How Ike Barinholtz used The Oath to capture lightning in a bottle
At the beginning of Ike Barinhotz’s The Oath, a controversial White House policy turns family member against family member, which culminates over Thanksgiving dinner as it examines our modern era of political tribalism. When Chris (Ike Barinholtz), a high-strung, progressive news junkie, and his more level-headed wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) learn that citizens are being asked to sign a loyalty oath to the President, their reaction is disbelief, followed by an idealistic refusal.
As the Thanksgiving deadline to sign approaches, the combination of sparring relatives, Chris’s own agitation and the unexpected arrival of two government agents send an already tense holiday dinner gathering completely off the rails. As timely as it is outrageous, The Oath is a gleefully wicked reinvention of the traditional holiday comedy for our divisive political times.
Ahead of The Oath’s nationwide release this Friday, October 12, we sat down with writer, director, producer, and star Ike Barinholtz about why he knew he needed to make this movie quickly, and the challenges of making both a timely and even-handed political satire.
ComingSoon.net: I’m curious about where we were, exactly, in our current hellscape when this idea first came to you.
Ike Barinholtz: [Laughs] We were very early on in the hellscape that is us right now. Basically, the election happens in 2016, and right afterward we have Thanksgiving at my house in L.A. My folks come out, my brother lives there, so we’re having dinner and after dinner having a few cocktails and my brother and my mom and I got this big fight, right? And it’s crazy because we’re all on the same side, but just different variations. My brother was more of a Bernie guy, I really liked Hillary, and my mom’s in the Midwest, so we’re getting this big fight, you know? And I was like, “Shit, if this is happening at this friendly house, what’s going on around the country?” Then I started talking to my friends and some other family, and it was finding out like, “Oh shit, we’re in trouble.’ I think for years we’ve been able to sidestep the whole conversation, you know? You could say “Don’t talk politics at Thanksgiving,” and you’ve been able to get around that. And even if you do get into a little argument with your crazy uncle, it lasts a few minutes. But now we’re in this point where you’re just in disbelief. “How can you think this”‘ It makes the conversations toxic, but I can’t blame people for it because it’s just people are so crazy right now.
CS: Despite this very touchy subject of politics today, you play it pretty even-handed. I think a lot of people will identify with your character, Chris, who’s throwing up his arms and wondering when we all lost our minds, but at the same time, you don’t really vilify the characters who hold different points of view.
Barinholtz: That’s what I’m going for. I mean, the worst version of this movie is a partisan fantasy, right? Where it’s just ‘liberals are good and they’re noble and that the people and the writer know they’re wrong and they’re dicks.’ I don’t want to take both sides, but I want to show both sides and how both sides’ brains are broken a little bit. So, you know, my character who I would say is furthest on the left, he’s insufferable, man. He’ a dick, and he’s like so consumed by the news cycle and everything’s on his mind — and that was a little bit like me during the process of it. I was just so upset with everything. “The norms are being shattered and this is crazy!” I think it makes it a lot more honest if you kind of show, “Hey guys, no one’s doing great right now, and everyone’s fucking up.” That was really important for me to, to make sure I wasn’t just putting up a hack fest up there.
CS: There are lots of ‘ripped from the headlines’ tidbits scattered throughout here. Given that the news cycle moves at a merciless pace these days, did you find yourself going back and adding or maybe re-writing bits to work in some of these talking points while shooting?
