FilmInterview

Jason Bateman Spells Out His Experience With “Bad Words”

Marissa Tandon ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Jason Bateman behind the scenes of Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman behind the scenes of Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

Jason Bateman makes his directorial debut with Bad Words, a comedy about a 40-year-old man who decides to single handedly take on an 8th grade spelling bee national circuit. The film hit theaters today.

Recently, Emertainment Monthly had a chance to participate in a conference call interview with Jason Bateman and a few other college press sources. Bateman shared a bit about his experience as both an actor and a director, and his vision for the film.

How do you feel directing is different than acting as an artistic outlet?

With acting you’re trying to convince people that you’re somebody different and with directing you’re trying to create a completely fake world for the audience and trying to shape an experience for that audience for two hours, both with what they see and what they hear what they feel, and to me it’s a much more challenging and gratifying creative effort. I don’t want to belittle acting at all, but maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing that for so long, it’s just so comfortable to me. I was really excited about the challenge of taking on more responsibility.

Can you explain a little bit about on what it was like being on the selling side of the industry?

The selling side, well I was a little protected from that. We took the film up to Toronto and that was basically a place for us to sell the film, to find a distributer. I was hoping that it would land with either Focus or you know there’s really only a couple of other distributers that are known for distributing things that are kind of super specific like this and know how to kind of do a platform release, which is where you just kind of put it in a couple of theaters the first weekend and a little bit more on the next weekend and you try to grow word of mouth. So it was very very exciting that a company that I really respect ended up respecting this movie.

It was great news that they got it and it was one of those classic nights where you’re at a festival and you show the movie and it goes over really well with the audience and then you kind of sit in your hotel room and you hope that you get a bunch of bites, and we did. We were getting a lot of interest from a lot of different distributers and they all started kind of bidding against one another and the price kept going up, and it was a little nerve wracking because I was afraid that maybe one of the distributers that aren’t quite as nuanced in their efforts would end up dangling a lot more money to the financiers than one of the more prestigious distributers. Luckily, Focus matched them all dollar for dollar and we got to go there, so it was really really exciting. It was a dream scenario.

You said how gratifying directing was for you, and you’re currently in pre production for directing The Family Feng. Is directing is something you plan on continuing to do in the future?

Yeah I would direct full time if they would have me. It’s just something that asks me to use everything that I’ve soaked up in X number of years being an actor and asks me to do everything that makes me really excited about what movies are, which is, as I said earlier, kind of shaping that experience for the audience. I enjoy doing that as an actor, but there’s so many other elements that affect that audience that are completely out of the actor’s responsibility and completely would be inappropriate for them to kind of mettle in. So, yeah, I’d love to do directing full time, or probably more realistically what would happen if I could, you know, rub a genie bottle and get my wish it would probably be something like what Ben Stiller does, or George Clooney, or Ben Affleck which is that they split their time and often do both at the same time. That’s going to be the case going forward. In The Family Feng I’m going to be acting in that as well as directing so [I’m] looking forward to it.

Related: Review: “Bad Words” Offers a Darker Take on the Traditional Spelling Bee

What specifically drew you to want to work with this project, with Bad Words?

What drew me to [Bad Words] as my first thing was basically, it was just the first time I had the opportunity to do it, in that the community would let me and give me money for a movie. I’ve been basically acting mostly for the last fifteen or twenty years with the goal in mind of trying to create enough capital, enough relevance, enough of a profile in the business as an actor so that I can ask for the directing reigns. Things have been going well for me in the last few years so they let me. Specifically this script is something that I have the same kind of dark sense of humor [as], fortunately or unfortunately, and it just really made me laugh. But I also knew that with that dark humor in the script comes the obligation to kind of counterbalance that with something a little bit more sophisticated, a little bit more human. You’ve gotta earn those big, uncomfortable comedic moments for people, otherwise it just feels gratuitous or arbitrary, so it asked me to a lot as an actor and as a film maker to strike that balance.

You mentioned how you were interested in doing some acting/directing in the future. How challenging is it to direct yourself in a movie?

