Jonathan Watson on Balancing the Comedy and Horror of ‘Arizona’

We chat with the first-time feature director about transitioning from the practicalities of running a set to shouldering the burden of an entire production.

Arizona Mcbride

We chat with the first-time feature director about transitioning from the practicalities of running a set to shouldering the burden of an entire production.

Finding a laugh underneath a pile of bodies is a tricky proposition. However, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers have shown that it can be done. Following in their footsteps, Jonathan Watson drags his audience back to the hell that was the 2009-housing crisis and with the aid of the impossibly likeable Danny McBride, ekes out some comedy from a national nightmare.

Arizona is an uncomfortable excursion into human desperation. Rosemarie DeWitt is a realtor looking for suckers to buy her B.S. spiel while also dodging bankers eager to foreclose on her home. While facing the deplorable barbs of boss Seth Rogen, DeWitt contemplates how to fail gracefully. In walks McBride’s disgruntled customer and the true trauma of the situation reveals itself.

For first-time feature director Jonathan Watson, the challenge of bringing the dark comedy of Arizona to life was letting go of the practical goals of an assistant director and embracing the emotional and narrative responsibilities of the production. With just 20 days to get it all done, Watson had to release the technical worries to his crew and focus on executing a dangerous cocktail of tone. He knew the juxtaposition was possible, having basked in the mastery of the Coens. All he had to accomplish was aligning the unbeatable charisma of McBride to his overall atmospheric goal. Success would come down to the edit.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Watson over the phone. Our conversation begins with the miraculous congeniality of McBride and quickly escalates into the task of selling Arizona’s fluctuating emotional core. We discuss the masters Watson aspired towards as well as the visual influences that fill Arizona’s palate.

Here is our conversation in full:

I was attempting to recast this movie in my head, and I could not make it work without Danny McBride.

I completely agree. Weirdly though, this movie, Danny was going to direct this years ago, and Seth Rogen was going to be Sonny.

That was a thought I had.

It went as far as a read through, where at the end of it Seth said, “I shouldn’t be Sonny, Danny. You should be Sonny.” Danny’s like, “I’m not going to be Sonny, directing myself.” Then they had a hard time casting the rest of the movie, and I want to say Eastbound & Down kind of kicked back in, in like third season or something, or second season maybe. Danny put it on the back burner, and it started just to go away.

Then when Danny and I were doing Vice Principals, literally when we were watching a tiger enter a set for the finale, he turned to me and started telling me about this script. He said, “I think you should direct this.” That’s how it started.

The film is a strange little animal. It is funny as hell. I really, really enjoyed it on that level. But –

Yeah, through the years, I’ve had a script that was in development at Universal that almost was made. I’ve had kind of close calls directing, and it didn’t happen. I just kind of put that aspiration away, and so it’s been a long time. This one, I thought as dangerous as this movie is to make, in terms of the tonal minefield of it all, and we didn’t have a lot of money. We had very little time. It was going to be a hard movie to make, but Danny and I are thick as thieves and he’s a joy to work with. I knew at least when I sort of fill it with my friends, we’re going to have a good time making it. Danny and Seth, who are friends of mine, they’re great actors. They both love how very, very odd the movie is, or the script was. We took a shot.

When you’re navigating that minefield of tone, was there a moment where you felt like, “Okay, we didn’t quite nail it,” or, “We went too far,” or, “We went too dark.” How do you adjust that? How do you know that you’re on course?

The plan was to try to have, in some of these pivotal scenes, to have kind of a range of performance, where you could kind of ratchet it up or ratchet it down, in terms of either the comedic or the homicidal, if you will. That was the plan going in. Given the reality of filmmaking, you quickly realize you don’t have enough time to do that. You can’t do a range of performance for every setup. You’re not shooting an 80 day shoot, we’re a 20 day shoot. We don’t have the luxury of time to do that. A lot of it was the pivotal stuff was Danny and Rose, where we would rehearse it. Sometimes we’d have to kind of rethink the scene, because it was too dark or it was too jokey. Not ridiculously too much. It’s like a seesaw. If it goes too black too early, if it’s too funny too late, it’s tricky. It was us kind of feeling our way through it. Now the world will be a witness to it.

