July 10, 2011|I was grateful for the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with director Seth Gordon at a Boston-area screening of his latest film, Horrible Bosses, which has proven to be something of an oasis in an otherwise lousy summer for movies. Gordon's eclectic career made him a fascinating character to research: after studying architecture at Yale, he found himself at a teaching job in Kenya that ignited an interest in filmmaking. Our Q&A was a fairly animated twenty minutes; asked to lob trivia questions at the audience for a poster giveaway, his first was, "What was the name of Michael Knight's car?" In our one-on-one discussion at the Ritz-Carlton the following morning, he dialled it down a little, exuding an "aw shucks" modesty that seemed to reveal a greater desire to listen than to talk. He tells me outright that he owes the relatively smooth production of Horrible Bosses to the success of The Hangover (another Warner Bros. release), though as our discussion took a thematic turn, I sensed some reluctance to commiserate with my assertions about how his latest trumps the "other comedies" of its ilk.
CENTRAL: You seem to be attracted to ensemble pieces.
SETH GORDON: I didn't really realize that that was a trend until recently. I agree, I guess I'm really interested in different points of view and showing how complex stuff can be, especially in the case of Kong, there was just something about the culture of that group around Billy [Mitchell] that I found really fascinating, how they tried to keep someone out. And this one, I think, the chemistry of the three guys is just really interesting and understanding how each of them can be driven by their own boss towards a crazy plan.
common theme in your films seems to be people who are held back by
their own ambition.
Yeah, that's fair to say. (laughs) Especially in the case of Kong and probably this movie, where their ambition gets in their own way. I don't really know why (laughs), but I totally acknowledge that's in both of those movies.
is it about this white male fantasy that grabs you? You seem very
critical of that concept here.
You mean like the American Dream kind of idea?
just the American Dream. Here you have these three middle-aged white
guys going to a bar in the middle of the ghetto to declare, "I'd like
to hire someone who kills for money!" And they even condescend to the
foreign NavGuide representative. That's what really got me about the
film--it's so contradictory to this white male fantasy that's overtaken
comedy in the past couple of years.
In the sense that I have them--that's interesting. I mean, it's definitely the way it was scripted, but I guess you're really right. They get put into situation after situation where their assumptions are wrong, and where they make a ton of mistakes that are clearly driven by the fact that they have such a backwards point of view, and kinda just don't get it. Yeah, that's interesting that you put it that way, no one's quite put it that way before. But I don't think it's being hyper-critical of anybody's way of life so much as just that these kind of dopey dudes--I like putting people in situations where what they assume turn out not to be true.
there's a fear of female sexuality that you touch on quite well--
Yeah, she's just a little too much for him, isn't she?
you bring up rape in a way that all these other comedies just dance
around. You're just talking about this male fear of rape.
Yeah, just reversing the roles--it's just funny! It's just funny that he feels that he's been violated... and in a way, what she's doing is so so so wrong, but there's something funny and absurd about him jumping to that conclusion that that's what has happened. Especially when his friend says, "That's great!" (laughs) It's perfect, he just went, "I wanna see the pictures! Show me the pictures!"
just something about a guy playing "Angry Birds" on coke that seems so
perfect for that whole theme.
Yeah, I think so too. Yeah, like frustrated, and trying to get his aggressions out. I like "Angry Birds" just as a kinda--that for the movie, you know?
of that, actually, all these "Donkey Kong" references in the movie--
It's kind of a game that Sudeikis was playing with me, which is--he knows that I don't want to bring Kong up, necessarily, but he would always throw it in and ad-lib one way or the other. At that particular time, it was just the best take of the scene in general, and so it ended up in there. I was like, "Oh, God, Sudeikis got me."
I mistaken, or was that a "Donkey Kong" mug at the beginning of the
You're dead right. And the person holding it was Steve Wiebe, 'cause I try to have him in everything, and I gave him that "Donkey Kong" mug. Jeez, you have good eyesight, 'cause it's not very big in the frame.
beyond the documentary story, has the game integrated itself into your
I feel like "Kong" and everything about it is gonna be in my life for the rest of my life.
you rue that?
Not really. I think it's kind of awesome because it's such a specific and focused story that I think highly of that game, and it's fine with me. It's a great metaphor--I mean, in a way, Kong is a horrible boss, [and] Mario just wants to get to the top, and he has a lot of obstacles on the way, right?
|Gordon directing Charlie Day and Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses|
have these past few years been for you? You make this documentary, and
now you're making movies with Robert Duvall and Donald Sutherland and
It's been wonderful. I think I've had the good fortune in comedy to have made this thing that everyone responded to because it was just so weird, and just so niche, and that just opened a lot of doors. I think you had asked last night about a similar kind of theme, and how documentary prepares you for that--I think the other answer to that question is that you have to be so focused as a director in documentary, because you have to figure out what the story is as it's unfolding. And I think being that focused really lends itself to narrative feature filmmaking too, because the more specific your point of view, the more you know what you want, the better the results are going to be.
also directed mockumentaries. What's it like applying that style of
filmmaking to a narrative format?
