Bad Words is the new comedy from well-established actor / funny man Jason Bateman (TV’s Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses). He commands a filthy, absurdist tone for his directorial debut. First–time screenwriter Andrew Dodge provides brutal insults with sincere likability, the perfect blend for Bateman’s persona and an ideal screenplay for Bateman to begin his directorial career. For both Bateman and Dodge to explore an unfamiliar filmmaking style, it is an effective and confident result poised to please audiences. I had a chance to speak with Bateman, Dodge and comedy actress Kathryn Hahn regarding their work with Bad Words at the South By Southwest Film Festival.
Bad Words is a low-key yet brash comedy Focus Features wisely acquired at the Toronto Film Festival last autumn. The film contrasts nicely with its recent Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyers Club, which world premiered at Toronto and is the polar opposite of Bad Words.
Synopsis: Jason Bateman makes his feature directorial debut with the subversive comedy Bad Words. Mr. Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old who finds a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and decides to cause trouble by hijacking the competition. Contest officials, outraged parents, and overly ambitious 8th graders are no match for Guy, as he ruthlessly crushes their dreams of victory and fame. As a reporter (Kathryn Hahn of We’re the Millers) attempts to discover his true motivation, Guy finds himself forging an unlikely alliance with a competitor: awkward 10-year-old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand of Homeland), who is completely unfazed by Guy’s take-no-prisoners approach to life. (Focus Features)
Bateman doesn’t want audiences to think Bad Words is just another mindless, raunchy comedy that Hollywood tends to mass-produce.
“The title is actually probably a bit misleading in comparison to a number of films out there that kind of toss language around a bit indiscriminately,” Bateman said. “Hopefully people feel and see a sense that this kind of bad behavior or mistreatment of people or bad language is coming from a somewhat emotionally wounded place.”
Discomfort over laughter is the intended effect on the audience. Characters with low self-esteem project their insecurities onto others. Even though audiences will laugh, viewers are supposed to feel uncomfortable watching painful moments of other characters on screen.
“The one moment in the movie that is still difficult for me to watch is the menstruation scene,” he said. “It’s okay for an audience to be uncomfortable. There’s a transition process between how you feel about a character in the beginning of the movie and how you feel about a character at the end of the movie — in any movie, I hope. It goes through peaks and valleys.”
For someone like Bateman to begin directing, it was a process for him to find the ideal screenplay. He didn’t want to wait around for the opportunity to come along but wanted to casually find the right one.
“I simply said to my agent, ‘Please, don’t wait for an opening in my acting schedule to send me a script to direct.’ He sent me a couple of scripts and I was just drawn to this one,” Bateman said.
Through several years and various formats, Bateman had the background working on numerous projects to prepare him for the challenging role as a director.
“I just had the privilege to have such a good seat to watch the hard work of hundreds of people it takes to deliver something we all kind of take for granted,” he said. “It is an incredibly complicated and complex process, all to get to the place of neutral in a world. I think that is incredibly fun and challenging. And as an actor, it was always inappropriate for me to participate in all those other departments. As a director, that is your job, so I’m really excited to build those worlds for audiences and try to shape their experience.”
Finding the ideal child actor to play the part of Chaitanya Chopra would be a daunting task. Child actors can make or break a movie. Ten year-old Rohan Chand (Jack and Jill, TV’s Homeland) beat out numerous child actors for the role of Chaitanya. Bateman was assured Chopra was up to the task to play this vital role.
“He was one of the first few kids that I had seen and really didn’t know to judge how great or bad he was because how do you judge the talent of a ten year-old?” he said. “You don’t know what good ten-year-old acting is. So I looked at 20 to 30 kids and went back and looked at his thing again. Not only was he a great actor but also he had this very authentic, genuine quality of lightness and kindness. He was just sort of evanescent.” In regard to the now-infamous scene where Chaitanya glimpses a prostitute’s bare breast in a dark alley and other foul moments involving children, Bateman said, “The whole thing is meant to feel a little bit raw.”
