The Art of the Zing
Writer Andrew Dodge on his film Bad Words, the smell of a dictionary and obliterating sexy.
by Andrew Bloomenthal
Screenwriter Andrew Dodge loves words. And he uses them to hilarious scathing effect in Bad Words—the subversive new comedy directed by and starring Jason Bateman as Guy Trilby, an acid-tongued man-child, on a mission to gate-crash a children’s national spelling bee. But his eligibility loophole of never graduating the eighth grade by no means suggests an intellectual deficit. On the contrary: Guy has intelligence to spare—even if he dedicates it to towards spewing invective on all whom he encounters, including the bee’s imperial patriarch (Philip Baker Hall), its cranky administrator (Allison Janney), and tousle-haired news reporter (Kathryn Hahn), who knows a human interest story when she sees one. Not even Guy’s pint-size competitors are safe from his below-the-belt tactics, like when he squirts ketchup on a contestant’s white pants, causing her to opt out of the bee, rather than display ersatz evidence of her monthly visitor on national television. Or when he throws a contestant off balance by convincing him his parents filed for divorce. Say what you will about Guy, but the man commits.
Things take left turn when Guy forms an unlikely friendship with precocious nine-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Homeland’s Rohan Chand), who’s as socially awkward as he is whip smart. Perhaps their bond, despite their tempestuousness, exemplifies the film’s feel-good center cloaked in a vitriolic shell. Thankfully, Dodge sidesteps treacly sentiment, keeping the dramatic dips to mere pit stops between the black humor.
Dodge says inspiration for the story harks back to his high school days in the National Forensic League–a debate program that strokes similar to spelling bees, with competitive kids, high-maintenance parents and stressed-out coaches. The narrative took further shape when Dodge saw the 2002 documentary Spellbound.
“As I was watching the movie I was thinking that these kids are a bunch of weirdos. Then I thought it would be great if a person told one of these kids, ‘You’re such a weirdo.’ Dodge found a partner-in prose in Bateman, who helped fine-tune the script, which entailed making Guy as prickly as necessary to be funny, while keeping him just palatable enough.
“Guy is certainly not setting out to commit a prank or be a shit-stirrer,” says Bateman, of his character. “He’s somebody who thinks he is pursuing something cathartic, and that ends up being pretty humorous to us normal people.”
Creative Screenwriting talked to Dodge about how he recognizes funny, balancing humor with heart, and his determination to obliterate sexy from sex scenes.
How far did you have to stretch the reality of spelling bees, for dramatic effect?
The script version of my portrayal was more accurate than what we shot, because we had to pare scenes down due to time. But one of funniest things in spelling bees is when a competitor ghost spells on his hands, to try to visualize how words are spelled, and in the script I had sequences where a contestant asks, “Can I have the definition? Can I have the origin? Can I hear it used in a sentence?”, then he’d ghost spell on his hands, only to look up and say, “What’s the origin, again?” to the point where Guy Trilby was literally about to fall out of his chair from boredom.
And ‘ghost spelling’ is when…
It’s when a competitor takes the index finger of one hand and holds their other hand out as if it’s a pad of paper, then spells into their open hand. It’s the closest tool they have to visualize how something’s spelled, and it’s very common–especially in the national competition, and it’s hilarious because sometimes competitors are just milking time if they really don’t know a word, and they’re just hoping something will jar in their heads. That in itself is humorous—some poor kid competing on the national stage, dying up there and milking for time. And then you add to that, some adult sitting behind him sighing loudly—it’s funny to me.
In writing comedy, how do you know when you’ve hit a comedic bull’s-eye?
It’s on the fly for me. I need to have a situation laid out, where so-and-so is going to have a conversation with so-and-so. I very rarely have a joke that I want to insert into a situation, ahead of time. It comes out as I’m imagining these two personalities interacting with each other, and then I try to come up with humorous interactions filtered through their individual voices. Sometimes it’ll happen right away, while other times it’s a dragged out process where nothing’s coming and I have to get past that scene and figure out what they’ll say later. But sometimes I don’t even realize something’s funny. I’ve had times where I’ve written a scene and my manager or my agent or even a producer reads it and they’ll chuckle at something I never thought of as that funny.
That’s always a golden moment when you get an unintentional chuckle.
And it’s a golden moment for learning, because you try to figure out what tickled them, and why it tickled them, so you reverse engineer it and store that in your databank for future use.
Chopra, played by child actor Rohan Chand, was on the receiving end of Guy’s barbs, which largely played off of the boy’s Indian nationality, like when Guy would call him “Slumdog”. Did you always envision a character of Indian descent or did you cast Rohan Chand and then retrofit the jokes to reflect his nationality?
No, in my mind he was always Indian. For one thing, the Indian culture appreciates spelling bees more than any other culture—especially in America, so I thought it was very representative of the actual spelling bee world. And part of the reason I loved this idea of an Indian boy befriending an older white asshole, was because you really haven’t seen it. You’ve had About a Boy; you’ve had Dutch; you’ve had various movies, but usually it’s the expected two white characters. And in truth, not only is [Chopra] contending with the spelling bee, but he’s also contending with the cross culture of his parents and everything a child of immigrants deals with. It’s not really in the forefront of the story, but the baggage is definitely there, and I’m very aware of that myself because I married into a Chinese family and I’ve seen it first hand, and to me it’s very interesting and textured, so I’ve always wanted it to be an Indian boy.
