Writer/director Ike Barinholtz says that his equally cathartic and chaotic political comedy “The Oath” was inspired by the most recent presidential election. But its basic premise owes itself to a nearly timeless legacy: arguing about politics with family members. In the case of his original screenplay, it’s about a family that is divided over conservative and liberal ideologies, while trying to go through the motions of the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Barinholtz casts himself as the obnoxious liberal in the group, Chris, who is like the Clark Griswold patriarch to his family's descent into madness, especially when authorities get involved.
Everyone has been divided by Barinholtz’s sharp pitch of a dystopic idea: the government’s request that all citizens sign an oath to the president, vowing to protect the office in mysterious circumstances. Without any masks or extreme violence needed, the chaos that ensues over the constant debates about whether people should sign the oath recalls “The Purge”; it's about the absurdity of our divisiveness, while recognizing that it's not going to go away any time soon.
Barinholtz makes his debut as a director with this film, having previously co-written the script for “Central Intelligence,” episodes of “The Mindy Project” and more. In "The Oath," Barinholtz is joined on-screen by the likes of Tiffany Haddish (who plays his wife Kai), Nora Dunn, Carrie Brownstein, John Cho, Meredith Hager, Jon Barinholtz, Billy Magnussen, Chris Ellis and more.
RogerEbert.com sat down with Barinholtz to talk about his new movie, the biggest misconception about political people in Hollywood, why many actors only direct one film and more.
I’m gonna start with a bipartisan question—why choose Mason Williams' “Classical Gas” to play in the end credits, after all of the stress and mayhem of “The Oath”?
I always loved that song. To me, anything that’s guitar-heavy has a very American feel. And it really has this majesty to it when the orchestra kicks in. And I really wanted the movie to end on this optimistic note; I am optimistic about the country even though it’s kind of fucked up right now. And I wanted something big and American and something you could sink your teeth into, so that the audience feels what Chris and Kai are feeling, that it’s behind them right now. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, but for this moment right now we’re eating a piece of the pie and life is good.
Where does your optimism come from, or where does it keep coming from?
I can tell you: the people. We tend to look at everything in terms of red and blue now, even states. “Well, Alabama is Alabama, that’s a red state.” But then you talk to people in Alabama, regular people in Alabama, and they care. You see, regardless of what people think about Trump, you see people working hard, man. And you see people trying to hold onto their vision of America, which for a lot of people is not this awful Horatio Alger-on-steroids shit that Paul Ryan talks about, where it’s “You can be rich and even richer.” I’m talking about the people who, America to them is providing for their family and working hard and contributing to a society where we don’t hate each other, where we embrace our commonalities more than our differences. Going around the country with this movie and talking with people after makes me more inspired.
Did being in Hollywood and getting a larger idea of the business, make you even more political? Or make you aware of your place as someone with influence?
Yeah, I mean, I got on Twitter after the 2008 election. I’ve been screaming my insane political opinions for a while now into the ether. But I think it is a time where … I think that America has had the luxury of, the people who do have a platform, they’ve been able to remain neutral, non-partisan stuff, and that’s fine, that’s your decision. But to me, if you do have a bit of a bullhorn and you see things are really bad and you know they’re bad and they’re affecting you personally, I don’t know how you don’t. I understand you don’t want to alienate anyone, but what’s more important than the country?
There are specific actors who don’t take political stances. But everyone has to make a choice.
I don’t begrudge them, but when I see people like Chris Evans, who is fucking Captain America, and you see him calling him out and calling out hypocrisy and cruelty, I give a lot of respect to those who don’t care. They just place their voice, and what they think about the country, on a higher level than they do how their movies do.
You have a grounded idea of politics, but you’re very much in the “Hollyweird” thing.
What is the biggest misconception, as someone in the industry, that outsiders have of it?
I think the biggest misconception in terms of people who don’t live in Los Angeles, is that they’re all just a bunch of rich movie stars. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know what the hard numbers are on this, but I’m guessing that 98% of SAG members make on par an average a year what the average worker makes at a car plant. It’s very tough business, so I get mad when people say “oh it’s just rich Hollywood liberals, that’s not the case.” People in Hollywood, I think, are liberal because they’ve been living in a very diverse city for some time, and the reality is ... look at your high school, look at who moves to Hollywood. It’s the people who are actors and performers and writers, and they’re attuned to the empathetic side and they find people’s stories inspiring. But the great thing is, is the argument you can always say when someone’s hardcore ignorant, “Oh, who cares what you think,” and it’s like, “OK, well you’ve elected the biggest star fucker of all time. A guy who is not even a Z-list movie star, but a Z-list personality.” So that I don’t worry about as much, I just hope that they see us as regular Americans who care about the state of the country.
With the release of this movie, do you worry about the deluge of right-wing tweets you’re about to get?
No, I don’t. The reality is, if anyone watched it, on any side, they would see that I’m shining a light on the absurdity of the situation. My character is the most liberal and he’s the biggest dick in the movie. He’s insufferable, he’s rude. I took a side by showing all sides, warts and all. But you cannot make art that needs to appeal to people who will never see it. This movie is for people who will see it. It’s not just people on the left.