Well, I mean, it felt comfortable but you’re gonna have to call me back after you see the movie and tell me whether I should have worked a little bit harder. (laughs) The character is somebody that I had a pretty good idea of how I would like to see an actor play it, so I went after a couple of actors that I thought could play it that way, but they were not interested in doing the movie for one reason or another, either simply not interested or not available. So before I went on to choice 3, 4, and 5 I thought well, why don’t I give it a shot since I’m so clear about what I feel this character needs to be in order to get away with all of these things. In other words how to make him likable when he’s very unlikable on paper. And I also thought it might kind of lighten my workload by not having to direct a lead actor and certainly trying to hit this specific tonal target with this character, we could be there a while trying to explain to another actor what I think it might need to be. So, I went for it and it was, as I said, very, very comfortable.

Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

How is your personal aptitude as a speller, and have you ever had any of the issues that you see the film face?

Well, I am a decent speller. I think I’m probably better than – well, I’m better than my wife. That’s really all that matters. My spelling bee history was brief. It was in grade school and I lost. I’m pretty sure it was the first round because the word was ‘answer.’ They usually start with the easy words and I missed that tricky little ‘w.’ So, I was mortified and steered clear of any further competitions in that.

Did being a child actor help you when casting with this film, especially with Rohan Chan, and did it bother you to really cuss in front of the children the way you did?

Being a kid actor myself, I kind of know where, I kind of remember what I felt like when I thought I was giving my best performance, which [was] basically playing a character that is close to me, somebody that you don’t really have to reach too far to pretend to be that person. In this case it was vital that this character be super sunny and have no judgement and sort of counterbalance the cynicism of my character, and this kid [Rohan] is like the greatest kid you could ever meet. He’s just so sweet and so smart and just nonjudgemental and just happy to be there and that was a pretty easy decision to make.

As far as swearing and doing all the kind of  misbehavior in the movie in front of these kids, they had all read the script before they drove to the audition, so that implies that they and/or their parents were okay with it. I would assume that that would be a result of them reading the script in the same way that I read it, which was that there was a slightly more sophisticated and deeper emotional agenda at play here than the veneer that this guy wears. He’s a guy that’s had his feelings deeply hurt and he doesn’t have the skill set to handle that like you or me. He’s doing something that’s very petulant and impulsive, and as a result we get a comedic situation. If he was anymore together, we probably would either have a drama or no movie at all.

What films influenced Bad Words in terms of the comedy and the style?

I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jones and David O’Russell and the Cohen Brothers and Alexander Payne. All of these guys have a fairly muted sense of humor, and their films usually have an aesthetic that fits a kind of a subculture, kind of a fringe society where people are a little bit more eccentric but are also very believable, there’s no winking going on. They’re usually dealing with pretty challenging, absurd situations, but in a way that is very earnest and the stakes are very high. There’s not usually a lot of jokes in those movies. It’s just simply the cocktail between the eccentric people and the absurd situations and its a drama to everyone inside the movie.

Specifically with the sort of palate that I was looking at [for Bad Words] was Being John Malkovich. That was a film that Spike Jones directed. It was called a comedy, but there’s not a lot of jokes in it at all. There’s some melancholy in it and there’s some loneliness and theres some existential issues and it’s certainly extremely absurd, but it’s all dealt with in a very measured way, with people who are pretty serious about what they’re going through and what’s going on and sort of the mix of that yields a lot of comedy.

As a new director, what were you able to accomplish personally?

I was certainly excited about the opportunity to do something I’ve been kind of asking to do, not overtly, but certainly it’s been the plan. I’ve always wanted to do this and then it kind of happened and there was that moment of “oh no, be careful what you wish for.”

Personally, I was able to accomplish something that we all try to get to at some point in our lives, hopefully multiple times, which is being proud of yourself. If you challenge yourself and you step up to it and you execute in a way that you hoped that you would, then that’s some of the stuff that really fuels a lot of great growth. You kind of bite off a bigger piece next time and you keep setting your goals higher, so that was a big big thing for me. I was very, very proud of the way the film came out and the fact that I kept it together and I remembered to take the lens cap off the camera.

Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

One of the things I’ve heard about either overtly violent movies or overtly crude movies that feature young actors in them is that there’s a lot of editing so that the children aren’t necessarily exposed to too much of that. Did you find yourself and your editor doing a lot of that in the editor’s room to keep it a little bit more PG13 and less R for those kids?

No, not really. This movie’s a hard R and again, we didn’t surprise anyone on the set. Everybody gets the script before they decide they want to come in and audition to be in the movie so [they’re] there on choice. You know, it’s all sort of personal opinion. There are things that I would not want to expose a kid to because of my own personal philosophies and tolerances with x y or z and the stuff that’s in this movie, while it is eyebrow raising at times it’s… I have a bit of a violence issue.

