HORRIBLE BOSSES may boast a murderer’s row of comedic talent, but all-star casts like this hardly guarantee an entertaining night out at the movies. These things can go south in a hurry: CADDYSHACK II, CLUB PARADISE, NOTHING BUT TROUBLE, YEAR ONE… there’s nothing more excruciating than watching some of the funniest people on the planet struggle to generate a single laugh. And since most of these performers have been hired for their improvisational expertise, a very good screenplay can quickly come undone just to accommodate a particular actor’s insistent “brilliance”.
These productions require the calm, sure hand of a director who knows how to keep his stars happy without ever losing sight of what’s best for the film. Basically, they nee someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing. After stumbling a bit with the all-star misfire FOUR CHRISTMASES, it’s pretty obvious Seth Gordon knew exactly what the fuck he was doing on the set of HORRIBLE BOSSES – and, additionally, knew precisely what to keep/jettison in the editing room. This is a slickly assembled formula comedy. The premise – three best friends conspire to kill each other’s monstrous superiors – is cleanly conveyed, the leads play effortlessly off of each other, and the hired-gun supporting cast comes through with most of the film’s biggest laughs. There are no serious internal-logic lapses, no dud scenes and, provided you’ve been enticed by the trailers and commercials, no reasons to feel like you didn’t get exactly what you paid to see. This is as good a studio comedy as we’re likely to see this year.
I interviewed Gordon four years ago on the floor of the San Diego Comic Con, where he was promoting his excellent documentary KING OF KONG (one of that film’s subjects, Steve Wiebe, makes a cameo in HORRIBLE BOSSES). Since then, he’s become a reliable TV director (helming episodes of COMMUNITY, THE OFFICE and PARKS & RECREATION), and flirted with a number of unmade studio movies (including a biopic version of KING OF KINGS). He recently signed on to direct MGM’s remake of John Badham’s WARGAMES – which sounds a helluva lot more promising than the studio’s proposed abasement of ROBOCOP. Should HORRIBLE BOSSES open big at the domestic box office this weekend, one of these in-development projects will surely get a greenlight. Or maybe New Line/Warner Bros. will lure Gordon back for HORRIBLE SUBORDINATES. Regardless, Gordon’s gonna work – and that’s fine by me. We need more studio-friendly directors who aren’t aiming for the lowest common denominator.
Mr. Beaks: The theme of the summer, aside from superheroes, seems to be R-rated comedy.
Seth Gordon: I know, right? They all hit. It’s got to be THE HANGOVER. 2009 just gave everyone permission.
Beaks: It seems like these films are made because they are R-rated concepts, and because they do appeal to adults. Was that the idea when you came onto the project?
Gordon: They developed [HORRIBLE BOSSES] for five years or something. I would say the initial draft, which was that long ago, was really R in concept. I don’t see how you would do it any other way; they definitely went there in terms of the language. The draft that I signed on to was a rewrite done by [Jonathan M.] Goldstein and [John Francis] Daley, these two talented writers. That was just the funniest thing I had read in forever. I was crying laughing. They had taken the character that was eventually going to be Aniston’s character, and they created something I had honestly never read before. It was so edgy and… “raunchy” is kind of a misleading word, but it certainly goes there. There’s nothing shy about that character. So I literally, just because of that character, wanted to be a part of the movie.
Obviously, we have all had some shitty bosses historically, right?
Beaks: Yeah. Absolutely.
Gordon: If you are a working person, you have at some point had something like one of these - most likely like Spacey’s character, just a bastard you have to answer to. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
Beaks: Were you casting the script as you read it?
Gordon: Kind of. Between KONG and this movie I had gotten a chance to do a couple TV things, like COMMUNITY and THE OFFICE and PARKS AND RECREATION and MODERN FAMILY. And what I saw, which I hadn’t understood previously, is how divided Hollywood is in terms of the executives that run… the TV and film worlds, and how actors are very rarely given the opportunity to cross over. It’s occasionally true, but you can name them on one hand, like [Steve] Carell. It’s just rare right?
Gordon: That was my instinct: get some guys that are known in TV that haven’t yet “proven themselves” in the film world yet, and surround them with actors that are incredible dramatic actors that aren’t often in comedies. That was the pitch. Obviously, at that time, I didn’t think that Bateman was necessarily an option. He had read the script on his own or through his agents or whatever in response and, of course, that was a no-brainer if he cold get involved. I knew Charlie and I knew Sudekis, and I knew that they had worked together and had a great chemistry, so that just made sense. And then it was about “Who are these actors going to be?” Aniston was my first thought. I honestly don’t know why it was my first thought, because it’s certainly not obvious. But I was so happy that she saw the wisdom in doing that and going there, because she really could. She’s such a great comedienne. And then Colin I knew from IN BRUGES; even though he hadn’t done anything like this character, I just felt like he could do it. And Spacey, I think, is the closest; he’s the most familiar, in a way, in this role of anybody in the cast. SWIMMING WITH SHARKS had a guy like this, but actually who wasn’t as evil as he is here.
