'The Oath': Ike Barinholtz on How "Absurd" Political Climate Led to Trump-Era Comedy
The writer, director and star of the black comedy/horror hybrid movie explains how entertainment can help people process political division: "The holiday table in America is forever changed."
Much has been said about the rise of horror and dystopian films in the Trump era, though few recent genre titles explicitly deal with the White House's policy decisions or communications. Fiction that envisions a U.S. where books are outlawed or women forced to become sex slaves, instead, has inspired essays on the contemporary state of the American legislative, judiciary and executive branches.
Writer-director Ike Barinholtz's new movie — a black comedy/horror fusion — is far less elliptical about its parallels. Set at a time when an increasingly nationalist American government is asking its citizens to sign a non-mandatory loyalty pledge to their country ("the oath" of the film's title), the film follows one family whose members splinter along political lines over the course of a Thanksgiving vacation. Chris (Barinholtz) is a liberal enraged by the government's "oath" and actions against dissidents, while his conservative brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) sees nothing wrong with patriotism. Their sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) and Chris' wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) want to take a stand over the family's dinner table, but is ultimately forced to when two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) come calling.
The story was inspired, Barinholtz said, by his realization after one post-2016 election Thanksgiving dinner that since the election of President Donald Trump, "the holiday table in America is forever changed." Produced by QC Entertainment, the company behind Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, The Oath follows in the vein of those two socially conscious films in its aim to spark conversation about the state of the U.S. in 2018.
Just before the film's L.A. premiere, Barinholtz spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about directing his first film, basing his "insufferable" character off of himself and why he thinks people will go to the movies to confront the nation's troubles, not just to see superheroes saving the day.
How did this story begin for you?
The impetus came very shortly after the  election and was actually at my own Thanksgiving, which is a really big holiday for me and my family. After dinner, little bit of wine was going around, and my mother and my brother and I got in this argument and we kind of started blaming each other: "Well, this is why it happened, because of people like this." What struck me was that we're all on the same side, we all voted for the same person, [albeit] with different levels of enthusiasm, but we're aligned politically. I thought, "Oh my god, if this is happening in this house, what's happening around the country?" And in talking to my friends, who had all gone home, and my family, I knew that the holiday table in America is forever changed. The maxim "Don't talk politics at the table" is going to be harder than ever, you have to be really disciplined to not talk about politics now. [I figured] that arena, that Thanksgiving house where people are claustrophobically gathered together, combined with some kind of looming political crisis, would be a fun kind of story. That was really what I started off with it, and from there it started growing.
With a hot-button topic like that, was it difficult to get all the necessary funding and backers in place?
I think on the surface some people might look at it and say, "This movie is political." But it's not about politics, it's about family and how they interact with each other and react to the world. So I really needed producers that saw that. I think the movie, while it shows both sides, it does kind of take a side: It takes the side that the government is changing very rapidly and bad things are happening. Early on, I had people tell me, "Well these guys over at QC [Entertainment], this is the kind of movie they're looking to make." And sure enough, they were the first people to read it and they were the first to step up and say, "We can do this; this is the kind of story we want to tell, you have a vision for it." They could not have been more supportive: Literally from the first time they read it to a couple of hours ago, they've been so great.
You've directed for television before, but this is your first feature-length film. How did you end up in the director's chair?
I had directed episodes of The Mindy Project and I really enjoyed it. I knew that the next step in the evolution would be doing a movie, and I also knew from my first movie that I wanted to tell a relatively simple story. And I went down the road a little bit on one idea, but once I had the Thanksgiving dinner, the next morning it really just clicked in my head. I was like, "I know Thanksgiving, I can't stop reading about politics, I know what's going on, I see the sea change that's happening in the country." And I knew that my tone of the movie was going to be a little unusual. I usually write movies with my partner, Dave Stassen, but they're usually bigger comedies and stuff. I knew this was going to be an unusual movie and I was going to write it, star in it and direct it myself. There was never any discussion of me saying to someone else, "Hey, could you direct this?" or that I was going to cast another actor. I always knew it was going to be all on me.
Was it a risk for you to come out of the gate with a movie about the divisive atmosphere in America?
Look, I know that there are probably some people in this country who will look at this and say, "I don't want to see it," but I hope a lot of people will see past that. For me the thrill of taking this weird story and turning it into this crazy movie was to have people see it and get a glimpse inside my head, of what I'm ranting about to my wife every night when we're lying in bed — I thought could be kind of fun. So to me, I was ready; obviously not for the amount of work it is and the amount of walking and talking that you have to do, but I've never wavered or second-guessed any part of it. I had confidence in the story, and the producers had confidence in me and it just fit.
Many actors don't want to get involved with "political" projects for fear that it could reduce their story of everyman/woman quality. How did you assemble your cast?
I've been a fan of Tiffany Haddish's for a while. I loved her in Keanu, and I thought she would be such a great counter to me if we were a couple in a movie — so I always had her in my head when I wrote the script. The other castmembers I had in mind early on were Carrie [Brownstein] and John Cho and my brother [Jon Barinholtz]. I think that, you're right, there are some actors who would be a little trepid about jumping into something of this nature, but Tiffany Haddish read it and said, "I have never seen this movie before. It's something that's out there right now in the ether, and I want to do it." And John Cho read this and was like, "This movie's about what's going on!" So I think the script hit the gut of these actors who are like, "I don't care what people say about me. I know what this movie is, I know what my part in it is, and I want to be a part of it."
