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Interview: Jason Bateman On Directing And Acting In ‘Bad Words’

Jason Bateman is one of those lucky people who transformed his career from child actor to a cool film and television star. In the past fifteen years he’s turned into quite the comedy star in recent years, taking on the lead roles in the beloved cult series “Arrested Development,” among a number of movies, but he didn’t stop there. Bateman has made his way into the director’s chair in the new dark comedy “Bad Words” where he showcases his talent on and off the screen.

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“Bad Words” stars Jason Bateman as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old who exploited a loophole that got him into the national spelling bee competition. While the real motivation behind his entry into a children’s competition is unknown, he goes on a foul-mouthed path towards possible victory. recently spoke to Jason Bateman about the process of putting together “Bad Words” from a director’s standpoint and as the lead actor.

Have you always wanted to direct and did you look back at all the directors you’ve had to draw on those experiences?

Jason Bateman: I don’t want to get caught saying the cliché, “I always wanted to direct,” but in any profession, I’m sure you guys — well, I don’t know but I would assume, if not all of you guys but most of you guys look at the jobs of the people around you and some that are above you, and you spend enough time doing what it is you’re doing that you want to challenge yourself to see if you can do a little bit more and maybe even help the process of those that would be doing the job you’re doing now. It was always just about me appreciating how complicated that position could and should be. The more I learned about all of the contributions of all the departments, the more I wanted to have the privilege of that responsibility. I didn’t want to get the opportunity as a result of some sort of contractual perk and jam job. I wanted to earn it. I wanted to not be asked but I wanted to make sure that it was the appropriate time. And I asked and I asked and I asked people who were brutally honest and very objective and they said, “I think that the industry would welcome that. I think you could attract a group of actors that you would be proud of. I think you could attract a bunch of people below the line that would be incredible.” So I started looking at some scripts, three in particular and this was one of them, and I said, “This seems like the kind of scope that I would be responsible to take on and this is the kind of comedic tone I think I could navigate well.”

The tone is so important. Were you clear or did everyone understand that’s what the script called for?

Jason Bateman: I was pretty clear, I think, with the few people I had to talk to. It’s not a huge cast so I spoke as specifically as I could to them and also to the department heads and gave them some films to sort of compare it to perhaps. The visual style of it I thought was very, very important for the audience. Consciously or subconsciously, we as audiences are aware of what to expect based on a palette that you’re looking at sometimes, and certainly with music, so I was really excited to be the person that guides all of those efforts.

There is so many that word in the script I guess so how many variations of the script were there until you settled on the right one?

Jason Bateman: Yes there were certain drafts of this script that went a little bit too far at certain points and there were plenty of points where it didn’t go far enough. As Andrew [Dodge] and I worked on the script for a long time we just always kind of tried to make those adjustments, those ads or those cuts through the lens of why is this guy here? What’s going on? How is it a drama for him and not a comedy? At the core this guy has had his feelings hurt. He is lashing out and he’s trying to get back at whoever hurt his feelings. And so he’s emotionally injured. If the spitefulness, if the petulance is coming out of that as opposed to just being arbitrarily mean to somebody, then it was fine. It it was just arbitrarily mean, then it had to go. As far as the number of “F” words we did not try to hit a certain number. I wouldn’t try to keep it under a certain number, but no one needs to see another spelling bee movie. And no one needs to see “About A Boy” again. It was a great movie and we were trying to do something different here. Spelling bee happens to be the environment where this bad decision kind of plays out, but there was a necessity to keep some edge to this film and some dirt under its nails because it’s an adult going through something that’s deeply emotional to him and often times that’s not pretty and one can lose one’s dignity and that should feel dramatic at times.

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How did you enjoy directing yourself?

Jason Bateman: There was a checks and balance system that was eliminated, which is not terribly responsible or advised in most circumstances, but this was a character that I felt I could handle. There is a part of me that is this guy. I’ve got him where he needs to be in a cage, but I knew how to access that guy and I felt like I had a good shot at playing him in a way that was vulnerable, somewhat redemptive. That was the biggest challenge of..I took a couple of big swings at some actors that could definitely do it. Much, much bigger stars than I’ll ever be, but they were busy or not interested and before we started going to people that might be a little bit more risky as far as hitting that narrow target. I said, well why don’t I just do it? That way I increase my chances of hitting the snare on target of tonal accuracy since I’ll be able to control it in front of the camera and behind the camera. And since we had this truncated shooting schedule I knew I didn’t have the luxury of time to do four or five takes where you work out a creative negotiation with the actor about you know you seem a little angry there and I’d love for you to be a little kinder there and now all of a sudden you need to be moving on to the next scene.

