by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-chief
A controversial White House policy turns family member against family member in The Oath, a savagely funny dark comedy about surviving life and Thanksgiving in the age of political tribalism. When Chris (Ike Barinholtz), a high-strung 24-hour progressive news junkie, and his more levelheaded wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) learn that citizens are being asked to sign a loyalty oath to the President, their reaction is disbelief, followed by idealistic refusal. But as the post-Thanksgiving deadline to sign approaches, the combination of sparring relatives, Chris’s growing agitation and the unexpected arrival of two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) sends an already tense family gathering completely off the rails. As timely as it is outrageous, The Oath is a gleefully wicked sharp-witted reinvention of the traditional holiday comedy for our divisive political times.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with actor, writer and now director, Ike Barinholtz after a screening of The Oath in Boston.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity:
IKE BARINHOLTZ: Were you at the screening with your wife last night?
JAY CARLSON: Yes.
IB: Yes, yes, yes. Nice.
JC: She pulled the, ‘I don’t know if I if i want to go over there and bother him for a picture…’ And I was like we’re gonna get halfway down the hallway only to turn back around because you DO want to get a picture.
IB: People are like, ‘Do you mind?…’ And I’m like, ‘NO I love it. I love taking pictures with people.’
JC: So where else have you shown the film so far?
IB: Oh boy, All over Texas. Austin, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta San Francisco, LA, Chicago, DC, Philly and here.
JC: A lot of liberal areas?
IB: Well I mean… Metro Houston, I was pretty blown away by blue it is. But I will say we had a lot of folks in Texas who came up to me after the movie and… These days in Texas you know exactly if they’re liberal or not because they have a liberal button. If they have a Beto button? They’re FOR SURE liberal but a lot of people don’t, so the reactions have been pretty, pretty darn exciting for us. It’s really great to see people, not just like my friends and family or liberals, but people that work for like governor Greg Abbott were like, ‘I really liked it. I thought the conservative characters were over the top but I’d like that you make fun of liberals, too.’ So far it’s been a great reaction from a pretty diverse crowd.
JC: That’s good. I read on on your Wikipedia, which I hate pulling information off of, that you had initially wanted to be a politician.
IB: I did. I did. I grew up in Chicago and my dad was kind of involved with some local politicians. I loved the election love going to the polling place and I love talking to the polling workers and the free food and on a kind of bigger level I love watching these candidates talk to their constituents, or hopeful constituents and I was very enamored of that whole world and I just always like I just was kind of a weirdo about it. I had these like… I can’t describe them. They were like, imagine like a playing card but like 8×10 and they were like pictures of each president and they had all their facts and how they died and stuff. I would read those all the time. So I was always enamored by the arena and I had intentions of going into it, but once I came here and I kind of… I was fighting because I was like, I like movies and being a politician, you have to be, you know, a genius and you have to really work hard and be disciplined. We now know that’s not necessarily the case.
I just, had this rough year at BU and I just decided, this isn’t my path that I thought was the one I was going to be on. I don’t think that’s the one I kind of went back home and I saw some improv shows. And I kind of like oh, I can do that. I can try to make people laugh on stage and be sweaty and so I really kind of just immersed myself in that and that was very shortly afterwards I realized this is what I’m supposed to do.
JC: Are you closing the door on future political aspirations?
IB: I will say, I had a couple staffers in DC come up to me and were like, ‘If you ever want to run…’ I don’t believe in closed doors but I don’t think in the immediate future that’s on the horizon.
JC: So the film sort of plays as a black comedy, but it also it feels like an actual horror movie.
