“It’s probably going to be the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he told The New York Times in 2015, “and that’s good.”
Today, “Ozark” has not only reshaped the preexisting perception of the actor as a comedy star, but the Netflix drama has broadened his reach as an artist — especially when it comes to directing. Originally, Bateman planned to direct every episode of Season 1, in addition to performing his duties as lead actor and executive producer. That much work soon proved impossible (Bateman ended up helming four of the 10), but he still pushed himself to do more. He wanted to do more than act, more than produce, more than direct: He wanted to have his hands on “every part of the process.”
With three seasons streaming, a fourth and final season prepping to shoot this November, and 32 total Emmy nominations — including 18 just for Season 3 — the man behind Marty Byrde won’t take credit for all that, but he is proud of what the “Ozark” team has done.
“It is working out better than I could have ever hoped for, and I had high, high hopes,” Bateman said in an interview with IndieWire. “Those first two scripts that I read, there was a lot of mood, a lot of danger, a lot of crisis, a lot of things that I was really curious to see if I could deliver to an audience as a director.”
Before “Ozark,” Bateman directed nearly a dozen episodes of TV, from “Family Matters” to “Arrested Development,” before taking on the independent feature films “Bad Words” and “The Family Fang.” It was here that he started utilizing desaturated color palettes and long lenses, characteristics that aren’t typically associated with comedies.
“I wasn’t convinced that a comedy needed to be flatly lit, and with all wide lenses, super-saturated colors, and plucky music,” he said. “I still think you can make people laugh and it still look good.”
“Ozark” gave him a lakeside setting well-suited for his murky vision of a Missouri hideaway. And it worked. The Netflix drama caught its fair share of guff for being too dark for TV (a complaint acknowledged by Bateman as a technical issue), but there’s a precision to each shot and overall tone set by the visuals that resonates with viewers. Bateman’s validation behind the camera came as a bit of a surprise, when he topped towering competition from the final season of “Game of Thrones” and took home the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. Bateman’s subdued reaction at the ceremony became a brief internet obsession, buoyed by excited fans of the series.
“The fact that people ended up watching [‘Ozark’] is the part that you have zero control over, [but that] encourages us to keep going and make it even better and slightly more challenging,” he said. “It’s been very gratifying, and it fuels me to try to take even a bigger, more challenging swing on the next project.”
For Bateman, “more” is the name of the game. His passion for shaping a narrative is clear after just a few minutes. He’d rather talk about the look, pace, feel, sound, and tone of his show — all of which form individual “magic tricks” that help shape “Ozark” — than his performance in front of the camera, and he’s eager to steer the conversation toward his collaborators. (Just watch any recent panel he’s been on for “Ozark.”)
“I mean, I’m a crew dork,” Bateman said. “I study who the gaffer or the best boy or the location manager is, let alone production designer [or] cinematographer. When I see a trailer, I’m immediately going over to IMDB Pro and just scouring the crew of that movie, because I’m noticing things that they’re doing. I want to see who those people are so that maybe in the future, if I’m lucky enough to build a crew, I’m going to remember those names and see if they’re interested in joining the team.”
He dreams of the day he can map out a similarly transfixing project; one with the scope and budget typically entrusted to the industry’s most notable visionaries.
“I have such an enormous amount of respect for what a crew can do to create a fake world for an audience,” Bateman said. “To do it on a 60-day shoot of a movie, or a hundred day shoot with a crew that’s four times the size of the two independent films that I did — and there’s a visual effects crew or a second unit — I mean, all of those elements of complication are things that I’m just dying to challenge myself with.”
“I’m really, really interested in going further as a director and challenging myself with all that responsibility,” he said.
Steve Dietl / Netflix
Yet this year, Bateman is nominated for Best Actor in a Drama Series. Multi-hyphenate nominees are often eager to discuss the challenges of balancing their roles on set. Some even look to direct episodes where their character isn’t featured that much.
“It’s not that difficult only because acting is so comfortable for me — it’s not overly distracting for me to act,” he said. “I can watch the other actor giving their performance. At the same time, I’m making sure my performance is decent, and I’ve kind of got my eye on what the camera’s doing and if somebody is shadowing somebody and they’re getting in front of a light or something. All these years’ set experience, it just allows for a lot of things to just be second nature.”
Bateman emphasized that when the cameras are rolling, he’s completely focused on playing Marty. Still, in the back of his mind, he’s taking notes — and giving them.
