One of Variety’s “Screenwriters to Watch” in 2013, Andrew Dodge discusses his on-the-job education working at a studio, Jason Bateman’s directorial prowess and hustling to get recognized.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Dodge is the poster boy for persistence.
Having spent more than a decade in the studio system, starting as an intern at Columbia Pictures and working his way up the ranks to become Story Editor, Dodge wisely turned his day job into a makeshift masters degree in the business of screenwriting. After years of rejection and doors slammed in his face, Dodge’s screenplay for Bad Words ended up on The Black List in 2011 and caught the attention of actor Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), who was looking for a project for his directorial debut.
The film, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, stars Bateman as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who finds a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and, for reasons unknown, decides to cause a bit of havoc by hijacking the contest. Joining Bateman in this wickedly dark comedy are Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers), who plays a journalist trying to uncover Trilby’s motivation for causing havoc, and 10-year-old Rohan Chand (Homeland), who plays Trilby’s unfazed competitor. Philip Baker Hall (Argo) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) round out the cast.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, Dodge was named one of Variety’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch” in 2013. His next project is an original comedy with Emmy Award winner Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) attached to star.
Script spoke to Dodge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin during the SXSW Film Festival, where Bad Words screened as part of their Festival Favorites programming.
What was the inspiration behind writing the screenplay?
Andrew Dodge: When I was in high school, I was really, really into debate. National Forensics League, you know, a lot of people commonly would think that debate is just argumentative, but there are many, many different events within the debate world. In fact, I met my wife in debate; we were high school sweethearts. And I always wanted to bring that flavor to a story, you know, involving high functioning kids, helicopter parents and all that jazz.
“Helicopter parents.” I love that term.
Dodge: Helicopter parents. Because it’s so true! So, I saw the documentary Spellbound, and it just hit me that spelling bees are pretty much right in the same vein. So I shifted over to that and I just thought, you know, it’d be great if we had a story where an adult just upset everything. Upset the whole arena. From that point on, I worked in the idea of him having an agenda, and while he’s dealing with his agenda, there’s somebody that’s trying to deal with him, and that would be Chaitanya Chopra (played by 10-year-old, Rohan Chand).
I’m fascinated by the fact that in the film Jason Bateman’s character’s name is Guy. You don’t know much about him. In fact, you don’t really know much about him even at the end. Obviously, that was deliberate on your part because Kathryn Hahn’s character is a journalist trying to get information as well, so it’s played into the script. Was that intentional as you wrote the script that you wanted to keep him a kind of blank slate?
Dodge: You know, you’re the first person to ask me this.
Really? I noticed it right off the bat.
Dodge: Yeah, it was intentional. I really liked the idea of having an audience or a reader really work in trying to figure out what the hell’s going on with him. And you know, when you think about classic structure, usually all that setup at the end of the first act, I didn’t wanna do that at all. And I wanted it so he was kind of enigmatic in a way. And he was a tornado. He would just rip through innocence and leave destruction behind him. And you didn’t find out until he found some sense of closure with it. I just felt that that was the best way to tell the story and keep the audience involved at the same time.
It was a really smart way of doing it, using Kathryn Hahn’s journalist character as the audience’s vessel into trying to figure out his background. And even when she does figure out some information, she never tells everything.
This is your first major feature, correct?
You started off in the industry 15 years ago as an intern at Columbia Pictures and have worked your way up the ladder to Story Editor. What has this journey been like?
Dodge: Well, I started off as an intern in the story department. And then kind of segued into a position right as I needed a job as I was graduating from college. Somebody in the story department was leaving, foolishly, (laughs) and so I took the job. I was like, “I’ll do it!” If you liked me as an intern, you’ll like me as an employee. And then I stayed there and at that point, I didn’t really know that I wanted to concentrate on being a screenwriter. All I knew was this industry fascinated me. I also knew that I needed to learn about the studio system. How studios operate and why. So I spent the first batch of years just really trying to soak it all in.
It was like a college for you.
Dodge: Absolutely. And back then, right as I started, Sony was kind of letting Columbia absorb TriStar Pictures. So it was bananas, because the development team was twice as big as any other studio at the time. And specs were rolling in. This is when the spec market was just red hot. Specs were rolling in left and right and it was just nuts. So I learned a whole hell of a lot.
What were you doing? Were you reading scripts all day long?
Dodge: No, I wasn’t an analyst. I was an administrator in the story department helping the analysts, making sure that the development executives had what they want. I’d also do research. And then as the years passed, I worked my way up. Ultimately, I became the Story Editor, so I oversaw the analysts and made sure that their work was what was needed for each project. It was also serving as kind of an intermediary between the analysts and the executives. So the executives have certain expectations. Like I want this script covered or, you know, this fast. I’m looking for these kinds of notes, concentrate on these characters, that type of thing. So I would be the one to communicate it to the analysts.
That’s really a world-class education for what you’re doing.
Dodge: Yeah. I mean, you see a lot of great stuff and you see a lot of bad stuff at the same time and both are necessary to learn.
Sure, absolutely. But you weren’t sure you wanted to be a screenwriter when you started as an intern? It just developed into something that maybe you’d want to give it a shot?
Dodge: Right, because I would read. Even though I wasn’t one of the readers, stuff comes through and you don’t learn anything unless you pick a project up and read it right? So yeah, I came to the conclusion that I could write at least as good as the worst script that’s being made at a studio. Like I just felt I could do it. So that began my journey. And it was a long journey. It was a lot of ‘no’ and it was a lot of sucking and it was a lot of being good, but really trying to hustle and get recognized.
So Bad Words comes around somehow it lands in Jason Bateman’s office.
Dodge: (laughs) Right.
So what was it like working with Jason Bateman? This was your first produced feature screenplay, but this was also Bateman’s first film as a director.
Dodge: Yeah, but you’d never know it. I mean, I had to keep reminding myself that this was his first directing gig. I’d heard horror stories from friends about working with first time directors who were actors. Just because they didn’t realize the wide, encompassing reality of what being a director is. But for Jason, it was like he had been there before, man. Like every scene was storyboarded all the way through beforehand. We had a big, thick Bible of what we were gonna do. He was in complete control. And it was fantastic to be able to watch him tell my story in a visual sense as opposed to just going over it on the page.
So now that you have your first feature under your belt, I noticed you have a project or two lined up now. What’s life been like since this whole journey started?
Dodge: Well, you know, now I can get into the door, right? (laughs) Now I can get in the meeting. So that’s good. It’s great because I have a bunch of ideas and now people are a little bit more open to them because they’ve seen that one of my ideas has paid off. It’s really good in that sense. And also, it’s good in the sense that I’m meeting more filmmakers and therefore I’m learning more at the same time. My philosophy is always that you don’t ever stop learning, and so I’m always ready to learn by working with somebody new.
Bad Words opens March 14 in limited release and March 28 nationwide.