As an audience member, that was sort of my experience with the film. I was seesawing with the tone and how I should react to it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the first violent act really pulls the comedy from the horror. Then the second violent act happens, and the reality of the situation lands. By the end of the film, I’m trying to figure out how I actually feel about it all.

It’s not your average bear. It’s really, truly due to the kind of oddness of the piece, that we were compelled to do it. Once I read it, and Luke Del Tredici wrote it with Danny in mind. He didn’t write it with Seth in mind. He wanted McBride to do it. There’s no question, I can’t think of anybody else doing it but Danny. I knew that, having worked with Danny for a million years, what I’ve seen, what happened with Eastbound, even a character that has such bad behaviors, aberrant behavior, you name it, he does it, but he’s so weirdly likable.

For sure.

He has a hard time shaking likeability no matter what he does as a character. This is going to test that way beyond either Eastbound or Neal Gamby in Vice Principals. We are going to take it to the line and play that line, and then we’re going to cross it savagely. That was the plan.

Were there any particular cinematic inspirations you were reaching towards?

The patron saints are kind of people like the Coen brothers, and then the legends, the Scorseses, and the De Palmas, and the Kubricks, that take dramatic material and often skew it. Especially Scorsese will skew real, real gallows humor into hard drama. But nobody does it better than the Coen brothers. They are the magicians of that genre. They’ve kind of invented their own genre, if you will. Those have been the figures that inspired me, that pulled me into filmmaking, let alone continually kind of show you the possibility of this medium.

When I was watching it, even though it doesn’t relate anything plot wise, I thought a lot about the film After Hours. Just the absurdity of that night.

Absolutely, absolutely.

So, you did not have a lot of days to shoot and get it all done.

We did not.

How do you achieve that run and gun style? How do you know you’re on target with the movie?

By kind of coming up through production and being a First AD for a million years. I run film sets. That I knew. What I had to kind of divorce myself from was the shooting schedule and kind of the clock, and just solely focus on filmmaking and on the storytelling. Not worry about the shooting schedule, not worry about this. I mean time management. Of course it’s a low budget movie. I know I’m not going to have another day. I have to prioritize what’s the most important. The background helped me, in terms of the time management, but just letting go of any logistical concern whatsoever and leave it in the hands of other people. That was something different.

How did I know? You feel it when you’re shooting it. You hope that when you get in the editing, you got it all. We had to compromise, because we didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the money. We were shooting in a subdivision that was fully populated, other than a couple of plots that hadn’t been built yet. We didn’t have enough money. We couldn’t buy them all out. We had a very charming location manager and a wonderful production designer. The production designer would print plywood on foam core and we’d tape it to the garage doors. There you go. Spray it with some graffiti, and you’ve got an abandoned house.

It certainly looked like you took over the entire development.

They did a great job. They had to literally go to the Homeowner’s Board and convince them that we’re not horrible people, even though we’re going to make your subdivision look like a hellhole, a shuttered hellhole.

In making the transition from having to manage the practicalities of a film shoot, to managing the creative side, as the director, you talked about letting go. How exactly do you learn that? How do you learn to let go?

Honestly, for a while I got a reputation for being good with first time directors, and to shepherd them through. I did Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s first movie, Drew Barrymore’s first movie, Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s first movie. Often, I’d have to be in a position where I’d have to say, “Look, here’s my advice on how to do this, and kind of lead the way.” I found myself thinking in their shoes more and more. Then when the opportunity came, when Danny said, when I started directing on Vice Principals, and then this script came along. I knew that I simply had to do this. I had to turn the logistic part of my head off and solely think about the visual, and the story, and the emotion, and the pacing, and the tone. Everything else had to go away.

I wanted to talk about the visuals for a second. Drew Daniels shot the film. I really dig the look of it.

I do too.

How did the two of you establish that look?

We went right to the 70s, kind of sunburned feel of 70s movies, of Easy Rider. We tried to give it a real texture and a grain, and went and leaned into that. Drew has an innate eye for composition. He’s a wonderful hands-on cinematographer. Many times, I’ve found in the past, directors and DPs, the tug of war over which aesthetic wins this set shot by shot decision-making process. We had none of that. 90% of the time we were lockstep. We would both kind of just land in the same place visually. I have nothing but accolades to say about Drew. I think he’s such a talented young filmmaker and DP. He’s going to make some amazing movies.

Red Dots

Arizona is now playing in theaters and On Demand and Digital HD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.