Partisan politics go from snarky comments to physical throwdowns with real life consequences in The Oath, a dark comedy from Ike Barinholtz in his directorial debut. When endlessly engaged news junkie Chris (Barinholtz), and his more even-keeled wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) find out that citizens are being asked to sign a loyalty oath to the President, they hold to their progressive beliefs and refuse to sign. But when Thanksgiving (the national deadline to sign) comes around, relatives on each side of the argument, Chris’s own unflappable beliefs, and the sudden appearance of two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) cranks up the tension until everyone is forced to redraw lines they never thought they’d cross. Forces of Geek had a chance to speak with Ike Barinholtz about extreme partisanship, family dynamics, and the reach of government.
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FOG!: Even though this is a comedy, there are scenes that could go either way. Are there parts that you were surprised people laughed at?
Ike Barinholtz: At the premiere in LA, literally as I’m holding the gun to Mason’s head people start laughing and I am like ‘oh my God you people are sick! What is wrong with you?’ (laughs). We’ve been all around the Bay Are and the Midwest and there’s always those moments that surprise me where people laugh at something I’d never imagine they’d laugh at, and then there are those moments where people are just having this very visceral reaction. We were in Philly the other night and at one point a guy, when the rest of the theater was completely silent, just goes “aww shit” as loud as he could.
There are some moments that I’m confident will get the reaction that I’m going for. Like I know when the dad tries to turn the tv on at the end that we’ll always get a laugh, you know? But I’m so tickled when there are these other little moments, like the one where Max Greenfield, who plays my coworker, turns to me and goes “Happy Thanksgiving”. That’s been getting this weird laugh from people, and it thrills me when I get those weird little moments.
You had such an excellent comedic cast. When you all sat down for the dinner scenes, what kind of small touches and improvs did they add to the film?
We had so many live moments where people were just improvising little tiny reactions. Like at the Thanksgiving table when I get my phone alert and I hear the news about the protest in New Orleans? Abby (Meredith Hagner) instinctively grabbed her phone too. And it’s great! Of course we’d all do that right now. Tiffany [Haddish] coming up with a term on the fly is a huge joke in the movie now, so there were tons of moments where the actors were bringing little unique improvs that made the movie richer, and feel more real.
The Oath is coming out before the midterm elections. Did you plan it this way? Do you hope that this shapes the political climate of the future?
We knew that the movie had to be out as soon as possible because who the hell knew where we were going to be in a month. There was always a bit of a “let’s get this out” and definitely before Thanksgiving felt appropriate. We knew the midterms were coming up and there was going to be a high level of angst in the country. I don’t think that anyone’s going to see this movie and change their political opinions. I would hope that it would change a little bit of behavior.
The biggest takeaway is that you are going to be entertained. This is not Fahrenheit 11/9, this is not a documentary YET; it might be one day. The most important thing is that the audience walks away having laughed or been moved, and they thought it was scary and tense. But two things that I’ve laid in there, that I hope people take away, is that it is okay to unplug. I was basically Chris. For the year up to the election and a year after I was glued to my phone, and I was letting it dictate my mood. I was letting something that like, Mitch McConnell said affect my mood when I was playing with my daughter. How stupid is that? So, I hope that people can find balance that I’m still trying to find.
I’m closer to finding it than I was a year ago, of being in tune with what is going on and being aware of the very scary and drastic changes that are happening in the country and using that information to affect the change that you want — whether it’s voting or affecting change on a personal or a community level — but making sure that we don’t let it rob our happiness. We’re on this Earth for like 8 seconds. If we are just so wrapped up and we’re letting it dictate our lives so much I think you would look at that as a waste of time someday. So I’m trying to hope people get a little more balance.
And then the bigger point are these connections with our family and our friends. I know some people who are like “well I’m not going to speak to my aunt ever again, I don’t like her and she supports Donald Trump and I hate him”. And I know people on the other side who are like “I hate my brother’s wife because I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton and she called me a Nazi asshole; I’m not going to talk with her, I’m done”. You hear a lot of that, “I’m done with them”. And I’m not telling people what to do, you have to make your own decisions. If you have an uncle who’s a flaming racist, who wears an Infowars shirt and you don’t want to talk to him anymore, that’s your right and I’m not going to stop you. But I do believe in cycles and I do believe America is bigger than any president.
