Interview: Director Jason Bateman On 'The Family Fang', Carter Burwell, And Commerce

Actor Jason Bateman made his feature directorial debut with the 2013 comedy, Bad Words. Bateman's sophomore effort, The Family Fang, is a slightly less aggressive film. Bateman's adaptation of Kevin Wilson's novel, written by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), simply called for a more reserved approach than his first film –although The Family Fang isn't without its comedic moments, like when Bateman's character gets beamed in the head by a potato gun.

The Family Fang stars Bateman, Nicole KidmanChristopher Walken, and Maryann Plunkett. Growing up, the Fang siblings were involved — or "used," depending on how you look at it — in their parents' performance art. When the famous performance artists go missing, the brother and sister (Bateman and Kidman) begin to dig deeper into the past, trying to understand the exact effect their parents had on them.

Read our Jason Bateman interview below.

What lessons did you learn from Big Words that you kept in mind while making The Family Fang?

Well, there's a lot of the film that is basically made and done before the actors ever show up for principal photography. That's something I never really knew and a point of the process that I never really was exposed to as an actor. I really dug in on pre-production on this one, knowing that there was such a great opportunity to sync up and discover a lot of the stuff that you are going to love in the editing room later, you can think all those things up during pre-production because you've got the time to do that.

When you are in principal photography, you are spending all your time just trying to get the day done. You are trying to make sure that all the actors that are talking are on camera. There's not a whole lot of time to discover some of the really unexpected stuff that will pop in the movie because you are just trying to get from A to B. But pre-production affords you that time.

Did you end up discovering anything unexpected on the set?

You know, you go into every single day with a well thought-out plan and strategy. Inevitably, as a result of weather, or time, or an actor's idea, or a crew member's idea, you want to pivot a little bit. So everything ends up becoming a little bit different and sometimes a lot different than how you plan to do it. But the fact that you walk in with a plan kind of, by definition, lets you really kinda understand the scene. So when you do pivot, you are still accomplishing the same goal but in a little bit of a different direction

I know you directed a bit for television throughout your career. Making films, is it a completely different experience for you or did TV prepare you for filmmaking in any way?

To be honest, I haven't directed a ton of television, but I did just a tiny bit of it. It's not drastically different. The equipment, for the most part, is the same. The shooting schedule, at least on a small film, is somewhat the same. I would say television, just by virtue of the medium, demands that you appeal to a larger number of people, so, therefore, the content that you are dealing with is, by design, a bit more generic. Sometimes that has a tendency to be maybe less satisfying, less fulfilling creatively. But that's not always the case, obviously. Certainly in today's television landscape you've got smaller channels, smaller arms of distribution, like Netflix and some of the other premium cable places. You can be a little bit more specific with what you are doing, and that's great news for people that want to do more specific, more challenging, more sophisticated kinds of material. I'm looking forward to doing some of that a little bit later this year.

Obviously, movies like The Family Fang are tough to get made. As a director, do you seek out material that, maybe, is sometimes hard to come by as an actor? 

You can seek it out, but there's not a ton of it. It's a little bit more challenging to finance because it doesn't scream accessibility and profitability. It doesn't scream popcorn, and popcorn is what sells. I'm interested in developing stuff that might kind of serve both lanes. You know, something that can sell popcorn but also appeal to a more sophisticated audience. I think both of those things can exist. I mean certainly somebody like a Steven Spielberg did that for years. There's not a ton of filmmakers today that occupy that space. I mean, J.J. Abrams is certainly doing it. David O. Russell has been doing it lately. The Coen brothers have been making great movies for a long time and some of their latest ones have been making a lot of money, too. Perhaps it's all moving that direction. Sometimes it is that person's job to figure out how to be both commercial and sophisticated in the same project.

family fang

One thing a lot of actors say when they start directing is that they learn quite bit about themselves as actors through the editing process. Did you have the same experience?

You learn a lot about yourself when you are directing yourself. And, yeah, certainly editing is nowhere to hide. It reconfirmed for me that the camera is watching. So if you feel like maybe you want to do a little bit less with your performance, go ahead and just trust that the camera is going to see it. You don't need to help the audience. You don't need to kinda throw to the back row.

When you are in there and you are editing and you are really studying a certain take, a certain angle, really clocking somebody's performance, you can see a lot. Subtlety is really appreciated when you are cutting something together. So that was something that I've always strived for with my acting try to do a little bit less with each job. Being there in the editing process, as I said, it just confirms that the camera doesn't miss it.

The aesthetic of the film is both warm and dark, with a lot of low lighting and shadows. What sort of atmosphere did you and your DP, Ken Seng [of Deadpool], want to create? 

We have a great relationship, a great friendship. He was the DP on Bad Words. He was incredible on both films with the crew that he built and just lending me his taste was fantastic. We had a really good time composing all of the shots and coming up with a lot of the composition. The lighting strategy on this was...we took a lot of inspiration from Gordon Willis and the way in which he embraces a lack of light.

There was a very specific palette and aesthetic that we were going for. We wanted to make sure that this family, this environment, this home felt worn and authentic and kind of raw. The books needed dusting and some drapery needed to be opened and maybe a window opened and get some fresh air in there. Beth Mickle, our production designer, was very much on board with all of that.

Ideally, you want every department to do just a little bit. And then kind of the sum total of all of that will create that one environment, that one experience for the audience. That's one of the fun things about directing, is almost kind of being the conductor, if you will, of all those various instruments.

You also got to work with Carter Burwell on the score. How was that collaboration?

Well, like Christopher Walken, he was my first choice, and I was just absolutely stunned that he said yes. I was really starstruck to be working with him on this. I tried to explain as specifically as I could what I was going for as far as tone and aesthetic and really just defer to him as much as I possibly could because music is kind of a...it's a very difficult thing to describe and guide somebody towards, as far as execution goes. You hope that your terms of reference kind of jog the same execution that you are hoping for. With Carter, he got it right away. He's made a career out of guiding audiences through tricky stuff. I couldn't be happier that he did this film. I hope to do many, many more things with him. I think his work in the film is incredible.

In one scene, your character, Baxter, discusses how cathartic he finds writing. As an actor and director, did you find yourself relating to Baxter's process at all?

It always feels somewhat cathartic. Like anybody that does any kind of artwork, you really can only create what you know, whether you are acting, or writing, or directing, or painting, or playing music. You can only do what sounds, and feels, and looks good to you. So you are kind of expressing all the stuff that's inside of you and bringing that out and hoping that other people, yes, appreciate it, but you are mostly focused on, I'm sure most people would agree, that you are looking for them to just kind of relate to it or understand it. You don't necessarily need to like it, but you hope that they appreciate your attempt to communicate with them in a medium that is different than just speaking.

***

The Family Fang is now in limited release.