Today: May 28, 2024

Seth Gordon On Identity Thief

Seth Gordon knows a little bit about madcap comedies.  This is the director behind films such as Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses.  But with the release of Identity Thief, out on DVD/Blu-ray on 15th July, he got to team up with Bridesmaid star Melissa McCarthy and team her with his Horrible Bosses main-man Jason Bateman.  FilmJuice caught up with Seth to talk about comedy, surviving Hollywood, Melissa McCarthy, Horrible Bosses 2, War Games and…his dad?

How do you direct Melissa McCarthy? She is such a force of nature …
Yes! A lot of times it was just about giving her the right amount of space and creating situations where she could really shine. In some cases, it was the way we approached stuff – technical, practical, location, camera setups, coverage – all those things are factors that can help her stay in an honest place. But most of the time I was just trying to not get in her way because, as you said, she is a force of nature! 

What is her appeal? Why is she so funny?
I have thought about that a lot. There are a number of different answers, but I think there is something in the way she plays this character that everyone can see their own struggle with self-worth in the way she brings it to life, and I think that is really powerful. I do not know how she taps into that, but I think that she does. [Her character is] someone who is so scared of being worthless, that they deny who they are in every way, we realise why later in the movie, but that was just under the surface even in the early parts of the story [and] you can just feel it, feel that presence. That is the deeper answer … the other reason is that she is so damn funny. She just knows how to make the most out of every situation.

There is also the shock value of what comes out of her mouth …?
She is so innocent and evil at the same time, and that is something everyone can relate to! She’s like a kid being tempted by wickedness and learning what is right and wrong …. That is my explanation of it, but there are probably many other ways to skin it.

Melissa’s character does morally reprehensible things, but you want the audience to like her, so how do you guide that?
The first shot we shot was with her coming down the escalator with that huge drink, and from that very moment, you saw her devilishly, wickedly, enjoying being other people. She was battling with her philosophy of “I must buy things in order to be happy, I must buy, I must buy,” and seeing her as she rolled her eyes, scanning what she was going to buy, from that moment forward, we knew that was the character and that was the balance we had to find. She is so lovable, and she turns an expression on a dime, and it makes you want to cry. Just in the middle of any situation she can do that – that is her amazing alchemy.

You have these two actors in a really cramped space, a car, for a lot of the movie. How do you shoot it to capture all the great banter?
There are two strategies for a given scene: you cross-cover it, or to do two sides at once, which allows me to mix and match performance, but the ideal is to never do that. The ideal is to let it play out in a two-shot. Like when Melissa is singing, doing that stuff, we hardly ever cut because it was so great, and you get to see the physicality of it, and physical comedy is always better a little wider.

Is singing in the car the worst crime a travelling companion can commit?
Yes. Absolutely. That is the worst crime.

In order to direct a comedy, do you have to be funny?
I think so, sure. You need to at least know what you think is funny. Right or wrong, I have a very specific sense. The dramatic performances Melissa did, there are ten or twelve takes always that are equally awesome, so it is very hard to edit those scenes. But when it comes to the comedy, across all things, there is so clearly, “That one is the winner, that one is the winner,” for everybody’s performance. It becomes very clear in the editing room on comedy. As a director, you absolutely have to have a guiding sense of what is funny, and mine comes completely from my dad.

What is your dad like?
He never takes anything too seriously, and is always willing to see things for the silliness that is everywhere and embrace nonsense … I think that made a long-lasting impression on me, and I love to try to find the bright side, the positivity and the optimism and the fun in everything, because it is dreadful if you do not.

Do you think that is how you survive Hollywood?
For sure. I mean, this is so unpredictable and I have been really fortunate in how the ride has gone, so I have got to be grateful.

How did you learn to direct comedy?
I have been doing comedy work forever, from college. I did improvisation. That was the way we made money through school, doing performances and travelling around. It was something I always responded to. The stuff I actually enjoyed doing most in this movie, was the heart and action stuff because that was different for me. That was a new muscle to develop and flex and that was something I really liked.

Do you think humour is different depending on what country you come from?
Yes, it is cultural. True fluency is when you can make a joke in another language, I think. It is the hardest thing to master. Even the way our movie posters have to be modified, tells me how cultural comedy is, and how what works here just would not make an impression there – it has to be different. It is hard to put a finger on, but I have been lucky enough to live in a few countries and I can feel that there are trends and tropes of ways that comedy works in each of those countries. It is not as if there are any less funny people, it is just the conventions are a little different and the expectations are a little different. Word play does not make much sense, but physical comedy can work. You can hit a guitar across somebody anywhere in the world and it works.

Was there an identity theft consultant or a security consultant on the film?
We actually had a private investigator consultant. I had done a documentary on the world of identity thieves and that went into online crime and phishing scams, and the 419 scam in Nigeria, and the world of skiptracers (locating a person) and collectors … [so] that was something that was really important to me to get it right. To have the roots of what we were telling in the story honest and accurate and truthful, but without getting too bogged down, because it is a very dark, very sad kind of crime. 

What does it take to ground humour in realism? Do you have any tricks?
I wish I had a trick! I really feel like it is just staying very, very honest with myself in the midst of the chaos of the responsibility of the job, the pressure of it all … If something really feels off, being sensitive to that and responding instantly. It has been a long process of learning to trust my gut.

What were the biggest challenges in making this movie?
I would say the action sequences, and that we were doing different kinds of things throughout the movie. We had snakes, we had action, we have the comedy, you have the heart – having that entire feel of a piece and a single through-line is generally the biggest challenge, but it is the thing I love. I think that is what makes the work really fun and a privilege, and why I am grateful to do the work.

What is next for you?
There is talk of Horrible Bosses 2. I have been developing an update of War Games from the original, which I am really interested in seeing if we can make that, otherwise I am just really staying open. I loved this film because it allowed me to see another side of directing. Identity Thief has a real heart, something to connect to. The project was a fun change, so I am trying to be open and learn and grow as an artist too.

Identity Thief is available to own on DVD/Blu-ray from 15th July. 

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