SXSW Interview: Jason Bateman (Bad Words)


Taking place after the roundtable interview with Kathryn Hahn, Jason Bateman strolled in immediately grabbing the room’s attention. Good thing I was no longer too nervous to speak as Bateman had plenty of knowledge stored away about his directorial debut, Bad Words

In this roundtable, Bateman discussed the differences between directing television and directing film, the intentional dramatic aesthetic of the overall film, and how much prep work he put in to make sure Bad Words came out exactly right. 

Your co-star, Rohan, is a very intelligent young man. With that said, was it challenging to throw out those expletives his way? 

Jason Bateman (JB): No, the film was not improvised. He and his parents knew what was coming and were certainly prepped for it. I had extensive conversations with him and his parents about the kind of tone and spirit in which all of these prickly scenes were coming from, the deeper slightly more sophisticated agenda at play was. I just asked them to trust that I was going to build a film, an aesthetic, that wouldn’t feel gratuitous or arbitrary to the audience. that this wasn’t going to be something embarrassing, hopefully. This was a drama to everyone inside the movie. This guy got his feelings hurt, and he’s just not properly equipped to deal with that. And we, the sane audience, laugh at his inability to manage his life. But it is a drama to them, and that would hopefully be the spine of the movie therefore make those prickly things feel a little less sophomore.

Can you talk a little bit about where Arrested Development falls into where you’re allowed to make your directorial debut?

JB: Arrested Development is the father and mother of my career. I was a working actor for the decade between the Hogan family and Arrested Development, but I certainly was not making a lot of choices. I was basically taking what I got, and AD provided a project that was embraced by those who hand out jobs in Los Angeles. And that was really, really fortunate. I would’ve taken a job that was half as good. That perhaps would’ve stayed on the air twice as long. 


You know, but it’s respect of quality is the fuel of longevity as opposed to fame and fortune. That certainly gave me a great deal of much needed credibility, and a basic reset button on some of the stuff that I had done in the past. And I’m just gonna try my damndest not to screw it up and stay at the party for another thirty years. 

A lot of hubub has been made that this is your directorial debut, but you’ve been directing television since you were 18? 

JB: Yeah, with the exception of Arrested Development, all the directing has been multi-camera. Which I do not mean to belittle, but it is a different job as a director. Your mandate there is to corral the rehearsal, make the comedic writing work, have its rhythm stay intact. It’s shot proscenium style, it’s three walls, it’s theater. Of course there’s an audience, so it’s a different process. When you direct single camera you are choosing lenses, and there’s a lighting strategy, the whole environment that the director is allowed to build. Television is a bit more of a writer/producer’s medium where you work for the pleasure of them, and in film, you’ve got the kind of creative autonomy that is extremely exciting to me and very challenging.

Talking about the aesthetic a bit more, I saw the tiniest twinge of Wes Anderson. Has anyone said that to you? 

JB: No, that’s certainly high praise. Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, and Spike Jonze; These guys have a rawness to the aesthetic, the palette that they use, the way that they the visual element of this medium to perform. That is a character in the film. It sets a mood for the audience that hopefully allows the audience to be a bit more accepting of a fringe society that these filmmakers usually like to tell their stories in. The characters are usually people that you drive by, but you don’t often talk to. Situations that you usually skirt because we’re a bit more functional[…]. One of the main things that attracted me to this script is that would be a necessary world and pallette to establish for the audience because we’re dealing with a group of people in awkward positions, and if it looks like today, it would just kind of feel broad and winky. But if it feels real, feels raw, then you accept the eccentricities of the story and the characters. 

Kathryn [Hahn] was talking about how a lot of what was there was very much in the script, and I’m very curious is all of this in the script or did you get to kind of play around and try different retorts?

JB: Well I’ve never been a fan of actors who talk about what they wrote and what the writer wrote cause that’s very unfair to the writer. Andrew was incredibly collaborative for a long time, all the way through the process. I invited him to be on set for the shoot, and he was there every day. But we worked long and hard on the script for about a year before we ended up shooting it. And there were two phases of that. One where it was just me as a director trying to funnel all that was in the script into the aesthetic that I wanted to use. And then once I decided to play the lead character, then we went through it again and I knew the way I was going to play that part specifically. Very specifically. So certain words might be inconsistent with that approach, and certain words might better enhance with that approach.

But not a lot of improv?

JB: There certainly was some, which I’m a fan of because once something becomes three dimensional and the other actors start doing things that you can’t predict the night before when you’re practicing your faces in the mirror. Things are different, and you need to pivot. Sometimes there are words that are better, but for the most part, Andrew and I got that exactly the way we wanted it. And all the way down to the shooting everything was shot listed and storyboarded, and I knew exactly the way I wanted to shoot it. We knew we had a pretty abrriviated schedule, and that I was going to be splitting my duties, so everything was planned out. 

Can you talk about that color palette? Because it’s more of a drama palette. And that’s in sharp contrast to the HD scenes where we see the live television.

JB: We wanted to make sure the television had a different look than the film. What you’re privy to in the audience versus what the audience watching the TV show is privy to. So we shot that on that different equipment, and the overall palette of the film was something that was very desaturated. The greens and the blues, things that lend themselves to a melancholy introspective position for the audience. Because ultimately that’s where I wanted the audience to start and to remember as they started experiencing all of the humor of the veneer of Guy. I wanted them to remember this is a guy who’s raw and wounded inside. Something that’s oversaturated, something that’s super lit, something that’s on wide angle lenses, usually feels a little bit safer. It’s all parts of the process that I’ve never been able to participate in. The fact that this film, this script, demanded that was one of the big draws.

Speaking of script demands and prep that goes into spelling the big words, would you be still be able to spell “floccinaucinihilipilification”?

JB: I get close, but everything was written on big white boards. But the fun part was that we had to write them on multiple boards around the auditorium, so that I could three letters there, three more there, so it didn’t look like I was reading it.

Were any of those words ones you could’ve said “Yeah I could do that.”

JB: I was in one spelling bee in grade school, and I lost in the first round when I forgot the “W” in “Answer.” I’m not bookish.