Bateman adored how a wide-eyed and talkative Chand complemented the profane and jaded Guy character.
“You needed his lightness to perfectly counterbalance the cynicism of Guy and make that a satisfying combination in how they start to affect one another.”
Comedic actress Kathryn Hahn (We’re The Millers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) usually is seen on the big screen in smaller roles. Hahn taking almost a co-lead role in Bad Words solidifies her on the fast track to more prominent future movie appearances. She is long overdue. Hahn prefers method character acting to obnoxiously stealing the show. She felt a natural connection to Bateman while on set of Bad Words.
“I think that it helped that we knew each other socially because there was already shorthand. It’s not like we had party manners per se on the set, which is helpful. It’s that really fun tension you see, like a brother/sister chemistry that made it helpful to work together,” Hahn said.
Despite the pleasant and comfortable attitude Hahn felt toward Bateman, the simulated sex scenes were a little awkward. When Hahn’s character yells, “Don’t look at me!” during an outrageous love-making moment, it provides needed comic relief.
“It’s always awkward because it was my pal,” she said. “It helped that there were a lot of other people in the room with us. There was a guy standing in there. It was a closet. It was very sweaty. We were all giggling. Jason had the genius idea to put a pillow or two between us so that we did, which was very helpful. It made us laugh and get through it.”
Hahn discussed what comedy admires including Shirley MacClaine in Being There, as well as movies like Broadcast News, Airplane, Tootsie, and even Anchorman (in which she had a small part). She reflected on her time at the Yale Drama School and was excited for fellow-Yale graduate Luptia Nyogyo, who won this year’s Best Supporting Actress Award. Hahn is a well-grounded actress for taking the time not to dwell solely on her role in Bad Words or herself. It highlights the wise choice Bateman made in casting her.Hahn also appreciated the misfit characters that embody Bad Words as well as the atypical narrative structure that accompany their journey.
“I love a movie that is about the underdogs, you know, like the fringe,” she said. “None of the people you meet in this movie are at the cool kids table, which I loved,” she said. “It’s its own beautiful world that has its power structure and its own dynamic and the politics. It’s so complete.”
Hahn can be selective with what directors she works alongside. When she chooses filmmakers for future projects, she hopes they have a distinct style and bold inclination.
“I want to continue to work with directors that push, pull, and tug and take you to places that you’re uncomfortable with like a lot of times because you’re known for a certain thing. I would love to work with directors that have specific vision and bodies of work,” she said.
Hahn admired working with Bateman and Dodge because of the talent they brought to Bad Words.
“What I love about the casting is how the kids meet [Bateman] as his equals on that stage. It‘s really strange,” she said. There wasn’t a need to improvise lines on set, Hahn said, because “the jokes are constructed so perfectly that you really don’t need to screw around.”
Andrew Dodge was an unlikely person to write a screenplay, but what he does constructing Bad Words is a descent into depravity with a sense of sweetness. It has an unexpected tenderness that keeps Bad Words grounded from the over-the-top moments that could overshadow the more meaningful ones. Dodge had been at Columbia Pictures for 15 years. He started as an intern in the story department and worked his way up. He was interested in the studio system but wanted to continue to challenge himself writing despite not being assured in this new screenwriting venture.
“I wasn’t sure at that point if I wanted to be a screenwriter but I knew that wanted to be in the industry,” Dodge said. “I was reading scripts and I knew I could at least write as good as the worst script that came across my desk. I decided to give it a crack.”
Dodge found inspiration for Bad Words in conversations with his younger children navigating appropriate words to say in school. The dialogue between Guy and Chaitanya about foul language in Bad Words actually happened to Dodge and his child.
