Justine Bateman, an experienced actor who has turned her attention to directing, talks to us about how being the former has informed the latter, her experience making short films, how they lead to the making of her new feature Violet, and the plans she has to explore 'layered projects' with free-flowing structure in storytelling.
Justine Bateman’s acting career kicked off in a big way back in the 80s starring alongside Michael J. Fox on the hit sitcom, Family Ties. Since then, she has continued to excel in roles on TV shows such as Desperate Housewives, Arrested Development and Men Behaving Badly (the US version - sorry Martin Clunes!)
During her busy career, Justine even went back to university and achieved an under-graduate degree in Computer Science at UCLA. She continued to work toward becoming a writer-director, until the right time arrived in 2017, when she directed her first two short films, Five Minutes and PUSH - and ultimately lead her on to her new feature Violet starring Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux.
In fact, it is on her day off from the shoot that Justine kindly takes the time to chat with Exit 6 about her career, changes in the industry, and what she thinks it takes to get your film made. She even reveals some memorable advice that she received from her little brother and fellow filmmaker, Jason Bateman.
Do you think your past experiences - the rise to fame you had in the 80s and your time working in the industry since then - affect the way you do things now?
"Well, writing, directing, producing just feels so natural for me and I just feel like everything I’ve done until now was just prep for now. Every film I’ve ever watched; when I was really young I was taken to these theatres in Los Angeles that play double bills of old films, so I grew up watching double bills of Frederico Fellini films and Michelangelo Antonioni films and others of that era of 60s and 70s European filmmaking. That informed a lot of my film taste and my aesthetic, and the sort of emotional tenure as a film goes.
Then, having had a long acting career definitely informs my directing. I can remember feeling that there were three kinds of directors when I was acting: the ones who stayed out of your way, the ones who got in your way and the ones that actually helped, and the last category was not as common as the other two. Sometimes you’d get a terrific director but, most of the time, if they stayed out my way it was good for everybody. It’s true for anyone really - everything they’ve gone through, every job one’s ever had, informs the way you do your present job - and that’s true for me too."
What significant changes have you seen in the industry over the past 30+ years?
"The biggest changes I see have to do with the way films are distributed.
Good products are good products, that’s never changed - the difference between something good and something bad. The difference in the last 10 years has been the means of distribution and the number of distribution outlets.
We’ve seen incredible consolidation in the traditional media avenues and then we’ve seen this large expansion in the digital avenues. It used to be that you were just stuck with, or you were limited to, who had control of distribution, but then the internet changed that so tremendously and enabled a wider selection of financing and distribution sources."
Did this element of freedom offered by digital distribution encourage you to go ahead and make and distribute your own work such as your shorts?
"It really is a boom for shorts and it’s great that you can show it to everybody after it makes its festival round, it's very nice for that - but for my feature we just got money the old-fashioned way!
Myself and my manager Larry Hummel, who is actually one of the producers on the film, just hammered it every single day. He had a spreadsheet of all the people we could think of that had any connection to money whatsoever - companies, individuals, wealthy widows - and we finally got all the money together. That’s the means by which people have gotten money for films for decades, there’s nothing new there, but when it comes time to sell it, there’s a wider range of distributors than there used to be."
Exploring that idea of 'hammering away' further, what's your process of pitching a feature film to producers?
"If you’re not a hustler, maybe you’ll get the money, but I’m not sure. You’re trying to sell people on something that is not a piece of real estate. You can’t guarantee that anyone’s going to get their money back, of course, and you should never suggest that. I don’t have any control over how the audience is going to react to a film. I don’t have any control over how much money it’s going to make. What I do have control over, as an independent filmmaker, is the quality and tone of the film - that I can guarantee - and that was part of the pitch."
Photo courtesy of Section 5
So, your two shorts - was making those first, perhaps, slightly tactical so you could eventually build that pitch for a feature?
"Well eventually I’m going to be doing these what I call ‘layered projects’, that combine technology and entertainment. This is why I went and got my under-grad degree at UCLA a few years ago in ‘Computer Science & Digital Media Management’, to help facilitate in bringing those projects together.
First of all, I had to wait for the right time for me to direct. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do since I was 19, but the timing never felt right. I didn’t want to go straight into the layered projects because I felt like, if I did that, I may not want to go back into traditional projects. There’s a couple of traditional projects I want to get done before I go into that.
So, it wasn’t so much a prep, or a sales tool; it was much more, “I better do these things now or I may not want to do them later”, once I get into the layered projects. Of course, it wasn’t a sort of ‘master plan’, but now when I look at it in retrospect, it was a really good plan. The one short helped me get money for the next short (the first short I did for almost nothing); the next short I crowdfunded and got some money for that; then those two things helped me get funding and interest from cast and crew for ‘Violet’. We’ll see how it pans out, because there are still some other projects that I’m interested in doing that are more traditional too, so we’ll see what order it goes in. But the layered projects I definitely want to do before I die, for sure."
Photo courtesy of Section 5
The layered projects sound very interesting. Can you tell us more about what you have in mind?
"Yeah, the layered projects are just taking advantage of structural freedom. There’s a certain structure to a film that is dictated by the technical restrictions of how that project’s going to be shown. So, for a long time now our scripts have had to be linear, because of the means by which we are distributing it. You go to a movie theatre, you have to watch things from the beginning, and then the middle, and then the end. Same thing for a TV show, a play, a radio show.
