“You’re fat, your hair is gross, you smell, you majored in the wrong thing in college, you don’t have enough friends, why don’t you know how to cook, you don’t remember enough people’s birthdays.” The dulcet tones of Theroux ring out in voiceover, as the eponymous Violet (Olivia Munn) takes it all in, staring blankly, her eyes averted just beyond the camera’s lens.
It’s an immersive and unsettling start to the film, but it does exactly what Bateman wants: We’re in the cacophony of Violet’s own head, a place filled with all the fears that the unnamed inner voice spits back at her. For Bateman, a long-time multi-hyphenate who got her start in the seminal television series “Family Ties,” “Violet” is the product of decades of desire. But becoming a director was possible only after she did exactly what she asks of her eponymous lead: Shut up the nasty inner voice and lead a life not steeped in fear.
“I was 18 or 19 years old and I was talking to a couple of agents,” she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was acting at the time, but I was talking about the film ‘Betty Blue’ and the uses of color in the film and what it meant metaphorically. One agent looks at me and he goes, ‘You should be directing.’ I realized that he was right, but the timing never felt right. … So I waited for the timing, because there were times I was like, ‘When is this going to happen?’ But I knew I couldn’t force it.”
Shot in August 2019, “Violet” follows Munn as Violet, a film executive whose entire life has been dictated by fear, most of which is dramatized by Theroux’s spine-tingling voiceover, picking and needling at her every worry. As Violet realizes that, no, that inner voice is not right, she takes tentative steps toward a better existence.
Bateman has often said “Violet” is a “revenge film,” but she’s clear: There’s no specific “who.” It’s something internal and deeply personal. Years ago, she was just like Violet.
“I was making fear-based decisions and I didn’t realize that I just didn’t feel [like] myself,” Bateman said. “I was like, ‘Why did I say that thing? Why did I do that thing? Why didn’t I say no? Why did I wear that outfit?’ When I finally got out of that years ago, I realized: all these thoughts are lies, those worst-case scenarios aren’t going to happen, or if they do happen, there’s something magnificent on the other side of them. I realized how much time had been stolen from me because of fear, days and months where I wasn’t being myself. This is revenge on that.”
Still, Bateman says the film is “not autobiographical at all” and is quick to note that Violet is not a Bateman stand-in. “What I’ve written about is just the human condition, which is not about men and women, men versus women. It’s not about Hollywood. It’s really just about how do you get from a life whose foundation is fear-based decisions to a life whose foundation is instinct-based decisions,” she said.
So, why did Bateman set the film in Hollywood, a place she knows well? Her answer is a good one: She wanted to take the shiniest thing and strip it down, making it unimpeachable.
“The reason I set it in Hollywood and the reason the character looks like she looks and is in perfect health and has great friends and is in a town that a lot of people want to live in and in a business that a lot of people aspire to be in, is because I wanted to eliminate all the variables that someone could point to, that a viewer could point to, or that their own negative thoughts could point to, and say, ‘Well, see, that’s why,'” Bateman said. “I wanted to eliminate all of that, so the viewer could go, ‘Hey, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll be happy when, I’ll be happy when I move out of this town, I’ll be happy when I have a better job, and that’s why I have these negative thoughts. But look at her, she doesn’t have any of those things and she still has those negative thoughts. She’s getting out of it, and so can I.'”
The film was slated to debut at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, where its premiere was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic (the festival scrambled to put on a virtual event, but not all films, including Bateman’s, were available as part of that digital push). It finally premiered at the hybrid SXSW 2021 and in September, Bateman screened “Violet” in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Special Presentations section.
Violet is a canny film exec constantly felled by her own internal thoughts as well as a nasty, sexually harassing boss intent on tearing her down. Despite the film’s pointed take on Hollywood, Bateman said that the industry was not resistant to the plot.
“The responses I was getting were, ‘Oh my God. I wish I’d seen this three years ago, it would’ve saved me a lot of therapy,’ or ‘Jesus, this is exactly what I’m going through right now,'” Bateman said. “I’ve had people assume this is about women [specifically], and I’ve got to tell you, I would say 60 percent of the people that respond strongly to this film are men.”
Still, Bateman noted that even those who liked the script worried over how to market the film. “I think people want stuff like this,” she said. “They want something new, and something that helps them think about their own lives differently. It’s part of the reason we go to the movies. I know it’s part of the reason why I go to the movies. … The people who are the distributors and the streamers, they’re looking at what people respond to and they think, ‘Well, let’s just keep doing that.’ If I had some genre scripts in my computer, I could have sold them four times over right now, versus trying to get my next project funded. But I’m okay with that challenge.”
The film gives Munn in the meatiest role of her career in a moving and deeply insular performance. Bateman believes that Munn, best known for work on everything from “The Predator” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” to “The Newsroom” and “Attack of the Show!,” has long been worthy of a role like this.
“I think she could be consistently a terrific lead actress,” she said. “I don’t think she’s been given that opportunity. Again, it’s more of, you can’t blame companies for wanting to buy what they know, what they’ve seen [has] worked in the past. … I have a lot of confidence in myself as a director. When I would see video of Olivia, there were qualities that she had that I knew were right for this character. I knew I could tease those out and expand them, and she really gave herself to the role.”
While the voice in her head was always part of the script, Bateman said Munn didn’t know “half of what” it was actually going to say to her, or that her own thoughts would show up on screen by way of handwritten missives. “When I put those two things together, it created this pressure cooker on her performance that I thought was so much more indicative of how life really works,” Bateman said.
The filmmaker joked that she knows that it’s “criminal” to not put Theroux on the screen, but she thinks the strength of his voice-only performance will jolt audiences into feeling, just as it does with Violet. That’s the point.
“I want to share this with other people who might be in that same situation I was in years ago and want to have that map to get out of it,” Bateman said. “My hope is that people can see this film and become more fully themselves. This is the film I wish I had seen at 19, because I would have become myself faster than I did.”
Relativity releases “Violet” in limited theaters on Friday, October 29, with theatrical expansion and VOD options to follow.