Movies

Justine Bateman On Why She Has A Lot On Her Mind And Putting It All Out There In ‘Violet’

Violet, Justine Bateman’s feature-length debut as a director (which is playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival), is a pretty remarkable film. Olivia Munn plays the title character, a film executive who, throughout the film, is haunted by internal voices. Well, first, there’s her external voice, which is usually what she’s saying out loud to appease people, mostly men. Then there’s an internal voice, a man’s voice, always telling her how awful she is. Then there are handwritten notes, Bateman’s own handwriting, that appear on the screen that reflect Violet’s true feelings about any situation. When I say it’s remarkable, it’s would have been pretty easy for a movie like this to go poorly. Or, as Bateman says, turn into “a pile of stuff.” Instead, it works. And really cuts into what a lot of people feel on a daily basis as we are undercut by our own internal monologues.

It does seem like a lot of Bateman’s creativity is rooted in her interpretation of stupid societal norms, and why we still continue to hold up these stupid norms. And she’s obviously been thinking about these things for a while, which is why I wondered why it’s only now we are getting her first feature-length film. She’s a talented filmmaker. Obviously, she had a lot of success as an actor in the ’80s on Family Ties (if you happen to catch any episodes, it’s still a very good show and Bateman’s comedic timing on that show should be talked about more) and then as an author. But it truly is remarkable she pulled off a movie like Violet, which hinges so much on the viewer going along for the ride and getting on the wavelength of the movie. This would be a tough movie for someone who has directed a lot of movies.

Ahead, Bateman takes us inside her thought process — this is someone who has really thought about the themes she’s trying to put out there. It’s a movie she says she wishes she had seen when she was 19. (This makes a lot of sense.)

(Also, as an aside, we figure out why when I hear the name Justine Bateman my first reaction is “a trouble maker.” Yes, this has everything to do with Family Ties.)

Reading past interviews, you’ve been thinking about this idea for a while. Why didn’t you make this 10 years ago?

You’re hilarious.

Why is that?

Ten years ago? What is that, 2011? Ten years ago I wrote it. I was just writing a bunch of scripts and just saving them to my computer. I’m being a little cheeky here, but the truth is, the timing is such an important factor for me. In my life, the timing didn’t feel right. I wanted the timing to feel right earlier, but it just didn’t. In particular, for me to direct, I’d wanted to direct since I was 19, but the timing never felt right. And I knew if I tried to push ahead it would just be a pile of stuff, whatever I made. That’s been my experience with pushing against timing for me. When I graduated from UCLA in 2016, then the timing suddenly felt right. I did the two shorts, and then had to raise the money for Violet. It’s all those factors. It’s all those factors.

You say “pile of stuff.” I see your point how if you’re not ready to make a movie like this, it could turn out poorly if not presented exactly the right way.

Mike, it’s not only timing for me, but it’s like throwing a party. There are all these different elements, all these different variables: who’s going to be coming, what food are you ordering, which caterers are available, which venue you going to have it in? There are all these things that have to coalesce at the same moment.

Right…

I’m using a silly example, but you know what I mean: finding the perfect apartment or house for yourself. A lot of things have to happen in other people’s lives in order for that exact apartment or house to be available for you. Somebody has to get that job offer that takes them to Chicago so that they have to vacate their place at this exact time. There’s a lot of elements that, obviously, I don’t know about, so all I can do is go by when the timing feels right. That’s a lot of it, you want to hit a moment in society.

Well, a moment in society. yeah. It is interesting it’s coming out when I think society’s talking about stuff like this more than they were before.

I couldn’t have planned that out.

Of course.

It’s interesting how, God, if someone could really control things like that, that’d be something else. So much of it’s out of your hands, all I can do is follow that timing feeling, and that’s it. There’s a long answer to your question.

I always have it in the back of my head you’re a trouble maker and I think I’ve figured it out. By the way, this is so stupid…

That is stupid.

I was eight or nine and the first episode I ever saw of Family Ties is the one where Alex is taking speed and Mallory is supplying him the speed, which is very different than every other episode. I thought this was a sitcom about a speed addict and his sister who’s a speed dealer.

That steered the image in your mind of me.

Yes. So to this day, I’m like, “Ah, a troublemaker.”

I’ll take that. I like it.

I’ve been talking to people about this movie and I’ve found that I didn’t realize that there are people who do not have those voices in their head. Are you finding that? Or are most people relating?

Most people are saying, “Are you reading my diary?” I have a theory on the people who don’t hear the critical thoughts. They either have reached nirvana in their personal growth, or they’re not yet aware of it. They’ve grown so accustomed to that being part of what goes through their minds that they don’t see them as critical thoughts. I think a lot of people can take these critical thoughts and just absorb them in a way where they’re like, “It’s just part of my personality.” Or, “I’m just hard on myself, it’s fine.” They may come to that day like Violet does down the line where they’re like, “Everything was working fine before, and now I’m suddenly aware of these thoughts, what’s going on?” I would say that I hope everybody gets a chance to see this film, even if it’s not something that’s applicable to their lives right now.

