10th Jul2013

‘Identity Thief’ Interview – Director Seth Gordon

by Phil Wheat

ID-Bateman

Unlimited funds have allowed Diana (McCarthy) to live it up on the outskirts of Miami, where the queen of retail buys whatever strikes her fancy. There’s only one glitch: The ID she’s using to finance these sprees reads “Sandy Bigelow Patterson”…. and it belongs to an accounts rep (Bateman) who lives halfway across the U.S. With only one week to hunt down the con artist before his world implodes, the real Sandy Bigelow Patterson heads south to confront the woman with an all-access pass to his life. And as he attempts to bribe, coax and wrangle her the 2,000 miles to Denver, one easy target will discover just how tough it is to get your name back.

Horrible Bosses’ Jason Bateman and Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy lead the cast of Identity Thief, an all-star comedy in which a regular guy is forced to extreme measures to clear his name. With everything to lose after his identity is stolen, he’ll find out how crazed you can get trying to settle a bad credit score. With the film set for a DVD and Blu-ray release here in the UK next week we’ve scored interviews with both star Jason Bateman and director Seth Gordon.

This time round we speak to director Seth Gordon….

Was the chemistry immediately apparent between Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson) and Melissa McCarthy (Diana) or were rehearsals necessary?

They fell right in, and I think Jason [Bateman] knew that when crafting the script specifically for Melissa [McCarthy] – because it was originally written for a guy, and it was his idea to make it specifically for her, not just anybody. Then Craig (Mazin – screenwriter) did that marvellously, tailored it to her voice, and at our first read-through you could already tell their chemistry was going to be amazing. I just tried, whenever possible, to help that along, but it did not need much help, they are just amazing together. I think Jason is the best straight man working today, and to me that comes down to knowing how to stay real in every moment so that it always feels honest, so that the audience can relate, and that’s unteachable, and something he has mastered. So I tried to help the chemistry out whenever I could, but there was an awful lot already there.

How do you direct Melissa McCarthy, she is such a force of nature?

Yes. A lot of times it was just about giving her the right amount of space and creating situations where she could really shine. In some cases it was the way we approached stuff from a technical, practical, location, camera setups, coverage – all those things are factors that can help her stay in an honest place, and most of the time I was just trying to not get in her way because, as you said, she is a force of nature. She is so talented and so smart and she has such an inherent understanding of the character, so I was just trying to make the right amount of space for her to do her thing.

What is her appeal? Why is she so funny?

I have thought about that a lot. There are a number of different answers, but I think there is something in the way she plays this character that everyone can see their own struggle with self-worth in the way she brings it to life, and I think that is really powerful. I do not know how she taps into that but I think that she does, especially in this character. Someone who is so scared of being worthless that they deny who they are in every way – and then we realise why, later in the movie – but that was just under the surface even in the early parts of the story where there is no reason for that to be apparent, but you can just feel it, feel that presence. That is the deeper answer to why she is so relatable, and then the other reason is that she is so damn funny. She just knows how to make the most out of every situation.

There is also the shock value of what comes out of her mouth…

She is so innocent and evil at the same time, and that is something everyone can relate to, is a kid being tempted by wickedness and learning what is right and wrong, and she is channeling that childlike innocence of someone who does not know what the right thing to do is. That is my explanation of it, but there are probably many other ways to skin it.

Melissa’s character does morally reprehensible things but you want the audience to like her, so how do you guide that?

The first shot we shot was with her coming down the escalator with that huge drink, and from that very moment, you saw her devilishly, wickedly, enjoying being other people. She was battling with her philosophy of “I must buy things in order to be happy, I must buy, I must buy,” and seeing her as she rolled her eyes, scanning what she was going to buy, from that moment forward, we knew that was the character and that was the balance we had to find. She is so lovable, and she turns an expression on a dime, and it makes you want to cry. Just in the middle of any situation she can do that – that is her amazing alchemy.

You have these two actors in a really cramped space, a car, for a lot of the movie, so how do you shoot it to capture all the great banter?

There are two strategies for a given scene: you cross-cover it, or to do two sides at once, which allows me to mix and match performance, but the ideal is to never do that. The ideal is to let it play out in a two-shot. Like when Melissa [McCarthy] is singing, doing that stuff, we hardly ever cut because it was so great, and you get to see the physicality of it, and physical comedy is always better a little wider. Sometimes you have got to mix and match, so the big decision is in blocking it. A car is simple, there are only three ways to shoot a car, but when you are blocking a room, it is about setting up in such a way that you can have variations in performance and easy options to re-assemble things. Having started in editorial, it is something that is just intuitive, but there are a few guidelines that make your life much easier.

Is singing in the car the worst crime a travelling companion can commit?

Yes. Absolutely. That is the worst crime.

Do you sing in the car and, if so, what does your wife think?

If I even whistle along to a song in the car, she loses it! I do think it is the biggest road trip crime that can be committed, and especially if you know every single song – that is what we were going for, that no matter what station he picked, she knew it. I love that.

In order to direct a comedy do you have to be funny?

I think so, sure. You need to at least know what you think is funny, right or wrong I have a very specific sense. The dramatic performances Melissa [McCarthy] did, there are 10 or 12 takes always that are equally awesome, so it is very hard to edit those scenes. But when it comes to the comedy, across all things, there is so clearly, “That one is the winner, that one is the winner,” for everybody’s performance. It becomes very clear in the editing room on comedy. As a director, you absolutely have to have a guiding sense of what is funny, and mine comes completely from my dad.

What is your dad like?