“My seat for watching is fantastic as a director, because I’m in there,” he said. “I’m right next to the actor, and I’m watching them do their thing. And so, I can give them a note while we’re in the take. I don’t have to wait until the end of the take, try to remember that note, then go up and talk to the actor about it.”
Bateman shrugs off other hardships typical of actors stuck in dark dramas for the long haul. He’s not eager to unpack how his dark directorial palette reflects an inner existential dread, or if playing Marty — a husband and father living with constant anxiety and the unceasing threat of death — ever gets under his skin, as a husband and father himself.
“I don’t get too deep into that because I’m afraid it might make me start acting,” he said with a laugh. “It’s probably the reason I never took acting classes — the last thing you want the audience to see you doing is acting. So I’m trying to find what part of me might be similar to Marty and just try to be natural.”
Such a simple philosophy doesn’t necessarily gel with the arresting results onscreen. Bateman embodies Marty with a unique blend of precise thought and casual comportment, both of which hide the fear lurking inside. It’s only when his character is pushed to a limit that the bare truths come out. Typically, you can see the gears turning when he’s forming a plan or making the case for it, whether it’s to the drug cartel he’s working for or his frustrated wife, Wendy (played by Laura Linney).
During a fight with his spouse in Bateman’s Emmy-nominated episode (“Su Casa Es Mi Casa”), he rattles off an exact list of Marty’s long-held grievances against Wendy before tossing off her retorts with a scoff and a muttered curse word. As she keeps coming at him, he cracks further, and his reasonable arguments collapse into hateful name-calling. When she storms off, there’s a brief moment when you can see that even Marty is shocked at what’s inside. But Bateman doesn’t let that self-doubt surface for long; Marty has his plan, he knows it will work, and he can’t allow himself to think, “What if it doesn’t?” — that answer is too terrifying.
Being able to comprehend, let alone capture, that many layers of a character is a full-time job — literally a task that should take up hours of study and exacting exploration. Bateman manages to do it not between his other jobs, but through them.
“Jason is so aware of where the camera is that he saves a lot of problems for me,” director Alik Sakharov said during a recent IndieWire panel. “Very often, he knows, ‘Oh, the camera’s over there,’ so that when his line comes up, he adjusts his body so that the camera can see [him], and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he just saved me 40 minutes.’”
“There was a particular shot, just a oner, and Jason adjusted himself so it was just perfect; he erased his shadow for me. This guy is so aware, so good, and so helpful to a director,” Sakharov said.
“When we do complicated shots […] it’s nerve-wracking because you’re going to set [wondering], ‘How are we going to get the actors to do everything we need them to do?’” director of photography Armando Salas said. “And when it’s Jason and Laura, it’s really easy. You just say, ‘Hey, we want to do this in one, and it’s going to take a lot of help from you guys.’ In the end, it’s not daunting or difficult at all, and you get this great series of shots without a cut.”
“If you understand all of the processes, it’s enormously helpful to a crew, to a director,” Bateman said. “And I love being helpful. […] A lot of that’s a hold over from being a kid [actor] too, wanting to kind of get pats on the back and attaboys from the adults on the crew. So I’ve just held onto that as I’ve gotten older, and it helps me make sure I’m all prepared, so that the crew doesn’t yell at me as being a snot-nosed kid that doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Despite his eagerness to please (and learn), Bateman still respects important artistic boundaries. He put the betterment of the production first and decided not to direct any episodes in Season 4. He takes his role as executive producer seriously, going over safety guidelines for the upcoming final season, and whenever he’s asked for plot details, he’s quick to point out he doesn’t write the series; that’s showrunner Chris Mundy’s department. Bateman only worked on big picture planning for Season 4… but he still had to know what happens.
“I do know where everything is going to end,” Bateman said about his conversations with Mundy. “The specifics leading up to it, I didn’t really grind him on. But I was interested in the big question he has the opportunity to answer: Are they going to get away with it, or are they going to pay a bill? What does he want to message to the audience about the consequences of what the Byrdes have done — or lack thereof?
“We had some great conversations about that, and he’s got really good ideas about that. Specifically, what kind of happens at the end of the last episode: I know, and it’s great.”
With Bateman, hard work isn’t just good. It’s addictive. And for everyone watching, the value is easy to spot.
“Ozark” is streaming now on Netflix.