You’ve worked with some amazing directors, and your whole career you’ve been on sets… Did anything surprise you about directing? Is there anything that you didn’t expect when taking on that role?

Jason Bateman: Pre-production and post-production is something that I’ve never been exposed to. I was pleasantly surprised that you could accomplish a lot during pre-production. There are so many things that you want to do with every department on the set, that you just don’t have time to either execute or discover. So, you have these weeks and weeks to, sort of, live with these people, and the script to figure out “Ok, what are we trying to do in this scene without saying it. If we pull the dialogue out can we do it with a lens? Can we do it with a light? Can we do it with a piece of music? Can we do it with a location?” Sure, you have time to discover that stuff on set sometimes, but for the most part you don’t. You just kind of have to execute, execute, execute… That was really kind of fun, and gratifying to me – to pick how we got to shoot every single scene so that we didn’t lose those creative opportunities, and still be malleable on the day, but everything was shot listed, everything was storyboarded, and everything was planned out so we could kind of have fun, and not be so pressured that we would miss something that might be a better idea on the day. 

They say to never work with children or animals, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue in this film. How was your experience working with your young cohorts?

Bateman: They were great. The kids on the stage were very into it, and very professional. Rohan [Chand] who played Chiatanya was… I think he’s 19 [laughs], or something like that. You’ll have to check his papers. He was very professional, and he knew all of his lines, and my lines. He was a very skilled actor without being obnoxiously precocious. There wasn’t that switch with the kids… That hamburger switch, where they’re like “This is great!” and then the camera goes down. I encouraged him to be every bit of the kid that he is, and a lot of that was helped by me remembering how I liked o be treated when I was that age acting. You wanna be treated like an adult, but you also want to have fun. You want to feel safe. I was his buddy as much as his director, and his co-actor. We had a really good time. I’m so proud of him, and I’m really excited for people to see how good he is in this film. He’s the heart and soul of the movie. It’s tricky… You want to lead with that, and you want to tell everybody how great the kid is, yet then people are going to think it’s “About A Boy.” Literally and figuratively. The film is not soft, but there is a great emotional, heartwarming byproduct of this very prickly journey that you have to go through to then see and appreciate, but if you lead with that, you’re like “I got it. I’ll go watch the Disney channel and get my gist of that”… This was not that. 

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What have you learned as an actor, coming out of this going now that’s why that director was doing that on that film I was in years ago. Something that makes you think oh, now I see it from the other side that I never had.

Jason Bateman: I mean, things become, you get a sense of what a director’s challenges are on the set, surely, but all of those assumptions were verified. Why after lunch does the stress level go up? Why do you point the camera one way in the morning versions one way in the afternoon? It’s this whole sun position and all of this kind of stuff. It was verified to me that it is beautifully complicated, and it’s a deep, deep responsibility that I’m so lucky to be given.

But you’re doing it again apparently.

Jason Bateman: Yea. Start in May.

So you liked it. You really liked it.

Jason Bateman: I never want to do anything else. It’s the greatest job in the world. You get to create worlds for people. We all go into a movie theater and ask to be taken somewhere. It’s nice to be asked to drive. It’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that, so you have to make sure you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t then you have the responsibility to ask because it’s very, very involved. It’s 360 degrees. It’s all senses and you’ve got to keep the ball in the air for an hour and a half. It’s a deep, deep challenge and it asks me to call upon everything that I’ve learned since I’ve started. I think, going back to how I’ve started, wouldn’t you all want to be in a position where it demands that you utilize all that you’ve learned? And we all kind of try to mold our position into demanding that, and certainly directing is that for me. I would hope that everybody has an opportunity to be able to use all that stuff.

Kathryn [Hahn] said that her family is funny. How about yourself? You’re a funny person but how…

Jason Bateman: My family is pretty funny. My mother’s British so she’s got a very dry sense of humor. That’s where I got that kind of thing from. And my sister is obviously very, very funny. She’s spent a lot of years on a very funny show. My dad’s got a very dry sense of humor too so I appreciate comedy a lot. I imagine her family is a lot funnier than mine, given how funny she is. She’s a lot funnier than I am.

“Bad Words” is out in theaters now.

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