SXSW 2014: Jason Bateman Makes Spelling Bees Tolerable For ‘Bad Words’

By  · Published on March 13th, 2014

Bad Words is a really dark comedy. Its lead, Guy (Jason Bateman), is crude and selfish, and he won’t stop until he proves his point. Sometimes he goes about his plan in mean-spirited ways, but for Bateman it’s pivotal that an audience embraces the character. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. He makes the National Spelling Bee contest actual fun, so you’re already on his side from the start.

Not only is Guy likable despite his edges, but he’s also empathetic. Andrew Dodge’s script gives him the right kind of motive that never interrupts the film’s initial comedic tone. There’s just enough of Guy’s past and his twisted and sweet friendship with a kid, never too much of it to make him an unbelievable softie. There’s plenty of tonal tightropes in this movie, but Bateman, who was also in the director’s seat for the movie, was well-aware of them from the start.

I spoke to Bateman at SXSW this week, and this is what he had to say about his anti-hero character, directing for the first time and more:

Bateman: What’s up, Jack?

Not much.

Anyone ever tell you, you look like Dax Shepard?

No, but I appreciate the compliment.

I think he’s rather unattractive.

[Laughs] Oh, you do?

No, I’m kidding. He’s one of my best friends.

It’s okay. You can say you hate him.

No. I love him and I think he’s gorgeous.

Well, thanks for the compliment, then [Laughs]. Jumping into the film, the relationship with the kid could have softened up Guy’s edges, but it doesn’t. Was that in Andrew Dodge’s script from the start, never having that moment where Guy finds a heart of gold because of the kid?

It’s hard to remember what you add and what’s already there. What’s important is that Andrew and I just had a great time collaborating. Anytime either one of us had an idea, we were ready to kind of implement it into the script and find a way to make it work.

But I was completely repelled by the notion of another spelling bee movie and, also, the notion that an adult befriends a little kid. It’s just so soft and not my kinda thing. As I continued to read it, I saw that, well, the spelling bee is just a venue for this guy to go through his emotional healing, because he gets his feelings hurt. It’s really kind of a melancholy experience for this guy. He’s being a bit petulant and he’s lashing out. As a result, that’s pretty funny to us because he’s being mean to these little kids. But he’s really hurting inside. I wanted to make sure that that was clear to the audience because that would ground it in some reality and in some rawness that would offset some of the softer elements in the fabric, especially when it comes to the relationship with the kid.

So, yeah. Those were a couple of land mines that we’re still trying to address in marketing. It’s tough to show marketing materials on this thing without revealing the fact that, well, there’s a 10-year-old kid in a lot of this movie and, well, there’s a spelling bee. Both those things are, like, “Fuck that. I’m not seeing that.” So I hope people can get around that and come for what it really is.

Do you want people to root for Guy to win?

It was very important to try to get the audience to emphasize with him from the very beginning, because if you don’t, it’s hard to enjoy the caustic nature of the character and what he says and does. That’s why I wanted to start with that sequence of him just observing all those children and their parents and the voiceover stuff. Basically, he’s apologizing for what you are about to see. If he knew then what he knows now, he would not have done what he did and we wouldn’t have had a movie. But he’s contrite about this entire process. So, hopefully there’s enough of a flag planted there in that first sequence where the audience is onboard with him.

Guy could have said one wrong thing and you wouldn’t be on his side anymore. Was it always a balance of making sure his personality wasn’t too distancing?

Yeah, absolutely. You have to try to maintain a level of objectivity through the entire post process, which is as long as pre-production and principal photography combined. So it’s really hard to stay removed from it and try to keep audiences’ eyes on it, because you are right: just a little bit left or a little bit right and you could lose ‘em.

What were your expectations for directing versus the eventual process?

I wasn’t often shocked because I’ve had so much time to observe the process, just with the seat that I’ve had as an actor, except for pre-production and post-production. Those are two elements of the process that I’ve never ever seen. It was pretty cool to see how much the movie is made before you ever start rolling film. In pre-production everything is decided, or can be decided if you really want to prepare fully. And we did. I decided exactly how every single scene should be shot, what lens we were going to be using, where the camera was going to be positioned, pretty good idea what kind of music we were going to have in this scene versus that scene, what the editing was going to be. So, if somebody did something that I didn’t like in that portion of the dialogue, it didn’t matter because I knew I was going to be over here.

Those kinds of things can abbreviate the process for everybody in a very good way and keep everybody fresh.

When you were strictly acting, did you take mental notes on what works and doesn’t for a director?

I’ve been taking notes on the whole process for as long as I can remember, because I’ve always admired what a director can and should do. I did reach out to a handful of directors that I’ve worked with and that I’m friends with. I asked them to look at a first cut of the film. They gave me some really helpful notes. More than anything, they were just very encouraging. I’m very lucky I had a good group around me.

What advice would you give?

Have a really strong specific plan, so much so that you are quickly able to figure out multiple ways to execute that plan, because it won’t ever go exactly the way you think it’s going to go. But you do need to know where it needs to go.

Is the role of directing far different for you compared to acting?

From inside action and cut, the director and the actor usually want the same thing. They want the scene to be believable. And they want the performance to be exciting. Yes, the director wants the camera work to be executed, well in addition to that. But that’s something I always kinda had my eye on anyway when I was acting. Because acting is something that’s so comfortable for me, I always had kinda one eye on what the rest of the crew was doing just behind the camera as they are filming the scene, or recording sound on the scene, or getting ready to trigger an effect, or whatever it is. As an actor, you can greatly help that process by standing on your mark correctly or repeating your actions so that take matches the last take in case they want to combine the two. I’ve always been looking at what the director would be interested in at the same time that I’m executing what me, the actor, is interested in.

Did you learn anything about yourself as an actor after directing yourself?

It was reaffirming to see that the camera will catch what you are trying to do no matter how small you do it. A lot of actors have difficulty trusting that. But the camera/audience is watching. They are watching intently. And it’s always exciting to discover what’s inside a character’s head instead of being told what’s inside a character’s head. It was great for that to just be reaffirmed for me.

Bad Words opens in theaters March 14th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.