Kid television actor turned go-to comic straight man Jason Bateman makes a — shall we say surprising? — feature-directing debut with “Bad Words.” Written by Andrew Dodge, it's a wicked, fairly straight-faced and unapologetically foul-mouthed comedy about a 40-year-old jerk, Bateman's Guy Trilby, who enters children's spelling bees on a technicality and works his way up to the national finals.
Shot at such Los Angeles landmarks as the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City and Hollywood's American Legion Hall, the low-budget laugher/cringer was made with all local talent except for New Yorker Rohan Chand, who plays the friendly young competitor Guy bonds with.
Like his sister, “Family Ties” star Justine Bateman, 45-year-old Jason was inspired by their producer-director father, Kent, to enter show business at an early age. He was a regular on series such as “Little House on the Prairie,” “Silver Spoons” and “Valerie” in his youth, and before making a comeback with “Arrested Development,” he became the Directors Guild's youngest member ever when he shot a few episodes of “Valerie.”
A long list of roles in mostly funny movies (“Juno,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Identity Thief”) came before he got back into the director's chair, but he's already planning to do it again. He's helming and co-starring with Nicole Kidman in “The Family Fang” later this year.
Q How old were you when you directed your first TV show?
A Eighteen, I believe. I don't know if it still stands, but at the time, they called me on the set in the middle of that week, and they said, “You know, you're the youngest director in the history of the DGA. You beat Malcolm-Jamal Warner by a few months and Steven Spielberg by a few more.”
Q So, why did it take so long to get to a feature film?
A I did a handful of television episodes in the interim and was actually pointed in that direction before “Arrested Development” happened. But even a couple of years before that, I'd constantly be getting (acting jobs) in a pilot or a movie-of-the-week or something like that. You kind of have to pursue directing full tilt, and “Arrested Development” yielded a lot of good opportunities for me. But the stuff that followed “Arrested Development” set the table even better for me to kick this door open as a director.
Q Was directing a feature as difficult as you'd expected, or easier?
A It was as challenging as I'd hoped it would be and it was as comfortable as I'd hoped it would be. It certainly wasn't easy, but I was hoping that it would be as involved as it was.
Q Did you ask your dad for any pointers?
A He doesn't live in the city anymore, so he wasn't around to lean on for pointers and whatnot. But he was very influential in me wanting to get into the business initially. He would take me to movie theaters when I was a kid, as opposed to the park, so my love of movies started very, very early. He was the one who'd explain to me which ones were good and which ones weren't, and oftentimes that would lead to a conversation about the director and what a director does.
Q You hadn't initially planned to act in “Bad Words.”
A I went to a couple of actors that were real big shots, and they were either not interested or busy. Then I said, why don't I play this part, because it's a tricky tone to hit, and I felt like I had a fairly good chance of hitting that. I also felt, just selfishly, it would kind of lighten my load as a director; I wouldn't need to direct the lead actor.
Q Why did you choose this rather alarming and subversive thing for your debut?
A This had a comedic tone that really appealed to me. I have a very dark sense of humor and there was a challenge to do something as prickly as this and still make it appealing.
Q Was it fun to say so many bad words?
A Yes and no. I can't remember how many bad words I actually say in this thing. It's certainly not up to something like a “Wolf of Wall Street.” The spelling bee words were rather difficult. I had to have them written on boards.
Q Talk about working with the kids — and their parents.
A Rohan and his father, and all the other kids in the movie, read the script, they knew what was coming. I have no idea what kid actors there were that found it too offensive to participate, since they obviously didn't come to auditions. But those that came were on board. They didn't demand an explanation as to what the tone would be and what the taste level of execution would be, but I offered it. I would want, as a parent, for the director to say “OK, this is going to be a challenging scene for your kid to listen to and take part in, from nudity to profanity and all of these things, but let me try to give you a context for how I'm going to try to present it to the audience.”
Q How did your own experience as a child actor influence how you worked with the kids?
A I remembered the way I liked to be treated. You want to be treated as an adult, but you also need to be able to act like a kid sometimes. I made sure the set was a fun place. Any actor is going to give you their best performance if they're feeling safe, so for a kid, that's a different package of things. I was part friend, part colleague and part director.
Q Was it all shot in Southern California?
Q Did you get any money from the state tax incentive program?
A No. Our budget was so low that any sort of rebate would be pretty insignificant, and would probably be gobbled up by travel if we shot anywhere else. So I made a decision to change the location from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. And because we had a very small budget, a lot of actors and crew members I was going to ask to do me a favor and slum it in a small movie live here. When you're asking them to take a fraction of what they usually make, it's nice to add the incentive of you get to sleep in your own bed.
Q Overall, did this make you want to continue directing?
A Yes. I would love to do it nonstop.