Arts interview

A good conversation about bad words

Jason Bateman shares his insights about his directorial debut

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Jason Bateman, the director and star of the new film Bad Words, chatted with The Tech during a college press roundtable.
Courtesy of focus features

Jason Bateman might be well known as the affable pushover Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, but he leads Bad Words as the sarcastic antihero Guy Trilby, who hijacks a spelling bee for children and tells off anyone who questions him. The type of role is not all that’s new here: the film is also Bateman’s first time in the director’s chair. He was recently available for a college press roundtable, where he discussed the difficult balance between caustic and sweet that was needed to make this film work.

U Weekly (The Ohio State University): What were you hoping to accomplish personally as a director?

Jason Bateman: I was certainly excited about the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to do this, and then it happened. I was very proud of how the film came out and the fact that I kept it together. And that I remembered to take the lens cap off the camera. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if it’s your kind of thing, it does deliver, I think.

Boston University Daily Free Press: You mention that this decision to direct a movie has been a long time coming. What made you decide that now was the right time?

JB: I had just done a couple of big commercial comedies, so it was a good time for me to do something small and semi-artistic. You 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.

Flyer News (University of Dayton): Did your vision for the character of Guy change at all after you decided to take on the role yourself?

JB: Not really, no. I was confident that I could make him likeable enough because I’ve been playing the straight man for a long time now, so I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve about how to look vulnerable, confused, doubtful, regretful or nervous. I knew you’d need to see some of his core to make his prickliness palatable. Sometimes when you play a character, you might be saying one thing with the line but saying something completely different with the look on your face just after the line, and if the director and the editor don’t put those things in there, then you don’t have the balance you were looking for. I knew that when I gave those flashes I would keep those assembled in the cuts, so that the audience would see them.

San Francisco Foghorn (University of San Francisco): What films influenced the comedy or the style of Bad Words?

JB: I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, the Coen 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 subculture where the people are a little more eccentric, but are also very believable. They’re usually dealing with pretty challenging, absurd situations but in a way that’s very earnest, so there’s not usually a lot of jokes in those movies. It’s a drama to everybody inside the movie.

Harvard Crimson: Guy is trying to project a tough guy image, but he’s really soft on the inside, and the dialogue has to balance these sides. Did you come away from a scene thinking that was too mean or too nice? How much did you change the dialogue to adapt?

JB: There were times when we were acting a scene, and it felt like it was so sweet that I could go a little bit harder, or it was too hard, so I would be sweeter. After we cut it all together, if a whole section felt a little too caustic, we had an admitted crutch with the voiceover narration, where I could calibrate it a little bit more.

There’s a particularly tough scene for me to watch, which is the menstruation sequence, and I added a piece of voiceover that precedes that immediately, where Guy says his behavior was despicable. He’s being apologetic. The whole thing is done in retrospect, and he’s feeling some shame, particularly in that scene. I did not want the film to feel gratuitous and unsupported by the hurt that this guy was going through.

The Tech: What was the most difficult scene to make?

JB: Technically speaking, there’s the big national spelling bee at the end, and it’s being televised on public television in our movie, so 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.

Acting-wise, the toughest scene was probably the first day. For some dumb reason, I scheduled the scene with a three-page monologue for me, and that was the very first scene that we shot.

The Red and Black: Was there a lot of editing done to keep it more PG-13 and less R for the child actors?

JB: This movie’s a hard R, and we didn’t surprise anybody on the set. All these kids had their parents there, and their parents read the script and listened to extensive conversations from me about the tone and the spirit of these 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. The character I’m playing is going through something cathartic with this film.

There is 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. He’s doing something that’s very petulant and impulsive, and as a result we get a comedic situation. If he was any more together we’d probably either have a drama or no movie at all.

Emerson College: How did you switch gears to play a jerk?

JB: I know how to be a jerk, and I’m sure you know how to be little miss bossy-pants if you’re pushed into a corner. I understand a level of frustration and petulance that brings about your worst side. 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.

Daily Aztec (San Diego State University): What was your favorite word to spell?

JB: Well, there’s the big one there, “floccinaucinihilipilification”. I liked spelling that one for a couple of reasons. One, there’s the middle section where there’s a letter, then an “I”, then a letter then an “I”, and it goes on. I’m not a super bright guy, so whenever I had to spell a word, it had to be on a big white cue card just off camera. But since that word is so long, I couldn’t have just one cue card, because then you’d see I was reading a cue card.

We had multiple cue cards all over the room, so that it would just look like I’m looking around the room trying to think. Top right corner, three letters. Then bottom left corner, there’s another three letters. Then down at my feet there was a card. Then ­— aha! Now I remember the back half! So there’s one up on the ceiling. That was an interesting little concoction we put together.