For my dad, nothing is ever serious, he never take anything too seriously, and is always willing to see things for the silliness that is everywhere and embrace nonsense. It is all stupid stuff, but he will call and leave a message, I will call back and say, “I saw that you called,” and he will say, “Yes. Anything else?” It is just playful! I grew up around that and him and a bunch of friends in Chicago who all had that. I was just around it a lot, so I have a sense of irreverence and for, just, “Do not take everything so seriously! It is okay.” I think that made a long-lasting impression on me, and I love to try to find the bright side, the positivity and the optimism and the fun in everything, because it is dreadful if you do not.

Do you think that is how you survive Hollywood?

For sure. I mean, this is so unpredictable and I have been really fortunate in how the ride has gone, so I have got to be grateful.

How did you learn to direct comedy?

I have been doing comedy work forever, from college. I did improvisation. That was the way we made money through school, doing performances and travelling around. It was something I always responded to. The stuff I actually enjoyed doing most in this movie was the heart and action stuff because that was different for me. That was a new muscle to develop and flex and that was something I really liked. I think that it was literally just the jokes my Dad made when I was growing up, that was where everything came from, just being around those dinner parties, and having an inherent love of surprise and the unexpected.

This comedy will translate well internationally, but do you think humour is different depending on what country you come from?

Yes, it is cultural. True fluency is when you can make a joke in another language, I think. It is the hardest thing to master, even the way our posters have to be modified tells me how cultural comedy is, and how what works here just would not make an impression there – it has to be different. It is hard to put a finger on, but I have been lucky enough to live in a few countries and I can feel that there are trends and tropes of ways that comedy works in each of those countries. It is not as if there are any less funny people, it is just the conventions are a little different and the expectations are a little different. Word play does not make much sense, but physical comedy can work. You can hit a guitar across somebody anywhere in the world and it works.

Was there an identity theft consultant or a security consultant on the film?

We actually had a private investigator consultant. I had done a documentary on the world of identity thieves and that went into online crime and phishing scams, and the 419 scam in Nigeria, and the world of skiptracers (locating a person) and collectors, which is something that was not in the film but I asked the writers to put in – I asked them to put a skiptracer in. That was something that was really important to me to get right, to have the roots of what we were telling in the story to be honest and accurate and truthful, but without getting too bogged down, because it is a very dark, very sad kind of crime. So I wanted it to be slightly educational for the audience, but not to get stuck in it. It is weird here in America. I do not know what it is like in other countries, I am sure it is not as opaque as it is here.

Can you talk about casting the smaller roles: you got amazing people in all of them!

Yes, when you have people like Jason (Bateman) and Melissa (McCarthy) involved, people want to be a part of it, so that is not hard. Everybody was in some way somebody I wanted to work with for a long time: T.I. (Julian) I had met years ago, and was somebody I wanted to work with. Jonathan Banks (Paolo), I had loved him since Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – he is awesome. He is a great bad guy in Beverly Hills Cop.

Hang on, Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad was in Beverly Hills Cop? I can’t picture him.

It is because he had hair. You will totally be like, “Oh my God!” if you see it again. Eric Stonestreet (Cameron Tucker); because I had directed an episode of Modern Family, I felt like I had a secret knowledge of how amazing he was, and frankly how far from the character he plays on that show he is. I love Robert Patrick, I loved Terminator 2 (1991), and loved the idea that the Skiptracer can never be killed, he can always come back – that all felt fun and felt right. So I met Robert Patrick, hopefully for that role, he happened to be in Atlanta, and I was like, “Oh my God, it’s him!” His wardrobe was the wardrobe. What he happened to be wearing in the meeting was perfect – like this rough libertarian. He is a wonderful guy. Jon Favreau (Harold Cornish), I had worked with before, and he is amazing and such a comic genius. John Cho (Daniel Casey), I have always liked his work, knowing that Harold And Kumar (2004, 2008, 2011), which is how he is best known, that he has so much more to offer than that. What a cast! Right? And Morris Chestnut (Detective Reilly) is very talented. You know, that cop role is difficult if you do not have a really good actor, and I think he did a really good job of just keeping it solid and real.

What does it take to ground humour in realism? Do you have any tricks?

I wish I had a trick. I really feel like it is just staying very, very honest with myself in the midst of the chaos of the responsibility of the job, the pressure of it all, about whether something worked or did not, and being like a seismic needle about whether or not that felt true. If something really feels off, being sensitive to that and responding instantly, it has been a long process of learning to trust my gut. At first, I was just trying to do a good job, in the first movies, and not get fired! That is gone away, and now it is just about being like a tuning fork to whether something felt honest. I think I gravitate – I cannot help it – towards stories that are rooted in something real: everybody has had a boss that they hate, everybody has hated going home for the holidays, everybody can identify with having your life stolen, your credit card number taken, being broken into; that violation is something that we all have some way to relate to, and we all know someone whose identity has been stolen, and for me, that just felt real and honest and untold.

What were the biggest challenges in making this movie?

I would say the action sequences, and that we were doing different kinds of things throughout the movie. We had snakes, we had action, we have the comedy, you have the heart – having that entire feel of a piece and a single through-line is generally the biggest challenge, but it is the thing I love. I think that is what makes the work really fun and a privilege, and why I am grateful to do the work.

What is next for you?

There is talk of Horrible Bosses 2. I have been developing an update of WarGames from the original, which I am really interested in seeing if we can make that, otherwise I am just really staying open. I loved this film because it allowed me to see another side of directing; Identity Thief has a real heart, something to connect to. The project was a fun change, so I am trying to be open and learn and grow as an artist too.
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Identity Thief is released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 15th courtesy of Universal Pictures UK.

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