Interview: Ike Barinholtz Hopes “The Oath” Balances the Comedy and the Cultural Relevance

Alessandra Guarneri ‘21 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

The Oath, written and directed by Ike Barinholtz, is a dark comedy film that follows a series of events a family goes through after the U.S. government initiates a loyalty pledge to be signed by citizens. Revolving around the holiday of Thanksgiving, Chris (Barinholtz) attempts to not cause tension between his politically divided family during the holiday weekend. Chris is supported by his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) throughout the film, despite hardships, and endures a variety of relatively typical family drama. However, when everything suddenly goes wrong, it is up to Chris and the rest of his family to work together and put their issues behind them. This film is something many will be talking about and one you will not want to miss.

Ike Barinholtz spoke with Emertainment Monthly during a roundtable interview in Boston to answer some questions about The Oath.

Ike Barinholtz.

Interviewer: What was the hardest scene to film and why?

Ike Barinholtz: All of the stuff that takes place in the TV room. We call that the “hell room” and it took about five days to shoot all of that stuff. We tried to shoot that stuff in the room pretty much in chronological order and by the end, it was pretty rough. By day five, we called it hell room because we put them [the cast] through hell. There was so much emotional stress and people crying and screaming at each other and a lot of psychically [on set]. I remember talking to them all like: “This is day five. This is going to be the hardest day of the shoot and I need you guys to give me everything you got and I’ll promise you you’ll never be in this room again.” That was really tough emotionally for people. We were very glad to be out of there by the end, so day five was pretty rough.

How did you handle the improv?

The movie had such specifics in terms of not just tone, but just kind of the world we have created and the pace. We did kind of stick to the script for the first two-three passes, but I think it’s important in scenes where there is any kind of chaos, whether it’s at the dinner table or the chaos of the gun and blood and stuff, that you need some improv. You need those live reactions otherwise it will seem kind of staged. I feel like I got a lot of real reactions and real tiny little moments that the actors just kind of brought. In terms of actual lines, there were some real beauties in there. Meredith Hagner. When I was in editing, she was a goldmine. She gave us so many little things. Those little moments I was so grateful for.

You talked about how the inspiration from this movie came from an actual real-life Thanksgiving dinner. I’m wondering about your brother’s [Jon Barinholtz] influence being at the actual dinner that sparked this movie and then being in the movie at that scene; how did that dynamic work?

I think that specific dinner was emblematic of every meal him and I had. Right away I was like: “I need to cast my brother in this.” He’s on a very funny sitcom called Superstore, but I hadn’t had a chance to see him flex his muscles which I knew he had. On a deeper level than that, that meal and every meal we’ve ever had, there was one moment where even subconsciously he’s pissed at me or I’m pissed at him just because no one makes you madder and there’s no one you love more than a sibling. It was really nice for my parents to come to the premiere and [see] both of their kids are in it. It was amazing.

Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz in The Oath. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions and Topic Studios.

You wrote, starred and directed the film. How was it to see all aspects of the process?

It was hard. I had directed episodes of The Mindy Project before, but when you direct an episode of TV, it’s fun and I love telling people what to do and I love working with a crew and working with a team, but it’s very different on a TV show when you’re a director. I knew I loved being an actor and I loved that feeling. If you’re just an actor, you have these filters. You have the writer’s words as one filter and the director’s vision as his or her filter and the same thing with the editor. The appeal of having an idea and being able to present it to people without those filters is very attractive to me and I really wanted to try it.

When you have a movie of this size with the constraints we had in terms of schedule and finances, I knew that the key to it was organization. That’s bad for me because I am the least organized person in the world, so I was very grateful that I had a team. First and foremost, my line producer Kristen Murtha, Boston native, she really was the one who killed it the most. She kept the trains running on time. I think the answer was, basically, just surround yourself with A students.

How much creative control would you say you had?

I had quite a bit. I was very lucky to get set up with QC entertainment and they’re the guys that did Get Out and BlacKkKlansman. They read the movie and right away were like, “we’d love to make this movie.” They were really great at knowing when to push and knowing when to pull.

Billy Magnussen and John Cho in The Oath. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions and Topic Studios.

We know you picked Tiffany Haddish and John Cho, but how did you pick the other characters?

I had Carrie Brownstein popping around in my head. I had been a fan of hers forever. I think we look alike! I love her energy, so she was someone I had in mind.

For the parents, I knew I wanted the mother to be slightly like my mom. My mom is very political and very opinionated, but she does tell me who has passed away recently. She hates more than anything when my brother and I fight, so knew I had that. Initially, the actress I had asked was Julie Hagerty who you may remember from Airplane!. I always loved her energy and she got on another project and she jumped off [The Oath]. Then, the first name was Nora Dunn and I was like oh my god, yes! First of all, she looks like me and Carrie Brownstein’s mother and she’s from Chicago. She has this great perfect accent and I’ve just been a fan of her since SNL.

As far as the dad is concerned, I had cast another guy. I wanted the dad to be quiet, watching the football and doesn’t want to talk about it. I had [originally] cast Chris Ellis, who plays my dad, as the vice president because I always loved him. He’s always in Tom Hanks’ movies. Now, I can’t imagine a world where he wasn’t the dad.

The film stays a comedy even though it goes to really dark places. How did you manage to keep it there?

It was balancing. I knew early on that it never was truly going to be one or the other. I always knew it was going to be a bit of a balancing act and I think if you tip it one way or the other too much, people check out. I have to give a lot of credit to my friend Jordan Peele. The biggest challenge was making sure we were following the Jordan Peele Rule of “let’s make sure we’re being scary and funny and thrilling and emotional and funny, but not too funny.” The movie is about balance.

Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish in The Oath. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions and Topic Studios.

The film is premiering right before the midterm elections. Did you plan this and how are you hoping it shapes the political climate of the future?

We knew the movie had to be out as soon as possible just because who knows where we are going to be in one month. Before Thanksgiving felt appropriate. We knew the midterms were coming and there was going to be this high level of angst in the country. We knew that it seemed like it was kind of just going to line up that way. To me, I don’t think anyone is going to see this movie and change their political opinions. I would hope that it would change a little bit of behavior.

The biggest takeaway is that you’re entertained. The other two kinds of things that I hope people take away is that it’s okay to unplug. I hope people can find the balance that I’m still trying to find. I’m closer to finding it than where I was a year ago of being in tune to what’s going on and aware of the very scary and drastic changes that are happening to the country and using that information to effect the change that you want. Making sure that we don’t let it rob our happiness. If we’re letting it dictate our lives so much, I think you would look at that as a waste of time one day.

What parts of the movie do you hope stay relevant?

The importance of family. You meet new friends in your life, but your family’s your family. I’ve learned that there’s family that I’ve pushed away from, and I’ve needed them and I’ve missed them. The thinking of: “I will do anything to protect my children,” kind of Tiffany essential POV, in it. I’ve had three kids in the last five years and I understand the importance of putting their safety and welfare above everything else. I do think that Tiffany’s character embodies that. She is the ultimate mama bear.

Was the funny tension between your character and your brother’s girlfriend Abbie in the film inspired by something you experienced or did it come from elsewhere?

It’s a new kind of architect we’ve seen pop up in American media the past few years. I’m been very intrigued by that character of someone who is kind of perky and saying crypto-fascist things. I [have] never seen that [type of] person in a movie before, so I wanted to kind of throw her in there. In real life, she’s lovely! She’s the nicest person.

The Oath will be in theaters on October 19.

Read Emertainment Monthly‘s review here!

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