When you look at something like a touch screen, you can shape a script like a tree instead of like a line - it can have branches. And not ‘choose your own adventure’, but rather, the story is that big. It’s the way in which you can arrange that story. We’re curious as human beings, and I feel like the technology can be used now to structure film scripts in a way that more so mirrors our curious nature as human beings."
I can’t wait to see them. It feels a little strange going back to talk about your standard filmmaking now! I love that your first short, Five Minutes, was made for pretty much no money. I found that quite reassuring as a new filmmaker myself.
"Yeah, we made that for - I think it was $1500. Like many filmmakers, you just go, “okay, what needs to get done? I’ll do it all. What can I not do?” I need a cinematographer; I need an AD; I need somebody keeping an eye on makeup, but all the actors can come in having done their own makeup, and all the actors can come in their own clothes; you need someone doing sound. Your first project, just get the people you absolutely need and do the rest yourself.
This has been said before, but really limit your locations. If you can shoot it all in one location, like we did all that in a day. You can shoot it in a day, you can. Use actors that you know - that’s going to save you a lot of time and a lot of stress. Yeah, use what is available to you. It can be done. It can be done."
That’s great advice. It’s nice to know that’s a good way to start and then that hopefully will give people a reason to believe in your future projects.
"Yeah, because anyone can say “hey, I’m a filmmaker”. I mean, you’re a film ‘maker’, it’s in the title - you make something. So make something. Even if it’s just a mood piece that you shot on your iPhone and cut it together. You’ve got to be a hustler, and do away with how you think you’re going to be received; what you think your career is going to be in 5 years. Just fucking forget it, all of that. Just make something. Just make your thing. And if you don’t feel like you have anything to say right now, or don’t think you have any intention or whatever, then don’t right now. Let it bake. Let it marinate."
Photo by Joe Povenzano
And now you’re filming your first feature Violet. How’s it going? You’ve got such a great cast.
Oh my god! Everybody’s just so terrific. We’ve shot a week now and it looks beautiful. Everything from the production design to the cinematography, the acting - it’s great. And then everyone behind the scenes is just so good at it. Our AD, our AC, wardrobe - everybody! It’s such a good group of people. I’d love to do every project with them.
Are you able to tell us a bit about it, or is it too early stages?
"Oh no, of course! The film is about those critical thoughts that we have. In the film we call it ‘the voice’. It’s the voice that says things like, “don’t wear that shirt to the party or no-one’s going to talk to you”. Consciously, or unconsciously, we’ll change our shirt because we’re concerned that that is true. The more times we do that - the more times we make these fear-based decisions - the more we get off of our ‘path’.
So, this is about somebody who realises she’s far down the road as somebody who’s made a lot of fear-based decisions. She realises, not only is she not where she should be, but that voice that she thought was guiding her has been lying her whole life; that it’s not true if she wears that shirt to the party that no-one’s going to talk to her. But then, to go forward to make decisions that are not fear-based, that’s another level of trepidation, because now you're operating without a net. That’s what it’s about.
My hope is that some people will see it and maybe it will help them to realise that every single time the critical thoughts come, every single one of them is bullshit. If you do the opposite, you’ll probably be on track."
I love that premise. I can’t wait to see it! The filming follows some great news as part of your director's journey - congratulations on getting your DGA membership recently.
Oh yeah, that’s pretty thrilling. Thank you. Yeah, getting the WGA membership years ago felt like a real triumph too, because those aren’t easy union memberships to get!
It’s really neat. I’m really lucky to have had as long a career as I’ve had so far, for many reasons, one of them being the number of people I know in the business that I can call on to come make this project with me. It’s not about them helping me make my movie. I know people say that and often it sounds like bullshit, but I have a package to deliver and I can’t deliver it on my own. So, on this film, I had to find people who also wanted to deliver the package as I described it to them, from the actors to the entire crew, and that’s my job as a filmmaker.
I feel like, as the writer-director-producer, a big part of my job is finding others who also want to deliver that particular package. If they want to deliver a different package, like “oh maybe this could be a comedy, maybe this could be that and that”, I go, “hey maybe we’ll work together on something else somewhere down the road, but not on this because you’re not interested in delivering this particular package”.
Photo by Michael Jones
I thought it would be nice to finish up with some great advice you’ve received in your career that has really stuck with you?
Yeah, my brother Jason - he’s a filmmaker too - he had a really good one. Some company was going to talk about doing some financing and they had some comments about the script, and they said some things that were so opposite to what my intentions were with the film at the time, and they still are. And then my brother says [*lowers voice*], “there are two kinds of notes: the ones that make your project better and the ones that make your project different”.
There’s a trillion different ways that you could cast it, or locations you could choose, or lines you could change or whatever. It always comes back to, thematically, what are you saying? What is the thesis statement of this paper? Whatever that thesis statement is, everything’s got to dovetail into it: the dialogue, the casting, everything. If it doesn't, it doesn't mean that it’s a bad suggestion necessarily, it’s just something that is better suited for another script."
Does that inform your directing style as well?
Well sure. As the director I’m overseeing all the aspects of it - the literal look of it, the tone of it, everything.
The production designer is only focused on what’s in front of the screen; the cinematographer’s only focused on the framing and the movement and the lighting and all of that; the actors are only focused on those particular characters. And so, if they've spent that concentrated amount of time (hopefully, I hope they have!) on that one character, then if they tell me “I don't know that he would do this right here”, I want to hear about it; I want to talk about it. And if I disagree with them, I have to be able to defend my reasons why I disagree with them.
You have to be able to say why thematically, metaphorically, plot-wise, everything - why it’s in there."