Seth Gordon made his big directorial breakthrough with “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” a documentary about Steve Wiebe taking on Billy Mitchell for the world high score on the Donkey Kong arcade game. Since then he has gone on to direct comedies like “Four Christmases” with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, and “Horrible Bosses” which stars Jason Bateman, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston among others. With his latest film “Identity Thief,” Gordon reteams with Bateman for a story about a regular businessman who finds his identity stolen by a con artist named Diana (played by Melissa McCarthy).
Gordon was on hand at the “Identity Thief” press conference held at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and he discussed what it was like making the movie as well as working with Bateman and McCarthy who has been on a meteoric rise in Hollywood following her Oscar nominated performance in “Bridesmaids.” He also gave us an update on the scripted film version of “King of Kong” which still might become a reality.
Question: What was it like working with Jason Bateman again after working with him on “Horrible Bosses?”
Seth Gordon: Jason is an honor to work with. In this case he not only was the actor but he was also the producer, so he developed this script quite a bit for a few years. It was his idea to have the script changed from two guys to being him and Melissa McCarthy. He saw “Bridesmaids,” loved her in that. So that was a really genius move on his part, and it really turned this film which could fall into a predictable genre on its head. I think it really was a wonderful idea, and he was a partner throughout the process of making this movie. It’s a rare opportunity when you have an actor who can participate in casting sessions on a script he helped developed and then executed with (the movie’s screenwriter) Craig Mazin wonderfully. That was a really great experience for me, and we had a wonderful time on “Bosses” and so I was glad to do this one.
Question: Are you going to get around to making “The King of Kong” movie?
Seth Gordon: “King of Kong” I love very much. I think there is still a very good chance it will get made. Believe it or not, a script just came in from writer Melissa Stack. It’s the project that just won’t die because I think we all are drawn to it like the Siren’s Song. The documentary happened at a place and time and a series of serendipitous events that were sort of extraordinary, and I think we all fear tarnishing its memory by commercializing it. But at the same time with the right cast in those parts they could breathe new life into it and allow it to be something inspired by the original rather than a photocopy of it.
Question: Melissa really takes a lot of hits in this like with the guitar and everything. Are you just like a masochist when it comes to this or what’s the deal?
Seth Gordon: I would blame her actually. The guitar wasn’t scripted, and that house was a really normal, reasonable home before we filled it with all that crap. When we got to rehearsing that scene which we did a day in advance because we were going into late nights that coming weekend, we were looking around that house and had already planned to have her be hit by a Panini marker. So we made a rubberized one even though Jason on accident threw a real one on the first take but it didn’t hit (laughs). He later was all “listen you put it in front of me! What am I gonna do?” But when he was looking around he’s like “what if I hit her with that guitar?” There was a guitar there in that room, and we had to make sure we’d be able to modify enough of them in time to be able to have multiple takes of it, but she kept again and again wanting to do stunts herself.
When the scene was coming up where her character gets hit by the car, she was really practicing and saying “maybe I could do it.” And the woman we brought it was a parkour specialist whose whole goal is to do these stunts, and this was a severe stunt. And Melissa saw the first take she’s like “that’s okay, I don’t have to do that one.” But she did a bunch. She is quite an athlete. She ran faster on the side of the road where she’s trying to get away than our steadicam operator could move, so we had to put him on a car and attach him to it and drive in order to stay in front of her. She’s great.
Question: Your films have a candid approach to everyday life situations. Since identity theft is a very touchy subject, was it hard to balance the humor and the subject matter?
Seth Gordon: I think unintentionally I gravitate towards concepts and topics that hit home or are something real we can all relate to. Everyone knows somebody who’s been the victim of identity theft. I think all of us have gotten that phone call from credit card companies about an unexpected charge. Obviously the elaborate identity theft is a nefarious line of work for those who do it. We were doing a documentary about cybercrime and that led us towards stories about identity thieves and individual victims, and I found that world and what drives the people who were criminals in it very compelling and really interesting. It is a touchy topic and we tried to handle it in a way that was educational for those who didn’t know it previously but allowed us also to enjoy it as a comedy. But it was something we were very sensitive to along the way, and I think that’s what gives it its potency. What underscores it is very real.
Question: Do you speak to any victims or con artists at the time?
Seth Gordon: I did in the process of that documentary so I have the background, but I also talked to folks that work in that world either as private investigators or skiptracers. There wasn’t originally a skiptracer in the script. That was something I thought was really important to include because it’s an important part of the debt collector world.
Question: You have two very funny leads in this movie with Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy. Is it hard to wrangle in these people who are funny all the time?
Seth Gordon: Yeah, to a certain extent. I really enjoy improv. I love the unexpected and I think that’s why documentary is an attractive genre to me because you don’t know where it’s going to go, so I tend to involve that as much as possible in the production process. Some of the best moments in the film, the guitar as I said, that wasn’t scripted nor was the throat punch at the prison, nor was the elephant belt, nor the Bermuda triangle; the list goes on of these memorable moments that were a product of just listening to new ideas that come up on the day. Some of those worked, some of them didn’t, but an awful lot of the made the final film. What I love about these two actors is their ability to not get stuck in what was preplanned, but to find other ways through the material and stay within the intention of the story.
Question: Did you ever have to stop yourself from laughing while the cameras were rolling?
Seth Gordon: All the time, and I frankly had to move my rig where the camera’s further and further and further from the set. Particularly with Bermuda triangle, I had to leave the building. In the final takes I had spotty reception on the little radio because I was destroying the work because there was no place for me to stand because I was laughing so hard. I love that about this process.
Question: Was Melissa falling asleep with her eyes wide open in the script?
Seth Gordon: Not scripted. Also hitting her head against the side of the car, not scripted. To a certain extent they spent enough time in those cars that they were just getting antsy, so these ideas would just come up and they were amazing. Some of the best ideas come sort of out of nowhere and when you’re not expecting it.
Question: The movie was shot in Georgia, but it’s a road trip movie from Florida to Colorado. How did you and your film crew work that out?
Seth Gordon: A lot of driving (laughs). Georgia’s a big state and covers a lot of looks. Our production designer Shepherd Frankel went far and wide to find a variation and a palate so you really felt like you were traveling across country. It was that and some carefully chosen B-roll helicopter work that we did further from Georgia that gives it that sense of scope and expense.