Ike Barinholtz has made a career out of comic relief. In films like Neighbors and Blockers, he was the weird guy who riffed with the main characters. In shows like The Mindy Project and Eastbound and Down, his characters were even more bizarre, to the point where they could be off-putting. There is a zeal to his acting, a willingness to push things beyond our comfort, and that same quality is also what makes him a good filmmaker.
His directing debut is The Oath, a comedy that follows a family over a disastrous Thanksgiving. Barinholtz plays Chris, a bleeding heart who is outraged that the President just created a “loyalty oath” that every American must sign before Black Friday. The cast is full of terrific comic actors: Tiffany Haddish play’s Chris’ wife, who just tries to keep it together, while Carrie Brownstein and Ike’s brother Jon play Chris’ siblings. The family starts to unravel after the usual political arguments, but things take a dark, violent turn when two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) start interrogating Chris about his supposedly anti-American activity.
The Oath is not just a comedy, but a twisted thriller that explores what might provoke ordinary people to violence. I recently sat down to chat with Barinholtz about his film, the Trump administration, and how he’s managing his current news intake.
Brightest Young Things: How did your idea of the film’s loyalty oath come about?
Ike Barinholtz: I knew I wanted to set a movie in a family’s house around Thanksgiving, and I knew I wanted this looming government crisis. Now, I never really knew a whole about Donald Trump. I’m a Chicagoan, so I don’t really care. But then he entered the political arena, and I kept reading more and more about him. I realized he was obsessed with loyalty, sort of like I was obsessed with McCarthyism (there’s this big piece of connective tissue between them, thanks to Roy Cohn). The thing about the government asking loyalty is that it could seem innocuous on the surface, but also loaded enough so that some people would react with, “Are you kidding me? Are you going to sign this shit?” I just toyed with the idea of the government introducing [this program], then sweetening the pot with tax and healthcare incentives.
I started writing the script around January 2017, but the impetus for the script came around the previous Thanksgiving. My mom, my brother, and I got into this huge fight about the election. We were all on the same side, but we were arguing about whose fault it is. I thought, “Holy shit, if we’re fighting like this and we basically agree, what’s going on at tables all across the country?” As we kept writing, things kept getting weirder [in the administration]. I’m sure you remember that macabre Cabinet meeting where Trump’s secretaries went around the room and pledged their loyalty to him. The demand for loyalty only got weirder with James Comey. As it happened, we showed the film to distributors on the day Trump tweeted about National Loyalty Day. I guess I should thank Donald Trump for being part of the reason this film exists.
BYT: The character you play cannot keep his eyes off the news, everything is a crisis, and he cannot see his own privilege. You’re pretty hard on him. Where does that frustration come from?
IB: I really wanted to take these characters all over the political spectrum, and I knew my character had to be the furthest to the left. I think there was a version where my character is a true liberal, he’s proven right, and he behaves beautifully throughout the film. That movie is really boring. To show how everyone’s brains are being broken by the news cycles and what’s happening, I had to show everyone warts and all. My character is liberal and he’s proven right, but he’s also a jerk. In other words, I wanted to show the worst side of everyone.
BYT: I liked the line where you mention how you stood in line to get a book signed by Roxane Gay. My wife and I went to go see her earlier this year.
IB: That’s great! I included that line because I wanted to highlight a kind of social privilege. He’s saying, “I’m one of the good guys, I’m on the right side, so I can say [the c-word],” then he name drops Roxane Gay to suggest he’s a good ally. You know, I haven’t heard from Roxane yet, I don’t know if she’s going to like it, but I’m a huge fan.
BYT: While you’re working on the film, you’re also an increasingly engaged political person on social media. How did your experience fighting trolls online – along with some elected officials – influence the film?
Very impressive to show that you hate both women AND Jews in the same tweet https://t.co/8zdn0jMAuv
— Ike Barinholtz (@ikebarinholtz) October 5, 2018
IB: By engaging people online, I exemplified some of Chris’ bad qualities. I was prone to blind rage, and said things that were maybe… uncouth. If someone just saw my Twitter feed and heard about this movie, I could see them reacting with, “Oh, it’s just a leftist movie!” It’s ironic, since I showed this film all over the country. I took it to Texas, and I had people who I know are voting for Ted Cruz, plus people who worked for Governor Greg Abbott. They were like, “I really like that you made fun of liberals!” I think the one word that typifies the era we’re in is “absurd.” You see it on both sides: obviously Trump is absurd, but so are Democratic senators who are making “hot tweets” to him in the hopes they go viral. I know there’s a small subset of this country who simply will not see this movie. They just won’t. But I do think traditional conservatives – even the ones who kind of like Trump – would miss out on the opportunity to watch a family disintegrate before their very eyes.