Beaks: People have certainly latched onto that idea of [Spacey’s character] being somewhat of a callback to SWIMMING WITH SHARKS.
Gordon: For sure.And that was no accident, you know? Anston is doing something new, Colin is doing something new, Charlie isn’t as known as he deserves to be, Sudekis same thing, Bateman is a known quantity, and so is Spacey. And that makes a lot of sense because they are put across from each other as sort of the emotional core of the movie: that undeserved misfortune of a fucking asshole ruining your life. (Laughs) By ruining your work.
Beaks: (Laughing) Maliciously and inventively. The glee [Spacey] takes in ruining [Bateman’s life]--
Gordon: He had no problem adlibbing within that character, I must say.
Beaks: I think Charlie Day is someone who, because of IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA… you either know and love his work or you just don’t know him at all. I hate to draw comparisons to THE HANGOVER, but it could be that kind of breakout role. You look at Galifianakis in that movie, and [with HORRIBLE BOSSES] it seems like Day is really positioned to do the same.
Gordon: I hope so. He deserves to have a breakout opportunity. For me, the only fear in making that comparison is that was such a stratospheric change in awareness of Galifianakis. I don’t want anybody’s hopes to get that high. I want this to be wonderful for Charlie, but it’s difficult to compare yourself to the most successful R-rated comedy ever - and then it’s successor which was even more successful. I hope that happens for him.
Beaks: What is it about Charlie?
Gordon: I think he’s just the full package in the sense that he has created a TV show, he is a very accomplished writer, he’s got incredible comedic timing - which means that he is discovering new stuff all of the time and improving takes that just get better and better, but always different. It’s never a step back. It’s never stalling out, so that is just such a dream as a director to have someone like that who brings so much life to the movie.
Beaks: The way he plays the character is important. In talking with people who’ve only seen the trailer, I think the one hurdle is “Well, why doesn’t he just fuck Jennifer Aniston? I would!” But he’s not that kind of guy.
Gordon: You buy it. [Charlie] is married to this wonderful woman, and… that’s part of why I knew he would be able to carry it off: he would just be able to tap into the real relationship he’s got. Sure that’s a hurdle for some dudes, but it’s not enough of a hurdle that they wont come see [the movie].
Beaks: Once the film was cast, were the characters then tailored to the individual performer’s sensibility?
Gordon: When Goldstein and Daley heard a table read, where you heard [Bateman, Sudeikis and Day] talk in their voices, they definitely were like “Okay, we’ve got to make a couple of adjustments.” Bateman has got such a particular point of view in take and tone, and they each have such a unique voice that we adjusted the movie wherever we could to that - not only in terms of the way they would phrase certain things, but when their character would commit to the journey. Because Bateman is such a rational guy, and he’s so good at playing the reasonable guy on screen, that the moment where that guy was scripted to commit to the plan was earlier than it made sense for Bateman doing that character to commit the plan. Does that make sense? He would just be like “Really, I don’t know…” We thought he would be hesitant a little bit longer. So there are certain things that had to be adjusted for sure.
Beaks: Once you’ve shot the film, you’ve got all of these different sounds… it’s like tweaking levels, I would think. How does that work, when you go into the edit with all of these great performances in the mix?
Gordon: That was a lot of what I had to do, was just balance it all the way throughout. For example, Charlie… when he gets to that place… I don’t want him to start there; I want him to become that. What we said was basically “You are regular; you are the straight man to Aniston’s character until you scream ‘Rape!’ And once you scream ‘rape’ about those blackmail photos, you have switched into that other gear.” I think that that really works for the film, because you identify with him and you relate to him until that point. And then you are already with him, so you are on that journey as things go crazy.
Beaks: Tonally, you cite within the film THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which is a nice way of saying, “Yes, we know, audience, that you are thinking this, too.” But were there any other films that you looked to in terms of tone?
Gordon: OFFICE SPACE. I love that movie. Lumbergh is such a great antagonist. I sort of saw Spacey’s character as an evil Lumbergh. Lumbergh is kind of a twit; he isn’t aware that he’s bad. I think Harken, Spacey’s character, relishes how evil he is, and that’s sort of how I saw him. And then there are any number of great ensemble comedies that I think are a point of reference. I think THE HANGOVER is a point of reference. OLD SCHOOL is a point of reference. Just those movies where a group of guys get in a bad situation.
Beaks: How is it directing all of these different personalities, and people with different backgrounds? You have people with TV backgrounds? You have an Academy Award winner in there…
Gordon: A couple of them. It was interesting. Because it was a comedy, and one that everyone got and clicked with personally, it was mostly just fun. The hardest part of my job was knowing where and when to say, “We have had enough.” We had so much great stuff and you always want more, so the trick was balancing burning people out with experimenting and finding new things. That, I think, is the hardest part. It was really fun. Jamie is so different from Colin, who is so different from Kevin, so in a way the set changed every time we had a new honored guest. It was always the three guys for the most part and then we would have our “Aniston Week” and our “Spacey Week” and out “Colin Week”.
Beaks: God, that must have been a blast.
