Jason Bateman has always been known more for his TV work than his film roles: From childhood work in Little House On The Prairie and Silver Spoons to his long-running role on Valerie (later re-named The Hogan Family) and his central work on Arrested Development, he’s been ubiquitous on TV, even when his film career was languishing. But Arrested Development sparked a career renaissance, putting him on the big screen more often in comedies like Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up. In 2012, Bateman formed his own production company, Aggregate Films; the label’s first produced comedy, Identity Thief, starring Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, was one of 2013’s more striking success stories, bringing in $135 million domestically on a $35 million budget.
That success may have boosted investor confidence enough to let Bateman take the next planned step in his career, by directing his feature debut. Bateman had directorial experience in TV—at 18, he became the youngest-ever member of the Director’s Guild of America by helming several episodes of The Hogan Family, and he’s overseen a handful of episodes of other shows since, including one 2004 installment of Arrested Development. But Bad Words is his first film project. The movie stars Bateman as a caustic, off-putting 40-year-old who finds a loophole allowing him to enter the children’s spelling-bee circuit, to the consternation of the overly serious young competitors and their helicopter parents. As he works his way toward the national championships, while refusing to explain why he’s so determined to win that he undermines and verbally attacks children, he forms a snappish relationship with an eager-beaver 10-year-old spelling-bee champ played by Rohan Chand. It’s an offbeat, dark comedy, but it takes an appreciably original tack on the well-worn “curmudgeon and kid” story. Bateman says that blend of familiar tropes and a singular vision was exactly what he intended:
The Dissolve: You’ve been talking for a long time about wanting to direct. What made this happen now?
Jason Bateman: I just encouraged my agents to pursue selling me as a director, if they felt like they could get that done—just read the community and see if there was an appetite out there to support me as a director, then send me some scripts I had a realistic chance of getting. They sent me three scripts, and I tagged this one as something that is—I’m a little ashamed to say—pretty much my sense of humor, and something I felt I could manage. It’s a very small film.
The Dissolve: It’s a unique story, with a distinctive sensibility. Were you looking for something particularly offbeat?
Bateman: I was looking for something that would be very, very challenging in its tone. There is, I think, a simple, silly studio-comedy version of this film. What I was always excited to do as a director is take on stuff that would demand more of a unique or specific tone and aesthetic to help it succeed. In this case, I’m playing a guy who is terrible to himself and to other people, and is tough to like in a good portion of the film. I took that as a challenge, not only as an actor, but as a director, to build an aesthetic around that character and the other characters in the film, where it would seem not so surprising that these people exist. So there’s a raw sense about the film, hopefully, as opposed to something polished and generic.
The Dissolve: As a first-time director, once you knew the exact tone you wanted, how did you go about making sure you created it?
Bateman: You have a visual strategy, a musical strategy… there’s a casting strategy, there’s a marketing strategy. There’s a bunch of different compartments, components, elements that a director has an obligation and a prerogative to deal with. As an actor, it’s not so appropriate to meddle in. I’ve just always really been looking forward to someday having the privilege to collaborate with all those departments, and try to build as unique and as specific an environment for an audience as possible.
The Dissolve: As you say, a studio easily could have handled this differently and made a terrible version of it. It’s striking how close this plays to a standard comedy, but it tends to approach clichés, then avert them at the last minute.
Bateman: I think any piece of entertainment needs to have certain boxes checked—well, any mainstream entertainment. There are certain things that artists can do that are only ever intended to reach a few hundred people, or a few thousand people. With books, I think a bestseller now needs to hit 100,000 people. With an album, you need to hit a million people. With a movie, more, and a television show, even more. So as you change mediums and formats, you have to sort of consequently round off the edges.
“I’m much more excited and interested in creating environments for an audience, as opposed to convincing an audience that I’m a different person.”