When you look around, and you look at the ways people behave around us – or people we don’t know that are showcased in the media – to me, it makes things really clear as to how could they have gotten to the point where they’re talking like that. To me, it really comes down to this root cause, which is their own personal fear, and these critical thoughts come, “You’re a piece of shit, you should turn around and make them feel like shit.” It’s this calculus that we do. It goes a long way to explain why people behave the way they do.

The people who at least think they’ve reached nirvana, are you envious of them?

Years ago I was making a lot of fear-based decisions…

I’ve heard you say that. What’s an example?

What’s an example? Most of the time, the result would just be me not being myself. I’d be in a situation, and go along, and I’d be feeling myself. Say, at a party or something, and then I realize I don’t feel myself now. I feel off-balance or something. In the beginning, I couldn’t pinpoint when or where that happened. I remember after the party, I didn’t feel like I was on track. Then I have to go and think about what happened at that party and really, really try to pinpoint the moment. Once I was successful at doing that, then I could say, “Okay, what was going through my head at that moment?” Then I go, “Oh, I get it. It was when that girl walked in.” Okay, what happened when that girl walked in? “I felt less than; I felt competitive.” I’m just making up an example.

Isn’t what you’re saying by going off track, isn’t that “just yourself”? You can’t help that.

I guess when I mean “myself,” I mean, I have a true north for myself, and perhaps everybody does.

Okay.

Where I feel comfortably confident, like how kids do. They’re just being themselves. They’re fine. They’re not thinking about what other people think of them. I think we’re born with that, and then it just gets chipped away by, maybe, the family we grew up with. Or maybe our classmates, or our teachers, or whatever. It gets chipped away at. Then, you have to get back. I think it’s important. It’s very important to me to get back to my true north. Who am I, really?

That’s how I got to a place where I feel my true north almost all the time and I’m very in tune to when I feel like I go off track. Of course, it’s still off, but for me, personally, I don’t feel like I’m really being me. I feel like I’m being a fearful version of myself. Or I’m being an insecure version of myself. Or it’s just not me, and I want it to be. I immediately start writing, either on my phone or in my journal, or something, because I want to get to whatever that irrational fear is that was the button for this moment. I don’t want to change anyone’s behavior around me, I just want to get rid of all of my buttons so that I can just be in any situation, anybody can be saying anything, and I’ll just be like, “Sorry, what did you say?” For it to just not affect me at all. I get closer and closer every day, and I hope by the end of my life I just hope I don’t have any buttons at all.

From this movie and some interviews I’ve read with you, you seem to be exploring all these themes about society and the stupid things we do in society as people and why do we do this stuff. It seems to be where a lot of your creativity is coming from. You seem really in tune with this.

This is really just, for me, creatively, as a filmmaker and an author, I want to go as far as I can creatively. I want to use as many elements as I have at my disposal and that I can discover that I don’t even know about yet to drive certain thesis statements home: In Fame, the first book about the life cycle of fame, and then Face, about women’s faces getting older and why that makes people angry, and then this one. I went through this, I processed this, the life cycle of fame, the rising and then when fame goes away. And then my face being criticized publicly, and got on the other side of that where I just don’t give a shit now. Then this, Violet is more generally about processing all that. If I can leave anything here, if it’s of any use to anybody, I wish somebody had told me how to do this shit. I wish I’d seen this film at 19. I could have become myself faster. I just want to like, “Here, let me just pass it on.” I love directing. I love filmmaking. I am heavily influenced by the European films of the ’60s and ’70s that are so metaphor heavy and everything.

Like what?

Let’s see, Antonioni, Godard. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Godard’s film. Or Lavventura. Eight 1/2 is my absolute favorite.

This is also a really interesting movie for Olivia Munn, who is in a lot of “celebrity news” stories these days, where a lot of people seem to have opinions. It feels like a good time for her with this movie…

Olivia has a fantastic screen presence. I think this would have been a great film for her at any point in her life. I hope she gets a lot more roles like this where she can show what she does. Sometimes people don’t get the opportunities that fit their skill set until a certain point, maybe this is not for her. I’m really happy for her. Her personal life is none of my business.

Right.

I’m really excited for her that she’s going to be a mom. I’m thrilled for her. She does a great job in this film, and I hope she gets tons of accolades for this film. She deserves it.

I think this is one of her best roles.

Yeah, yeah. It’s cool. Sometimes people don’t get the … if we’re all birds, some people don’t get the opportunity creatively to just jump out of the nest and show you what they can do when they spread their wings. [Laughs] That’s such a bad analogy.

No, it’s not. It was good.

A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to just jump off and show to you. I’m glad that Violet could be that for her, and I hope she can do that many more times in other films.

You said that you wrote a bunch more scripts…

I have a ton of scripts.

I hope you get to make those.

Yeah. I’m talking about getting a couple set up. I can’t wait. I absolutely love directing. I hope I do it till the moment I die.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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