A few weeks shy of Christmas 2012, Screen Rant paid a visit to the set of Jason Bateman’s directorial comedy, Bad Words, in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Despite the rest of the country shoveling snow, we enjoyed unusually soaring temperatures (indeed there were no complaints from us when they were handing out ice pops) on the set at the American Legion on Highland Avenue, a stone’s throw from the infamous Hollywood Bowl. The day marked 23 of a short but fast-paced 29 day shoot; the schedule being timely due to budget restraints.
After attending a press screening earlier this week, it’s pretty impressive how the first time feature director (in which he’s also the lead) pulled off a very polished, outstandingly funny and entertaining movie under a tight $10 mill budget.
Darko Entertainment financed the film; which is being co-produced by Bateman’s production company, Aggregate Films and MXN Entertainment. Focus Features has since jumped on board as the distributor.
About the film: Bad Words is a subversive comedy (not for the politically correct demographic), about a ruthless, dysfunctional 40 year-old man, Guy Trilby (Bateman, Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses) who finds a loophole in the rules of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee and goes up against overly ambitious 8th graders in a bid to hijack the competition. His emotionally challenged brain validates his reasons for such unruly behavior.
Guy is aided and abetted in qualifying for the matches by reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, We’re the Millers), who has exclusive rights to his story. Her on-line outlet sponsors him at the Spelling Bee, he takes full advantage of this opportunity and comedic sexual antics ensue. During his pursuits, Guy sets out to embarrass the competition’s president, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall, Argo, Magnolia) and administrator, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney, The Help, West Wing) who remain intent on having him eliminated. Ben Falcone (Bridesmaids) plays Pete Fowler, the Spelling Bee’s announcer.
While Jenny attempts to discover his true motivation for the sake of her story, Guy forms an unlikely friendship with a competitor; 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, Homeland) who remains thick-skinned to Guy’s cynicism. Despite aged only nine in real life (think of a male Dakoto Fanning), Rohan goes tete-a-tete with Bateman in some envelope-pushing scenes. In typical Bateman fashion, Jason excels at playing an unlikeable character that has this uncanny knack of reeling the audience in, so that we’re ultimately on his side.
The original screenplay, which is R Rated for it’s constant profanity, is penned by Andrew Dodge and made the coveted The Black List in 2011.
In between takes, Jason says:
“I originally didn’t want to act in it because I wanted to just focus on the directing. Then ultimately, I thought I might be making my job easier if I don’t have to direct the lead actor. There’s a kind of a tricky tone with this movie because the character I’m playing is so sort of acerbic and if that guy’s not likeable than you’re kind of lost. So I hope that I’m playing him in a way that’s likeable but also prickly. And I’m sort of betting on myself as opposed to running the risk of having to try and find that tone with another actor.
“We have a short schedule because we don’t have a lot of money, so I thought maybe I’ll be hitting the ground running with a performance that I want as opposed to doing creative negotiations with the first five takes of every scene with an actor that might hear it differently than I hear it.”
Jason prides himself on having an eco-friendly set without leaving a carbon footprint. Oversized solar-powered trucks are strategically positioned outside the building, making an inconceivable noise but responsible for generating the electricity.
It’s the Spelling Bee finals in the American Legion Hall and the first thing we notice as we walk into the tall building is a stage full of kids, with a large sign above their heads reading: ‘The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee.” Upon hearing a handful of journalists were on the set, Jason heads our way and politely introduces himself, clearly thrilled that we’re there to report on his directorial debut. Throughout my ears of interviewing Jason on his various films, he still remains one of the nicest talents in the business. He understands and appreciates the important role the press play and he honors his duties.
Jason points to the practically empty bleachers and deadpans: “See if you can find a seat…” Despite wearing the proverbial director’s cap, he is in costume, wearing jeans; and a blue tee-shirt with a sign hanging around his neck with his character’s name and number: ‘Trilby 123.’ His co-star, Rohan is standing nearby, wearing ‘C. Chopra #157’ around his neck.
On the set today, we’re observing a scene in which Jason is on stage, seated with the other young contestants for a round of the Spelling Bee. As per usual on a film set, we watch repeated takes of the same scene being shot. Suddenly, the AD shouts: ”Roll sound,” and an adorable 9 year-old Asian boy steps up to the microphone, nervously spelling “Rhapsodize”. Next up it’s Jason’s turn and he’s given the short straw when he’s requested to spell: “Floccinaucinihilipilification.” Movie magic is in full swing here as the word is printed out in oversized letters on cue cards just off-camera. Forever the pro, you never notice him glance up…. He snubs a take fumbling over the last letter and says: “Son of a bitch!” Clearly, he’s had to spell this word numerous times this morning.
