Who says identity theft is no laughing matter? Opening this weekend is director Seth Gordon’s hilarious comedy “Identity Thief,” written by Craig Mazin, about what happens when a regular guy (Jason Bateman) is forced to take extreme measures to clear his name after his identity is stolen by the queen of retail (Melissa McCarthy), who shows no remorse and almost ruins his life. The film’s all-star cast also includes Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Genesis Rodriguez, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet and Jonathan Banks.
At the film’s recent press day, Gordon talked about what it was like directing two terrific comedians like Bateman and McCarthy, striking a balance between the humor and touchy subject matter, how McCarthy is paving the road for other great actresses in the world of comedy, and how Bateman’s genius idea to change the script from two guys to him and McCarthy after seeing her in “Bridesmaids” turned the film on its head and kept it from falling into a predictable genre. Gordon also updated us on the status of “The King of Kong” movie and “Horrible Bosses 2.”
Question: You’ve worked with Jason Bateman before. How was it this time around?
Seth Gordon: Jason is an honor to work with. In this case, not only was he the actor, but he was the producer, so he developed this script quite a bit for a few years. And then, it was his idea to have the script changed from two guys to being him and Melissa McCarthy. He saw “Bridesmaid” and loved her in that. So that was a really genius move on his part and really turned this film which could have fallen into a predictable genre on its head. I think it 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 develop and then executed with 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.
Q: Melissa McCarthy takes a lot of serious hits in this with the guitar and the car. What’s the deal?
Gordon: I would blame her actually. The guitar wasn’t scripted and that house was a normal, reasonable home before we filled it with all that crap. When we got to rehearsing the scene which we did a day in advance because we were going into late nights that coming weekend, we were looking around that apartment and we had already planned to have her be hit by a Panini maker so we’d made a rubberized one, even though Jason by accident threw a real one on the first take, but it didn’t hit. (Laughs) Later, he was like, “Listen, you put it in front of me. What am I going to do?” When he was looking around, he said, “What if I hit her with that guitar?” because there was a guitar there in that room. 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 again and again, she kept wanting to do stunts herself. When the scene was coming up where her character gets hit by the car, she was really practicing. “Maybe I can do it. Let me just watch.” The woman we brought in was a Parkour specialist whose whole goal is to do these stunts. This was a severe stunt and she saw the first take and she went, “That’s okay. I don’t have to do that one.” But she did a bunch. I mean, she is quite an athlete with all the running. 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 a car and drive in order to stay in front of her. It’s pretty extraordinary. That physical comedy, like that flop, that’s all her. She’s great.
Q: Since identity theft is a pretty touchy subject, was it hard to balance the humor and the subject matter?
Gordon: I think unintentionally I gravitate towards concepts and topics that hit something real that we can relate to. Everyone’s had a boss that they hate and everyone knows somebody who’s been a victim of identity theft. I think all of us have gotten that phone call from a credit card company about an unexpected charge. At least most people I know have had that. And obviously, the elaborate identity theft is a nefarious line of work for those who do it. We were doing a film about cybercrime and that led us towards stories about identity thieves and individual victims. I found that world and what drives the people who are criminals in it very compelling and interesting. I do think it’s 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. It was something that we were very sensitive to along the way, and I think what gives it potency is that kind of energy and that what underscores it is very, very real.
Q: Did you speak to any victims or con artists that did that?
Gordon: Yes. I did in the process of that documentary so I had that background, but I also talked to folks that work in that world either as private investigators or skip tracers. There wasn’t originally a skip tracer in the script. That was something I thought was really important to include because it’s an important part of the debt collector world.
Q: Is it hard to wrangle these people who are funny all the time and in real life? Do you have to reel them in sometimes?
Gordon: Yeah. To a certain extent I really enjoy improv. I love the unexpected. I think that’s why documentary is an attractive genre to me, too, because you don’t know where it’s going to go. And so, I tend to involve that as much as possible in the production process. Some of the best moments in the film like the guitar wasn’t scripted, nor was the throw punch at the prison, the elephant belt, or the Bermuda Triangle. The list goes on of these memorable moments in the movie 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 them made the final film. Something I love about these two actors is their ability to not get stuck in what was pre-planned, but to find other ways through the material and stay within the intention of the story.
Q: Do you have to stop yourself from laughing when the cameras are rolling?
Gordon: All the time. Frequently, I had to move my rig where I watched the cameras further and further and further from the set, particularly with Bermuda Triangle when I had to leave the building. In the final takes, I had spotty reception on the little radio microphone because I was destroying the work because there was no place for me to stand I was laughing so hard. I love that about this process.
Q: The falling asleep with her eyes wide open bit, did that just happen or was that in the script?
