Q & A With Director/Actor Jason Bateman
"Close to my own sense of humor:" Q&A with director/actor Jason Bateman
Q: What was the genesis of this project as your feature directorial debut?
Jason Bateman: I reminded my agents that I didn't want their pursuits for my
directing career to take a back seat to ones for my acting career. So they sent
me three scripts and I was attracted to Andrew Dodge's, in part because it was
the kind of humor that I felt I could manage and navigate well - since it's
close to my own sense of humor. But I also felt that the size and scope of the
picture was appropriate to take on as my first film directing venture.
Q: As an actor, you've been on sets and shoots of all sizes and scopes. Which
directors that you were working with did you take the most notice of?
JB: Every one, really - and a lot of cinematographers and camera operators,
But probably the first time that I was exposed to what the directing process
can look like and feel like was on what was pretty much my first gig, [the
television series] Little House on the Prairie. I'd watch Michael Landon do what
he did [directing episodes] and also have this camaraderie that exists on a set
and still get a robust day accomplished. There doesn't need to be screaming and
yelling; there can be this camaraderie among director, crew, cast; and "above
the line" and "below the line" symmetry and teamwork, which needs to exist.
Michael was, at least at that age to me, everything that people idolize
about, say, George Clooney nowadays; a man's man whom women want to be around
and whom men want to be. As far as his demeanor on the set went, Michael loved
the crew and the actors; he had established a mutual respect on the set, this
sense that no one was there who didn't need to be there. And that breeds a tone
that's about having fun but also being extremely productive, because everybody
is empowered and respected.
So that's where I started to pay attention. I also started to dream about the
position of director when my Dad [, Kent Bateman,] was showing me movies. He was
a journeyman director, and growing up he would always take me to the movie
theater instead of to the park to play ball. He'd tell me what it was to make a
movie; and, what was a good one, what was a bad one, and why. He started to
explain the process to me.
Q: Creatively, whose movies have inspired you?
JB: Directors that inspire me and whom I admire are Paul Thomas Anderson, the
Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Jason Reitman, and Alexander Payne, to name a
few. I am a fan of any film where the director's specificity is a character in
the movie - not as a distraction, but for the film to be dependent on a director
doing something more than pointing the camera and turning up the lights.
There is a tone and an aesthetic that was necessary in Bad Words for the
subject matter to be interesting and the comedy to surface, and that directing
challenge was attractive to me.
Q: In initially assessing the character of Guy Trilby, how did you see him?
JB: This character is a misanthrope, a guy who is looking to get his
emotional state back in a healthy place. He is certainly not setting out to
commit a prank or be a s-t-stirrer. Instead, he is somebody who thinks he is
pursuing something cathartic, and that ends up being pretty humorous to us
Q: As an actor, did the character strike you as being in a tradition of
iconoclastic roles? Did he put you in mind of aspiring to any portrayals you
JB: Well, I am often playing a guy who is a little uptight or easily p-ed off
but this character of Guy is a bit more so. Playing him, in needing to find the
comedy in that quality, I focused on borrowing from something that Carroll
O'Connor did so well in All in the Family [as Archie Bunker]. That was, on
paper, an unlikable character. But in his performance was the portrayal of
someone who was a bit more ignorant than spiteful. That meant, to me,
incorporating stupidity and vulnerability and even naievet&eeacute;; I had to
communicate that with my eyes.
Oftentimes, that's more efficiently done with the acting than with the
writing, which would take time and then the scenes might get precious. To borrow
a line from Mitch Hurwitz and Arrested Development, I'd rather the writers write
the characters as unlikable as possible and then have the actors make them as
likable as possible. Therein usually lies a happy cocktail.
Q: Since this character could be seen as abrasive, how did you empathize with
JB: Guy is trying to right what he perceives to be a wrong that happened to
him when he was a kid. So all that is coming from this "boy" place in him; his
feelings were hurt. It is a small-seeming place he's in. I knew I had to
establish that first because it's tough to earn that if you don't start there,
when the audience is most open to receiving any clue you give them. From there,
we could take as big a swing as we want at what is basically our fast ball - his
prickliness and all of his Bad Words.
Our opening sequence is important, including in the way we shot and scored it
and its voiceover; we're putting it out there that Guy is hurt and vulnerable.
Then we can hopefully go as far as we want. It's a balance we tried to strike.
Q: Were you ever concerned that some of the talk in the screenplay was too
politically incorrect? Or did you feel that you just had to play through?
JB: There was always a concern, but I banked on myself making those moments
as prickly as we needed to find the funny while also keeping them palatable as
possible. We'd find ways to get Guy provoked, putting an insult into the mouth
of a character before Guy would speak.