Given that this project started around November 2016, that’s a pretty fast track for a debut movie from an actor. Did the story stay pretty much the same throughout the process?
Were there any extremes you had to whittle out?
Not really. Structurally, conceptually, it is very close to my original idea. There was discussion early on in the script process, of “Well, I think this has to be darker,” or “This person has to die,” and I really resisted that urge. And in the same token, again as the fundamentals stay the same, there were a lot of permutations as we were going through the editing process. Jordan Peele saw it and gave me this great note where he’s like, “You’re balancing humor and scariness and tension, and sometimes you’re going too far with the humor, so you’ve got to scale that back a little bit.” And he’s right, because if you made this movie just a thriller, people would be like you’re missing the part of life about politics, the fun part of it. And then on the flip side, if you just made it a straight-up comedy, like “The Campaign” which I love, it was a slightly different time where politics were more innocuous. If you gave people pure comedy [with “The Oath”], they’d say “I’m kind of feeling cold, you’re not giving enough gravity to these kind of serious situations.” So we made a very conscious decision tonally and structurally and story-wise, what it’s going to be.
How did you test this movie with audiences?
We didn’t. The reality was that we found a distributor with Roadside Attractions, and they said “we want it.” And this is a movie where, if we tested it … look, it’s a crazy movie people have different emotions about it, and we weren’t going to reshoot anything because we knew what it was. If testing came back and said overwhelmingly “this didn’t work,” this is what the movie is. And luckily we’ve done our own little testing the past few weeks, taking it all throughout Texas, and Atlanta, and San Francisco. The reactions have been pretty thrilling, not just from rock-hard liberals, but dyed-in-the-wool conservatives; people who work for the governor Greg Abbott saw it, and he is as red as they get. The thing that we got the most, that made me feel really good, was people relating to it. “Man, I’m a conservative, my brother, man, he’s like you in that movie. He just doesn’t shut up, and it pisses me off.” And the flip side of that, being like, “I am you in this movie and I feel like I’m yelling into the void.” So, there’s no real testing per say, because we knew what it was, this is it, and love it or hate it.
This is definitely a stressful movie, and I was wondering if you were ever concerned with whether people would or wouldn’t want to see that?
I mean, look. We knew that, even though the movie I don’t think is about politics, it’s about family reflecting politics, there are just some people right now who are so disillusioned and turned off by everything, regardless of the affiliations or whatever. They’re like, “I can’t, I need total escapism,” and to those people I would say, “Just watch it, because you’ll be entertained.” But we needed to stress people out a little bit, because it’s the most stressful time in my life. And when you open Twitter and you see like a really funny video of a dog eating its own poop and you start laughing hard, and then the next thing you watch is footage of a mother and a child separated at the border and you start crying. It stresses you out, and your brain doesn’t know how to handle the constant dopamine rush and subtraction. So, I wanted it to be incredibly reflective of how we feel in this cycle now where we are being pulled to these far extremes and expected to snap right back, and people aren’t. Brains are breaking, and we really wanted to shine a light on that.
There’s a sharp idea in "The Oath" to how your character is an obnoxious, if not performative feminist, and there’s a key joke that involves him mentioning Roxane Gay.
[laughs] I think that’s kind of part of the fun of sometimes, at least some of my friends, the hypocrisy of being a liberal. We are programmed to respect everyone, but when you’re really mad it’s like “I’m going to say anything.” And also like, when I make off-color jokes, there is an entitlement, because I know I’m on the right side, and I do feel like I did the right thing. So when I say it, it’s not that bad, which is not a great way to go about it, but I thought that would be fun.
It was one of my biggest laughs in the movie.
I hope Roxane likes it.
You didn’t run it by her?
No, no. I’m a huge fan, but I could see her being like, “Thank you so much for using my name to set up a c-word joke. Awesome. Great job.”
I’m curious, as there are a lot of actors who become directors for one movie, like Marlon Brando and “One Eyed Jacks,” etc. Why do you think that’s the case, as an actor who has now directed your first movie?
I can tell you and it’s not a great answer: it’s hard. Compared to being an actor, I’ll be honest … being an actor, obviously, the emotion, getting to that place is very hard. But the reality is, if you’re an actor, you show up, you prep at home, you do your job and you get to go home. When you’re directing a movie it’s a year, it’s a minimum of a year of your life. Especially if you’re conceiving it and writing it, you’re prepping until you can’t prep anymore. And I’m a loquacious dude, and every night I was like, “Shut the fuck up man, just shut the fuck up. You talk so much!” And then the post process is just months and months, and it’s the stress of it.
I feel like some actors try it because they’ve been on set a lot, “Oh, I know how to talk to a grip.” And then the work hits you, and you’re like, “I’ll just go back on set.” But for me, I had a really fun time doing it, despite the work. But now this part, of showing it to people and talking to people about it and hearing their unfiltered reactions, it makes it all worth it.