“The state of California had a ‘Don’t Swear Day’ and it rubbed me wrong because that’s’ my job as a dad to talk to my kids about saying bad words,” he said. “And what they take away from it was, ‘you know you’re a bad person if you say bad words.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not it at all.’ There’s an appropriate time and an inappropriate time. This is a great exercise in expression,” he said.
Writing a first-time screenplay was demanding for Dodge, but he completed it with ease as the process became natural to him.
“The first draft you just got to throw up on the page and get everything out there and then you have to try to sort it out,” he explained.
Dodge came up with the plot the spelling bee plot of Bad Words by drawing his debate team experience in school while watching the 2002 documentary Spellbound.
“It came about when I saw the movie Spellbound, and I thought ‘what a bunch of f—king weirdoes,’ and then, ‘Oh, shit, I was a weirdo,’” he said. “And then I looked over to see a trophy similar to the one I won in debate. What would it be if young me was picked on the old me and that’s how it all spins together. I really wanted him to have a meaningful motivation because this is such an uproarious notion of putting an adult in a kid‘s spelling bee. You could easily go broad but I didn’t want this to be broad, I wanted this to be specific and biting.”
Like all screenwriters, Dodge worried that the director and the actor could read something differently than what he intended or perceived. In fulfilling both roles in Bad Words, Jason Bateman was the perfect actor Dodge envisioned for the role of Guy Trilby.
“Jason really nailed Guy,” Dodge said. “When I write, I make it a practice to imagine Jack Lemmon in my head because I don’t want current working actors because if someone ends up acting in that role it is harder for me to get my head around it. He is really the modern day Jack Lemmon. He has that charm and can say nasty things. People can still chuckle because he has that face.”
First–time director Bateman lacked the behind-the-camera experience Dodge initially wanted, but he was at ease with how Bateman managed the project.
“On set he was in complete control. It was a happy set,” Dodge said. “He put the legwork in ahead of time and that pays off in dividends when you’re shooting.”
Dodge admired many writers and TV shows, including the films of Harold Ramis, the vintage television shows Taxi and All in the Family and the works of Norman Leer. However, it is from his respect for John Hughes where Dodge draws his motivation as a writer.
“I think that John Hughes is my foundational inspiration,” he said. “If he were alive making films today, he’d be making movies like Bad Words. He would be exploring the small R-rated comedy with heart.”
Some screenwriters would add in spicy and raunchy one-liners and build the situation around them. However, Dodge crafted one-liners based upon the comedic scenes and go from there.
“A lot of [the one-liners] came as I was writing it,” he said. It wasn’t a list of one-liners that I thought would be great. It was organic to the scene. A few of them Jason and I came up with as we went through the script to make sure it was in Jason’s voice.”
Dodge was self-assured enough to create strong-willed females like Kathryn Han’s character in his screenplay. He mentioned how many scripts and overall comedy films lack quality roles for women.
“I was very conscience of creating female characters that felt, I don’t want to say, ‘real,’ but what you don’t typically see you know in a story,” he said.
Dodge was most impressed with what Rohan brought on screen despite not being what he initially envisioned.
“Rohan just slayed the role. He is younger than what I imagined. I originally imagined the child to be between the ages of 12 and 14 with the issue of puberty being a little creepier. I’ll never forget — the first scene he shot was the scene at Jim’s Burgers when they have that moment. That is such an important moment for it to be the first scene to work with. It was a fucking soliloquy between the two of them. He was amazing. People bandy that word too much; it’s an abused word. If it is needs to be assigned to someone, it needs to be assigned to Rohan. ”
Bad Words brings together established actors and new filmmakers whose talents merge to create a dirty yet flavorful indie comedy. The combination of Jason Bateman starring and directing with Kathryn Hahn as a co-lead as well as Andrew Dodge’s first-time screenplay provide kinetic, even organic, material. What is impressive is how Bateman, Hahn, and Dodge all stretch themselves to create something beyond their normal realms. The result potentially provides audiences with one of the most outrageous, if not hilarious, movies they will watch all year.