While playing Mallory Keaton on the hit sitcom Family Ties in the 1980s, Justine Bateman struggled to find her place in Hollywood amidst the hustle and bustle of her meteoric rise to stardom. As a result, she began to branch out in search of new opportunities in the entertainment industry.
Following the end of the show’s seven-year run on NBC, Bateman appeared in several television movies, launched her own digital media production and consulting firm, and began working on screenplays for short and feature films that she planned to direct. After being unable to go to college due to her contractual obligations to Family Ties, Bateman enrolled at UCLA in 2012, where she studied computer science and digital media management.
After making her short film directorial debut at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actress decided that it was the right time for her to bring Violet, a feature-length screenplay that she had written in 2011, to the big screen.
A fascinating portrayal of self-doubt that combines fast cuts, chilling voiceovers and handwritten on-screen text, the film follows Violet Morton (Olivia Munn), a 32-year-old film executive who has spent her life listening to “The Committee” in her head (voiced by Justin Theroux), which is an inner voice that pushes her to make fear-based decisions. Violet has made these decisions to avoid potential “worst-case” scenarios in almost every area of her life, but it isn’t until she hears a comment from a friend that she realizes that The Voice has been lying to her the entire time.
“I made a lot of fear-based decisions,” Bateman says. “It’s the film I wish I had seen when I was 19.”
“For me, in the past, I made a lot of fear-based decisions,” Bateman explains in a Zoom interview during last week’s SXSW Film Festival. “This film is about someone transitioning into making instinct-based decisions instead of fear-based decisions. Basically, it’s the film I wish I had seen when I was 19.”
Ahead of the SXSW premiere of Violet, Bateman sits down with Observer to discuss her creative approach to this film, her reaction after the film’s original premiere was cancelled due to the pandemic, and the impact that fame can have on a person’s ability to make fear-based or instinct-based decisions.
Observer: This film is as much a visual experience as it is an auditory one. On the one hand, you have The Voice telling Violet how to feel and on the other, you have the writing telling audiences how she really feels. Was it always your intention to create tension with those two elements from start to finish?
Justine Bateman: I really wanted this to be a subjective experience for the audience instead of an objective experience. I didn’t want them to sit back and see Olivia Munn play Violet and see Violet go through everything; I wanted the audience to put the film on like a coat, or get into it like a car, and go through it themselves, and to have the voice press down on Violet and then have the writing trying to bubble up out of her. It creates this pressure with the sound and the visuals. So, I’m glad that you got that impression.
Whose handwriting was used in the film?
It was mine. That was very time-consuming because it had to be the right thing to say, placed in the right position on the screen, and then written in the right style, but totally worth it because I wanted that [feeling of a] pressure cooker. The other imagery [with the quick editing] was the violence that those negative thoughts create in somebody. Somebody might brush it off and say, “Oh, I’m just hard on myself.” But it’s like a little paper cut, and if you get a lot of paper cuts in the same place, you create this [wound]. But the handwriting was all me in Photoshop.
You worked with a great team on a tight budget and an even tighter shooting schedule. Can you talk a little bit about the people who helped to put this together?
I’ve done two shorts, some other smaller stuff and then this with Mark Williams, my cinematographer. He’s fantastic to work with and we work really well together. We had a lot of reference films, and one in particular was Revanche, which is an Austrian film that I highly recommend. There’s a lot of locked off shots where actors are coming in and out of the frames, and it’s beautiful. My fellow producers—Michael Jones, Larry Hummel, Matt Paul and Veronica Radaelli—this was a really good team.
Larry and I, in particular, spent a year and a half just pounding every single day to get the money for the project. Every single day. Anybody we could think of who had money, who was connected to anybody or any companies that had money, and that was really interesting.
I wrote four scripts during the shutdown, because I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be in 2020, in the United States, or at least in L.A. I just wanted to be in another world.
This film was scheduled to premiere at SXSW last March, but that festival was obviously canceled. This year, it has been re-selected for the 2020 Spotlight category. Can you talk a little bit about the roller-coaster of emotions that you’ve experienced as you wait for people to see this film?
OK, here’s the irony: Texas shut down a week before SXSW 2020. Everything that had been planned was just off for us—all of the other filmmakers, everybody. Then, this year, one week before SXSW 2021, Texas opens. I was like, “What is happening?!” (Laughs.)
But last year, the first emotion was just rage because of just the build-up. The writing of it, the raising the money, the doing of everything, then finding out that you had got in, and waiting so you can say something, and then waiting for it to actually happen.
