Making the transition from documentary filmmaker to directing big studio comedies is not something we’ve seen pulled off successfully too often except for the case of Seth Gordon, who followed the critically-acclaimed video game doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters with the hit comedies Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses.
Now he’s back with his third comedy Identity Thief , which pairs Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy for R-rated high concept hijinx as the victim and perpetrator of a case of identity theft. Bateman plays up n’ coming executive Sandy Patterson, who accidentally gives his information out to a woman on the phone (McCarthy) who uses that information to make credit cards so she can rack up tens of thousands of debt at the former’s expense. When he learns that the Denver police can’t do anything about the woman pretending to be him, he flies down to Florida to try to convince her to come back with him as the two go on a cross-country road trip that neither will soon forget.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Gordon a few weeks back to talk about the pairing of Bateman and McCarthy as well as to get an update on some of his other projects, including the planned Horrible Bosses 2 and the long-in-talks comedy based on his doc The King of Kong.
ComingSoon.net: I’m surprised there haven’t been more comedies about identity theft, because it’s something that’s so prevalent these days.
Seth Gordon: Yeah, I mean it’s very topical and I had actually been working on a documentary in this world, sort of cyber-crime, phishing and it spilled into identity theft, and that’s part of what was compelling to me about it. I knew the truth and the intensity of what this world really is and I thought a comedy in that world would be great. The script which Craig Mazin wrote really captured that wonderfully I thought.
CS: I know you’d been developing other things since I last talked to you. Was this just too good to pass up so you put all that other stuff aside?
Gordon: Yeah, yeah. This is one of those things. The script was so good, it was undeniable. There were a number of scripts that came in on various projects over time, but this thing was just excellent. Everybody that read it that was associated with it was like “Okay, this is shoot ready” and it was a unanimous feeling including the studio, which mattered the most, and we went for it.
CS: Were Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy already attached and paired together at that point?
Gordon: Yeah, I don’t know if you know the background, but this script was originally written for two male characters and then Jason saw “Bridesmaids” while he was developing that script and said “Forget that. Let’s make the antagonist Melissa McCarthy. Not just any female lead. Write it for her.” He got Craig Mazin and Craig wrote her sort of perfectly.
CS: That’s really quite amazing for Jason to come up with that idea, because it’s not something anyone else might have come up with.
Gordon: Oh, genius producerial work on his part because she’s at the height of her powers of course and also this role allows her to show a side of herself that she hasn’t been able to before.
CS: You mentioned that you were doing research about this kind of thing so have you met people who have done this before?
Gordon: Yeah, I’ve met some people who sort of traffic in identity theft and I met more that were victims of it. It’s nefarious, treacherous and terrible. I saw this movie as an opportunity somewhat to educate people on what all this is, but also to keep it entertaining as well. I don’t think people realize that there’s nothing the police can do if it’s an interstate crime and the role of the skip tracer and the collector in all of this, they can operate state lines without having a license is also kind of crazy, so it’s stuff that I tried to put into (the movie) which is all accurate and honest, but hopefully it doesn’t bog the story down too much but also honors the truth of the situation and it’s severity.
CS: Even though it shines a light on identity theft, it never feels like a message movie and by the end of it, you really end up liking her character a lot.
Gordon: I know and that’s why the script was so compelling, because she seems like the antagonist at the top, but then you get to know her real story and her undeserved misfortune is far deeper than his.
CS: Melissa is pretty amazing. The first time I noticed her was when she starred in John August’s movie “The Nines,” which was at Sundance.
Gordon: I have not seen it, but I heard that it’s great and that she’s great in it.
CS: I hadn’t really seen her on TV or anything, but John was friends with her and a big fan of her work and saw something in her that made him give her a number of roles in that.
Gordon: I knew her from “Gilmore Girls” and obviously “Bridesmaids” was epic, what she did in that. She’s got years and years of experience and it’s someone I hadn’t known.
CS: She can obviously make any line funnier, but I get the impression that she’s one of those actors who has non-stop improvisational abilities as well. Is that true?
Gordon: Oh, that’s for sure. I mean, she’s a genius, and every take was different. There were always variations, new ideas, a new way to get there, a new line here or there. “Bermuda Triangle” as an example was unscripted. A bunch of stuff wasn’t, and “He’s mean to me and I feel bad, then I eat. Lord knows, I know I eat!” Like that is totally her. She wasn’t sitting there with a pencil scribbling that between takes on her sides. She just channeled that or something. It’s really amazing to witness her do her thing.
CS: This is your third comedy and you’ve already worked with Charlie Day and Vince Vaughn and actors who are really good with improv. Have you gotten to the point where you know how much space to give them and when to say, “Okay, we have enough, we need to stop and move on”?
Gordon: No, I don’t get overwhelmed with options. I feel that’s what you’re getting at. I started in improv myself. I love documentary, which is a genre where nothing can be controlled, so I’m really comfortable playing with scenes as we’re working and like I said, I think some of our best stuff came from those moments of inspiration that we couldn’t predict. The guitar hit wasn’t scripted, the punch in the prison, the elephant belt, Bermuda Triangle, the list goes on and on.
CS: I’m embarrassed by how hard I laughed at the scene with the acoustic guitar.
Gordon: I know! (laughs) I think that’s one of the best stunts in the movie, the way that hit is thrown and the guitar is taken.
CS: It’s nice to have a movie where the biggest laughs aren’t all in the commercials. I’ve gotten used to seeing every funny line in a commercial or the trailer and you have so much more to work with.