JC: And it’s interesting that you set it during Thanksgiving, because Thanksgiving already IS a horror movie. Especially the last couple of years. Was the intention that this is already such a such a tenuous time for families-
IB: Pretty much so. I really got the impetus for the movie after the Thanksgiving after the election. My wife, my mom and my brother and I had this big fight about it. It was pretty nasty. The next day, I was talking to my wife and I was like this is crazy, we all voted for the same person. And yet we were fighting. And I started talking to friends of mine and reading all the stories on Twitter and whatnot and I was like, Oh my God. The holiday table in America is DONE as we know it, it really is. And you know, I love Thanksgiving, there’s not a lot of Thanksgiving movies out there, but I just knew that I could shoot a movie in a house in a week, you know what I mean? One that took place over the weekend that feeling of stress the families kind of fraying on you but I knew I wanted it to be bigger. And I knew I wanted to kind of… kind of the tone of it I wanted to match the tone, the emotion, the cascade and the roller coaster that I was feeling every day when you go on Twitter and you see like a funny video of like a monkey smoking a cigarette and you’re laughing and then you go to the next video and it’s like a guy screaming at a Mexican woman to get out of the country and you’re like WHAT THE FUCK and get as angry as you can. I always knew it was not going to be a pure comedy and I knew I didn’t want to direct a movie that was just a very super serious thriller, yet. So I knew I was going to do this kind of weird balancing act. But I started assembling the story in my head and before you know it, and I had the way.
JC: You’ve just written in the past, you wrote Central Intelligence.
JC: Was there any thought that this might not be your first film, that you might just write it and let somebody else to direct? Or was it always the intention that you were going to use it as a vehicle for yourself?
IB: It’s the latter. You know, when I wrote Central Intelligence, back in 2008, I think, I was just like a baby screenwriter. We were just so thrilled that someone gave us money for words we wrote. But as I started doing the Mindy Project, Mindy really encouraged me to direct and she allowed me to direct some episodes and I really liked it, but I always felt, even when I was directing that show, there’s a filter, right? There’s like, if you’re just an actor it’s like three filters. There’s the writer, the director and the editor. And if even if you’re directing a TV show and you’re calling the shots ultimately it’s still through the filter of the creator or the show runner. So, I knew I wanted to do a movie that I can write, direct and then start in. I went down the road a little bit on this one idea, but then once I had this, and this idea started crystallizing, I knew that this was going to be the one. And there was really honestly no moment where I was like, maybe I should let someone else star in it. Certainly not, I should let someone else direct, especially because the tone was so unique, and again, you know, kind of genre bending or whatever. And so I knew that if I could get someone to get behind me, this would definitely be my first one.
JC: I look at this and I look at, movies like Get Out and others as sort of products of the election in 2016.
JC: And we all sort of told ourselves, the ones who are unhappy with the results of that election, that well, at least we’ll probably get some good art out of this, right? Obviously, with The Oath, it’s a pretty direct correlation. Do you think that these films are the art to come out of today’s political landscape?
IB: I do. I do, I’m a big fan, my favorite decade from the seventies. And it’s no coincidence that that came out of the kind of turbulence in the sixties, Vietnam and Kent State and whatnot. And I do think out of troubling times, you do get some great art. Get Out with certainly the first one that, even though I think it was made before Trumps presidency, he was still in the arena and racism was back and bigger than ever. This year there’s been, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting and The Hate U Give, which I heard is amazing. But I do think you will start seeing stories that are more reflective because it’s a strange and dark time that we’re living in. And I think that some of those things will start to permeate kind of the mainstream films, too. I think Black Panther is a lot more resonant now than it would come out three or four years ago. My hope is that artists and creators do kind of, I mean, there’s always room for escapist stuff, and period piece stuff, but it seems like a missed opportunity to me to not have a good batch of stories kind of directly reflective of what we’re seeing in society right now.
JC: How much did your working as an actor, both in TV and film prepare you for directing?
IB: A lot. I mean, it was really, most of that was like the practical side of it. Like, I know some great directors who are visual geniuses that have absolutely no idea how to talk to actors. I know some directors who are great with actors, but pretend like they know everything, and their shots look like shit. So I right away I was like, I’m going in real humble, real quick. And just in terms small things, I know it sounds petty perhaps, but as an actor, you get annoyed when you’re in your room and you’re studying lines, and they bring us to set, and then they’re like, ‘Eh We’re not quite ready for you.’ It’s just small things like that. And then also in terms of trying to keep the cast close by, by having them kind of hang out in this one room to run lines and stuff, it’s probably, as opposed to calling them out from their honey wagons to come out one at a time… That probably bought me, you know, 15 hours of extra action and shooting time. So most of the stuff is really stuff I was using practically. It wasn’t like philosophy or kind of macro stuff. It was more like, ‘Oh, this will help me directly make it better right now?’
