Ike Barinholtz On Making His Directorial Debut With 'The Oath' [Interview]

Chicago native Ike Barinholtz has made a career out of scene stealing, from his earliest days as an improv performer with Improv Olympic and Second City (among others) and a cast member on MadTV in the early 2000s to bigger television roles in Eastbound & Down to The Mindy Project. In more recent years, Barinholtz landed sizable supporting roles in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Suicide Squad, Snatched, the Netflix film Bright, and a very funny turn in Blockers earlier this year.

But his latest work, The Oath, not only features his largest role to date, but it also marks his debut as a writer/director of a film that is part dark comedy, part family drama, and eventually, part high-tension thriller. Set primarily over the 24-hours surrounding a Thanksgiving feast hosted by Barinholtz's Chris and wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish, in a wonderfully dialed-back performance) at their home, the story involves the (fictional) president wanting every American to sign a loyalty oath to the country.

As the nation grows closer to the oath's Black Friday deadline, tensions and conflicts are on the rise, and while the oath is said to be voluntary, those who refuse to sign are treated like criminals and traitors. Imagine that, and then put the pressure of preparing a meal the entire family, which includes Chris's mom (Nora Dunn), brother (Jon Barinholtz, Ike's real-life sibling) and his instigator girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), sister (Carrie Brownstein) and her sickly husband (Jay Duplass). The situation spins out of control when two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) arrive at the front door. The film feels timely, relevant, and works as a genuine conversation starter. More importantly, The Oath makes me genuinely interesting to see what Barinholtz does next as a filmmaker.

/Film spoke to Barinholtz recently in Chicago about The Oath and how much of it was based on real-life conversations/arguments amongst his friends and family, the inspiration behind the film "loyalty oath," and how he made sure the film found ways to poke fun at both conservatives and liberals who watch too much 24-hour news. The film is now playing in select theaters. 

For context, this interview occurred just a few hours before a Q&A screening of The Oath Barinholtz and I did, along with Nora Dunn. The publicist has just informed him that I'll be moderating as we begin...


Ike: Holy shit, man. Thank you. We're going to have some fun tonight. I've got a lot of old Chicago Jews coming, so they'll be yelling "What?!" My 94-year-old grandmother is seeing it; I'm worried she's going to ask a lot of questions...during the film.

First of all my condolences on the Cubs not winning the wildcard game earlier today.

Ike: Aw, god damn. What were they swinging at. I wish I hadn't seen it. It sucked.

I saw that Cubs commercial you made for them, where you basically just get to infiltrate every part of Wrigley Field. What a fan's dream come true that must have been to shoot.

Ike: There's a guy who works for the organization, and once a year when the Cubs come out to play the Dodgers, the Cubs have a box and the they invite all of the Chicago people who live in L.A. It great. You get to see Bob Newhart, Bob Odenkirk. And I met this guy, and he's the one who got me to throw out the first pitch a couple of years ago, and he said we might be doing this commercial, and I said, "Absolutely." I'm doing this for the Cubs; I grew up in the neighborhood. Being inside the scoreboard was pretty amazing. I've wanted to go in there since I was young, when I thought working in there would be a dream job. And then I got in there and was like "This is a rough job." It's hot in there, and there aren't a lot of bathroom facilities, but it was a dream come true.

This idea of the family dinner table as a battlefield is a tried-and-true, family-drama idea, and we all have a relative who's problematic, and The Oath is that to the Nth degree. Where did you get the idea of combining that idea with living in the most problematic times we're seen in decades?

Ike: It was shortly after the 2016 election, and I had my family come out to Chicago for the holidays, and after diner, my mom, my brother and I got into this conversation—a nasty argument, really—about what happened. And I woke up the next day realizing "We all voted for the same person. What the hell is going on? What is happening at this friendly house? What's going on across the country?" As I started talking to my friend who had all flown home and reading articles and talking to my own family, I knew that that landscape of the holiday table in America and the age-old maxim of not talking politics at the table had blown up. It was over. If you were able to get through a Thanksgiving in 2018 and you don't talk about politics, you have a level of discipline that I just don't understand. Or bad communication. One or the other—either way, it's not good.

So I knew that that kind of arena would be a ripe place for satire, and I knew I needed another big component. I love dystopic movies, I'm always curious about the genesis of dystopia—how did this begin. So I came up with this concept of this semi-compulsory oath, and once I layered that in, it just worked and it seemed to be successful at being the thing that pulled people apart when they were already apart to begin with. It was taking that thing we know and love, or hate, and combining it with this looming government crisis, and luckily we hit the balance.

It's fascinating to watch Tiffany Haddish in this. I don't think we've ever seen her in a role like this, where she gets to play such a great range, from being really dialed back and trying to keep the peace, and eventually we get to watch her degenerate and explode. Because of the nature of everyone in the film slowly getting riled up, were you able to shoot things more or less chronologically?

Ike: Somewhat. We were able to get out first parts. It's loosely based on my own life and me being slowly driven crazy after the election. With every headline, I had to tell my wife "Can you believe this shit?" Eventually, she gets numb to it and starts to feel like she's married to Chicken Little. So to see Tiffany in that internalized, small, quietly trying to get her daughter to school, trying to get the family fed, and slowly being worn down. We shot a lot of that first. Then as she hits that point, we really did shoot all of the Thanksgiving and the more bloody stuff somewhat chronologically. Then we went back in time to the early scenes in the movie, where I'm clean shaven and slightly leaner. But yeah, she really did an amazing job.

How much of that was her understanding the tone and just getting it right, or did you have to direct to change up the performance at all?