Barinholtz: I kind of set it and then you know, there are those moments that we hear these little catchphrases right now. Fake News, facts don’t care about your feelings, all these little political catchphrases that people think summarize their whole point of view. I wanted to layer that in there and you know, you are in my character’s POV in the movie, and I wanted you to kind of feel that echo chamber of what we’re all feeling. He’s just handling it the wrong way. And we knew that the movie had to come out soon. First of all, it’s just on everyone’s mind right now, and also, who the hell knows what we’re going to be in two months? You know what I mean? So there is this feeling of let’s get this going and let’s shoot this. And it was crazy as we were writing it, shooting it, and editing it, things from the movie started echoing in real life. I didn’t know anything about Donald Trump until he started becoming a presidential candidate. I’m from Chicago, I just thought he was just a nerdy guy who was like a Batman villain, but not like The Dark Knight, like the 60s “Batman.” Like Cesar Romero or something… the campy villain. Then I started reading a lot about him, and he’s so obsessed with loyalty, so I knew loyalty was something that I was going to make the story about. Then, as we were making it, he cornered [former FBI director] Jim Comey and he’s like, “Do I have your loyalty?” These things just kind of started happening. There was a National Loyalty Day or something, and everytime something would happen, one of the producers or me would text each other like, “Let’s hurry up. Let’s get this thing out because it’s time.”
CS: Did that sense of needing to get it out in the world quickly result in most of the film taking place inside a single home?
Barinholtz: Yeah, I really kind of wanted it to feel like a 70s movie a little bit. I love the movie “MASH.” I love the antic kind of fresh feel, even in crazy, sad situations, there’s humor. We also knew it was going to be one location just because that week of Thanksgiving, everyone’s at the house. Everyone’s there. So it was very easy to write that, but then shooting it was the challenge. How do you show the audience this movie, that 80%, 85% of it is in one setting and not let them get visually board? So, as the film starts to kind of take a bit of a turn, you really want to look to make a take a turn. That’s why at first it’s wide frames and it’s bright and then as the movie starts to close in, we want you to feel like [you’re] choking. You’re in this house and you’re like I need to get out of this. That was really the challenge of making people feel like they’re in the house and not just watching an indie set in one cabin or something.
CS: I can see that. In the first half of the movie you use a lot of long tracking shots, but then the walls start to close in quite a bit.
Barinholtz: And you don’t really know where it’s going. I think the dinner scene, I think it’s people’s favorite scene just because you’re just waiting. You know when you’re at dinner and you’re like your uncle’s going to talk about Alex Jones in a second. It’s coming. It’s coming in. And once he does it, you’re gonna call him an idiot. So it’s just that pressure cooker feeling. And then, as the steam starts to come out a little bit, all the sudden it explodes.
CS: You’ve also balanced that out with some really serene and arty shots, too.
Barinholtz: We knew that a lot of this movie was going to be a lot of people talking and a lot of fast dialogue back and forth, but I made my list of the scenes that I really wanted to stick with people for a little bit longer. And I do kind of want at that kind of feeling of calm, America, I think we’re going to be okay one day. If we don’t if we don’t all kill ourselves first.
CS: There are a lot of surprises in this movie. Even knowing it’s a dark comedy, it definitely does not pull any punches. But one of the most surprising things is Tiffany Haddish’s character, Kai, is the calm, arguably moral center of the whole ensemble. And she plays it spectacularly, it’s just not the kind of character we’re used to seeing her portray.
Barinholtz: I first saw her in Keanu, and I was blown away by her. I was like, Gosh, she’s so real and authentic and tough. And I knew I wanted her to be my wife in the movie. [Kai’s] kind of inspired by my wife, right? Where she has this man in her life who’s consumed and she’s trying to do the right thing. She’s trying to like manage him but also keep the family going. So the first kind of half of the movie, Tiffany is this calming presence. She’s kind of fed up, she’s kind of passed it. And I’ve never seen her in that mode. You always see her in that big mode, and then when she blows up in the movie, she just is so good and so real. So, to get her doing stuff that I’d never seen her do before for my movie… I couldn’t believe it. She was just so good. I was just like, ‘Oh my God, you’re like a great actress. I knew you were cool and funny and…’ but she just blew everyone away in this, man. And she really is. She’s the real.
CS: Like I’d mentioned earlier, I went into this movie identifying with your character, Chris. By the end, it was more like ‘We all need to be a little more like Kai.’
Barinholtz: If we could all be like Kai, it would be okay. That’s the message.
The Oath is in limited release now, and opens nationwide on Friday, October 19.