With this film, there are those necessary elements and components in there. Of course the 40-year-old man learns a lesson from the 10-year-old boy. There are all these pleasurably predictable elements at work here, but again, the job of the director, I think, is to try and navigate those somewhat-predictable elements in a way that is a little bit less predictable, and more fresh or interesting. It’s all about calibrating and executing taste. There’s that moment at the end where Rohan has the microphone, and it’s a really cheesy moment, but you need it in the film. So how are we going to execute this moment where we still get the same box checked, but in a way that is a little more palatable to the cynics in the audience, like myself? Do you want to have the camera right here, or do you want a long-lens shot where it’s less in your face, although the composition in the frame might be the same? Do you want the spotlight, or do you want it lit beautifully? Do you want a music sting on the moment to enhance it, or do you want to have nothing? Do you want the audience to go “Awww,” or do you want them to go “What the—?” So you’re always kind of mixing the recipe.
The Dissolve: How much had you thought about these technical aspects of filmmaking throughout your career? How much of it did you have to learn specifically for this film?
Bateman: I thought about all of it before directing, and that’s why I wanted to direct, to be able to communicate with other—pardon the term—instruments rather than just the acting instrument. The camera can tell you a lot of things, music can tell you a lot of things, the lighting—there are all these different ways to communicate with the audience. As an actor, I only had the one. As a director, you have all of them at your disposal.
The Dissolve: I recently interviewed Joseph Gordon-Levitt about his first directorial project—
Bateman: Yeah, I’m dying to see that film! I hear it’s great.
The Dissolve: He said he’s so used to evaluating his own performance from in front of the camera that when he wasn’t onscreen, he actually felt disconnected from the process. Can you relate to that?
Bateman: Yeah, well, he’s been at it a real long time too, and I’m sure he’s got a similar level of comfort in front of the camera that allows him to be aware of all the other people working simultaneously. The sound guy’s doing his thing, the camera guy’s doing his thing, there’s a bunch of people working while you’re acting, and if you’re comfortable enough with your acting, you’re able to keep one eye, one ear open to the rest of the process. Certainly in sitcoms when you have a studio audience—which he was involved with with 3rd Rock From The Sun, like I was in some other shows—that’s a necessary part that you need to honor. When you do theater also, there’s that participation with the audience. So it was fairly comfortable for me to be able to act and direct at the same time, because I was used to that vantage point.
[Directing at the same time] didn’t really change that much, because inside “action” and “cut,” I was thinking completely about performance, and part of that performance is being cognizant of the fact that this camera needs to hit a certain mark before you say that line. Oftentimes, you’re going to get that note from the director: “Hey, see if you can hold your line until you feel the dollies stop their move.” In this case, I was telling myself that. So it felt pretty normal.
The Dissolve: What have you picked up from other directors in terms of how you like to be dealt with as an actor, how you want to deal with other people who are acting in your film?
Bateman: Some directors have difficulty receiving a performance that is different from what they’ve imagined. I have certainly been on the bad side of that, where you’re getting a note from a director to do it differently, not because your choice was wrong, but just because it didn’t match what they thought they were going to hear. So I tried to be good about that. I tried to make sure my notes were coming from a place of helping them deliver the performance that the actor wanted to deliver in that role, as opposed to the version of the character I wanted them to do. You cannot get a performance from an actor that is different from the one they are able to give, so it is your job as a director to help them execute that in the best way that they can, and not try and hit the performance that you want them to give.
The Dissolve: You have several famous instances of a similar character to the one you play here—the acerbic jerk with a sense of heart. As you’re playing these roles, do you have to think about how to keep the audience’s sympathy?
Bateman: I do think about that, because as a viewer, I like that in films I see, and characters I watch. I love the moment where you empathize with a killer, or pity somebody who is doing something that is unsympathetic. There’s an interesting effort there that the writer takes some credit from, the director takes some credit from, the actor takes some credit from. Everybody needs to be firing on all cylinders to get that across. It’s a lot easier to play a character that’s one-dimensional, it’s easier to make films that are fairly simplistic, but if you’re trying to do something that is uncomfortable for some, comfortable for others, and a little complicated here or there, that’s what really excites me, and what we’re trying to pull off here.