I think it's fun. It's like, for me, my favourite format. 'Cause those interviews give you these great editorial weapons, so you can restructure and reshape the story however you need to. I really like it, I'm glad it's taken off [and] the format isn't just in [Waiting for] Guffman and Christopher Guest's work.
you learn about the actors as you would from actual interviewees?
Some. I like to try to do that whenever I do those shows--to try to mix and match and ask them questions that aren't on the page, 'cause I think that can always be helpful. And usually the actors know their characters so well that they can really be in that.
talk about ad-libbing a lot in reference to Horrible Bosses, but
do you feel a need to rein that in at all?
Not with this group, 'cause they're such good writers that if they ever made something up, it would be completely in the structure of the scene, and it would make sense and stay compatible. I think there are people who think improv is a license to say whatever you want about anything all the time, and that's certainly not the way I see it... They're writers, so what they're making up is either an alternative for a line that was already there, or totally supports what was already there. That's very different from, like, "We're in space!" and being wacky. There was none of that.
it tough to make and sell a hard-R comedy?
No. I think The Hangover made studios believe that our comedy is a really great way to do a film, and I think, honestly, we had a lot of freedom that we wouldn't have had if they weren't as successful as they were... I had read this script that had been around for years, but it was a new draft that I read--and I approached the studio and said, "Clearly, this has gotta be hard R, there's a character named Motherfucker Jones. Let's not shy away from it, let's embrace it and really go for it."
me about your time in Kenya, what you took from that.
For me, it was just a transitional moment, because I'd gone there to do architecture, and I happened to have a camera for the first time, and then I found [myself] documenting what was happening in the village and also seeing what the villagers--a couple of my students--did with the camera, because they understood it quickly because it had a screen. It was a Hi8, it was a long time ago. But seeing what they did, in combination with what I witnessed, compelled me to figure out how tell the story of what had happened, and then once I had done that I wasn't really interested in architecture anymore. That was the real function in my life of that trip. It changed everything for me.
was it that originally drew you to architecture?
I think the complexity of the discipline. The fact that if you have a great understanding of architecture and architectural history, you have a great understanding of history, period. It's a great way to understand culture and civilization and all sorts of things. Plus it drew on an artistic skill set, which is something I really respond to... And obviously a lot of that translates pretty easily to film.
find similarities in that complexity?
Well, yeah. You gotta, in both disciplines, think about points of view. Literally, what does it look like from there? What does it look like from here? What would this character--and then even the terminology they use in architecture overlaps. Like, what's the narrative of the building? The progression, the procession... There's a lot of things that the two disciplines ask of the people doing them that overlap, specifically for a director, and cinematography, I'd say, but perhaps other disciplines that aren't as overlapping within film.
gonna see Horrible Bosses again, is the thing. I saw
it last week, I saw it last night, I'm gonna see it again.
The comedy is tolerable enough for multiple viewings, that's good... But I hadn't heard that particular theory on the theme, so that's particularly interesting to me. Especially this one about the frustrated white male.
these people who are dead-determined to wander out of their element and
not learn anything about it--that's what really strikes me as
interesting. And, like I say, this whole rape ordeal--other R-rated
comedies of this breed dance around the concept, but however mistaken
the identity, this guy is a registered sex offender! They say it
outright. That's what I really admired about it, just how direct it is.
Well, there's not a lot of subtlety, we really went for it.
can you tell me about Mixtape?
I love Mixtape. I'd love to make it. It's an independent, so we gotta find financing and round out the cast. I'm so focused on this film, honestly, there hasn't been time to get all that in place, but I hope that if this film does well, that'll make that easier.
you see any more documentaries in your future?
For sure. I've been producing them--and by that I mean supporting other filmmakers that haven't gotten a chance, for some reason, to make a full film. There's one called Make Believe by Clay Tweel, and another one called Undefeated that's gonna be out this Thanksgiving. So I definitely intend to be in documentary in one way or another. It's a really refreshing antidote to studio feature filmmaking and vice-versa.
How about television?
Definitely. I really enjoyed working on "Breaking In" this year and helping create that show. I have such respect for the guys that can run a show successfully. It's a hard, hard job, and there's a lot of stuff that goes into it, so I'd love to do that again if I'm so lucky.