I think it’s tough for kids to see violence done as well as Hollywood can do it nowadays. We can make it look really convincing that a guy gets his head blown off his body, and a lot of kids go in and see those movies. There’s a lot of video games with all of that, and I just don’t know if kids are able to kind of process mortality. That’s all very sort of sophisticated stuff, and it’s kind of heady and sort of obtuse, but saying a dirty word here or there or looking at a woman’s breasts, I mean, come on. People are sunbathing without tops on in Europe, and have been for eons and that continent’s not pumping out a bunch of adolescent murderers left and right.

It’s just there’s a bit of a prudeness in this country at times, and it’s a little shocking, to at least me. This isn’t one of those areas that I think needed to have too much handwringing about, and again, all of these kids had their parents there, and all these kids had parents who read the script, and all these kids had parents that listened to extensive conversations from me about the tone and the spirit of this film.

There is a very crude, tactless, generic, popcorn version of this kind of humor, and that is not something I was ever interested in making. There is a guy that is going through something cathartic with this film. This character that I’m playing, this guy is deeply deeply hurt. He’s wounded and there’s nothing funny about what’s going on in this movie to him. He certainly isn’t hating these kids. He is not a racist. He simply doesn’t have a tactful skill set to bond with these kids, or be socially acceptable and he’s got a bit of a patience problem.

Carol O’Connor played one of my favorite characters ever on television in All in the family. He played Archie Bunker and that guy was saying things that were terribly un-PC and on network television, but there was a way in which he delivered them that it felt more like ignorance than hatred, and there’s some nuance there. I think that [there are] certain people that this movie will never work for, but I’m pretty confident that most people that I would consider sane thinking people, fairly rational, [and] somewhat progressive, I would have to imagine, people would look at this and go “yeah, what’s wrong with this?” It’s called Bad Words because it’s a play on the spelling bee, but I think the kid only swears twice? It’s not that bad, although it’s uncomfortable at times, but it’s not as bad as some of the violent films that I think kids flock to today.

I hope that answers your question. I’m sorry for it to be so long winded.

What was the most difficult scene to direct, act, and direct and act in?

Technically speaking, there’s a big national spelling bee at the end. It’s being televised by public television in our movie and we had to create that whole infrastructure as well. We were shooting a television show and a movie at the same time and that was pretty preparation intensive. There were a bunch of extras there too, so I tried to keep them entertained and not [let them] get too bored.

Acting wise, the toughest scene was probably the first day, actually. For some dumb reason I scheduled the scene with the most dialogue for me on the very first day I had like a three page monologue and that was the very first scene that we shot, but I guess it all kind of felt like it was easy after that.

So you got the hardest scene out of the way first?

Yeah, I mean, I wish I was smart enough to say that was on purpose but that’s just kind of the way the schedule worked out.

Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

The music and the tone and everything to your hair kind of perpetuates this tough guy image with Guy and he’s trying to project that. He’s really soft on the inside, but it seems throughout the whole film with the characterization and the dialogue you’re trying to perpetuate this kind of balance between his fuzzy inside and his tough exterior. Did you ever, as you were making the film, adapt the dialogue to fit this as you came away from a scene saying maybe this was to mean or that was too nice?

There were times where we were acting in a scene and it felt like it was so sweet that I could go a little bit harder, or it was a little too hard so I would be a little bit sweeter, and you just kind of feel that. Once again, after we cut it all together you feel these scenes back to back to back, and there’s a rhythm to it. Maybe you didn’t realize while you were shooting it or reading the script that maybe this whole section feels a little too caustic. We had a bit of an admitted crutch with the narration with the voice over where I could go in and just kind of calibrate it a little bit more.

There’s a particularly tough scene still for me to watch, which is the menstruation sequence. I added, very late, this little piece of voice over that precedes that [scene] immediately, where Guy says “My behavior was despicable at best, I’m lucky I didn’t get killed by the parents or the kids,” and then that scene starts. He’s being apologetic and the whole thing is being done in retrospect. He is sorry for all of it and he is feeling some shame, particularly in that scene. So, yeah, you’re always trying to keep an eye on it because again, I did not want the film to feel gratuitous and unsupported by emotion and hurt that this guy was going through.

