting, we needed to change the mythology of the Spelling Bee a bit and change some of the locale sequences to be L.A.-friendly. Jason and I then spent about a week together in his office, going through the script and making sure that everything felt genuine to his voice.

So, there wasn't really any major overhauling. But I have to say, working with Jason was such a learning experience. Up until that point, working at a studio, I saw scripts as whole pieces, not as things that were about to be shaped for production. I learned so much from him, looking at the script from his point of view, scene by scene.

Q: In terms of Jason as actor, what makes him the ideal Guy (Trilby, that is)?

AD: My version of Guy, if you don't put a face to him, could come off as a little bit cold and maybe too hard-edged for a general audience. But when you put Jason's face onto Guy's personality, there's a humanity that's brought in; you look at Jason, and you like him. He can get away with pretty dastardly things and the audience will know that it's okay to laugh. Having Jason in the part aids the overall story and brings something to it that the mere words on the page couldn't.

Q: There can be a plaintive quality to him, certainly in the scenes with Rohan Chand as Chaitanya.

AD: Yeah, but overall he didn't try to amp up anything; the more reserved his character is, the better everybody else could work off of him. Something that I hadn't considered, until the first day that Rohan was on-set, is that Jason has been in the business for so long - working as a child actor - and he knows exactly what everybody is experiencing every step of the way, including the kids. To see him working with Rohan and making Rohan comfortable, talking Rohan through the scenes...his approach was so perfect. He communicated in a way that Rohan was able to understand immediately.

Q: Were you on the set consistently?

AD: I was; I begged my way on-set, and I was there almost every day. I expected to be in "Video [Monitor] Village," a fly on the wall; I'd never seen my work filmed before, so I was determined to be a part of it. Jason was really inclusive: he would come over to me and explain, "So what we're trying to do here is..." and I would be, "You realize you don't have to get my approval, right? I'm here for the ride." "Well, you should know [what's happening]."

I was part of the family immediately on-set, and it was absolutely fantastic - so much fun, such a great set. When we wrapped, I slipped into what I'm pretty sure was a quantifiable depression for a couple of weeks.

Q: But there was more to come - post-production, going to the Toronto International Film Festival for the World Premiere...

AD: Jason brought me in during editing; we changed and shaped the voiceover material to what we wanted - like, having Guy say something in a more economical way. He'd ask me, "What do you think Guy should say?" and we'd bounce things around.

Toronto - well, I can't imagine a high that would be better than the feeling of being in that theater and listening to people laugh. I had been to a test screening of the movie before that and kind of knew what to expect, but hearing everybody react in that big Toronto theater was wonderful; almost as special as the laughs were those moments when the audience would let out a big collective groan, catching onto something about to happen - "Ooooohhh." I loved it!

Q: So, what are your favorite "Bad Words?"

AD: There's so many. I think the one that feels the best to say is probably "horses-t." "That's just a bunch of horses-t." I love that so much. And, who doesn't say "f-k," but that one is abused a lot. I have this rule, the Golden F-k Rule: the less you use "f-k," the more powerful it becomes in terms of expressiveness. So I try not to say it after every other word, and to say it only maybe once a day.

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