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More than 30 years ago, Jason Bateman kicked off his acting career at the age of 10 with a role on the TV series Little House on the Prairie. Perhaps it’s only fitting that his feature directing debut — the dark comedy Bad Words — finds him delving into the story of a tween spelling bee contestant. The film, which stars Bateman, 44, as a middle-aged misanthrope looking to play spoiler by exploiting a loophole that allows him to compete in the contest, offered the veteran film and TV actor the opportunity to bridge his own past and present. Bateman, who lives in L.A. with his wife and two daughters, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about moving behind the camera and why the film is anything but soft and fuzzy.
You’ve been working in front of the camera for more than three decades. What prompted the switch?
It’s certainly appropriate that I should look for a different job. Usually people, after 30 years, are either retiring or looking for a promotion or a career change of some sort. It’s a job that I’ve had my eye on for a long, long time as someone who is a big fan of the process of creating fake worlds. Maybe if I’d been given this opportunity 20 years ago, I may have said, “Oh, who wants to work that hard? Just let me learn my lines and show up on the set and hit my mark.” But my work ethic and my ambition are equal to my access right now, which is a really fortunate thing.
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How did Bad Words come about?
Quite simply, I said to my lit agent, “Please don’t wait for me to have an opening in my acting schedule to pursue the directing stuff. Understand that I’m only acting to create the kind of relevance or capital necessary to get a directing job.” It’s really the only reason I’ve been acting for the last 20 years of this career. I told him, “I’m not gonna know when that moment is. I don’t have any objectivity. You’re gonna need to let me know when the community is ready to support me as a director. And if that time is now, then please send me some scripts that you think would be appropriate.” He did immediately. I looked at three scripts, and this was one of them. I took a liking to it because it had the kind of humor that is similar to mine. It’s kind of dark and it comes from a place of vulnerability or human frailty as opposed to super-broad stuff that’s overly gimmicky or quirky.
Were you nervous about making your feature debut with a script from another first-timer in Andrew Hodge?
Not really. His day job is, I believe the title is story editor. Every studio’s got one — a person who curates all of the scripts that that studio owns. Their staff does all the coverage for those scripts. So he’s been basically a script professor for years over at Sony. This was the professor finally writing his own script. That was kind of exciting. And he was just a really neat guy. We sat and worked on it for over a year and really fine-tuned it into something that I felt I could properly navigate.
What factors led to the decision to star in the film rather than hiring someone else?
It was a tricky tone to strike with this film. The character I play is a person who is not a very nice guy, yet you still need to like him. I just wanted to bet on myself for that. I may get it wrong, but if I get it wrong I can only blame me as opposed to feeling helpless and blaming some other actor. The other part was I thought that it would possibly be easier in that I didn’t need to direct the lead actor. For better or worse, that actor is going to do every single take the way that I want him to do those takes. It was a bit of a gamble because I’m sort of eliminating one of those vital checks and balances. But it gave me a much stronger ability to control the process behind the camera as well as in front of the camera.
How difficult was it to raise the financing?
It was very simple and clean. CAA connected me with Sean McKittrick’s Darko. It was just a straight check from them. You can’t imagine it being any better. Their creative input was minimal but beneficial. I was left to hang myself with all the rope I asked for.
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Did you make a conscious effort to avoid the kind of financiers who lack a creative background?
Yeah. Sometimes those people have an agenda that is strictly bottom line. And it kind of rears its ugly head around casting time, around editing time, around marketing time. You can obviously do a film a disservice by taking any one of those directions away from what the film wants to and should be. Just from people trying to have a big opening and trick people into the seats. Sean was just very clear about what the film was. If I was writing my own check for this, the process would have been exactly the same.
What is it about spelling bees that make them so rife with drama?
I hadn’t seen any spelling bee movies until we were midway through preproduction. I did know that there were a few of them and that we probably didn’t need another one. It’s one of the things that the film had going against it as I was considering it. But it’s merely a backdrop in a few of the sequences. It just gives us an arena to tell this story about this misanthropic guy who is trying to work something out in his life and then ends up creating a relationship with this little kid that is unexpected. There are a few things about this film that kind of make you think it might be soft — a spelling bee and kids and all that stuff. It is anything but. It’s gonna be a little bit tricky when it comes to marketing.
Have you lined up your next directing project?
No, but I’m reading like a fiend. I just cannot wait to do it again. It’s hard to think about anything else, to be frank.
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