I believe there will be a President one day that is not Donald Trump and that will make me happy but it will make another swath of the country unhappy. And if we have cut all these ties to people that challenge us we won’t be able to get those ties back. I feel like we’re all in bubbles now, and whether we like it or not those bubbles are never going to burst. But if we cut these ties and we simply don’t want to have these conversations at all, we’ll make the bubble smaller and thicker. I don’t know how we move forward if we don’t have those ties.
You recently said that if this movie isn’t relevant in a few years that’d be great. But what parts of the movie do you hope stay relevant?
The importance of family. Piggybacking off the last answer, you meet new friends in your life but your family is your family. I’ve learned that there is family that I’ve pushed away in my life and I have needed them, and I’ve missed them. And then, the thinking of I will do anything to protect my children, kind of Tiffany central POV in it. I would do anything to protect my kids; I have had 3 kids in the last 5 years. I understand the importance of putting their safety and welfare above anything else and I do think that Tiffany’s character embodies that, and I do think that’s a good takeaway. She’s the ultimate mama bear and that’s a good message.
The characters of Abby and Mason are a really an interesting take; are they based off of something you experienced? How did you come up with them?
It’s a new archetype that we’ve seen pop up in America media in the last few years which is this blonde, what’s her name — Tomi Lahren? And I’ve been very intrigued by that character who’s like kinda perky but saying these kind of crypto-fascist things it’s just so weird. So I knew I wanted to put that person in a movie because I’ve never really seen that person in a movie before. So I wanted to throw that in there.
Initially Mason in my mind was an older guy. He was a guy in his late 50’s, like a Michael Rooker or Stephen Lang type of guy. But when I watched the footage from Charlottesville I wasn’t seeing a lot of oldies; I was seeing a lot of young men. Immediately the next day I started refashioning the character and aging it down. When Billy Magnussen was one of the first names presented…I was such a huge fan of his from his work in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story as Kato Kaelin. So I had a long talk with him about it, and besides Tiffany I think he’s the best in the movie. In real life he’s very handsome and in the movie he’s just got that awful haircut and mustache, but yeah I think he’s the character that has just gone through the most evolution.
Do you think that something like The Oath could actually happen?
Yeah, I do. Three years ago it would be impossible to imagine, but I’ve seen all these indicators along the way that “why couldn’t it”? I was just reading that we were renegotiating NAFTA and there’s language in there that’s kind of buried deep but it’s basically a loyalty oath. It’s basically saying that “if you talk to any other countries that you have to tell us” and it’s just…put it this way: there’s not a whole lot I would put past the U.S. government right now.
I think that in terms of a somewhat paramilitary force abridging people’s civil liberties and going to their homes, again, 3 years ago I’m sure it was happening but I didn’t have a light shined on it so i was like “oh this is an interesting concept”.
But now you read about ICE and some of the things that have been going on at the border. And I never would have guessed a few years ago that we’d have a crisis where they were actively separating mothers and children at the border…Never in a million years, and it’s happening now. So I don’t think that tomorrow there’s going to be a big loyalty oath that we’re all going to have to sign and they’ll knock on the door if you don’t sign it, but my propensity to be surprised by government overreach is being tested more and more. We should be aware that anything could happen at any given time.
Do you feel that we should just be keeping the times that we’re sitting with our family a politics free zone, or is it better to try as hard as you can to have those civil conversations?
I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I definitely don’t think we should say “okay we’re not going to talk politics”; like we should embrace some of these. I think civility is important and you don’t want to get to a point where there’s physical violence–
–but that makes for a good movie.
Yes, it makes for a good movie but it makes for a tragic real life Thanksgiving. So I think if you’re able to have a rational conversation with your uncle that you totally don’t agree with, try it. Because I feel like if we start living in a totally apolitical society I think that it’s burying your head in the sand, and I don’t think that’s the right solution either.
The Oath arrives in theaters today.