‘Ozark’ Postmortem: Jason Bateman Reveals the Scene That Persuaded Him to Make Netflix’s New Crime Drama

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in ‘Ozark.’ (Photo Credit: Jackson Davis/Netflix)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Sugarwood” episode of Ozark.

With one Netflix series already under his belt — the revival of Arrested Development, which debuted its fourth season on the streaming service in 2013, with another to follow next year — Jason Bateman wasn’t necessarily looking to add another. Instead, as the actor tells Yahoo TV, he planned to expand his feature filmmaking horizons by directing a movie that took place on a bigger canvas than his first two features, 2013’s Bad Words and 2015’s The Family Fang. But then the pilot script for Netflix’s moody crime drama Ozark arrived on his desk, and reading through it, Bateman came across a scene that landed on him with a major impact.

Arriving at roughly the 40-minute mark in the first episode, “Sugarwood,” the scene that turned Bateman’s head finds the show’s central character, financial planner Marty Byrde (Bateman), racing up to the apartment building where he expects to confront his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and her lover. As he approaches the tower, rehearsing what he’s going to say to the pair, a body hits the pavement right in front of him. It’s his rival for Wendy’s affections, tossed over the side of his 80th-floor balcony by the drug cartel enforcer, Del (Esai Morales), whose bosses have been laundering money through Marty’s firm.

(Credit: Netflix)

“The way that scene sneaks up on you when you’re reading the script was a clear indication of the prism of the show,” Bateman says. “Marty thinks he’s got everything under control, but he’s not so bright that there aren’t going to be problems. And then one problem literally falls from the sky right in front of him.”

Reading and re-reading that scene on the page, Bateman’s directorial mind immediately took over as he envisioned the various ways it could be shot to make as big an impression on a viewing audience as it did on him. And when he finished the script, written by Ozark creator, Bill Dubuque, he put his feature film plans on hold, and committed his time and energy to Ozark both in front of and behind the camera. In addition to starring in the 10-episode series, Bateman is the show’s executive producer and directed four installments, including the premiere and the feature-length finale. (Initially, he hoped to direct every episode, but the demands of the production didn’t allow for that.) Through it all, he says that he approached Ozark not as a TV series, but as a “10-chapter movie” — an expansive storytelling canvas that most feature films can’t boast of.

Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde, Skylar Gaertner as Jonah, Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde, and Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte in ‘Ozark.’ (Photo Credit: Jackson Davis/Netflix)

Viewers who primarily know Bateman from his other, funnier Netflix series, as well as big screen comedies like Dodgeball and Horrible Bosses, may be surprised to see him navigating much darker terrain in Ozark. In addition to adultery and defenestration, the first episode also features Marty eyeing prostitutes and porn, and pleading for his life when Del aims a gun right at his head, intending to take his life as payment for the substantial debt left behind by his co-workers, who have already met their ends in violent ways. Interestingly, Bateman’s performance in that moment expresses the kind of pure desperation that’s also been glimpsed in his comedic work. “Desperation is really the root to both comedy and drama,” he says. “If you’re able to show somebody coming apart at the seams, you can get people to laugh or cry. It’s all about navigating how much desperation or vulnerability you show.”

Marty pleads for his life in ‘Ozark’ (Credit: Netflix)

In the midst of his freakout, Marty also concocts a plan that delays his death sentence… for now. He sells Del on a grand, potentially Quixotic scheme to launder drug funds through the Ozarks region of Missouri. That plan requires him and Wendy to uproot their two kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skyler Gaetner), and trade Chicago’s towering skyscrapers for Missouri’s skyscraping trees. The final shot of “Sugarwood” finds the Byrd family standing on a cliff overlooking the expansive Lake of the Ozarks, as the camera pulls back until they’re barely dots amidst the wild landscape. That scene allowed Bateman — who cites Michael Mann, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson amongst his directorial influences on Ozark — to achieve a personal first: directing a helicopter shot. “The pilot came right in, hovered in front of us, and started his pullback,” he remembers. “It shows us as these little figures in this vast new environment, not knowing which way to turn or what’s ahead of them.”

(Credit: Netflix)

Bateman adds that the helicopter sequence was filmed on location in the Ozarks around lunchtime after he had already spent the morning aboard the chopper supervising overhead shots of the surrounding countryside to use in future episodes. (While set in Missouri, the bulk of Ozark was filmed in Georgia due to the state’s tax incentives.) “It was really fun,” he remarks of his first experience in aerial cinematography. “I felt like Mom and Dad were away on vacation and left me the keys to the house. It was like I was just a kid getting a chance to do this stuff. But it really hits home that you’re an adult when you have a helicopter waiting for your direction.”

Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.

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