But I definitely did have a couple actors for some of the other parts [that backed out]. One guy told me, he was very honest, he was like, "Hey, this is very honest, this is very cool, but I don't want to go there." And I don't fault him; I don't judge anyone for being too political or non-political. I truly do understand actors and celebrities trying to stay neutral or relatively apolitical, the same thing with businesspeople — I get it. But it does make me appreciate the people who say, "I don't care about that. I want to tell a good story, I want to tell this kind of story." I'm so lucky that I was able to hook up with those people.
There's this eternal notion that people go to the movies to escape. What makes you think people might be opening to going the theaters to confront the division in the country right now?
On the surface, the two types of movies I like to see in the theaters are comedies and suspenseful thrillers. I think those two genres feed on the collective energy of the group. So there is that — you will be enthused by watching this movie.
As far as asking people to look at what's going on, look, I love escapist movies, I really do. But I think the world had changed so much in the last two years, it only makes sense that the stories filmmakers are telling now are going to be more reflecting of what's happening. Now you're seeing Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman, these movies that are looking right at society because it's such a fascinating time to be alive. There are days where I'm like, "Goddammit, why am I alive now when all this shit's going on?" But also it's exciting and it's absurd: You can log onto Twitter and look at two tweets in two seconds and one can make you laugh as hard as you can, and one can make you weep. And I just think it's taking those reflections and showing them to people and having them be entertained by it, that's the trip.
I know you're correct, there are some people that will say, "If I wanted to see a bunch of people argue, I'd turn on CNN." But so many people who see the movie say, "This is my family" or "I'm you in this movie." I think it gives people a chance that there will be a catharsis where you can go and laugh at this trainwreck and absurdity and my characters yelling at each other across the Thanksgiving table because it's not your family, but it's familiar to you — you just connect with it, or at least that's my hope.
Do you consider this a bipartisan film?
I truly do not think it's partisan. I think it's honest. We are seeing the government change so much and overreach so much, that’s just a fact: That's something I will present and I simply won't debate with people because it's a mess. But I was dead-set on making sure we are presenting pretty much everyone across the full spectrum, warts and all: to make my brother, who's kind of one of the right-wing characters, a sweet and dopey guy, not a firebrand or a horrible racist. The flip side of that coin is that my character, Chris, who is the hero, is very liberal, wears his emotions on his sleeve and is constantly ringing the bell of doom and gloom. He's insufferable, annoying and rude and he's letting his family and personal relationships fall by the wayside, so I wanted to show all that. I also wanted to show the people in the middle who are like, "I'm going to put my hand over my ears and not deal with this" and I'm forcing them to deal with this and talk about things they would rather not talk about. So the version of this movie where it's just a liberal [fantasy] where we're well behaved and very handsome, that movie I'm not interested in seeing. I'm interested in seeing a family in turmoil not knowing how to react to a political climate.
Has the Trump presidency — where the news every day can scan like a black comedy — made making black comedies any more difficult than they were previously?
No, I don't think so; it definitely gives you more material. And the nature of that material, I think, transcends what we've always made fun of politically, at least throughout my lifetime. Even with George W. Bush, who I did not think was a good president by any stretch of the imagination, you still felt like you lived in America. Now, you feel like this new president is solely responsible for the DNA of America changing — though it's been changing, we just haven't noticed it — so in a way it is better for comedy because it's more crazy and things are happening. But at the same time, the humor changes because we're now dealing with issues that are so real and sad, like children being separated from their parents and virulent racism. So I think that's why you'll start seeing some comedies now, especially ones that have any kind of social/political element — it will not not be just a straight-up comedy, it will have these other elements of thriller, suspense, horror or action just because that's how our brain processes now. I think if you're gonna tell stories about this America we're in right now, the stories have to be as complex as the subject.
What's your ultimate goal with what this film can accomplish with viewers?
The most important thing is at the end of the day is that you are seeing a film that is not a documentary, so I do want people to laugh and be scared and creeped out and entertained. The overriding message is that we have an obligation as not just Americans but as husbands, daughters, sisters and wives to do our best and try and not let these external forces permanently disable our relationships. I feel like the worst thing that can happen in this country is that people just say, "I got in a fight with my brother last year, I'm not going to Thanksgiving this year, I de-friended him on Facebook, I don't want to deal with that." Because America is bigger than Donald Trump, and it's bigger than the current Congress and the GOP. And I am optimistic about our future. I know that it seems real tough right now, and there are people who have it a lot tougher than I do, but I do feel like we will come out of this stronger. It would be sad if we had severed these family ties that we really need and that are part of the fabric of society and get to the place where we are so bubbled up that we can't repair it or come back when there is a different president or government. So while my hope is that people are entertained and just laugh at this crazy family going through the worst night of their lives, [I also hope] that we don't stay in our bubbles too much and we break those bubbles a little bit, because once we start cutting people off, it's hard to get them back. They'll start going deeper and deeper down their route and you'll start going deeper and deeper down your route, and then in five years when it's President Taylor Swift, you might feel sad that you've told your uncle, "I don't ever want to see you again, you fascist pig."