When someone makes their directorial debut in Hollywood, it’s often a their passion project. As I spoke with actor Ike Barinholtz in a hotel conference room in downtown Atlanta, I could immediately see his passion for his latest film, The Oath. It’s his directorial debut, but he also wrote it, produced it, and stars in it. It’s a dark comedy that takes place during Thanksgiving in an alternate world where the government is requiring citizens to sign “The Patriot’s Oath,” a controversial political document pledging ones loyalty to the country. With a finger in every pot, there’s no one better to talk about the making of the film.
Ike Barinholtz: How’s it going?
Good, good. Saw the film last night.
Barinholtz: Oh, you were at Atlantic Station? We were so bummed we couldn’t make it, but United Airlines decided we shouldn’t go.
Sorry you couldn’t make it, either. This is such an ambitious film for your directorial debut. What inspired you to make this for your first film?
Barinholtz: I knew I wanted to direct a movie, and I was kinda a little bit down the road on something, but then after the election a couple years ago. At that Thanksgiving – we always do Thanksgiving at my folks house and stuff – after dinner, with a little bit of bourbon going around, and my mom and my brother and I got into this big fight. I think that happens in a lot of family but what struck me was we were all pretty much on the same side, but we were blaming each other; “It’s your fault!,” “She didn’t go to the…;” all this stuff, right? I was just thinking, “Oh my god, if this is happening in this friendly house, what’s going on at other tables around the country?”
I started talking to friends of mine, some family, and hearing some of these stories and just reading stories about people who are like, “I’m never speaking to my parents again!” and “I just called my aunt a bitch!” I knew that a movie set during the week of Thanksgiving with this kinda rapidly approaching nefarious deadline that the government’s thrown out there. I knew that would be a funny kinda – there’s a lot of just familial humor there that people can relate to – but I also knew that if we did it the right way we could scratch into the thriller and almost the pre-dystopia of it all. That was something I really wanted to try to do.
You do go far out there with the “Oath” that everybody has to sign this pledge almost in a Purge sorta way.
Barinholtz: I like to think of this a the prequel to the prequel of The Purge. Like 10 months before they said let’s let everyone kill each other someone’s like how about a loyalty oath? It’s funny, you know, three years ago the concept of this people we like this is crazy! Now I keep checking Twitter to make sure it hasn’t happened.
Totally! It’s like is this a documentary now.
Barinholtz: Yeah, I know! It’s just short of a documentary.
You said you were looking for something to direct. When you were writing this, did you always have that idea of directing it, acting in it, producing it? You have your hands in every element of production.
Barinholtz: I did, I did. I worked on The Mindy Project for a long time, and when you write an episode of television you pretty much produce it. So I knew how to write, I knew how to produce, and then I learned how to direct, but still there’s always a filter, right? If you’re an actor, the writer gives you the written words. That’s one filter. Then the director tells you how to do it. That’s the second filter. Then the editor does his or her thing. That’s the third filter. Your voice goes through all these filters, and it comes out very different. What I just wanted to do was eliminate those filters.
I knew that I was going to play the guy so there wasn’t any question about that. I knew that the director would cast me. I just knew that in my mind, if done wrong there were two things; 1) It could come off just partisan and just be oh a liberal fantasy. Also 2) it could just not work. The tone could just not work where people would be like, ‘it was too funny and then it got too sad.’ So I knew that in my head I had a very specific vision of it, and it was going to be easier for everyone if I could just do it all.
You mention tone. How did you find that perfect balance between humor and drama and thriller?
Barinholtz: I’ve seen different moments in films where they walk that line. I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of films that are straight up like, ‘This is a comedy, but it’s also scary.’ You know what I mean? Usually it’s a scary movie that has funny parts, like Get Out. Get Out was so scary but every time they cut to Lil Rel the TSA agent it was hilarious. We’ve seen it work on smaller levels before; moments or sections of movies. I love the movie M*A*S*H. If you’ve ever seen the original M*A*S*H, 1970 Robert Altman, they do that too. They’ll have a scene where someone just got shot or bayoneted and they’re operating on them and telling jokes. So I knew that it could work.
When I wrote it I just took the approach of trying to play the family scenes as real as possible and knowing that my character is this agitator who’s so obsessed and stuff. I knew those scenes would work, and then I just wanted to intersperse, at least for the first half of the movie, a few moments to give you little spikes and let you know that shit’s bad out in America right now. For the second half of the movie, I knew that would take on intrinsically that darker tone and so I did the opposite. Whereas at the front of the movie I’m kinda funny, cute stuff, with sporadic violence, the second half is violence with sporadic cute stuff. In my mind it worked, and when we shot it it felt right, but for something like that it really is a proof in the pudding situation. When my great editor Jack Price showed me his assembly I breathed a sigh of relief because I knew it wasn’t perfect yet and we had work to do, but I knew that it worked on a basic level. I was happy with that.
And being the director and producer you were able to do all of that.
Barinholtz: I was. And then also too, if you surround yourself with great people like the QC producers and the 23/34 guys and my line producer Kristen Murtha were so great and so honest. They really let me stretch. I think that’s a good thing about independent film. Listen, I love studio movies. I love doing them and stuff, but every once in a while, especially for something like this which is just a different type of story, you need people that you can rely on that have confidence in you. They’ll tell you when there’s something they don’t like, but for the most part they’re going to let you stretch your legs.
