Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words gets a wide release in theaters today, expanding from Los Angeles and New York. The film follows gruff-yet-endearing Guy Trilby (Bateman) on his mission to disrupt and/or win the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, a competition for middle-schoolers. In both our SXSW wrap up and Witney’s review of the film, Nerdist found a lot to love about the movie and the entire cast’s performances. It was during the South By Southwest festival that we caught up to the actor-director to corner him on everything from our obsession with Teen Wolf Too to his plans to continue challenging himself with his future projects.
As we sat down with the first time director, we couldn’t stop ourselves from our knee-jerk complement to his career. For many it started with The Hogan Family, but for us it was Teen Wolf Too that first got Bateman’s acting on our radar. When we mentioned that we’ve been fans since his lycanthrope days, he gave a more honest answer than expected, “Your taste is in your ass, clearly.”
While the sequel to Michael J. Fox’s ’80s classic isn’t remembered nearly as fondly as the original, the film still has its charms. We politely sided with the filmmaker that Teen Wolf Too isn’t necessarily a strong movie. Bateman laughingly agreed, “Not a strong movie… I’ve got to see that movie again. I bet it’s fun and campy now. I remember the make up being – first of all, we had to shut down for two days because the chemicals they were using to take the prosthetics off my face ended up burning my skin because it was so rough. But you look at pictures of the design of that nose it looks like some beautiful circumcision work on a giant penis. A huge cock right in the middle of my face.”
As we turned the conversation to his current work, the director recounted how he came across the impressive script from Andrew Dodge. It was actually pretty straight forward, according to Bateman, who was ready to move into directing, and his agents agreed that the time was now. “I just asked my agent to send me a couple of scripts that they thought I might be capable of getting as a first time director and if they thought the community might be ready to give me something to direct. Is it this year? Is it next year? Do I need a couple more movies as an actor under my belt with box relevance? Whatever it is, know that that’s the only reason I’ve been acting for at least 15 of the last years, is to build up enough capital to be able to say I would like to direct a movie in Hollywood. They thought that now was the time, so they sent me two or three scripts and this was one of them.”
The biggest draw in the tightly knit script was the complex, dark humor that came with deeper characterization. “I said this has got the same kind of complicated dark humor that I’m really attracted to because it’s a bunch of funny stuff only because the people are deeply, deeply flawed. As opposed to being jackasses or pulling pranks or just being shit disturbers, these are people who are having dramatic issues in their lives. Their inability to manage those challenges is what makes it funny.”
Bad Words has some incredibly rich characters, and the supporting cast came together quickly, thanks to the relationships Bateman has built up over the years, but one character had to have some very unique qualities. “Rohan Chand. He’s the glue of this film. If we don’t have a good kid there, we’ve got nothing. So that was very, very fortunate that Gina McCarthy found him. He was really the only person that auditioned in the principal cast. Kathryn and I were friends. Allison Janney and I were friends. Ben Falcone, Rachael Harris and I were friends. I did not know Phillip Baker Hall, but you know we took a big swing there trying to get him to lend his pedigree to the film. When he said yes, that was a big, big day.”
Jason wasn’t nervous about his cast, as he’d already worked with most of them, but, oddly, the second biggest role in the film went to an actress that the director hadn’t even seen act. “I’d certainly worked with Allison before, Ben before, Rachael before, but I had never worked with Kathryn before. I had actually never seen Kathryn act before. But she and I were buddies and she’s just got this incredibly authentic comfort in her skin that I knew was this vital component to this character. I just thought I bet you she’s so genuine that I’ll bet she does not change a whole bunch with her acting style. Sure she’s a great actress, but I bet she stays in that quality when she does her acting. And I was not surprised with how well she performed.”
We jokingly prodded Bateman on how tough it was to secure his lead. “He was difficult. He was difficult. He liked a big fat trailer and… no… it was just a dream.”
If you ask him about his acting pre-Bad Words, Bateman knows the roles people most associate him with. He has no illusions that his characters have generally been anything other than the audience’s connection to the stories they’re watching, “The straight-man, the protagonist – us.” This led to his revelation of how he came to fill the role of Guy Trilby himself. “If a director at a studio had come to me with this role, I would have said yes on those grounds. Well, this is probably a good strategic move for me to show that I can do other things. But it was never the plan for me to play that character. I was just going to direct this movie. I took a run at two separate, great actors to play that character. Neither one of them said yes. They were either not interested or not free, I don’t remember, but before we went to choice three, choice four, choice five, I started to think that the importance of making this character likable was so high that – I’ve got a huge bag of tricks for showing vulnerability or doubt or put upon because that is a character I’ve been playing for a long time. So I knew if I could show flashes of that, then it could make the corrosive humor that this guy has somewhat palatable. Perhaps I could build a lane to empathy, which is so important and it’s important to hit it early. There was that, and also I just felt that practically it would lessen my work load if I didn’t have to direct the lead actor. For better or worse, the actor in that role was going to do every scene the way I was thinking. It was like he was reading my mind, you know?”
Now that the film is in theaters and is expanding to more markets its success probably won’t be measured in dollars, at least not to the director: “I’m certainly not under any sort of illusion that this film is going to be some blockbuster hit. It’s a small film with a very small release. The fact that we were able to execute the film as specifically as we did was just a huge gift to us. The next film that I’m directing, I start in May and it’s a similar size, a similar tricky tone. There’s drama, there’s comedy. I think after I’m done with that one, I’m going to want to do something that is bigger, that is more commercial, but I’m going to take what I will have learned in the first two films and try to Trojan horse some elements that live most predominantly in the indie world and inject them into a studio picture. Not in a way that’s going to alienate the popcorn audience, but in a way that might include the indie audience to buy a ticket for a popcorn film. I don’t think that those two things need to be mutually exclusive. They can co-exist. David O. Russell just did it back-to-back.”
To hear from more members of the cast of Bad Words, check out all of our interviews from the premiere and catch up on how Jason Bateman handled filling Bill Murray’s shoes at Jason Reitman’s Live Read of Groundhog Day.
Bad Words is in theaters nationwide now.