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‘Horrible’ director behaves otherwise

“Horrible Bosses’’ director Seth Gordon wanted to use television actors in the roles of the abused employees who want to kill their bosses so he cast (above, from left) Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman. “Horrible Bosses’’ director Seth Gordon wanted to use television actors in the roles of the abused employees who want to kill their bosses so he cast (above, from left) Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman. (JOHN P. JOHNSON/WARNER BROS)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

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“There’s a model of directing where the director is the guy with the iron fist - essentially, the horrible boss,’’ says Seth Gordon. “I’m not cut from that cloth.’’

Gordon, the director of the comedy “Horrible Bosses,’’ which opens Friday, seems anything but bossy as he sits in a downtown hotel room, talking about the film. Bearded, big-shouldered, and bearish, he’s the picture of affability, whether recalling teenage summers with his family on Lake Winnipesaukee or how he first learned to use a video camera during six months in Kenya after he graduated from Yale.

But are appearances deceiving? Seeing what goes on in “Horrible Bosses,’’ you might wonder. Is there such a thing as Method directing? The movie takes employer-employee relations to places the National Labor Relations Board dare not go.

Kevin Spacey terrorizes Jason Bateman. Jennifer Aniston harasses Charlie Day. Colin Farrell (with a combover!) makes Jason Sudeikis’s life hell. Their bosses are so horrible, in fact, that Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis conspire to murder them - with some help from Jamie Foxx.

Bateman, in a telephone interview, says that Gordon was anything but a horrible boss. “Such a sweet, nice man. He’s very kind. For some reason, directors seem to think they might need to yell or be very bossy. But the great ones I’ve worked with are not that way at all. And Seth is a great, great director.’’

Gordon, 36, has a somewhat unusual background for a feature filmmaker. His best-known film is the documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters’’ (2007), about video game players. He was also involved in the documentaries “New York Doll’’ (2005), about Arthur Kane, of the rock band the New York Dolls, which Gordon helped produce and edit; and helped shoot “Shut Up & Sing’’ (2006) about the Dixie Chicks.

“I became hooked on documentary,’’ Gordon says, “and these serendipitous situations presented themselves again and again.’’

One of those situations led to his first Hollywood feature, “Four Christmases’’ (2008), starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Vaughn had seen “Kong’’ and liked it, Gordon recalls. “That led to me being hired by him and New Line, with Reese, to make ‘Four Christmases.’ My relationship with New Line continued when they sent me the script for ‘Horrible Bosses,’ which I loved on first reading. I had a vision, in the sense that I saw a way it could be made if cast in this particular sort of paradigm.’’

That paradigm is Gordon’s structuring the movie on the relationship between movies and television. TV is the other unusual strand in the filmmaker’s background. A co-creator and executive producer of “Breaking In,’’ he’s directed episodes of “The Office,’’ “Parks and Recreation,’’ and “Modern Family.’’

“I saw that there’s a remarkable group of actors on television shows all dying to break into film but who can’t quite turn that corner for one reason or another. It’s really this odd situation in Hollywood, where the two worlds, TV and film, rarely overlap. They don’t watch each other’s work, for the most part. They don’t consider actors as being able to go back and forth.

“So my proposal was, ‘Hey, let’s find some great actors in TV who haven’t yet crossed over and we’ll make those our guys. Then we’ll arrange our schedule in a way that we can have cameos from great [film] actors. They’ll only have to be with us for five days or so, and that will allow us to ‘stunt cast’ those roles.’’

Hence the presence of names like Spacey, Farrell, Aniston, and Foxx (Donald Sutherland shows up, too) in smaller parts.

“There are two Academy Award winners in our cast,’’ Bateman proudly points out, Spacey and Foxx. Was there ever an intimidation factor for Gordon in dealing with Spacey, for example?

He chuckles. “There were moments where I would take a step back and realize, ‘Oh man, I’m going into work today and gonna give Spacey feedback on how to do what he did a little bit different.’ That was certainly intimidating to realize, but I got to say he made it really inviting. He’s aware of his own awesomeness,’’ Gordon laughs, “and he made it very safe and accessible and was very interested in my feedback.’’

There was a reason for that interest, Bateman says, and it was something the entire cast benefited from. Gordon, the actor suggests, is willing to take direction as well as give it.

“He has absolutely no problem whatsoever in hearing ideas, letting ideas happen, giving them a life, and including them in the film. He’s very, very collaborative. You can’t make somebody laugh until you’ve pulled your pants down, metaphorically speaking, and you need to feel you’re in a place where no one will laugh at you - ironically enough - and he makes you feel that way. He gives you that sense of being in a safe environment.’’

That sense of safety on the set might help account for a comparable sense of risk in the finished product. “Horrible Bosses’’ definitely has an edge to it. In a movie-comedy scene increasingly dominated by the Judd Apatow brand and the “Hangover’’ films, “Horrible Bosses’’ fits right in.

“It’s certainly a trend,’’ Gordon says of such comedies. “I don’t know that it’s a permanent shift. Some of the best movies I enjoyed when I was younger were R comedies. It certainly wasn’t invented any time recently. ‘Stripes’ is a great comedy. That whole era. . . . ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Animal House.’ The R comedy came and went and it’s back. I think ‘Hangover’ is really an important part of why it’s back. It’s not as much the creatives had steered away from it. It’s more because it’s less of a risk for them to greenlight a movie like that now. Adults always would rather watch a movie where people talk and interact the way adults really do.’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Seth Gordon (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff) Director Seth Gordon.

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