Ike: When I first met with her to talk about the script, she said, "I've never seen this movie before. I get it, I want to do it, it's happening now, and it's exactly what's happening in my life now." I clearly said to her, this character is suffering, she's quietly suffering, and she wants to tell her husband "Shut the fuck up!" but she can't because she loves him and understands the stress he's in, but it's wearing her down. I did not have to give her a whole lot of direction on that; she really nailed the tone. There was some calibration stuff throughout the story: "You're at a seven, and you can go to a nine here. Or go to a five." She's incapable of being false, and for this movie, which is very much based in reality, she delivered from the jump.

You mentioned that this sprung from this family conversation, and your brother is in the film. Is Nora playing a version of your mom from that conversation?

Ike: In a way, she is, in that mothers are inherently peacemakers. They do foresee the problem and they know it's coming and they will see "Just so you know, let's not talk about that." But unlike Nora's character, my mother is more vocal and doesn't give a shit. She's a cancer survivor, so she doesn't give a shit. She's say what's on her mind. But she is a still a mama bear, and the worst thing for her is watching her sons fight.

Speaking of which, you do get many chance to got ballistic on your brother. Is that an easy thing to tap into after a lifetime of what I imagine is nonstop sibling abuse?

Ike: That's why I cast him. There are a lot of great actors who could have played that part, but no one that I threw a bag of change at in 1989 and gave a black eye. I really, truly knew that because our characters were so combative that I can push him. You know how you'll protect you brother more than anyone, but you will also get madder at your brother more than anyone? There's 35 years of shit between us, and I knew that I could scratch at this—I was really very manipulative—and when my mom saw the movie, she said, "I know there are scenes where you're really being mean to your brother." I said, "Yeah, but I paid him." But no one pisses you off more than you're brother, I knew I could get there with him and vice versa. That fraternal love, my man.

Where did you get the idea of the Patriots Oath? It is one of those perfect things that, on the surface, seems harmless, but when you consider the implication, you realize how sinister it is. Having it exist divides the country in ways it hasn't been in so long.

Felix: I did want it to be something that on the surface seems innocuous. Like everything in the movie, I wanted it to have a component of being able to defend it or you could defend it and make sense. In terms of the actual loyalty oath, I never really gave a shit about Donald Trump; I never really knew much about him. Chicago's not really his town; he was always seen as kind of a goofball. It's different here. Chicagoan's don't care about him. But then as he started entering the political arena and I read more and more about him, I knew that he was obsessed with loyalty. I've always been obsessed with McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and there's a very glaring piece of connective tissue between Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy's lawyer and Trump's mentor. That thread is ingrained in Trump. So I knew that loyalty is something we're not used to talking about, really.

And the crazy thing was, every step of the way when I first started writing it, I don't know if you remember, but there was this macabre cabinet meeting where Trump went around the room and made everyone swear "I'll be loyal to you." And then a month later, he pinned down Jim Comey about being loyal. Then after the movie was done, we were having a screening for distributors, and that day, someone said, "Holy shit, Trump just tweeted that it was National Loyalty Day," which is something that has existed for years, but no president has been less busy to give a shit about it. So there were these beacons along the way that this concept was permeating; there was this weird instance of life copying art, which was already copying life. So every time something would happen, the producers and I would be like "We have to get this movie out now."

What I remember about that cabinet meeting is that he made sure cameras were there. Getting it on film is as good as a signature.

Ike: A lot of the people he's staffed up with, they don't go back and look at their policies or look at what they said. They go through people's tweets and make sure they never bagged on Trump. That's so not American. The most important thing is loyalty to the country, and to make it about loyalty to the president...if it were somebody else, we'd think it was pretty ominous.

The idea of making a film primarily in a single location, is that as easy as it seems, or are there perils to doing that, both during shooting and for the audience?

Ike: 100 percent. The reason we were able to shoot as quickly as we were is because we did it in one location.

And it's a real place, right? Not a built set.

Ike: Real house in California. The challenge is shooting it and presenting it in a way that your audience doesn't get visually bored. What I really tried to do is use the camera to manipulate that. You'll notice, the first hour or so, the frames are nice and wide, and it's bright and there are lots of people entering and exiting the frame. Then by the end of the movie, we're here [indicated with his hands a tight close up], the frame are tight and the color is this dark orange, and I wanted people to have that feeling of claustrophobia—the walls are closing in. He's in there with his family, and I need out. So that was the challenge. Writing the movie in one location is easy, shooting is easy, but presenting it in a way that you're visually stimulating the audience and putting them in that room is the challenge.

Had you always intended to direct it? How long has that been an ambition?

Ike: I'd directed some episodes of The Mindy Project, and I loved it. When you're an actor, everything is through a filter. The writers' words are one filter, the director is another filter, the editor is another filter, and when you're directing a TV show, a little of the filter disappears but you still have the showrunners' vision to fulfill. So I knew after a couple of episodes that I wanted to direct a movie, a small personal movie, and which I broke the story, I was like "I'm for sure going to direct this." I also knew that the tone is so weird and complex that I would only trust me with it. It was definitely always going to be me, and I definitely want to do another one [laughs].

What do you think is the most Chicago thing about you?

Ike: My cholesterol level. [laughs] I'm going to say work ethic, because Chicagoans love people who work. Even if you don't have a job, that mindset of "I have to keep moving. I got hit in the face, but I've got to keep moving." That is something that I really try to bring with me. And I love deep-dish pizza—Lou Malnati's, unapologetically.

I'll see you tonight. Thanks for talking.

Ike: I'll see you tonight, brother. Can't wait.