Then—and I know this is totally gonna sound like a humble brag and that I’m so prolific and all this BS—I wrote four scripts during the shutdown, because I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be in 2020, in the United States, or at least in L.A. I just wanted to be in another world mentally, so I wrote four other scripts. That’s how I coped.
I thought for sure that we would have in-person festivals in 2021. It just seemed so far off. I reapplied to the festivals that had wanted the film last year, and around November-December, I realized, Oh, we’re not going to have in-person festivals in 2021. When we got into SXSW, I was like, “This is great. It’s poetic because that’s where we were supposed to be.” I think the timing is really good right now to sell a film.
Looking back, Family Ties was your first prominent acting role and it really made you one of the most famous actors in the world in the 1980s, which you wrote about in your first book. What do you remember from that time and what things did you want to explore in your book?
I’d been in the business for, like, four months, and I did two commercials and the pilot for Family Ties. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but thank God I was in really good company with really good actors and writers, and I had a talent for it, so that worked out.
In my book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, it goes over the life cycle of fame from the inside, like you said, and why people react the way they’re reacting during different points in that life cycle. It rises up, then it levels out, and then it descends. The most interesting part of that book to me was the second half of the experience—the descent. [Fame] becomes part of your reality, and then that reality gets pulled out. It’s like if I were to take certain threads out of this shirt, it would affect the rest of the shirt, and that’s what pulling out one’s reality can do. But it also only occurs with a tiny subsection of our population.
How do you think fame has changed since your time on Family Ties? Are we, as a society, too focused on this notion of fame now when other people who are “famous” don’t always have a positive experience with that concept?
Yeah, the book definitely goes into that and how we got to this point where we put fame on such a high pedestal, and now with social media, we’ve really democratized the effort to attain that fame. Everybody can get in on it now, and I think the potentially damaging part of that is that we’re quantifying people’s values instead of qualifying it. If you have more followers than me, then you must be saying more important things than me or you must be more attractive than me. It’s a very bad way to qualify people.
OK, what’s my core fear here? Let me get rid of that core fear because that’s how the tether is hooked in.
My second book, which comes out April 6, is about women’s faces getting older and why that makes people angry, and that’s 47 short stories about my experiences and emotions about it and those of about 20 people that I interviewed. That just gets into, Why do we even think that women’s faces have to be fixed? We’ve gotten into this [mentality] where now it’s just assumed that you need to go get a fix. I’m like, “This is psychotic. Let’s just stop for a second and think about what we’re telling people and what people are choosing to believe.” So, it gets into some of the proposed reasons why people would even think those things.
We’ve talked a lot about making fear-based decisions, and I think it’s fair to say that you had to get away from making those kinds of decisions after Family Ties. How did you deal with, as you describe it in your first book, the “post-fame” experience?
That’s a good question, and like I said, in the book, that was the most interesting and the most challenging part of it. For me, [I was] just processing it as a person. You attach so many things to a position you have in society, a position you have in a company, where you live. And when one of those things gets pulled out, it’ll pull any of these things that you’ve attached to it—your self-worth, your identity. You have all these tethers attached, and it’ll pull those too. So, as the fame was receding, I had to quickly unhook these things. As challenges came up, as circumstances came up where I would feel like I was getting my buttons pushed or I would feel insecure, I would just write about it. OK, what’s my core fear here? Let me get rid of that core fear because that’s how the tether is hooked in. If I can identify what the core fear is, then the tether has nothing to hook into and I’ll be okay.
I don’t have any interest nor do I have the time to change other people and what they do and say [about me], but I want to change my reaction to it. My goal is just to become “button-free,” so people can say whatever they want around me, and I’ll be like, “Oh, sorry, what? What’d you say?” It’ll just glance off of me.
Is that level of fame something that you miss or do you consider it a thing of the past?
Well, it’s definitely a thing of the past and firmly placed in the past. It’s fairly difficult to get that type of fame now because the audience [back then] was so concentrated. You had three big networks or you’d go to the movies—you really didn’t have any choice. If you were on a show on one of these three networks or in a movie, you were bizarrely famous. If someone saw you, it was really crazy. I remember meeting a little kid who couldn’t figure out how I got out of the TV. (Laughs.) They were just overwhelmed with confusion.
It was a different kind of fame. You didn’t have social media. You didn’t have a connection with any of these people, so when you did see them, it was crazy. You couldn’t go to Disneyland or the mall because there was gonna be a problem. I was never that famous, of course, but the reaction to the fame was incredibly intense because it was more unusual than it is now. Fame wasn’t as common as it is now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Violet premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Bateman’s books, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality and Face: One Square Foot of Skin, can be ordered wherever books are sold.