Jason Bateman has been a busy man, especially in the last couple of years. He and his "Arrested Development cohorts finally got to realize a years-in-the-making dream to put together a fresh set of episodes, which landed on Netflix and had as many long-term fans enraged as there were ones who were thrilled to death at the new material. He also started up his own production company, Aggregate Films, whose first offering was the ridiculously successful IDENTITY THIEF, which paired Bateman with Melissa McCarthy. And he directed his first feature, the pitch-black comedy BAD WORDS, which goes from a limited release last week to a wide release this week.
Bateman has been acting since he was about 12 years old, with long-standing appearances on "Little House on the Prarie," "Silver Spoons," and more than 100 episodes of "Valerie" (which soon became "The Hogan Family"). His first feature film appearance, regrettably, was TEEN WOLF TOO, but something funny happened slowly but surely over the course of the 1990s--Bateman became a reliable, steadily working actor who struggled hard to break free of the child actor curse and transform himself into a solid comedic actor, with appearances in such films as THE SWEETEST THING, STARSKY & HUTCH, DODGEBALL, THE BREAK-UP, SMOKIN' ACES, THE KINGDOM, JUNO, THE PROMOTION, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, HANCOCK, UP IN THE AIR, and many others.
But it was "Arrested Development" that fine turned Bateman into a pure, uncut master of cynicism. And while the show was cancelled well before it deserved to be, the right casting directors and filmmakers saw him and many of his cast mates and started hiring them for bigger and bigger projects. Watch him absolutely kill in such films as EXTRACT, THE INVENTION OF LYING, PAUL, and most especially in the big hit HORRIBLE BOSSES, the sequel for which is scheduled for release around Thanksgiving.
But BAD WORDS is something quite unique in the Bateman wheelhouse, and not just because he's directing himself (he's already lined up his next directing gig, which we discuss). There's a dark, painful core to what his character, Guy Trilby, does and why he does it, potentially shattering the dreams of the young spelling bee champions he's about to squash. Bateman was a true pleasure to chat with, and our interview was followed a few hours later by a post-screening Q&A. Please enjoy my talk with Jason Bateman…
Capone: Hello, sir.
Jason Bateman: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Good to meet you.
JB: Nice to meet you too, man. [He pushes a plate of what might be food at me and asks if I would like any.] Doesn't it look incredible?
Capone: What is that? It looks like the seeds and remnants of something you finished eating.
JB: Yeah, it’s the ass end of a trail mix thing. It’s been picked through.
Capone: It should be a good crowd at the Q&A tonight. About half the place will be our readers, so it should be fun.
JB: Yeah? I’m a reader. I’ll be in there.
Capone: I'm sorry, I don't know if I have room on the list for you. I overbooked a little.
Capone: I think the thing that surprised me the most about this film…
JB: Is how much it sucked?
Capone: I’m going to watch it again tonight, so I’m going to see it a second time to verify that it does suck. Actually, I was going to say that it’s much darker than a lot of the comedies you’ve done, and you’ve done some pretty dark things over the years. Those scenes with you and Philip Baker Hall, they aren’t funny. Was that something that appealed to you about the story, that you could sneak in these serious moments?
JB: Honestly, I was trying to sneak the comedy in. I’m really attracted to films that are not clearly one thing or the other. That it’s less about some high concept, more about the characters. I really love the films of people like Paul Thomas Anderson or David O. Russell or Spike Jonze or the Coen brothers. These guys make movies about eccentric people dealing with absurd situations, and often times comedy lives right next to drama in those films. So, this ultimately was about a guy who got his feelings hurt and was just trying to mend that wound, and because he’s not an emotionally sophisticated fella, he makes a bad choice about how to rectify that. There’s some comedic fall out from that, but certainly a lot of dramatic ground to cover with his situation.
Capone: You make it clear that Guy is making a rash, impulsive decision. There was a part of me that was considering how twisted it would have been if he'd been plotting this since he was a kid.
JB: You’re right. Well, that probably would have given him enough time to make a better decision. This is a very impulsive act. He’s being kind of petulant here, so yeah.
