The American director clocks in to chat about his new film Horrible Bosses.
Seth Gordon first turned Hollywood heads in 2007 when his excellent arcade game doc The King of Kong became an instant cult hit. Since then the Illinois filmmaker has risen steadily through the Hollywood ranks, directing episodes of Modern Family and The Office and directing his feature debut Four Christmases in the space of 18 months.
Horrible Bosses, a film cut firmly in the mainstream mould, looks set to introduce Gordon's acerbic sense of humour to a wider audience. LWLies sat down with Gordon recently to chat work, Wiebe and remaking WarGames.
LWLies: The King of Kong has a special place in LWLies' heart, are you done with making films like that now?
Gordon: Ha, well I wouldn't say done... Kong was a movie that opened a lot of doors because it was unique in discovering a three-act structure in someone's regular life. And I think that, you know, the three-act structure is definitely what Hollywood gravitates towards and seeing a filmmaker that had an eye for that while making a documentary, I think, got people excited.
King of Kong is so cinematic in its structure, but that comes from the characters as opposed to a script or direction...
Yeah, yeah, well it's extraordinary in that you have a true antagonist who really does sort of personify evil, at least from the point of view of Steve Wiebe. It was really something.
Would you ever go back and make another small film like that?
It just doesn't pay the bills, I've got a family and a kid and you it's hard to justify putting that many hours into something when you know just financially it's never going to put food on the table. I'll definitely always look to work in documentary as well as feature film and I'll certainly continue to support documentarians – young filmmakers that have a particular interest in telling a story. I think I'll make a documentary in the future but it can't be the primary thing because I'd have to move to, like, Kansas or something.
Is it the case that once you start working within the mainstream it's hard to break away and do something smaller because you would lose your foothold and be forgotten about?
Well there's definitely a fear of irrelevance that drives the way Hollywood does its business, and everyone wants to stay working, but I try not to get too wrapped up in that because you can't control the way these things unfold, really. I'm just trying to focus and do good work and hope that, that leads to things.
How did Horrible Bosses come around?
The script was around for five or six years and there was a bunch of different iterations over the year with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and there was a Chris Rock version... just a bunch of different people over time but I read a rewrite from 2009 that was a brand new draft and I was really compelled by it, it was so funny, I was just crying laughing, especially by the character that Jennifer [Aniston] ended up playing. I immediately imagined her in that part and actually [Kevin] Spacey, too – I didn't think he'd be available because I assumed he'd be doing theatre but I'm so glad we approached him because I think he works so well. So I read the script and went to the studio and said, 'Here's how I see it: three guys known from TV and three antagonists, that only have to be on set four or five days, that are known for more dramatic work so they'd be enticed by a comedy. And that's essentially what happened.
So was the shoot was quite intensive in places?
Yeah, yeah, we only had Colin [Farrell] and Aniston for, like, four or five days each. But it was the right amount of time... It was kind of nice actually because we'd have these sort of guests visit set, it was like we'd jump from the Aniston zone to the Colin Farrell zone, so that was good. Jamie Foxx was like that, too.
Does that make your job easier as a director or does having these actors on set for such a short amount of time add stress in terms of having to get all the necessary shots?
I think the script is so compelling and I had such a specific point of view in terms of how I wanted it to be done that it was never really a struggle. If you're there going 'Cut, that's it!' then they tend to respond pretty positively to that. I thin that I had a very focused take on what the film was and what the parts were, so it was easy.
There's a lot of dark material in there, how do you go about making that work in a mainstream comedy?
I think everybody can relate to undeserved misfortune, especially at work where you're put in a position of doing something you don't really want to do or answer to someone who you don't really want to answer to, and that's such a universal concept that I wanted to ground the relationships with the bosses in a reality at the start. Spacey is really why it all works because that boss... we've all experienced someone like that in the past, whether it's been a coach or a teacher or a boss or whatever, and he is so good and that feels so emotionally real even though it's so extreme that I think it makes it relatable to everybody. That's critical, and then I'm able to go on this journey where we were in a reality but then they take on a crazy plan that they aren't really capable of executing and that's the way we did it.
Did you put much of your own sense of humour in there, in terms of making it darker or toning the script down in places?
Yeah, we adjusted stuff, but also I think we established a rapport almost immediately with the three guys and I saw what their instincts were and I would always guide them as we were adjusting the script and improv'ing or whatever towards the stuff that I thought worked for the characters as they were playing them. And they're so talented that they're able to improvise within the boundaries of the intentions of the scenes as they were written, without jeopardising or compromising anything.
The guys come from similar sitcom backgrounds, but they're very different comedy actors, did you cast to fit the role or adapt the characters to suit the cast?
Yeah you've got the crazy guy, the straight man and the crazy guy. It was a bit dynamic though, I mean clearly you need the one who's the victim of female harassment to be able to portray that – [Jason] Sudeikis isn't right for that and neither is [Jason] Bateman, but Charlie [Day] could do that. So it was kind of like a matrix that we had to solve, like a complicated puzzle, but it all kind of made sense.
Why does comedy appeal to you?
It's the funnest kind of film to make, and even the shows I've got to do in comedy, because you're laughing every day and that's definitely why I like to do it. I kind of can't help it but I'm naturally quite a comedy detective and I'm always looking for it and this film obviously lent itself to that.
What films are you comedy heroes?
I love Office Space, Shallow Grave is great for the dark comedy, it's a great film, and I think The Hangover, too, because it really paved the ground for ensemble R comedies. I was certainly inspired by the sort of dynamic of the group in that, even though it's obviously apples and oranges with our group of guys, but the way they worked together was a point of reference for sure.
The Hangover seems to have set a blueprint that's every Hollywood comedy seems desperate to follow. Has the success of that formula made it impossible to make different types of mainstream comedies?
No, I don't think so. I think it's set a mission to all of us to go out and make proper R comedies, and make a studio think it's a safe and wise investment. Clearly audiences want it.
Where are you with WarGames?
The basic update is that the world's changed a lot: the Cold War is over; technology has changed a lot; hacking has evolved into something that is both real and areal threat, it's not just some kind with a modem at a desk in 1983. People art hacking in corporations and the military on a daily basis.
Have you been soaking up all the news events of the past few weeks?
Sure, it's almost eerie how much it's dominating the news right now. It's definitely going to influence us, all the current events are totally relevant to the movie we're making. It's perfectly timed.
Is recasting Matthew Broderick you're biggest immediate challenge?
Definitely because we've got to find the right kid that feels really normal but has a winning personality. It has to be contemporary, but luckily now the hackers that are doing that type of work all look pretty normal, it's not about pocket-protectors anymore.