In Game Night, Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie’s (Rachel McAdams) weekly game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arranges a murder mystery party complete with fake thugs and federal agents. So when Brooks gets kidnapped, everyone assumes it’s part of the game… As the competitors set out to solve the case and realise they’re in over their heads, thugs, guns and airplanes all collide in a series of darkly funny twists and turns.
Star Jason Bateman told Roe McDermott about filming the new comedy, and about turning his attention to more serious fare in the critically acclaimed series Ozark.
Here in Ireland, we don’t have game nights in the same way that Americans seem to you. Tell me a bit about your experiences of game nights and why you thought that scenario was ripe for comedy.
Yeah, I know it’s not quite as big an international thing as it is domestically, but it’s a general sense of a few couples getting together and having a tame night of fun inside someone’s house. It’s kind of what socialising becomes when you get a bit older, you get lame! Instead of sitting at the bar all night, you stay home, because frankly you just get boring as you get older. And you try spice it up with a little bit of competition but oftentimes it does look as pathetic as – well, as it is! So I thought it might be fun to force these boring, conservative people into situations and to interact with people that they wouldn’t normally do, wouldn’t want to do, and are ill-equipped to do. I thought that would be pretty relatable all over the world – the game night scenario may be specific, but the fish out of water aspect is always recognisable and fun. And I do think this film is smarter and funnier than a film like this traditionally needs to be or aspires to be! There’s a darker, almost noir edge to the movie that I think is really going to surprise people, how we’ve elevated these somewhat ludicrous scenarios into something truly, darkly funny.
The cast is hilarious, including Mean Girls’ Rachel McAdams, New Girl’s Lamorne Morris, and our own Sharon Horgan, who stars in the comedy series Catastrophe. You’re a comedy veteran and known for your work on Arrested Development. Is there a lot of improvising on set?
There was a bit. You just try to create an atmosphere where everyone knows we’re not taking ourselves too seriously here, we’re here to play and make a film that’s fun to watch and also fun to make. And our directors John and Jonathan always encouraged us to make the lines comfortable, and if you’re in the middle of the scene and you think of something really funny to say or do, you can take a shot. We’re not doing Shakespeare here, we like to keep it light! So it’s about making sure everyone is comfortable and trusts each other enough to take some risks.
Your character in Game Night, like many of your characters, is deadpan but also somewhat awkward and manages to humiliate himself a lot. Are you ever embarrassed for your characters’ fumbles?
I find that the more believably I can look like a fool, or vulnerable, or incompetent, the better! I guess there’s an embarrassing aspect to that, in that you need to have that awkwardness inside of you to be able to perform it believably. So the more foolish and uncomfortable I’m acting, the more I’m proving that I have those traits inside of me! But I kind of made a deal with myself a long time ago that being real is a much more enjoyable way to go through life, rather than pretending I’m suave or I have it all figured out.
In recent years you’ve turned your hand to directing, both feature films and most recently, some episodes of the dark crime thriller series Ozark. How has directing influenced your work as an actor, and vice-versa?
It’s obviously much less complicated when you’re just doing the acting, but I think doing both has helped me think about how things work. I know what the director is going through, and as an actor you can be very helpful in making all that come together and work even before the final parts of the process. So I want to be helpful and considerate as possible because now I know how much work the directors go through before the actors finally turn up on set and say their lines. Directors have been working for weeks and months before we even turn up on set, so the least we can do is turn up and say our lines correctly. Then I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of directors, and so I’ve essentially tried to cherry-pick all of the traits and tricks that are effective and economical, and that create a good atmosphere on set. I think I’ve sneakily amassed some good ideas methods and I’ve tried to make them my own. I tend to have a light touch with actors – in my view, the parts are the actors’ parts to do with what they will, as long as the director and actor have the same general vision of the film or character, it’s up to the actor to tell me how they see that character being in the moment.
Ozark sees your character Marty get involved with a vicious cartel after a money-laundering scheme goes wrong. The last few episodes of the first series had some intense violence and emotional punches – what’s it like both acting and directing such heavy material?
It was great, dealing with subject matter that was more intense and unsettling than my usual fare. It was interesting to play in that the performance was a little bit more contained and reserved and interior; the audience has to lean in a little bit more and tune in to hear what’s going on with each character internally. There’s also a visual and musical element and a productive design element to that which is all really interesting to play with as a director. In a comedy, sometimes those elements can be less important than the jokes and performing over acting, if that’s not too obnoxious a distinction to make. It’s just a different creative goal, and I love getting to do that as a director, because it gets more complicated and I like to be challenged.
There are a few moments of levity in Ozark, but not many – do you have to wrestle your comedic instincts to throw in some quips and asides?
During the first series, I actually went out of my way to cut out a lot of the comedy, because I was afraid that people might be expecting me to be in a comedy, or that they would expect it all to be a half-comedy, and so they wouldn’t ever really allow themselves to give over to the dramatic side of it, and to really be affected by the dramatic side of it. So I made it more one-sided and dramatic than the original script. But after watching the series back then, I saw that there was so much good work done to accomplish the dramatic side of it that the serious tones were well-protected. So we could afford to have some more comedy and levity and not risk losing the dramatic ground. So this year, there are a few more sly asides. We don’t really aim to write funny scenes or funny lines, it’s more that we understand these characters now, and they’ve developed some coping mechanisms which mean they have a bit more space for wit. I’m excited for people to see it.