Capone: Why was this the material that you said, “This is the one I’m going to lock down and direct”?
JB: Because it was about some people in a fringe society that were fairly raw and going through something that was dramatic, yet there were a lot of comedic moments in it, and those kinds of stories demand that there be a very specific tone delivered by the director. So I wanted to do this, I wanted to deal and collaborate deeply with all the other departments that as an actor, it’s not very appropriate for you to mettle with. The film needed to look a certain way. It needed to sound a certain way. It needed to be cut a certain way, and marketed a certain way, there’s a very specific palatte and aesthetic target that I think you need to hit to make it be a believable environment for these people to exist and to make the decisions that they make, and say the things that they say.
Capone: There is an aesthetic to this film. There’s a look that seems very deliberate. It’s a little gritty, and it’s also kind of beautiful and elegant at times, but it all leads to melancholy. It does not feel like what we’re used to in a the brightly lit comedy.
JB: Sure. Well, this guy says a lot of things that are very tough to hear and tough to enjoy and laugh at, and the only way to even partially excuse the things that he’s doing and the things that he’s saying is if you truly believe that this is coming from a place of hurt and ignorance, and there’s a visual component to all of that. You do need to establish a melancholy aesthetic. And there does need to be music that might lend itself to introspection. It’s a whole package that I was eager to take on as a director.
One of the films that we were working with as a template was BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, which is a film that is labeled a comedy, but is certainly not filled with jokes. It's a story about some people really trying to wrestle with an absurd situation in a very real way. They're trying to constantly fix a problem. They're constantly trying to make it a short movie or to keep it a drama. It’s very serious to everybody inside the film. So there’s no winking going on, and that was what prompted a lot of comedic elements in that movie--the frustration, the lack of dignity, the confusion. Those are human things, so you want to build a human palatte.
Capone: I know you’ve done a lot of television directing. Did anything that you did in that realm prepare you for this, or is it a completely different animal?
JB: I don’t think so. Not to belittle television directing at all; it's a completely different exercise in many respects. But certainly just taking on the responsibility of overseeing multiple departments is something that’s always good to get used to. But directing a film is a spicy meatball. It’s a full-bodied effort.
Capone: What about trick to working quickly and efficiently, because I think you had a fairly short schedule here?
JB: Yeah, 29 days. In television, you have to do about seven pages a day. We had to do about five. So, it trains you to be prepared and know what you need and how to observe when you’ve got it and move on.
Capone: How were you as a director of actors?
JB: I didn’t do a ton of directing of the actors. I think an actor’s going to give you the best they’ve got, and this cliché of “Oh, that director got a great performance out of that actor,” I think, is garbage. I certainly think you can create an environment that can encourage and support a great performance by making them feel comfortable and having them feel safe, and certainly that was job number one for me. And also being flexible to receive a performance that might be wildly different than what I assumed the character was going to look and sound like. I think that’s part of a director's job, to be malleable. It's an actor’s prerogative to play a character the way that they see it; that’s their contribution. Sure, you have to bring the character across a mutually agreed upon finish line, but the way in which you get there is the actor’s contribution, and a director cannot and should not try to control that part of the process. It’s actually the one area a director really can’t control.
Capone: I’ve often heard from directors that 90 percent of directing actors is casting the right people in the first place, and you’ve got these great vets just doing their thing, and they’re doing it exactly right.
JB: A good actor knows what their skill set is and knows how they come across and knows not to step outside of their natural perception from the audience.
Capone: When you’re directing yourself, is there someone that you turn to for checks and balances?
JB: To ask, “Did that suck?” Sure, there were plenty of people around that had no problem chiming in when they saw something that was pretty stinky. But, this character, this is not MY LEFT FOOT, you know? I’m playing a guy who’s basically just a terrible version of me, so I had a good bit of confidence that I could get it somewhere near the target.
Capone: Was there ever a question that you should play this role?
JB: Yeah, I didn’t want to. I wanted to just enjoy the full package of directing, and I took a couple of swings at some big shots, and they told me to get lost.
Capone: “I don’t want to be mean to kids.”