My pitch for the movie is, “Doesn’t matter your political affiliation. You will laugh.” I showed the movie last night in Chicago, and there were a ton of cops there. I tell people this is not a documentary… yet. The two things I want people to experience in this movie are humor and tension. The whole movie is us trying to walk that line.
BYT: Speaking of the tension, how difficult was it to escalate the tension without losing the comedy? How much violence is too much violence?
IB: There was a lot of discussion about it. We knew it going to be complicated: if it was too much comedy, people would say we’re not giving enough gravity to the situation. If you made a serious thriller, then there’s just not enough humanity. We knew we had a balancing act. It felt right when I wrote and shot it, but I wasn’t sure until I worked on it with my editor. At that point, I started to rely on friends. Jordan Peele saw it, and his notes were all about how about to avoid tipping the scale between comedy and thrills.
BYT: What about your cast? How did they influencing this balancing act?
IB: I was very lucky to get this cast. Some of them are super political, some of them are not so political, but they all have this specific energy to them. In terms of the script itself, we left a fair amount of room for improv. Look, I wish I could take credit for the term “trash pussy,” but that’s something only Tiffany Haddish could come up with. When they read the script, they immediately got it. Regardless of the [political spectrum], this film has got of relatability. We’ve all gone home and gotten super-pissed at that one cousin who is fucking annoying or whatever.
BYT: How much of this family is your family?
IB: There are a lot of small things. For example, to this day my dad cannot use the remote properly. My mom also likes to tell me who from the neighborhood recently passed away. Other than that, my parents are politically active. My brother is certainly not a hardcore right-winger (he was a Bernie Sanders guy). The thing I take away from them is the feeling of Thanksgiving because it’s such a big holiday for us.
BYT: I thought the tracking shot of getting the meal ready was a nice touch. Also, I couldn’t help but notice your knife skills when you chopped some carrots. I’m terrible with a knife, so I was immediately impressed.
IB: I threw that in there for a reason! I do all the Thanksgiving cooking at home with my mom. I love to cook, but I also thought it was funny to have this super liberal character be a good cook. Maybe the right-wingers saw it and thought “look at this liberal cuck soy boy.” I wanted the food in the movie, so I was literally up at 4:30 a.m. chopping fucking herbs, basting turkeys. I get super frustrated when the food in movies doesn’t look any good.
BYT: Along those lines, was this movie made with any frustrations about the state of movies today?
IB: I’ve done my share of comedies, and I’ll still do more, but this movie came out of a desire to reflect the era we’re living in. Are you on Twitter?
BYT: Yes, I am.
IB: Right. So you go on Twitter, right? The first thing you might see is… I don’t know, a video of a Chihuahua biting a guy’s balls. You laugh really hard, right? Then you see a video of a mother separated from her child, and you start crying. This is the way we’re living now: it’s an emotional rollercoaster. I knew it was going to be a different kind of movie, tonally speaking, and reflect how I feel when I’m over-plugged with news.
BYT: Do you think things would be better if people weren’t so plugged in, and we weren’t getting news alerts every twenty minutes?
IB: Where I’m at now is that you need balance. I was online way, way too much. In the year before and after the election, I was letting it dictate my life. Now I think of the news like coffee: I have a cup when I get up, another at 10 a.m., maybe another cup at 4, and a little decaf before going to bed. We have an obligation to stay informed, but we can’t let this take away from our happiness. When I say happiness, I mean the big things like family, but also the little things like movies, music, and food. I don’t want to look back at this period, and just think how I was perpetually stressed out.
BYT: My wife recently deleted Twitter and deactivated Facebook, and it’s kind of nice because we no longer begin conversations with, “Did you read this thread by so and so?”
IB: About a year and a half ago, it was 6:30 a.m. and my wife was breastfeeding our newborn. I was reading some horrible article about what was going on, so I turned to her and gravely said, “America is lost.” She said, “Too heavy, dude. Too heavy, and too early!” I was driving people crazy because I was always like this. Now I only stay informed, although I’ll still Tweet stuff when I’m in a particularly sour mood. It’s important to stay present, which is something my character in this movie cannot do.