Q: In terms of saying the more agitated lines of Guy's, did you find yourself
JB: We'd keep it loose on the set. But once I decided I was going to play
Guy, Andrew and I, well before pre-production began, fine-tuned the script. He'd
have his laptop open and we'd think up different ways to say things and they'd
go into the script. Also, some sequences were made more consistent with the way
that I knew I was going to direct the film and the way I was going to cast
certain roles. Most of that was done before we started.
Q: But, you didn't always think in terms of your playing the lead? Or did
that decision come later?
JB: Well, I had wanted to get my full ticket's worth of directing by being
behind the camera the whole time. But I knew that this movie was only going to
work if there was someone playing the central character who could get away with
saying all these things to people, especially this little kid [Chaitanya].
There were actors who I had in mind for Guy, but some were either not
interested or not available, and there were a couple who backers were not
interested in; I told the financiers it would be "me or better," and after I'd
tried the bigger ones they said, "It's you, or we're not doing the movie."
Q: So you committed to both directing and starring. How did you then
re-orient your preparation for the shoot?
JB: I storyboarded as much as possible, since we didn't have the storyboard
artist for as long as we would have needed to for everything to have been
storyboarded. The most complicated elements were thought through and put down on
paper - what we would be seeing, with which lens, in what direction. I included
all that in the [on-set] sides every day, too: this was a move my first AD said
might make sense because she had done a couple of Coen Brothers movies and they
do that. Well, that sounded good to me! So everybody knew what we'd be looking
to accomplish each day.
I shot-listed everything as well; I was just very, very prepared. I didn't
want to run out of time to think up a good idea, and on a schedule like this you
might. So I took that time during prep, scouting locations and working with the
DP [i.e., cinematographer].
Q: So, for during the shoot, you had already mapped things out with
cinematographer Ken Seng?
JB: Yeah, before we got on the set. But if an actor wanted to turn left
instead of right, I was able to quickly make that work because there had been so
much preparation we knew how the camera could support a modification of a scene
and augment what the scene was trying to say. That was one of the main reasons
that I've wanted to direct: to be able to utilize these other departments to say
what the script was trying to say.
Q: The lead character meets his match in a fellow spelling bee competitor.
How would you describe their rapport?
JB: Guy sees in Chaitanya some of the innocence and lack of cynicism that
perhaps he himself once had and might like to get back. Guy resists this
observation a lot more in the beginning of the film than he does at the end, and
as a result creates a surprising bond and friendship with Chaitanya.
Q: How did you find Rohan Chand, and what made him right, for the role of
JB: He made a self-tape submission for the casting office. I watched it and
then came back to it again, after going through the process of looking at what
nine-year-old actors out there can do. He wasn't yet nine at the time, but he
was head and shoulders above the rest; he had all the qualities that the
character needed. Not to mention that Rohan's own Dad is a good guy, so that
certainly helped things along.
Q: You yourself had started out as an actor around his age...
JB: Yes, and working with Rohan often reminded me of when I was a 10-year-old
actor. That was helpful as a reference when thinking about how I was going to
speak with him, how I'd treat him on set; I remembered how I liked to be spoken
to and treated as a kid actor, and I did that with Rohan, so we got along real
well. The main thing was, treating someone like an adult and like a peer.
Q: Beyond Rohan, was that also your process with the supporting kids? Your
character keeps leaning over to them during the match scenes and speaking with
them casually; did you also do that between takes - being more helpful than Guy,
JB: Yeah, again, remembering acting when I was their age and treating them as
peers - which actually worked very well for my character's agenda in those
scenes. So, yes, I kept it similar to what it was like between takes on the
match scenes, including a smart-alecky tone. This way, they weren't too jarred
when I was doing things in-character, and their reactions would be natural.
Q: How was it directing the other, more experienced actors?
JB: Kathryn Hahn is a friend, and our chemistry was there before the film
even started, so that made things very easy. She's got such great energy.
Allison Janney is so talented - that makes things easy too.
Philip Baker Hall was a really fortuitous piece of casting because his
pedigree and class elevated and validated the project when working in tandem
with the actors we had already secured. They all complemented one another so
well, which was a huge gift to the film, and to me as a first-time movie
Ben Falcone I had just met after having worked with his wife Melissa
[McCarthy, starring in Identity Thief], and I was eager to work with him in
anything because I admire his comedic abilities. This opportunity came up, and I
had a part for him.
Q: Ultimately, what was your favorite aspect of directing the movie?
JB: My favorite aspect of directing was having the privilege to collaborate
with and at times lead a group of highly qualified professionals through the
process of creating a world and going 360 degrees with it every day.
It's very involved and demands a lot of work, and I felt fortunate to be
given that kind of responsibility. I truly embraced the entire Bad Words
experience from start to finish.
Q: What are your favorite "Bad Words?"
JB: I don't really have any favorites; I just like to use them, at
appropriate times. They are pretty powerful if you're efficient with them.
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