JB: Yeah. And then I thought, “Well, this is going to be such a specific target to hit with this character.” He’s got to be a prick, but he’s also got to be likable, but at some point, you hope that the audience has some empathy for what he’s going through, and I thought I’d like to bank on myself to be able to pull that off hopefully. And we don’t have a lot of time, so to avoid takes 1, 2, 3 and 4, where you would have a creative negotiation with an actor, I wanted to cut that time out of the schedule--for better or worse--and have the actor playing that character do it exactly the way I would want to see it done. It also cuts down on work load. You don’t have to direct the lead actor, so you can focus on some other things.
Capone: You brought up something interesting: likability verses empathy, because they’re not the same thing. For you, is it more important as an audience member to like him or understand him?
JB: Understand. I think it’s much more interesting to understand the character instead of like them. Certainly that’s the case with a lot of murderers that you see in movies. It’s very difficult to like a murderer, but if you understand a murderer, if you understand how they probably got to a place of justification, that’s a very interesting process to go through as an audience member, and that’s what we tried to do with this through performance, plot, dialogue to try not excuse the way that he behaves, but make a case for how somebody might end up in this position emotionally.
Capone: Why is mistreating children so funny? And what's wrong with me that I find it so funny?
JB: [laughs] I understand. I think it’s probably a combination of watching the hilarious vulnerability of a kid taking it right in the puss. But also it’s got to be mixed with the prick who’s dishing it out doing it from a place of equal immaturity. Watching an adult act like a child and lose their dignity, lose their patience, their ability to act like an adult is something that I think is endearing, because you almost feel bad for an adult losing it and not being able to keep it together.
Capone: Guy is essentially a 12-year-old bully.
JB: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.
Capone: Speaking of kids, let’s talk about Rohan for a second. As soon as I saw him I thought, “Oh, that’s the kid from LONE SURVIVOR,” which is a very different movie.
JB: Yeah, hilarious.
Capone: He’s great in that too in a very different role. He has to match you in a lot of ways, or just be oblivious to what it is you’re actually doing. How did you connect with him?
JB: He was just an actor who auditioned for the part. He lives in New York, so they self taped him--his dad was running the camera. He did a great audition, but I didn’t really know how to judge how great it was until I saw 20 other kid actors, and I then went back and looked at his tape again, and said, “Well, let’s do a Skype session with him to see what his innate quality is.” And it matched the character really well. You need to have somebody who’s super sunny and fearless and has no judgement, something to perfectly counterbalance Guy Trilby’s cynicism.
Capone: Over the years in film you’ve worked with many directors in both in a couple of very serious dramas and a lot of broad comedies. Was directing always the end goal? Were you watching and seeing what worked and what didn’t with some other directors?
JB: It’s been the end goal only because I’ve had such a great seat to see how involved and complicated the process is to make a film, and it’s incredibly admirable how many people it takes to pull it off. And to have the privilege to oversee all those efforts, all those departments, is something I really wanted to earn, and I felt like perhaps this might be the time.
Capone: Do you remember particular people that you were especially impressed by who got exactly what they were looking for in terms of directing?
JB: Not anyone in particular. There are plenty of directors that I’ve cherry picked stuff from. It’s why a lot of actors become directors that aren’t half bad, because they get to work with a ton of directors. Most directors never work with any other directors. They have absolutely no idea how other directors do it, truly. Unless they go to visit a set with one of their director buddies, they never are exposed to it. So we’re really at an advantage being able to work with so many different ones.
Capone: Have you got the bug now?
JB: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t care less if I act again.
Capone: You’ve got the next one already lined up [THE FAMILY FANG] with the same cinematographer. What's the tone there?
JB: Similar. It will be dramatic and comedic, and there’s actually a mystery element, a thriller element, and it'll be a lot, but it’s another one that will demand kind of wrapping a film around the performances. There’s going to be a visual component, a musical component that will be necessary.
Capone: You're working with Nicole Kidman on that, right?
Capone: You’re going to have to up your game a little probably in the acting realm.