Gordon: Do you know what I think it is? Partly it’s because a lot of this movie is on the edge of R. You know, it’s not a hard R. It’s just an R, because people talk the way people really talk and that’s technically rated R, but there’s a lot of the nuanced more careful stuff that doesn’t come across in a trailer or a TV ad and I love that there’s so much more to discover in the movie than can be cut into those spots.
CS: It’s interesting because “Four Christmases” was PG-13 and then you did two R-rated comedies afterwards.
Gordon: Oh, I think “Four Christmases” would be pretty good Rated R, too, but it was so family-oriented in its themes that I think it just needed to be PG-13. I think I love rated R stuff because I love inappropriate behavior and I like watching movies where people talk the way adults really talk. You only get one “f*ck” and it can’t be sexually related at all, so when Big Chuck says “Super-f*ckin’ weird sexual trip,” you wouldn’t be able to have that in the movie, even that one F-bomb, if we had been hemmed into a PG-13. So I feel like the movie needed to be R and I guess because I like stories where people talk in a real way, rated R is what I like best.
CS: For “Four Christmases” you had to do a bit of fake traveling to make it seem like they’re going to different places and this is a little moreso. How did you figure out how to do that?
Gordon: A lot of driving. We shot the vast majority of the film in Georgia and it’s really the production designer Shepherd Frankel, searching far and wide to create that journey and that palette across the movie.
CS: I was really impressed that you had more car chases and action in this one. You only had that one car chase in “Horrible Bosses,” but here you have some fairly big stunts. Did you just find a good stunt team that allowed you to do it in-camera or how did you approach them?
Gordon: Yeah, it’s all a great partnership with Gary Hymes, who is the second unit director for all the stunt stuff and the stunt coordinator, who does everything from the “Fast and Furious” series to “Argo” all the way back to “Dukes of Hazzard.” He’s just been around and he’s amazing. We just worked together on this to build that’s one of my favorite parts of the movie and one of reasons I wanted to do it was that it had real action sequences that I could sink my teeth but also not overwhelm the movie. I feel like they fit within the tone of the movie and feels like it all serves character and it all feels of a piece with the rest of it, so that was a fun thing for me and it definitely started with that chase scene in Boston. I really liked doing that. The movies we aspired to be like with this movie were “Midnight Run” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” so I loved the action in those movies where it really feels real and it feels visceral and like it’s really happening.
CS: I liked the Favreau callback and the nod to “Horrible Bosses” with his character
CS: Was there a lot more of him on the cutting room floor? I really felt like I wanted to see more of him.
Gordon: There is a great other scene that is certainly going to be in the extended version where Jason confronts him and quits. That’s a terrific scene. You know, Ed, my background first was editorial so if I can do it in three minutes instead of four I’m going to try, whatever that is. That was just the reason why that got cut is that the story worked without it, so just gotta go, gotta go, but yeah, there’s other great stuff with him including an extended scene in his office where all that “Fountainhead” stuff happened, which also wasn’t scripted. There’s a lot more of it. There’s a lot of great riffs and runs that he did, so that will all be in the extended cut.
CS: Have you thought at all about what you want to do next? Is there another project you were working on that you can go back to?
Gordon: Yeah, actually when this idea came up I had just started developing a reboot of “War Games” which I hope to pick back up on and “Horrible Bosses 2” is viable and it’s something that we’re in the process of trying to put together and find a time when everybody’s schedules line up. Those are two possibilities and then I really felt like the action and the heart in this movie were great reasons to do it and part of my favorite parts of it so I could easily see myself chasing something else that has some of those elements.
CS: As far as “Horrible Bosses 2,” do you have first option and is that something you definitely want to do or does that depend on what the script ends up looking like?
Gordon: We definitely have to get the script right. Script dominates everything, and that’s why this movie got made so quickly was that the script was so darn good, so that’s definitely highest priority, but we have some good ideas.
CS: Over the years, we’ve talked about “The King of Kong” and it was pretty funny seeing Steve (Wiebe) and Billy (Mitchell) popping up in the marketing for Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” showing that they’re becoming a bigger part of the public conscious. Do you think you’ll ever make that comedy based on their story?
Gordon: Oh, yeah. When we originally set up the doc for theatrical release, we sold the remake rights to New Line and we developed the script with them that actually was recently delivered by Melissa Stack, she turned in a draft that I’m just about to read, because I’ve been so consumed with finishing this film, so that project will never say “die.” “Kong” is like the siren song calling all of us (laughs) and never really letting us go.
CS: I was surprised you didn’t get Steve Wiebe into this movie or was he there and I missed him?
Gordon: Oh, no, he’s in it. He’s very brief, but he’s actually in this movie. I don’t know if you remember the heist where they steal the suit from the gym locker area. He’s the guy that Jason sort of coat-tails on the way in to do that. It’s very brief but I gotta have Wiebe in everything no matter what.
CS: He’s your good luck charm.
CS: Any other docs in your near future?
Gordon: Yeah, there’s a couple docs we’re working on. I’m actually standing in front of a presentation of footage from the beginning stages of a new doc that we’re working on that’s on technology. That’s going to be cool.
CS: The success of “Horrible Bosses” means you probably get sent a lot more scripts to direct, but does that hinder you from working and developing your own material?
Gordon: Yeah, we always have those kind of tough choices where things have potential but aren’t quite there yet, but then something comes along that’s just so good that you have to do it. That’s what’s happened the last couple times with “Horrible Bosses” and this one. It’s a good problem to have. I had an idea that I pitched to New Line so we’re going to still keep working on that. It’s a fun concept that we’re still banging out.
Identity Thief will be playing nationwide starting Friday, February 8.