The setting is a dystopian United States. An egotistical, polarizing individual has taken control of the presidency. The country is more divided than ever. Citizens have turned against each other and hate crimes are more prevalent than ever.
Sound familiar? It’s supposed to.
Comedian Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut “The Oath” provides a chilling look at the current climate of the United States through the lens of a not-so-dystopian America. It follows a family’s reaction to an oppressive president’s demand that all citizens sign an oath stating their loyalty to the new government. When the family accidentally incapacitates two agents of the governmental Citizens Protection Unit (CPU), they try to resolve the situation — hilarity and violence ensues.
The Wheel sat down with Barinholtz on Sept. 21 to talk about the film, which is set for release on Oct. 19.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Eliza Paprin, The Emory Wheel: What role did politics have in your life growing up? What led you to want to create and develop a political satire?
Ike Barinholtz: When I was really little growing up in Chicago, my dad was marginally involved with [politics]. In Chicago, the neighborhoods are broken up into wards and each ward has an alderman. My dad was friends with one of the committee members of the wards so he would do some political stuff there. I remember election day was so cool, waking up early and going to the polling place with my dad and helping out and giving out buttons. There were two things that really took me: one, the food was really great. There [were] donuts and popcorn. Also, on a bigger level, I loved the characters of the politicians. I thought they were all so interesting. I would watch them talk to their constituents, and the constituents would look at the politicians and really have hope in their eyes for a better life — whether it’s for them or for the country — and then this politician would look at them and say, “I’m going to fight for you and work for you.” There was something so satisfying about it. I was taken with politics. I was the nerdy kid who would watch Ronald Reagan at the Republican Convention in 1984. And then I just always kept an interest in it and I realized I probably didn’t have the grades to be a politician, although now I could be. Now I’m a Rhodes Scholar compared to some [politicians].
EP: Would you say that [the 2016 election] was the political event that the sparked the idea for this?
IB: One hundred percent. If Hillary Clinton had won that election, this movie would not be made. Look, this is not a partisan film. I think what I’m trying to do in this is show how both sides’ brains are breaking. But this is not a political movie, it’s about [a] family trying to figure out how to live in this new kind of America. One thing about Donald Trump is that him winning really just changed everything. Not just the way we look at politics, but the way that we digest our politics and the way the 24-hour news cycle works. I just really wanted to take that paradigm and blow it up.
EP: This is the first movie you’ve directed, correct?
IB: Yeah, but I directed episodes of “The Mindy Project” before. And I knew I really liked directing. Directing a TV show is one thing, but directing a movie is a lot more work. It was something I’d wanted to do for a while, and once I knew in my mind what the story was going to be, I knew that I could do it.
EP: Were there certain steps you took to prepare for such a big feat? After all, you wrote, directed and starred in this film. This is your baby.
IB: Oh, it’s my baby (laughing). Aside from my three babies, this is my baby. I’m very lucky that I have a great support system. I have a writing and business partner who I’ve been with for 30 years and I have good managers and great friends who are writers, creators and directors themselves. Whether it’s getting notes on a script from a friend or showing the movie to Seth Rogen or Mindy Kaling, I got a lot of help.
EP: Is there any particular aspect of the thriller genre that appealed to you? I know that you worked with the producing team of “Get Out.”
IB: Yeah, QC [Entertainment]. I think the two kinds of movies that are the most fun to see in theaters, for the most part, are comedy and thriller. Those two genres, more than any other, feed off the collective experience [the audience is] all sharing. If you hear other people laughing, you’re going to laugh harder. At the same time, when you’re freaked out and other people are too, there’s an energy in the room. Obviously, I have a lot more experience with comedy, but I also love thrillers. I love those feelings of not knowing what’s going to happen.
EP: I think a lot of people will resonate with the film. Even with my family, for instance, your character is my father, the biggest news junkie. Every time Thanksgiving comes around, he’s so passionate and gets into every political issue even when it’s not necessarily appropriate. I know that he’d be the exact same way in that situation. It’s such a similar family dynamic to mine, and I know that it will be similar to a lot of people.
IB: That’s the most popular comment I’ve received from people that have seen the film, that they find their families in this family. That was definitely my goal. The overall message of the movie is that we have an obligation as Americans, but also as daughters, husbands, sons, wives, fathers and mothers to try our best to not let external forces that we can’t control permanently destroy our relationships. There are a lot of people where that ship has already sailed and they say, “I’m never speaking to my cousin again.” Because at the end of the day, there will be a new president; there will be a new government; there will be a worse president one day. Well, maybe not worse, but equally as bad. And you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t want to think in 10 years, “Oh, I haven’t talked to my mom in so long because she likes Trump, but he got impeached in 2019!” My whole hope is that people try their best to keep it together, but at the same time, make their own decisions.