Gordon: That was not scripted. Also, hitting her head against the side, not scripted. I think to a certain extent they spent enough time in those cars. They were just getting antsy and so these ideas would come up and they were amazing. The elephant belt was just because it was 3:00 am. We had already been told they were going to pull the plug on us that night because we were running too late and we had already covered most of the scene. And, in a delirious, last minute move, Eric (Stonestreet) who had been pulling his belt off in a number of takes just used it like an elephant trunk and made that noise. We had to stop that night, but I had the other side of that hotel room rebuilt on a future night so that we could cover his sides because I thought it was so genius. Definitely some of the best ideas come out of nowhere and when you’re not expecting it, and the eyes open was another one of those.
Q: One of my favorite scenes is the one in the kitchen between Melissa and Amanda (Peet). Amanda only has one or two lines and Melissa does all the talking. It wasn’t that long ago where you would never see that. What does it mean for film that audiences are embracing a different type of trend?
Gordon: I don’t know that that’s a trend. I think Melissa is a force of nature. She’s just incredible. And it’s purely her talent that has rocketed her in such little time from a marvelous supporting role in “Bridesmaids” to being the lead in several films that are coming out this year. She’s extraordinary and I think that that scene that you’re talking about is actually Amanda’s idea. That scene was not in the original script. She said, “I just feel like there needs to be a moment of reckoning between the mother of this family and the women who almost ruined their lives.” And Craig did a marvelous job taking that abstract idea and turning it into this scene that is a sloppy confession, and then Melissa further embellished it with that Bermuda Triangle run. I completely agree that Melissa is a breath of fresh air and hopefully is going to pave the road for some other great actresses. There’s a bunch in the comedy world that are coming so I think it’s great what she’s done.
Q: You mentioned all the improv stuff that made it in, but what about the stuff that didn’t make it in?
Gordon: There is a whole part of the film where there was yet another set of antagonists which was this group of Eagle Scouts whose bank account she had broken into in Sandy’s name and they had come back for revenge. Once we assembled the whole film, it felt like one too many antagonists. And for the simple reason that that was a modular portion of the film, it was the one that felt like the cleanest lift, but it was really funny and really different. They did a good job. There’s other stuff that was even more recent removals from the film that are going to absolutely be in the extended cut. There’s a great scene with Jon Favreau. That scene that we do have in the office where he references “Fountainhead,” almost none of that scene was pre-scripted just because it’s Favreau. What I learned from “Four Christmases” is you need to set up a camera and set aside some time and play, and that’s exactly what the two of them did for several hours and the extended version of that is great. There’s a quitting scene with him that’s really great. All of that is going to be in the extended cut. The extended cut in the case of this movie is it’s more like great scenes rather than that stuff that feels like it’s been shoved in or really should have stayed on the cutting room floor. My background is editorial and so I try to keep things as economical as possible. And so, perhaps there’s some stuff that could have just as easily been in the film as well, but that will be on that extended version.
Q: The movie is a road trip from Florida to Colorado but you shot it in Georgia, so how did you guys work that out?
Gordon: A lot of driving. (laughs) Georgia is a big state and covers a lot of looks, and so basically, our production designer, Shepherd Frankel, went far and wide to find a variation and a palette for the evolution of the film so you really felt like you were traveling cross country. It was that and some carefully chosen bureau helicopter work that we did further from Georgia that gives it that sense of scope and expanse. That was a real concern of ours in a day when the studios like rebates from out-of-state work. That was definitely one of our challenges in order to do a road trip movie across the country. But the first thing we did is we built a timeline and a map of where we were when so we could arc all of that out.
Q: Will you be getting around to making “The King of Kong” movie?
Gordon: “The King of Kong” I love very much. There’s still a very good chance it could get made. Believe it or not, a draft of a script just came in. The writer is Melissa Stack. It’s the project that just won’t die. I think we are all drawn to it like the siren song because the doc happened at a place and time and team and series of serendipitous events that were extraordinary. I think we all fear tarnishing its memory by commercializing it. But at the same time, with the right cast in those parts, I feel like I could breathe new life into it and allow it to be something inspired by the original rather than a photocopy of it.
Q: I understand there’s an unauthorized musical based on it but I won’t see it.
Gordon: No, no, go see it. I think “The King of Kong” would be a great musical. It’s just the melodrama of Billy Mitchell and singing about hot sauce. I mean, I can’t help it. That would be amazing. I want to see it, even though I think it might be slightly tortuous for me to. It’s awesome that it’s being done. I think it’s slightly a parody of the original and that’s always great.
Q: Where are you with “Horrible Bosses 2”?
Gordon: They’re basically figuring out everyone’s deals but now it’s in progress. It’s a fun group to work with.