JB: Oh, you betcha. I'll try not to freeze up. This is a book that I guess she fell in love with. She gave it to David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote RABBIT HOLE. She gave him the book, asked him to adapt it, he did; she then saw BAD WORDS and sent it to me, and asked me to direct it and play the part of her brother. We just finished a big work session in LA, and he’s writing a new draft of it now, and he’s just so fun to work with.
Capone: You started up Aggregate Films fairly recently.
JB: A couple of years ago.
Capone: You did IDENTITY THIEF, which was like a hit right out of the gate. What changes when you’re working under your own banner?
JB: First and foremost, it gives me a chance to work as hard as I want to work whenever I want to work, which is different than being an actor. An actor waits for the phone to ring. There’s no way to really help your place. So what we do there is try to develop material for me as a director and an actor, both in film and in television. We just re-upped for another term at Universal, and it’s an incredible luxury to have a place to go to work every single day.
Capone: An office makes a huge difference.
JB: Yeah exactly. As an actor, I’d sit at home and stare at the phone or go play golf. It’s terrible.
Capone: I think that’s about the same in just about any profession. If you’re working from home, the distractions are limitless.
JB: Yeah, it’s hard to self motivate every day.
Capone: Let's talk about some stuff you have coming up? Obviously HORRIBLE BOSSES 2.
JB: We finished that a couple of weeks ago.
Capone: You finished that, okay. But you’ve got some new faces, Christoph Waltz being the most exciting. I assume he’s a new boss?
Capone: I know he has a great sense of humor.
JB: He really does, and we were so lucky to get him in the film. He lends so much pedigree to what is, admittedly, a studio popcorn comedy. I’m so glad he was game to be a part of it and add to the pedigree that Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Collin Farrell, Donald Sutherland, and Jennifer Aniston all added to the first one. He and Chris Pine are the big guys in this next one.
Capone: You say it’s a popcorn film, but the first one tapped into a level and type of frustration that everyone got--these exaggerated versions of things a lot of people deal with every day.
JB: Yeah, conceptually it’s a lot of fun, and I think we might actually have one better than the first now. It was really great shoot.
Capone: You did a film with Shawn Levy?
JB: Yeah, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. That will be out in September. That's an ensemble comedy. It was a great cast he pulled together. It was taken from Jonathan Tropper’s book, and then he wrote the screenplay, and it’s potentially something really special. I haven't seen the final version of it, but I knew what it felt like when we were doing it.
Capone: What's the status of THE LONGEST WEEK with Olivia Wilde?
JB: I’m not sure what the status is. We did that a couple of years ago.
Capone: It’s just in limbo.
JB: At best.
Capone: I’m always looking forward to anything Olivia Wilde has got going on.
JB: She was great to work with. Wasn’t she great in RUSH? She was awesome.
Capone: Oh yeah. Now that we’re through the looking glass of the "Arrested Development" experiment on Netflix, did you all accomplish what you wanted to accomplish what you wanted to when all is said and done?
JB: I can't speak for anybody else--the cast or Mitch Hurwitz--but certainly what I wanted to accomplish with it was hit square in the target, which was just to get back together with everybody again, get to play these characters, do Mitch’s material, and just laugh with everybody again. This was an incredible group that he pulled together originally, and we all missed each other a lot, certainly working together. So that part was fantastic.
Creatively, to each his own. Certainly, it’s no secret that it was not as embraced as the Fox episodes were. I think the discomfort that some of the audience had with it was certainly warranted, because it was meant to be something significantly different. Mitch was very clear that he didn’t want to do a retread of the Fox show, and he wanted to embrace the format, the device of Netflix with these episodes, and that these stories would happen concurrently, you would have this interface with them.
Capone: It certainly benefitted from this phenomenon of binge watching. People probably got a lot more out of some of the references and callbacks.
JB: Perhaps. Certainly, that was the hope. And that worked for some and did not work for others. But I certainly applaud his creative ambition there and Netflix for letting us be a part of this really exciting roll out that they’re doing. They’re up to a lot of good things, so it was nice to be a part of that. It’s an incredible company.
Capone: Okay, I’ll see you tonight.
JB: I’ll apologize now for repeating myself.
Capone: I'm sure I'll repeat myself too. Thanks so much.