How was it getting to work with your own brother in the film?
Barinholtz: Right away I knew I was going to have a brother I was combative with. Honestly, it never occurred to me that it would be someone else. My brother John, who’s younger than me, is a great actor. He went through the improv circuit in Chicago, but he also went through the Steppenwolf training center. I’ve seen him do plays there, and he was incredible. I knew he could handle the emotional lifting, but more importantly I just knew. There’s a lot of great actors I could have cast for that, but none of them have I been fighting with for 35 years. We have a lot of history together, and I just knew there were moments where I could push him, push his buttons, and vice versa. I would get frustrated with him. When my mom say it she’s like, “I know there were moments where you were really beating up your brother,” and I was like, “Yeah, but I paid him so that’s okay.”
Have any of your other family members seen the film, and what were their thoughts?
Barinholtz: Yes. Well my dad’s actually in it. He plays the voice of my attorney. Yeah, my mom and my dad saw the movie. I’m very close to my parents, and I usually send them the movies after I write them. When they read that they were like, ‘Oh you got to make this! You need to make this right now. Hurry up. You never know what’s going to happen to the president so hurry up!’ Then when they saw it they were really excited.
One of the best scenes involves seeing Seth Rogen on the TV screen and seeing that he had disappeared. Did you just call him up, because I know you guys worked on Neighbors, and be like, ‘Hey, I got this idea…’
Barinholtz: 100%. Initially I think in my mind it was Mark Ruffalo. I had the conversation and I was like, ‘I think I should just do Rogen. I’ll get a bigger reaction.’ So we took a picture of him that we just found online where he looked kinda pensive. We used it, and then we remembered that we didn’t have the rights to that so I had to keep texting him. I was like, ‘Hey man, I need another picture.’ He did see it for the first time, now that I remember it. I texted him like, ‘Hey, before you see it you should know you are in the movie. We refer to you in the movie.’ He was like, ‘Oh shit. Well, I hope you’re not mean.’ Then he saw it and loved it. He posed for that stupid picture.
How was it getting to work alongside Tiffany Haddish? She’s huge now, but getting her on board I read that you basically had her in mind for the role from the beginning.
Barinholtz: From the get go. Did you ever see Keanu? I saw her in that, and I was just like love. She was so tough and real and funny. I was like if I ever do a movie and I needed a wife she would be great, just because I love her energy and it’s so different than mine. After I wrote it I remember talking to some people that know her and they were like, ‘Yeah, she’s great, she’s awesome. Girls Trip is about to come out. It might be big.’ I was like whatever. Then I met with her right as Girls Trip started coming out and she was like, ‘I love the movie. I want to do it.’ But she started getting so big I was sure that we were going to get the call that she was going to be in the next Star Wars or something. Bless her heart man, she stuck with us. She would go do SNL, host SNL, fly back, shoot three days, fly to Vegas. She was very committed to it. I really think she does such a great job. I’m so excited for people to see her play this type of role. It’s different than what we’ve seen from her, and she just nailed it.
How long was the shoot? This had to be a timely movie to coincide with the presidency and Thanksgiving.
Barinholtz: It was. We knew that we really had to shoot it. Just based on actor availability and knowing that it had to come out before this Thanksgiving, we shot it right after Thanksgiving last year. Literally, the Monday after Thanksgiving. We shot hard and fast for about 19, 20 days. The whole time after we shot it during the editing process, just things would happen in the news and I was like, ‘This movie needs to come out today!’ The comments I’m seeing from a lot of people online is that this is very timely.
What is your most ridiculous Thanksgiving story?
Barinholtz: We take it seriously in my family, and by that I mean I cook a lot. My favorite one was maybe five years ago. We had all my family and a whole bunch of friends come and we were all in the backyard. We were eating and after dinner we were drinking and stuff. And Mindy Kaling, I invited her, and I go ‘Where’s Mindy? Did she leave? Was she not having a good time?’ We were looking around the house. Then we went into a little tiny room, and she was in there with a couple of kids watching The Big Bang Theory with a big glass of wine, haha.
I mean, it’s such a big holiday for us. We love it so much. It’s the only holiday where you can really just eat a ton of junk food and drink and watch football and stuff. It’s really fun. And there haven’t been that many great Thanksgiving movies. There’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which is the Rolls-Royce. And then there’s other ones that touch on it. To me there so many Christmas movies. We have Easter movies. I’ve seen Hanukkah movies. C’mon man, let’s get a great Thanksgiving movie.
Now that you’ve directed you’ve pretty much done it all in Hollywood from writing to acting to producing. Do you have a preference?
Barinholtz: To me, look this was a lot of work but it was very exhilarating in every step of the way. Writing it, because it was just me writing it, I wrote it very quickly. I got exactly my mind with no compromise on the page. Shooting it was chaotic and fast and fun. Editing it, I had a great team and great editor so that was fun. The anxious part was getting ready to release it and marketing because you’re just wondering what people are going to say. But the last week, we just did a huge swing all throughout Texas and came here. This is the best part for sure. We’ve been in a bubble and we’ve been showing it to people, but it’s all our friends and just random people in LA. And now we’re showing it to real Americans who have not seen it and talking to people about it and having people be like, ‘This is my family. You’ve captured my family. My dad is you!’ That is the most exciting part. That’s the part that really keeps me going. The only thing I want to do is the next version of this movie.
The Oath opens Friday, October 19 in Atlanta, GA.