Chicago native Ike Barinholtz has made a career out of scene stealing, from his earliest days as an improv performer with Improv Olympic and Second City (among others) and a cast member on MadTV in the early 2000s to bigger television roles in Eastbound & Down to The Mindy Project. In more recent years, Barinholtz landed sizable supporting roles in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Suicide Squad, Snatched, the Netflix film Bright, and a very funny turn in Blockers earlier this year.
But his latest work, The Oath, not only features his largest role to date, but it also marks his debut as a writer/director of a film that is part dark comedy, part family drama, and eventually, part high-tension thriller. Set primarily over the 24-hours surrounding a Thanksgiving feast hosted by Barinholtz’s Chris and wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish, in a wonderfully dialed-back performance) at their home, the story involves the (fictional) president wanting every American to sign a loyalty oath to the country.
As the nation grows closer to the oath’s Black Friday deadline, tensions and conflicts are on the rise, and while the oath is said to be voluntary, those who refuse to sign are treated like criminals and traitors. Imagine that, and then put the pressure of preparing a meal the entire family, which includes Chris’s mom (Nora Dunn), brother (Jon Barinholtz, Ike’s real-life sibling) and his instigator girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), sister (Carrie Brownstein) and her sickly husband (Jay Duplass). The situation spins out of control when two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) arrive at the front door. The film feels timely, relevant, and works as a genuine conversation starter. More importantly, The Oath makes me genuinely interesting to see what Barinholtz does next as a filmmaker.
/Film spoke to Barinholtz recently in Chicago about The Oath and how much of it was based on real-life conversations/arguments amongst his friends and family, the inspiration behind the film “loyalty oath,” and how he made sure the film found ways to poke fun at both conservatives and liberals who watch too much 24-hour news. The film is now playing in select theaters.
For context, this interview occurred just a few hours before a Q&A screening of The Oath Barinholtz and I did, along with Nora Dunn. The publicist has just informed him that I’ll be moderating as we begin…
Ike: Holy shit, man. Thank you. We’re going to have some fun tonight. I’ve got a lot of old Chicago Jews coming, so they’ll be yelling “What?!” My 94-year-old grandmother is seeing it; I’m worried she’s going to ask a lot of questions…during the film.
First of all my condolences on the Cubs not winning the wildcard game earlier today.
Ike: Aw, god damn. What were they swinging at. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It sucked.
I saw that Cubs commercial you made for them, where you basically just get to infiltrate every part of Wrigley Field. What a fan’s dream come true that must have been to shoot.
Ike: There’s a guy who works for the organization, and once a year when the Cubs come out to play the Dodgers, the Cubs have a box and the they invite all of the Chicago people who live in L.A. It great. You get to see Bob Newhart, Bob Odenkirk. And I met this guy, and he’s the one who got me to throw out the first pitch a couple of years ago, and he said we might be doing this commercial, and I said, “Absolutely.” I’m doing this for the Cubs; I grew up in the neighborhood. Being inside the scoreboard was pretty amazing. I’ve wanted to go in there since I was young, when I thought working in there would be a dream job. And then I got in there and was like “This is a rough job.” It’s hot in there, and there aren’t a lot of bathroom facilities, but it was a dream come true.
This idea of the family dinner table as a battlefield is a tried-and-true, family-drama idea, and we all have a relative who’s problematic, and The Oath is that to the Nth degree. Where did you get the idea of combining that idea with living in the most problematic times we’re seen in decades?
Ike: It was shortly after the 2016 election, and I had my family come out to Chicago for the holidays, and after diner, my mom, my brother and I got into this conversation—a nasty argument, really—about what happened. And I woke up the next day realizing “We all voted for the same person. What the hell is going on? What is happening at this friendly house? What’s going on across the country?” As I started talking to my friend who had all flown home and reading articles and talking to my own family, I knew that that landscape of the holiday table in America and the age-old maxim of not talking politics at the table had blown up. It was over. If you were able to get through a Thanksgiving in 2018 and you don’t talk about politics, you have a level of discipline that I just don’t understand. Or bad communication. One or the other—either way, it’s not good.
So I knew that that kind of arena would be a ripe place for satire, and I knew I needed another big component. I love dystopic movies, I’m always curious about the genesis of dystopia—how did this begin. So I came up with this concept of this semi-compulsory oath, and once I layered that in, it just worked and it seemed to be successful at being the thing that pulled people apart when they were already apart to begin with. It was taking that thing we know and love, or hate, and combining it with this looming government crisis, and luckily we hit the balance.
It’s fascinating to watch Tiffany Haddish in this. I don’t think we’ve ever seen her in a role like this, where she gets to play such a great range, from being really dialed back and trying to keep the peace, and eventually we get to watch her degenerate and explode. Because of the nature of everyone in the film slowly getting riled up, were you able to shoot things more or less chronologically?
Ike: Somewhat. We were able to get out first parts. It’s loosely based on my own life and me being slowly driven crazy after the election. With every headline, I had to tell my wife “Can you believe this shit?” Eventually, she gets numb to it and starts to feel like she’s married to Chicken Little. So to see Tiffany in that internalized, small, quietly trying to get her daughter to school, trying to get the family fed, and slowly being worn down. We shot a lot of that first. Then as she hits that point, we really did shoot all of the Thanksgiving and the more bloody stuff somewhat chronologically. Then we went back in time to the early scenes in the movie, where I’m clean shaven and slightly leaner. But yeah, she really did an amazing job.
How much of that was her understanding the tone and just getting it right, or did you have to direct to change up the performance at all?
Ike: When I first met with her to talk about the script, she said, “I’ve never seen this movie before. I get it, I want to do it, it’s happening now, and it’s exactly what’s happening in my life now.” I clearly said to her, this character is suffering, she’s quietly suffering, and she wants to tell her husband “Shut the fuck up!” but she can’t because she loves him and understands the stress he’s in, but it’s wearing her down. I did not have to give her a whole lot of direction on that; she really nailed the tone. There was some calibration stuff throughout the story: “You’re at a seven, and you can go to a nine here. Or go to a five.” She’s incapable of being false, and for this movie, which is very much based in reality, she delivered from the jump.
You mentioned that this sprung from this family conversation, and your brother is in the film. Is Nora playing a version of your mom from that conversation?
Ike: In a way, she is, in that mothers are inherently peacemakers. They do foresee the problem and they know it’s coming and they will see “Just so you know, let’s not talk about that.” But unlike Nora’s character, my mother is more vocal and doesn’t give a shit. She’s a cancer survivor, so she doesn’t give a shit. She’s say what’s on her mind. But she is a still a mama bear, and the worst thing for her is watching her sons fight.
Speaking of which, you do get many chance to got ballistic on your brother. Is that an easy thing to tap into after a lifetime of what I imagine is nonstop sibling abuse?
Ike: That’s why I cast him. There are a lot of great actors who could have played that part, but no one that I threw a bag of change at in 1989 and gave a black eye. I really, truly knew that because our characters were so combative that I can push him. You know how you’ll protect you brother more than anyone, but you will also get madder at your brother more than anyone? There’s 35 years of shit between us, and I knew that I could scratch at this—I was really very manipulative—and when my mom saw the movie, she said, “I know there are scenes where you’re really being mean to your brother.” I said, “Yeah, but I paid him.” But no one pisses you off more than you’re brother, I knew I could get there with him and vice versa. That fraternal love, my man.
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