The Dissolve: Is it true that you find directing much more challenging than acting?
Bateman: Yeah. For me, it’s because of what I consider the job of a director, which is to oversee multiple departments. Dealing with the acting component is just one of the elements that contributes to this unique four-walled world that you’re asking the audience to believe. You’ve got to make sure the performances are on target, as well as the camera work, and the music, and the editing, and the lighting, and the costumes, and the production design—I mean, everything needs to be on the same page. And you’re the only one who is able to communicate that to all departments and get everybody on the same page, because you’re the only one that is a part of every stage of the process.
The Dissolve: Are you interested in transitioning completely to a directorial career?
Bateman: I would love nothing more. I enjoy acting, but you know, I’ve soaked up a lot in the years of acting, and directing would demand I utilize all that I’ve learned, and the challenge of that is exciting to me. I want to challenge myself.
The Dissolve: Do you have your next directorial projects lined up?
Bateman: Yeah, I’m going to start prep on something in May. It’s called The Family Fang, from a book of the same name. Nicole Kidman and I play a brother and sister who return home to look for our parents who have disappeared, and we’re not sure whether they’re dead or whether they’re just hiding as a part of their newest performance-art piece. It’s another complicated tone; there’s drama and comedy and mystery, and there’s a thriller element. I used the same production designer, same cinematographer, and I can’t wait.
The Dissolve: Can you see using your directorial career to get yourself into types of roles you haven’t played before?
Bateman: That’s not going to be my goal, because I’m much more excited and interested in creating environments for an audience, as opposed to convincing an audience that I’m a different person. It’s just a different creative exercise.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked a lot in interviews about Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, and P.T. Anderson being big inspirations for you. What do you want to emulate in their careers?
Bateman: They seem to really be drawn to very specific groups of people in their films, usually a group of people that is a little bit more rough around the edges, people who are susceptible to making questionable decisions, and find themselves in unique environments and conflicts. That’s just kind of fun from a plot standpoint, but it also necessitates a certain aesthetic, too, that means you need to have a pretty robust collaboration with the crew, as well. It’s not just, “Turn on all the lights, lock off the camera, and let somebody kind of be wacky in front of the lens.” They’re more about taking the audience into a world, as opposed to showing them some sort of entertainment.
The Dissolve: So given all the meticulous planning that went into this film, what gave you difficulty? What surprised you?
Bateman: I don’t want to imply that this was a walk in the park, but I was really pleased with how comfortable it was. I wasn’t surprised by a ton, because I’ve had a great seat to watch the process for 35 years. A set is kind of a second home for me, and I just appreciate and respect the intricacies of the process so much, I’ve been looking at the tiniest piece of the process for so long that it was nice to observe that minutiae, and know I can participate in that very, very small thing, as opposed to just observe it from the actor’s chair. As a director, I get to go over and talk to that crew member about what they’re doing, and how it can be done a little more specifically to match what I’m doing with these other departments, or offset it, or enhance it. I was surprised that I liked it even more then I thought I would, because I assumed I’d love it.
The Dissolve: What would you do differently next time?
Bateman: Music was something I’d love to spend more time with next time; just budget-wise, we couldn’t, so I learned something there, to try and carve out more money for that department, so the composer can be on for a longer amount of time. I learned quite a bit, and look forward to doing it all again.
The Dissolve: Starting from here, in your mind, what does your ideal career look like?
Bateman: My ideal career looks like something similar to what any actor who has become a director looks like. From Ron Howard to Ben Stiller, Ben Affleck, George Clooney… I mean, these guys have been able to create a situation for themselves where they can split their time between acting and directing, with the exception of Ron Howard. Certain projects, they’re drawn to as an actor; certain projects, they’re drawn to as a director, certain projects, they’re drawn to both. And they have companies that are thriving that have a presence in television as well. Comedies, dramas—ideally, there’s a progression into that. And again, demanding I use everything I’ve learned.