Who or what inspired you to direct in the first place?

I don’t know if it was any one particular film [or] one particular director. It’s really been a process of me just having a great seat as an actor to watch how incredibly complicated this process is to make a movie. It is laborious, it’s extremely specific. It just takes the work of a lot of very very skilled people that don’t ever get any attention or accolades. A lot of them are extremely underpaid given the amount of hours that they work and the amount of skill that they have, and I always knew that it would be such a privilege to oversee that process and lead those people and come with a lot of preparation and streamline their process and try to inspire them. I don’t know, I’ve always been kind of a team sport guy and this for me combines my love of team sports and my love of movie. So, I’ve always wanted to be in that position, but didn’t want to do it until I really knew how to speak their language.

You mentioned that this decision to direct a movie has been a long time coming, but what specifically made you decide that now is the right time?

Mostly some practical issues, just business wise. It was a good time for me kind of to disappear a little bit. I think the year before I had been in maybe three films in one year. I mean believe me, these are good problems, I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. But you do kind of fall off the map when you direct a film. Fortunately, I was acting in it as well so there’s not going to be that much of a gap. I’d just done a couple of studio commercial comedies and it was a good time for me to do something small and semi-artistic and try a different job. It just kind of worked, and it was the back half of the year where big films don’t really get started because of the holidays. It just kind of timed out very well.

Did your vision for the character of Guy change at all after you decided to take on the role yourself?

(Hesitates) Not really, no. I was adequately confident that I could make him likable enough only because I’ve been playing the straight man, the middle man, the put upon guy, the protagonist for a long time now. I have a few tricks up my sleeve about how to look vulnerable or confused or doubtful or regretful or nervous, etc etc etc, and I knew that you’d need to seem some flashes of that, some exposure of his core to make his prickliness palatable. And I knew that I was directing it, so I knew that when I gave those flashes I would keep those assembled in the cuts so that the audience would see those flashes. Sometimes, when you play a character, you might be saying one thing with the line but then you’re saying something completely different with the look on your face just after the line or maybe preceding the line and if the director or the editor don’t put those things in there then you don’t have the balance that you were looking for, yada yada. So, I liked my chances.

Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

Your character isn’t the most traditional protagonist. How do you take a role that’s somewhat unlikable on paper and translate that to a character that audiences root for?

I think it was very, very important to start the film with exposing the audience to his inside before we meet his outside. I think that when a movie starts the audience is most pliable and most open to anywhere you want to take them. If you’re gonna take us down that road, then make sure you don’t hit a dead end and make sure you don’t get into an accident and make sure you don’t hit a bunch of pot holes and you know, they’ll go with you.

We wanted to plant the flag early that this guy is deeply introspective and deeply hurt and is deeply sorry about what you’re about to see, and it’s supported with images and music and a bunch of stuff. And then there is a, literally there’s a change. There’s a music change, there’s an imagery change, there’s a demeanor change, and we see that there are two things at play here. You don’t want to run out of gas on what you’ve earned with the emotional exposure, so you can’t be too mean for too long without his introspection and his processing. So, it was a balance and I hope it works for a lot of people, because we worked long and hard on it.

What was your favorite word that you had to spell in the film?

Well there’s a big one there, floccinaucinihilipilification, and I liked spelling that one for a couple reasons. One, the middle section is like, there’s a letter, then an I, then a letter, then an I, then a letter, then an I, and it goes on for like h-i-p-i-l-i, so that was kind of fun.

Also, I’m not a super bright guy, so I couldn’t remember how to spell all these words. We had to write [down] all of the words. Whenever I had to spell a word, it had to be on a big, huge, fat, white cue card just off camera. But since that word is so long and it would take you so long to say it, I couldn’t have just one cue card, because then you would see that I’m reading a cue card. So, we wrote it in multiple places in the auditorium so it would just look like I’m kind of looking around the room trying to think. So if I’m looking top right corner, I get three letters. Then bottom left corner I get another few, and then down at my feet there’s another card and then now I remember the back half, and now there’s one up on the ceiling… so that was kind of an interesting little concoction that we put together.

Bad Words has an expert comedic ensemble cast. Can you tell us about working with such comedic talent as Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Rachel Harris. Was it ever hard to keep a straight face with all of them?