Without skipping a beat, Jason directs himself by self-effacingly saying: “Same thing. Just a little bit better by me folks.”
When he’s not acting, he checks out the dailies at a nearby monitor. One distinct thing I noticed from the second I arrived was just how calm and happy the crew members and actors appeared. There was no shouting; no real manic bustling; no-one was frantic (I’ve witnessed this on sets numerous times) and everybody we spoke to was very grateful to be attached to a Jason Bateman movie. They all said: “he makes the job fun.”
Indeed, Allison Janney agreed to the project even before reading the script. She wasn’t in the least bit concerned about him being a first time director. She said:
“I’ve been really impressed with him on the set. How long have I been doing this? And I still can’t tell you what the lens numbers are and he comes in and he says: “Can you drop that to a 50?” He knows what he’s doing. I wish this was a series and we could do it everyday. He’s a great leader. I would follow that man off a cliff!”
Dressed in dowdy clothes; an appalling ugly floral calf length dress made of manufactured rayon; cream polo neck; chocolate-brown jacket and heavy rimmed glasses, she resembles a middle-aged virgin librarian. Allison, who first met Jason on the film Juno, plays the uptight director of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. She says of her character:
“This is her life. She has been doing this for twenty years and when Guy enters into her world, she wants him out! She will do whatever it takes. We are not fond of each other in this movie. Basically, he’s ruining my life and everybody is looking at me to fix it. And so it becomes my job to get him thrown out of this Spelling Bee. He rains on my parade.”
A seasoned actor, Jason began acting at the age of ten, on TV shows; Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons. He became the youngest member to be inducted into the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) at 18, for directing a handful of episodes of the 1989 sit-com, The Hogan family, in which he also starred.
So what took him so long to direct a feature? During a brief interval, Jason says:
“Well, they don’t hand out a lot of movies to direct so there’s that,” he smiles. “I did a good bit of episodic television directing, but directing a movie is so much more complicated. And there’s so much more responsibility. When you direct a television show they have a color palette on set or a visual style that’s already been predetermined and you just kind of have to follow the rules. So it’s a different job, but truthfully, if I had done this any earlier I wouldn’t have had much fun as I’m having now.
“I’m surrounded by talented craftsmen, technicians; people who are super skilled at their job and if you know a little bit about what you’re doing you can take full advantage of what they have to offer. You can have one department compliment another. It’s like you’re conducting an orchestra where you’ve got all these different instruments and you decide at what level those instruments are going to play and you don’t even know how to play those instruments, but combined together you will make a proper sound.”
After watching a few more takes of the same set up, the crew break for lunch which gives us time to chat to some of the cast outside by the food trucks.
Ben Falcone plays Peter Fowler, the announcer. He tells us:
“I’m thinking he’s more of a Charlie Rose type of guy. The Quill Institute President didn’t want ESPN to broadcast it and so he chose National Public Television instead, so I’m sort of an up and coming announcer. But it did require me to learn long speeches in a hosty fashion which is not my specialty at all!”
Ben met Jason for the first time when he visited his wife, Melissa McCarthy, who was co-starring with Bateman on Identity Thief, in Atlanta. “I’ve always liked his work and when I got back here (LA), he asked me to do this movie which he was directing and I said yes. It was pretty open and closed. He’s such a good smart guy. After I said yes, I then read the script, and I thought it was really funny.”
Ben whispers: “I would have done it if I hadn’t liked the script.”
At the time of this interview, Ben revealed he and Melissa had co-written a script and he was shopping for a director. Cut to the following summer (2013), Falcone ends up directing his wife in the WB comedy, Tammy, (McCarthy plays the lead title), alongside an all-star cast; Susan Sarandon, Dan Aykroyd, Allison Janney, Kathy Bates and Toni Collette. The film is slated for release on July 2nd.
We’ve only been on the set for maybe three hours and we’ve already interviewed the main players. Shooting resumes after lunch, and Jason is back on the stage as actor reciting the spelling for that unpronounceable (and underused) word. He improvises with each take, taking it up a notch on the comedic scale and unknowingly making his crew and co-stars stifle their giggles. Bateman’s comedic timing is off the charts. His facial expressions and nonchalant body language is incredibly funny to watch (he remains unaware of this). He plays it so well that by the end of the film, we end up rooting for his character. Jason says: “For me one of the keys to make an audience laugh is if you’re showing some flaws and your pants are down. There’s nothing funny about a guy who’s got it all together.”
Focus Features’ Bad Words is directed by Jason Bateman and stars; Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, and Philip Baker Hall.
Bad Words hits theaters on March 14, 2014.
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