Bad Words is a subversive comedy (not for the politically correct demographic), about a ruthless, dysfunctional 40 year-old man, Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) 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.
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. We visited the set of Bad Words to speak with Bateman about jumping into the pool of directing.
SR: Jason, why Bad Words to make your directorial debut?
Jason Bateman: The short and boring answer is that I thought it was really funny and had a comedic tone I kind of understood. Things that make me laugh were in this script so I thought it would be a good fit. It seemed like something that I could handle because I didn’t want to take a too bigger swing. I didn’t want to be too obnoxious either with what I was asking for. I didn’t want to go marching into a studio, asking for 30 million dollars to direct a movie with a bunch of effects. This is a small black comedy for under ten.
SR: Allison and Ben said yes to the project without reading the script, can you talk about casting and the reasons behind your choices?
Jason Bateman: Each of those people is perfect for their parts and they were friends of mine. I also knew that they would appreciate the part too, and that they wouldn’t just be doing me a favor. I need help from everybody because I’m a first timer.
SR: You’ve kind of made a career out of making some prickly characters likable...
Jason Bateman: Oh good.
SR: You’re constantly scheming as an actor, why do you gravitate towards these roles?
Jason Bateman: I was a big Archie Bunker fan growing up and on paper that guy said some really nasty things. Even Louie de Palma, but there was something about the way they played it in their eyes and in their body language that made it okay. They were coming from a place of ignorance instead of anger or intolerance. That’s an interesting kind of combination to play, because inherent in that is the character’s vulnerability. If they’re not that smart or if they’re insecure, or vulnerable and because of that they act out. To me that’s interesting. Sort of acting like you’re more confident than you actually are.
SR: Did you see this character on the page right away?
Jason Bateman: In this character, yes. If it’s not on the page in some things, there’s usually a place to play it even though it’s not written. There are a couple of scenes you can identify where you can say: “Okay, I can maybe play it a little more nervous instead of bitter.”
SR: Did you play any part in co-writing the script?
Jason Bateman: No Andrew Dodge wrote it and he was nice enough to let me get in there and do some work on it and take it in the direction that I heard as the funniest; with my sense of humor. Lucky for me, he kind of agreed and it is what it is now.
SR: So, how’s your spelling?
Jason Bateman: It’s pretty good. It’s hard because I’m imagining what the shot is and at the same time trying to remember the letters. But for the most part, it’s been the greatest experience of my life. Directing a movie is the greatest job in the world. I could not be more envious of the guys who get to do it all the time.
SR: Talk about Guy Trilby, he’s a loner right?
Jason Bateman: Yeah, he’s just recently found something out that has really upset him and he’s trying to right a wrong and doing it in a very aggressive, petulant way. If he were any more emotionally advanced he wouldn’t do what he is doing. We wouldn’t have a movie, so he’s kind of acting out. And by the time he gets a good head on his shoulders, the movie is over and he makes an apology. This is a Spelling Bee, which is the second best Spelling Bee in the country. So the kids here, the judges here, the parents here, it’s all kind of a little dank. People in this world are sort of on the fringes of society that we live in. They are the people that you drive by but you never really talk to. They are kind of all around us. And as a result of that they are capable of doing things that we wouldn’t necessarily do, my character being one of them. They can justify behaving in a way that they’re not super consistent with what society is used to.
SR: What rating are you aiming for?
Jason Bateman: It’s written as an R and we’re not doing any takes to get a PG 13.
SR: When did you start prepping for this film? And how did you prepare that you could hit the ground running on day one?
Jason Bateman: Andrew and I started working on the script a couple of years ago. And it was a matter of finding the right time to schedule this as there is time spent in pre-production versus principal photography and then of course, post production. We were just trying to find the right time between my day job where it would make good sense to effectively step away for nine months. Even though I’m in this, I’m getting so many nice opportunities in commercial studio work that it wouldn’t have been smart to do it at any other time.
SR: What has surprised you about the pre-production process?
Jason Bateman: I’ve never been to exposed to pre-production and so it was pretty amazing to watch all the hard work that goes into prepping and how important it is that when you show up on the set, everything is ready to go. When you’re actor, you have no idea how much work goes into pre-production. We’re just sitting in our trailers waiting for someone to knock on our door to go to the set. But really the movie has been made already; all the shots have been decided; sets have been built and dressed; locations been scouted; lighting has been set. Everything has been made ready for the actors to come in and talk and then they go away. Look, we really work for ten minutes an hour while the movie is really being made in the other 50 minutes. I just feel so fortunate to be in this position right now.
SR: A lot of actors don’t feel comfortable watching the dailies, but as a director you have to do that. How comfortable do you feel watching yourself?
Jason Bateman: It’s a dream. It feels like home. My wallpaper is full of pictures of me… No, I’ve always learned a lot about what I need to be better by watching myself because you can feel like you’re communicating x level of anger or happiness or nervousness and then you can watch it on film and it’s just not as good. Or big or small as you intended. You also learn lens sizes and what lighting can do; what the composition is and where you fit in the frame. So it’s been really educational for me over the years.
SR: Did your experience as an 18-year-old director, light this fire to become a director now?
Jason Bateman: The thing I was really excited doing then was working with the crew, basically your friends and family who you’re with everyday. I was doing a television series so it was nice to have a different job with them. I’ve always admired and respected what people do behind the camera. They really make the movie but they just don’t get any attention for it. It’s just a total injustice. So it’s just a pleasure to be able to work with them in a meaningful capacity above and beyond acting. But really what’s fueled this is just like anybody in any job. The longer you stay in the job that you do the more you learn about what those around you do. As an actor I’ve always nosed around apologetically about: “Oh wouldn’t it be interesting if I could do that?” I can’t imagine not wanting to do this everyday.
SR: Was finding the tone the biggest challenge for you?
Jason Bateman: I don’t know if challenge would be the right word, it was the thing I was most excited about. I just didn’t know if I would be as good as I thought I might be at articulating at what I was seeing in my head. The relevance of blues versus ambers; long lens versus wide lens; or dolly track versus steadycam versus handheld and all of these things help guide an audience’s emotion and set the table for them to have some sort of pay off in the next scene. Working with all those elements is an incredibly complicated challenge that I’m excited to work with a hundred people to figure out. That tone thing is really important. I wanted to film a demanded specific tone, not just something where you throw on all the lights, have funny jokes and shoot everything wide, and crank up the music and it becomes kind of junk food. It goes down real good but it leaves you a little empty. Hopefully this is something that’s got a little something under it, I mean not much, I’m not trying to make anyone smart by watching this movie!
SR: We have to ask, what’s happening with Arrested Development the movie?
Jason Bateman: Well the series that will be coming out on Netflix (released last April) will be tee’ing up the movie. They basically lay the foundation for all the questions that movie answers, plus they catch everybody up on where the characters have been for six years and give knowledge to those who’ve never seen the show as to who these characters are. As of now a deal has not yet been made so who knows if we’ll see a movie? (A movie is currently being written by creator, Mitch Hurwitz).
SR: When you’re traveling outside of LA, what do fans remember you for?
Jason Bateman: Well the people who like Arrested Development are very eager to come up and say something because that specific audience are the kinds of people who would come up and say something. I’m very fortunate for that. Anytime I do get stopped no matter what project is for… if you’re a ‘celebrity’ then when people recognize you they make kind of a scene. It’s like: “Look, that animal got out of the zoo!” And people make a big to do about it. I’m not a ‘celebrity’. I’m not a big huge star and so when people see me it’s usually to talk about something I’ve done and that’s a great conversation to have. That’s what we’re doing it for.
Bad Words hits theaters on March 14, 2014.