And Philip Baker Hall, let’s not forget. Yeah, it was very, very tough. Kathryn Hahn and I are really good friends, so that was difficult to kind of hump away on your friend, so there was a lot of nervous laughter there. Allison Janney is the king and Rachel Harris just annihilates me. I asked all three of them personally to do those parts, they did not need to audition, nor did Philip Baker Hall or Ben Falcone. In fact, the only person who auditioned was Rohan and the rest of the kids. So, I was just very very lucky and I owe them big. I didn’t have to give them a lot of direction either because those guys, they’re Jedi knights.

You started saying that you always play this kind of good guy, kind of sweet character. He’s sweet at heart but the actual acting is a departure from that, he comes off as such a jerk. How did you switch gears to play that way and was it difficult for you?

Well, I mean, I know how to be a jerk, and I’m sure you know how to be little miss bossy pants too, if you’re pushed into a corner. We all have this guy in us and you hope that you can keep that person under wraps and you’re not provoked to be like that. I mean, certainly the racism and all that is not a part of my make-up, but I understand a level of frustration and petulance that brings about your worst side. I know what that is. I know what it’s like to feel taxed and not to be your best. So, that’s just the part I had to get into right before we shot each scene and that’s the way I play all of my characters. I just find that part of me and kind of open it up a bit and kind of use that as a base, just kind of have fun playing around and add a bunch of other things that may not be an essential part of me, just add a bunch of stuff to flavor it up.

Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

Did that put you in a bad mood through filming?

Hmm, well right before you’re about to start shooting, I’d just start acting a little cockier and start being a little bit more of a smart ass and rolling my eyes a little bit more. You just kind of start to become the guy and then pretty soon we’re rolling an you’re kind of into it and you start just having fun with it, because it’s a pretty fun thing to be an actor where you get to pretend to be a bunch of different people and you get away with it. And then they say cut and you laugh it off. You might have to apologize a couple of times because you were very convincing being a prick and hopefully they’re laughing too. And then you go back to the monitor and you watch it being played back and you kind of laugh and you’re like “alright that’s gonna be in the movie I bet, that’s pretty funny. Alright moving on.” It’s just playing make believe. The goal is to be as convincing as possible at being a bad guy and that’s kind of fun to do. We all know what a bad guy looks and sounds like, so I’m just trying to tap into whatever that creative idea is and then you gotta knock it off before you go home. That’s the key.

It’s officially put down as an indie film and the way that it’s shot and everything is beautiful. Is there anything that you would have changed with the process of it coming out like this?

No. I was very very happy with the way it came out. There was a very specific way I wanted the film to look, the way I wanted it to sound, the way I wanted the audience to feel. I really wanted to set an environment for the audience where they felt a little kind of off center, that this is kind of a little bit more of a raw group of people and circumstances and there’s a look to that, there’s an aesthetic to that.

You don’t want it to look and feel like some light, bright, poppy, candy kind of studio comedy, I think that would start to feel like some of that distasteful gratuitous arbitrary kind of pie in the face low brow ridiculing humor. This just felt like raw people going through tough times and they’re not being their best selves. There’s just a palate for that. We spent a lot of time deciding on that [palate] and there were camera tests and color tests and it was a big, big part of this process for me and a part that I’m not usually invited to take part in as an actor, so I ran to that.

I planned every single shot, every single scene before we ever started rolling film. It was all story boarded and shot listed and I was very specific about that. If we were doing this for a studio, you would have to bend a little bit on some of that because you’re trying to appeal to a larger audience, and you have to recoup a great deal of money when you do those, so you need more people in the tent. We had a bit of a luxury here in that we shot it for a low amount of money [and] we’re doing a platform release so we’re not spending a ton of money to sell it. So, we can keep the content as specific as possible so for those that like this kind of stuff it’s non compromising and that was definitely a luxury.

How involved were you in the pre production process as far as casting and location directions and everything?

I was very very involved every step of the way. It was something that I was very excited to do because I’ve never been exposed to pre-production, I’ve never been exposed to post-production. As an actor, your first day at work is the first day of shooting. As a director you’re on in pre-production for usually longer than shooting and certainly in post production, you’re on [for longer]. In this case we prepped the film for 8 weeks, we shot for 6 weeks and post production, all the editing and all that took 20 weeks. There’s so much of the film that is made when you’re not shooting that it’s just… it’s the greatest thing ever. I cannot wait to do it again.

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