In the obscenity-laden “Bad Words,” actor Jason Bateman (TV’s “Arrested Development”) takes on a dark comedy with a bit of a mean streak and chalks up his first feature film as a director. Seeking revenge for something audiences aren’t privy to until the end of the movie, grown man Guy Trilby (Bateman) finds a loophole in the national spelling bee rules and weasels his way into the competition where he grudgingly befriends a fellow speller (Rohan Chand) and teaches him that there just might be more to life that spelling 10-syllable words. Kathryn Hahn (TV’s “Parks and Recreation) plays Jenny Widgeon, a reporter trying to uncover what is actually motivating Guy to go through the trouble to beat a bunch of eight year olds in a spelling contest.
During an interview at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, we talked to Bateman about his foray into the directing chair, and asked Hahn how comfortable she is in real life dropping a few F-bombs every now and then.
Cody Villafana: Jason, did you find that working in TV for so long gave you an advantage to where you’re learning from different directors over the course of a season rather than one director over the course of a film shoot?
Jason Bateman: Yes. Certainly actors have a great advantage in that if they want to transition into directing we work with a ton of directors. Other directors don’t ever work another director so they have no idea whether their process on the set is slow, fast, inspiring or boring. So, we get to cherry pick all these things. The other advantage of working in television is that you usually have a pretty short schedule and you’ve got a high page count to shoot every day. You’ve got to be good, fast. With comedy, that sometimes is even more difficult because you’re trying to make it believable but heightened believable. So, you’ve got to make scenes work really quickly with the blocking, with the performance, with where the cameras are. So that’s really helpful with directing cause you’ve gotta be pretty nimble.
Kiko Martinez: Kathryn, this film, of course, got a rated a hard R for some rather salty dialogue. Some people might say the classier the woman, the less she curses. Would you agree?
Kathryn Hahn: No! I like a broad!
KM: What are some life situations you’d have to be in to start letting the expletives fly?
KH: (Laughs) Oh, I mean, anything! Name your poison! I love a swear word. I really do. But I have the two peanuts at home. I have to edit myself big time because they take it all in.
KM: Jason, your co-star in this film, Rohan Chand, seems like a very mature young man. With that said, was it challenging to curse with him around, especially when the expletives were aimed his way?
JB: Not really. The film wasn’t improvised. He and his parents knew everything that was coming. They were certainly prepped for it. I had extensive conversations with him and his parents about the kind of tone and spirit of all these prickly scenes and where it was coming from and what the deeper, slightly more sophisticated agenda was that was at play underneath, hopefully the whole movie and certainly Guy’s journey. I just asked them to trust me that I was going to build a film aesthetic that wasn’t going to feel gratuitous or arbitrary to the audience. This wasn’t going to be something embarrassing, hopefully. This was a drama to everyone inside the movie. This guy got his feelings hurt and he wasn’t properly equipped to deal with that. We, the sane audience, laugh at his inability to manage his life. But it is a drama to them. We hoped that would be the spine of the movie so those more prickly things would feel a little less sophomoric.
KM: Kathryn, you’re known the comedies you’ve made over the last 10 years, including “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman.” How funny were you actually allowed to be during your time in the school of drama at Yale University? I would’ve guessed it would be more classic theater training.
KH: Not funny at all. (Laughs) There’s nothing funny about Yale. (Laughs) No, we did a lot of comedy. We laughed a lot. We had an awesome class. I loved my class there. We had a clown teacher out there who was important to us. We did some commedia. We didn’t do a lot of improvising. That didn’t happen for me until after I graduated. I never took any improv classes or anything like that. I think being introduced to [director] Adam McKay and that group cracked that open for me. I will never forget that experience at Yale. It was such a rigorous, blessed three years. I didn’t have to worry about anything except the work that was in front of me. I mean, we were rehearsing plays at 1 a.m. It was heaven, heaven, heaven. I didn’t have a television. It was the best. I will hold that experience to my heart forever. I was just accruing loans. (Laughs)I knew I would eventually have to pay that off, but you didn’t really have to think about it while you were there. It was pure. But, yeah, comedy is hard. Really hard. But we had a ball.
CV: Kathryn, where do you feel like your character’s interests lied? Do you think she wanted to see him succeed or getting the story or do you think there was any growth with that throughout the film?
KH: That’s an interesting question. I think she starts off just trying to find out why and then I think she gets invested. I think she gets invested and when she finds out why he’s doing what he’s doing…I think she really, really wants him to bail. I think that’s what pushes her over at the end. They both moved into something deeper with each other at the end because she sees that he was able to move past it and grow up. I love a movie that is about the underdogs – the fringe. None of the people that you meet in this movie are at the cool kids’ table, which I love. It’s its own beautiful world that has its own power structure and dynamics and politics. It’s so complete. Guy and Jenny are really frozen adults. You see [Guy] on that stage and he’s a man-child. He is frozen in this petulant child. Now you know why, but that’s why I think some of the things he does to those children are bad. Obviously he’s smart enough, but I think he’s lashing out. We find out he is smart enough to get through that spelling bee on his own merit and yet he still does these reprehensible things to these kids, so there’s a lot operating. He doesn’t trust himself. What I love about the casting is that those kids really meet him as equals on that stage. It’s really strange he’s like a kid on that stage with them. That’s such a tricky thing to pull off.
“Bad Words” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.