Gordon: It was. It was awesome.
Beaks: I know in a movie like this there’s going to be a lot of improvising. How did that work?
Gordon: This was not a situation where we turned the camera on and just started riffing. Because they are writers, I think that’s critical. They know what the function of the scene is and they know the beats that have to be accomplished. In a way, I guess it was more like CURB [YOUR ENTHUSIASM] in some ways than it was like improv class. It was much more, “We know what the scene has to do, and there’s a bunch of ways to get there. We know the characters we have created thus far, so let’s adjust the scene within those parameters and play around.” It was very contained I would say, but having said that, in the editing room I probably had two or three great choices for every single line all the way through the movie. So it became about shaping those.
Beaks: How fearless was Jennifer in playing this character?
Gordon: Completely, staggeringly fearless. You know my conclusion ended up being that the characters she has been playing for a while are more a result of what she’s been offered than what she can do. She is an incredible comedian. She’s such a pro, and has got a really exceptional range. It’s just no one gives her the chance to do this stuff. I think this was such a departure that that’s part of what’s compelling about it for her.
The nature of this business is so fucking risky that you need to use casting sometimes to hedge your risk; you would rather put someone in who you know is going to work in something than really have it be a departure. This was like riverboat gambling with some of what we did, and I think it really worked. There are so many new ways of casting folks that the sum of all things is full of surprise. And that’s the ultimate goal: to not know where a story is going to go. For an audience, you don’t know where it’s going to go. As soon as you know where it’s going to go, you are dead. But no one knows [Gordon lets slip a major spoiler].
Beaks: Which is a great. I really appreciated that. That throws you off the scent, I think. And still… it’s that tricky thing of kind of rooting for the guys even as they are about to commit murder. You have still got to have a smidgen of rooting interest, and that seems to be, in movies like this and something like THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, where even though it’s wrong, you still kind of want to see them accomplish the task.
Gordon: Because they are likable enough dudes that somehow you want them to win, even though what they want to do is so very wrong. But you see how evil the bosses are, which is even worse. The ethics are definitely awkward, but in some ways self-consistent.
Beaks: That’s the thing. I don’t know if I would even call it a dark comedy. It has dark elements, but it’s mostly just a rambunctious comedy.
Gordon: I so appreciate the distinction, and I’m glad you feel that way. Dark comedies have a certain formula to them, and this departs from that.
Beaks: Jamie [Foxx] is such a great actor, and he’s taken so seriously anymore. It’s just great to see him cut loose and have fun again.
Gordon: It’s almost like people have forgotten that he started in comedy. He’s actually continued to do comedy, but he got all of these awards for the drama stuff. There’s just nuances that you see once it’s [projected] forty-five feet… he just brought so much detail. It’s amazing.
Beaks: And his name. “Motherfucker Jones.” Now… was there another name?
Gordon: Yes. We also had a “Cocksucker Jones” version. I think we have one other one, too. But Motherfucker Jones’s backstory was just the funniest.
Beaks: Was there an involved backstory for Cocksucker Jones?
Gordon: Yeah. I vaguely remember it. I think it had something to do with him going to prison and then co-opting the nickname like it was a good thing. It’s just not as funny.
Beaks: How does your approach differ as a director from TV to film?
Gordon: [In film], you just get a lot more time to play around, and to really create a world, and, for lack of a better way to put it, just to make it right. TV is all about the clock; that’s important in film, too, but it’s just as much about creating that environment, about really bringing you into a space. In TV, it’s like “Go, go, go! Next! Move on!” You just barely get to cover scenes before you have to move on. It’s, like, thirty-two pages in five days, versus thirty pages in three weeks. There’s a big difference.
Beaks: It sounds like you are about to shift gears fairly dramatically with WARGAMES.
Beaks: That could be perilous. It’s a movie that our generation knows front to back. How do you approach WARGAMES in a way that I guess honors the original, but is also very much its own thing?
Gordon: I think that’s obviously the goal of what we are going to try and do, which is to honor everything about the original. I think it all comes down to the fact that the world has changed a lot. Technology has changed a lot, and the world of hackers has changed a lot; that somebody would accidentally hack into some part of the government that they didn’t mean to is actually a lot more plausible now. To trigger something that they didn’t mean to, just because they were poking around… it’s a weekly news story that somebody got into the NSA or LulzSec. It’s everywhere now, and, essentially, that story is a lot more plausible in 2011, ‘12, ’13, than it was in 1983. That’s essentially how we are approaching it.
Beaks: Would nukes be involved?
Gordon: I can’t imagine they wouldn’t somehow, right? I mean it’s got to be some international destabilizer of some sort, and nukes… there are people who argue that if there were no nukes, then we would have already had World War III. There are people who argue that the threat of them means nothing happens. So that’s got to figure in somewhere. We are figuring that out now. We are working out the story right now.
This sounds like the correct approach to me. Here’s hoping they keep the emphasis on “plausible”.
But that’s a long way off. Right now, you should get out and see the very funny HORRIBLE BOSSES, which opens wide tomorrow (Friday, July 8th).