Interview: Office Christmas Party Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck

Posted on December 7, 2016 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

Not since “Snakes on a Plane” has there been a movie title that so perfectly conjured up exactly the kind of entertaining chaos in store for viewers. Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“Blades of Glory,” “The Switch”) have a gift for wild comedy with a tender heart. In this story Jennifer Aniston plays Carol, a tough businesswoman (and martial arts expert) who is something between the Grinch and Scrooge, cancelling the Christmas party in the branch office run by her brother Clay (played by T.J. Miller) and threatening to shut down the office entirely and fire the staff. Clay and his top executive Josh (Jason Bateman) think that if they can woo a big client (Courtney B. Vance) by entertaining him at the party, they can save the office. The cast includes Olivia Munn, “Saturday Night Live” stars Vanessa Bayer and Kate McKinnon, “Fresh Off the Boat” star Randall Park. And it takes place in my hometown of Chicago with some locations I know well, including a stunt on the Clark Street Bridge. It was a lot of fun to talk to Gordon and Speck about the fun they had making the film.

I really enjoyed your Chicago locations.

JG: Will and I grew up sort of loving the same movies and a lot of them had actually been shot in Chicago, everything from “Risky Business” to “The Blues Brothers” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” so there’s something about the city. It has a character and a quality that really is like no other city, with a subversive sense of humor, and it looks great on film. So when we were developing the movie we knew we wanted to shoot it in Chicago and luckily the studio let us shoot there for a couple of weeks to really get all the exteriors. Then we based the sets on the old IBM building. The architect was Mies Van Der Rohe who built a lot of downtown Chicago in the 70.s and we just re-created basically that building.

I read that T.J. Miller agreed to be in the film without ever reading the script, just based on the title. Is that right?

JG: He did read it eventually. But we had worked together with him on a commercial campaign for Motorola a couple years before and had such a good working relationship and a good experience that based on that plus the idea of finding the character a little bit and the concept itself, he was eager to sign on.

He was one of a group of very skilled improvisers in your cast.

JG: Yes, we were really lucky with this cast. Everybody was our first choice. And when you get talent like that you don’t want them just to read the script three or four times and then move on to the scene. So we encourage improvisation and these guys are all kind of pros in it. TJ is a stand-up and obviously Jen and Jason are really good on their feet and so you go into the edit with many jokes as you can. There is a ton that we had to leave on the floor that actually will go into the extended cut.

It’s a fairly new idea, but over the past few years we have had a series of R-rated Christmas movies.

WS: We are an R but not a hard R. There’s some drugs in it and some nudity but for the most part we feel like it doesn’t go to a place that will make anyone uncomfortable. We love movies with a lot of grit and reality in a very ridiculous situation, like “Risky Business” and “Midnight Run,” movies that have the concept that is very funny but that are really grounded in the real world.

JG: And also movies that were well made. They weren’t just comedies; they had emotion and they made you invest in a story too. We wanted to make a movie that ultimately is a Christmas movie. It just arrives through an adult kind of tone but it’s really got a heart and a fun emotional center to it. It is really about Clay and it’s and around the idea that you spend most of your life working with your coworkers, who really are kind of like your other family and then one night a year, lubricated by alcohol, you meet them and it’s disastrous but there can be a breakthrough. So that was really important to us, to have both heart and comedy.

Yes, One of you said that this was comedy plus danger, which I presume is not just the physical danger but the danger of destroying your entire professional life by what can go on at a party like that.

WS: Yes or your office physically. Obviously there are a lot of different kinds of humor in the movie. There is a lot of physical comedy and a lot of verbal comedy. The thing about an office is it’s a very democratic moment when you have this office Christmas party and everybody has got a story to tell. We really wanted to tell all of those stories so the people watching the movie can really relate to it and find themselves in the movie. So there are a lot of great parts for women in the movie, from the CEO to the intern. We really wanted to look at every experience you could possibly could have at a Christmas party.

I love the diversity in the film. Was that a conscious decision?

WS: Yes, we wanted to change things up and give the actors a lot of opportunities where you don’t always see it. There is a character that is a pimp in the movie and we thought, “Let’s make her a women and not just go down the expected kind of thing you’ve seen five times before.” That’s really the exciting time that we’re in right now. Women have really proven themselves again and again in the comedy space, and so there are all these great people to pull from and we’re very excited about it.

In an ensemble movie like this where you have so many very, very strong performers, how do you give everybody their moment, their time onscreen and yet keep it cohesive?

JG: I think for the most part we follow the script, which has a very democratic structure where each character is sort of given their moment but it doesn’t feel that unbalanced. We try to be as much an ensemble movie as possible, so we wanted to give everybody their heroic moment and their funniest moment and not really feel like we were top-heavy or are favoring one energy over another. So I think at the end of the day we wanted to feel like a whole experience of a group of people versus just focusing on one storyline.

And you have worked with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman before in “The Switch” and they have worked with each other in other films, too. Are you developing a repertory company? What does that bring to a movie when you have that relationship, that trust?

WS: Gosh we really hope so! We really love those guys. Jason is very much in Josh in his wheelhouse. He has a very subtle brand of comedy that brings a sort of gravity to our work. And Jennifer was just brave and funny and willing to do something really different from what we have done with her before which was more in the romantic comedy space. We worked a lot with her on her character. The one thing that we struggled with internally was we wanted her to be a strong CEO. We didn’t want to do that thing where you sort of say, “Oh she has no life and she wished that she had a relationship, that she had a family or a kid.” We wanted to stray away from some of the clichés of the powerful woman who has nothing to offer. So I think what we tried to do was dig into the idea of what was motivating her drive was very thought- out, which was her childhood, and the idea that you can actually be an overachieving kid and have a sibling who is kind of troubled and that sibling gets all the attention and it leaves you really wanting for the rest of your life and I think that’s what motivated her kind of evil. So we did talk a lot about how to balance the humanity in her and not have her be two-dimensional but also not have her a cliché with that role and try to have the warmth in her kind of sneak up on you as she is helping to sort of save Clay. But in the beginning after that first conference scene you get what drives her and she is not just mean.

We have also worked with Rob Corddry before and T. J. on the commercial campaigns. So we love collecting really smart and talented people and if we’re lucky enough to continue to work with them in the right way we absolutely will.

Did you collect a lot of stories from friends about disasters at office Christmas parties?

JG: It’s amazing when you say you are making a movie about an office Christmas party how many people come up to you and offer stories. So we just started collecting these stories and we wanted give the audience an experience that they expect, hitting all the things that you expect to see when you see this kind of movie but then also really taking the audience to unexpected places and surprising them.

What makes a successful office Christmas party?

JG: It depends on what you define as successful. I think for us it is always the typical stuff which is great music, great lighting and an open bar but I think that’s what is fun about the idea of the movie is that it can be just rife with danger. Office Christmas parties usually are really bland and when you have to actually use it to save your company and that’s the tool that you get in your quiver it’s really miserable.

WS: And by nature offices are places that are meant to repel real emotions and too much fun. They tend to be pretty dry places so as a theater to set a sort of raging party they usually don’t mix well, which is why I think they are so funny and why they are so rife with potential for a movie. We all set out to make the office Christmas party that we wish we did go to. Now we feel like we have.

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