Choosing the actual spelling words for the competition must have been a precious process, because sometimes the words held literal significance, other times they were comical, such as the rigged words Allison Janney’s character chooses in her attempt to trip up Guy. Tell me about that spelling word selection process.
I always knew that for some scenes the words would have a thematic link to the scene or to a personality within the scene, and I hope this wasn’t too obvious–although I wasn’t trying to be completely cryptic, but I always cherished the notion that maybe after somebody watches the film, they’re driving home and they’re like, “Ohh!” I’m a word nerd. I’ve been guilty of forcing my daughters to crack open the dictionary before bed to learn new words, and I personally love just flipping through the dictionary, which I guess is just pretty damn nerdy. I even love the smell of a dictionary. If I was blindfolded, I could tell you the scent of a used dictionary versus the scent of a brand new one.
When I learn a new word, I archive it, and can’t wait for an opportunity to use it.
That’s right! You’d think there’d be people with this enthusiasm, but there aren’t many of us out there. And so for the bee, I had those thematic words, but with the long word sequences, I was specifically gunning for words that could carry a certain cadence in the scene, to draw laughs.
And speaking of word choice, the fact that you named the boy’s study bible “Todd” was ridiculously funny. How did you arrive at this name?
I personally think that “Todd” is one of the funniest names a person could ever have, because it’s so blunt and so plain at the same time. Then if you start naming things “Todd” that aren’t people, it’s even funnier. If you named a pit bull “Todd”, that’s pretty damn funny–at least for me, and I just couldn’t help but to imagine “Todd” written on the spine of that three-ring binder.
Let’s talk about the sex scenes between Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), and Guy, where she’s constantly screaming “Don’t look at me!”
The origin of that sex scene dates back to Top Gun. When I first saw it, I was just a little knucklehead, and I’ve never forgotten that love scene, where [Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis] are in silhouette, it’s to Berlin, there’s this weird blue hue, and they’re having sex so slow and kissing so tenderly, you can’t physically do it. It’s not possible. And the older I got, the more I thought how hilarious that sequence is, and how people were working so hard to mimic this in their own lives. To me, sex is kind of funny and ridiculous and crazy, and I decided if I were ever to do a comedy, and needed a sex scene, it would be the most unlikely sex scene you’ve ever seen in your life. It would be the other side of the universe from Top Gun and ‘Take My Breath Away’. And I promise you, for as long as I live, for my whole writing career–however long that may end up being, I will never write a plain sex scene, ever, because that’s just not funny to me. And so the “Don’t look at me!” came out because I thought, “What would be the most antithetical statement a woman could say to a guy she’s having sex with? And it just popped into my head. I swear to god, my wife has never said that to me. It’s not autobiographical (laughs).
Ten years from now, if you write a straightforward romantic comedy, with a straightforward romantic sex scene, I’m going to call you out.
You can call for my head. I promise you.
In determining when in the storyline to drop the big reveal about Guy’s chief motivation for entering the bee–and don’t worry, I’ll put a BIG SPOILER WARNING here, how did you know precisely when in the sequence of events, to maximum the effect of this? Because this moment humanizes Guy’s journey and puts it in broader context.
With things like that, you have to wait until the last possible moment, when the audience is just about to turn on the character, and start not forgiving him for things. At that point in the story, he was the most vulnerable. Emotionally, he had been betrayed by Chopra, somebody who he felt was his friend, who he vowed not to let within his walls. And at the same time—although the audience doesn’t know this yet, his father basically calls him a piece of crap, and says “Losers lose, Mr. Trilby.” So he’s had a rough night, and in that sense, your remark about showing that Guy is human is right on the nose. It’s time to show his humanity, or else he remains nothing but an angry character causing trouble, so it was important to reveal another layer to this angry onion.
Finally, you were a story editor for Columbia Pictures. Did poorly-written scripts come across your desk that you were surprised achieved literary representation?
Let me preface my answer by sincerely saying that by being in the studio system, and by being a part of the mechanism for fifteen years, I can truthfully tell you that everybody—even when they’re off the mark, tries to put something amazing up. People really try to do their absolute best—the development executives or whoever’s involved. That said, the reason you come across so many angry [screenwriters] in this business, is because there are those projects that are head-scratchers that make people wonder, “What the fuck? How did this happen?” And it makes people frustrated and angry and ultimately burned out and disenchanted. So yeah, I’ve seen plenty of them. And instead of getting angry about it, I just kept it as motivation. My wife’s a lawyer, and one of her law school professors said when he was a student, he’d crack open the lawyer section of the Yellow Pages, to see all the horrible ads and the tacky people who made it as lawyers, and that was his motivation, because if they can make it, he could certainly get to where they are. And when I realized that I wanted to work as a writer, I knew at the very least that I could write as horribly as people who have found some success. That kept me going through the years.