JC: You have a lot of experience performing on stage in front of an audience. I recognize that as an actor, it’s not really up to you what ends up in a film, or how it turns out, you’re there to do your job. But as a director, how different is that experience from performing live, where you’re just out on your own, you don’t know necessarily how something is going to land. You obviously have a crew and cast around you that can tell you jokes are funny. But ultimately, you don’t know how it’s going to play with an audience. And you’re spending all of that time and all of that energy on producing something that you’re not sure how it’s going to go until it’s finally in front of an audience. At least with improv, you have an immediate reaction, you know, whether or not you’re doing well or not.
IB: Sure. And also it’s so temporary. If an improv show was bad, okay, whatever let’s have a beer, who cares? Terrifying. And there’s these different marking points along the way, where if you kind of clear this hurdle, right? The first one is writing the script. Do people like the script? Well right away, the people closest to me read it and were like, ‘This is you, this is really your point of view.’ And then finding a producer who was fully behind me like the QC guys were, which was great. And then you’re shooting, it feels good, it feels exciting, but until you see the editors assembly… my editor, Jack Price showed it to me and we were all like (exhales) because we had a lot of work ahead of us. But we knew on a fundamental, tonal and structural level it was working. But then again, like he said, until people see it… And we didn’t, we didn’t test this, because the movie is what it is. It’s not like we tested and they were like, I don’t like the oath part. We weren’t going to reshoot anything.
But we did have a night where we invited about 125 friends to a theater in LA. And we just asked them to answer a few questions. And the response was, ‘It’s a very strong and it was a very unique movie, we’ve never seen this before and it was frustrating in the right way.’ And you know, there’s still more hurdles now. I’m still waiting for, critics to come out and really kind of, you know, tear it apart. Then and then you have, do people show up? Is this something that quietly, you know, because I don’t really give a shit about money, but I know that people that are sending me here do and I want to make them happy. So there are all these kind of marking points. And I think, you know, the place I’m at now, I think going on this tour around the country has put me in such a good place because even if the movie like totally tanks and gets terrible reviews around the board, at least I know that people have a connection to it and they find it relatable and entertaining. I’ve heard a lot of, ‘Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for telling my story.’ So I’m in a good place now, but it’s been a stressful year.
JC: When you’re when you’re making a movie, you’re sort of making three movies, right? The movie you write, which is different than the movie you shoot which is different from the movie you find in the editing room. Were there parts to that process or even stuff that you filmed that got cut that you wish could have made it in but just didn’t fit with what you were doing? Or was it just the guys kind of planned out exactly what was going to be in there?
IB: We made some cuts after we showed some friends. First of all, I don’t like when movies go on very long. I like movies to be around 90 minutes, two hours of its a historical drama or something. But there was three or four scenes that we cut that were just… they weren’t load bearing. Some of them are mildly more character informing and situational informing. Some of them I personally loved. There’s this really funny scene I cut where Tiffany (Haddish) and I have sex. And it’s like, a very awkward sex scene, because I’m so stressed out and my mom banks on the door. I would love for that to be the movie, but at the end of the day, you just have to you have to kill your babies.
JC: So, what’s next? More directing?
IB: I want to keep doing this. I hope people see this so I can can do another one. I got a couple things. Me, and I normally write with my partner Dave Stassen, he’s the guy who wrote the Central Intelligence with me, and we have another kind of, big two hander, broadsheet comedy that we’re kind of down the road now on. And then I have another one that would be kind of a solo effort that will probably be from the same producers that I think is kind of spiritual sequel to (The Oath) in a sense it’s it’s about real life. If this is kind of all about like how politics and the current news cycles disrupt the family this one kind of explores the pitfalls of interacting with strangers on social media. If I can do a movie every year like Blockers, which is like a big fun, cute, sweet movie that people really connect with and then tell a story that really only exists in my head, I will be a very happy man.
JC: Thank you so much.
IB: Dude, thank you. I really appreciate you coming down and talking to me.
Not only is Ike Barinholtz THE sweetest and kindest person I’ve ever interviewed, but The Oath is hilarious and uncomfortable and fun and challenging and just a hell of a ride. The film is playing in select theaters and opens wide on Friday, so check your local listings for showtimes.