Interview: Seth Gordon Takes the Meanness Out of ‘Horrible Bosses’

By  · Published on July 11th, 2011

Years ago director Seth Gordon made a big impression with his critical doc darling, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. The film made our own best 30 films of the decade and you’d be on a fool’s mission to find someone who doesn’t enjoy that unique story. To no surprise, the heavily pirated documentary kicked down a lot of doors for Gordon. Just recently he’s been attached to direct the WarGames remake, so it’s obvious he’s come quite a long way in a quick amount of time.

His latest comedy, Horrible Bosses, also represents how rapid the filmmaker is rising. The greatest surprise of the film is that, tonally, the film isn’t all that mean. The story’s about three guys plotting to murder their respective bosses, but even with that dark concept and some bastardly antagonists it never goes to the extreme. Gordon flirts with some darkness and satire, but it stays relatively safe.

Here’s what director Seth Gordon had to say about the doors The King of Kong opened up for him, going with a lighter version of Horrible Bosses, and the nature of comedic filmmaking:

To start off, I’d say the tone sits in the middle between being very mean-spirited or being very light. Was that a conscious decision?

Yeah. I think the energy of the three guys was really fantastic. It was really fun, but the struggle for me editorially was how to balance all of that. I wanted the beginning of the film to feel very real, so everyone in the audience can remember those authority figures they’ve dealt with ‐ a boss, a coach, a teacher, or someone that gave you a hard time ‐ so that you connect with these three guys before going on this journey. I appreciate that you saw that tone was so important to the movie, because it really was.

So it was a constant balance in editing?

It was really a discovery in editing. During production I would always try to protect myself in most scenes, so that I could go a little sillier or a bit darker if I needed to.

I’ve heard there was another cut that was darker. What changed?

In the older version we spent more time in the first act, but then I realized that I didn’t really need much of it. It’s very easy and very fast for people to get back in touch with that feeling, so a little goes a long way. I just needed a lot less set-up than I thought.

Was that a tricky process, trying to set-up who these guys are, while also quickly getting to the big concept?

Yep. It was something we worked pretty hard on collapsing how long it takes for Charlie to say, “Let’s kill this bitch,” and that scene used to be at 35-minutes in, but now it’s at 22-minutes.

What else got cut?

Just additional scenes of suffering with bosses [Laughs]. There used to be three scenes with all of them, but now there’s two.

What were those other scenes of suffering?

You’ll see this on the DVD, but there’s a scene where Bobby says to Jason Sudeikis, “You can fire one of your employees, or I can fire all three of you,” and there’s a scene where he actually fired one of them. It was painful for Sudeikis’ character to do that, so it made you hate Bobby even more. Ultimately, we already made the point. We didn’t need to make the point twice. To me, it was just about efficient storytelling. I just needed enough evidence for you to hate Bobby, so you can root for Sudeikis to get rid of him. It’s also to lay the groundwork for what happens to Bobby, which is quite unexpected. That’s really what’s driving that.

I like how Bobby’s apartment made you hate him even more.

The production designer, Shepherd Frankel, did a great job making Bobby’s apartment. It was really good. There was no accidents in the way we built these sets or found all the layers that support the story. I will say, though, that the actors are fantastic, and that’s a big part of why it works.

How did the test-screenings go?

Test-screenings are a real awesome opportunity to see how something plays. Whether you like test-screenings or not, it totally depends on the filmmaker. If you’re afraid of how an audience is going to feel, then isn’t that a sign? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Don’t you worry that you may be getting the worst audience for your film?

I actually think the wisdom of a crowd is very high. Very little is missed when you get enough people together, because someone is going to get each of the smaller things, and that alerts the others to pay attention to stuff. I think intelligence tends to go up when a crowd is watching a comedy. Someone always catches the nuances. Even if someone doesn’t catch the nuances, I’m not too worried about that.

[Laughs] Like the Jodie Foster joke?

[Laughs] That’s okay. Even if someone doesn’t understand the reference, someone in the crowd is likely to react to it. Actually, that’s a perfect example of the comedy having some layers that some will get and some won’t get, and I think that’s ideal.

When making The King of Kong, did you have that outlook of trying to appeal to more than a small crowd?

Yeah. Kong was a different scenario because we were making it in my apartment, so we didn’t have access to things like test-screenings. We just showed it to a few of our friends. I definitely wasn’t concerned about appealing to anyone, necessarily. I just wanted the story to make sense.

After The King of Kong came out, what type of offers were you getting?

That movie really opened a lot of doors for me because it was a three act structure that I discovered in real life, and that’s the exact kind of skill set for making an engaging three act film they look for in Hollywood. I owe pretty much everything to that movie. I was mostly getting offered comedies. Comedies are usually the easiest point of entry for directors, because they’re relatively inexpensive compared to other movies. If a comedy works, it can work huge.

The great thing about The King of Kong is that it had a real heart. Are you hoping to infuse that same type of humanity into the comedies you make?

That’s my goal. I was lucky enough to be a part of a very special movie as my first. I aspire to make something that’s on that level in the narrative feature world, but I think it was a rare opportunity that I had there.

Did you have a certain level of skepticism about what to do next?

Not an unnatural skepticism. In a way, I think I felt relaxed in the sense of how I was lucky to make that movie, that I don’t have to try to do it again, or have to live up to it [Laughs]. You don’t have to do that every time.

How was that leap of going from a small doc to a sizable-budgeted comedy [Four Christmases]?

It was a very small movie to one of the truly expensive, big Hollywood features. It was a totally different kind of movie and a totally different paradigm of moviemaking.

Like you said, you made The King of Kong in your room without an audience to worry about or people to answer to. What was that transition like for you going from that experience to having to deal with a lot of notes?

Obviously, it’s preferable not having to answer to a lot of voices and just be able to make the film you had in mind. If you’re going to make movies on a big-budget, then you’re going to have to answer to people to help get that budget in place. It’s not bad or good, it just is. It’s the nature of making that choice.

You don’t sound bitter about it.

Not at all. If I were bitter about that, then that would be childish [Laughs]. That’s just the nature of making a movie that way. If I want no one to talk to, then I can stay home, make a movie on my own, and just show it to my friends, and that’s always an option.

Horrible Bosses is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.