Justine Bateman, FACE: One Square Foot of Skin

Justine Bateman, FACE: One Square Foot of Skin

Zibby speaks to Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated producer, director, and bestselling author Justine Bateman about Face: One Square Foot of Skin, a riveting collection of vignettes about women and aging. Justine reveals her inspiration for this project, how she conquered her fear of aging, the vignette she based on her own experience with face-shamers, and the creative process behind her phenomenal cover. She also talks about her first book Fame and shares that it is being made into a film! (Note: You may remember Justine from “Family Ties”!)


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Justine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss the paperback launch of Face: One Square Foot of Skin. Welcome.

Justine Bateman: Thank you.

Zibby: Why write Face? Why did you choose to do it with a series of vignettes about different people, different people’s experiences? How did you come up with this whole concept?

Justine: When I was writing my first book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, which is about the lifecycle of fame, if people are interested in that, from a sociological standpoint and also from experience — I was very famous years ago. For part of that research, I was googling my name. I wanted to look something up. The autocomplete was “looks old.” At the time, this was fourteen, sixteen years ago, so I didn’t yet have this or this. I was like, really? I was forty, forty-two. There were so many of them and just one of me. I made a very big mistake of making them right and me wrong. It affected me more deeply and for a longer period of time than I ever could’ve expected it to. Like I do with anything that pushes my buttons, I had to figure out what my core fear was about it. If people think I look old, then therefore… What was the completion of that sentence for me? I knew that that was really the problem, not this skin on my face. I knew that the underlying fear was. I wanted to get rid of that because that’s basically my life’s goal, is to get rid of all my buttons so anybody can say anything, do anything to me, and it’ll be like the adults in the Peanuts cartoon. Wah-wah-wah. I won’t even understand what they’re saying.

Zibby: Do you think that that is even possible? Are there people who don’t have buttons to push?

Justine: I have eliminated an enormous number of buttons by doing this. Absolutely, a hundred percent. Honestly, I don’t think someone can really become themselves until they eliminate a majority of their buttons. I just don’t. Otherwise, you’re people-pleasing to varying degrees. I know for myself, I was acting out of fear and make a decision based in fear, which is what Violet’s about, the film I wrote and directed and produced with Olivia Munn, starring Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux, if you want to check that out. Once I got through what was my underlying fear with regards to my face looking older or people just saying it looked older, whether or not it looked older at the time, I then started thinking about society as a whole. What underlying fears do we hold as a group that are supporting this idea that women’s faces are broken and have to be fixed, and at any age? A woman at any age now, it’s assumed that their face is broken and has to be fixed. That’s what the book is about. It gets into some of the possible reasons why somebody has consciously or unconsciously adopted a fear about their face changing that then caused them to walk around in shame and eliminate pursuing opportunities that are coming their way. Oh, I can’t because I’m older. That kind of thinking. Something as simple as, maybe for somebody, it’s that all the fairy tales they — not all of them, but most of the fairy tales that they read as a kid, the villain is an old woman. I’m not advocating that fairy tales go away. Not at all. I’m saying, for somebody, could that be the reason you unconsciously adopted that idea? Now when you start looking older, somewhere in your mind you’re going, oh, wow, now I’m the villain. I don’t want people to think I’m the villain, so I must change my face. Perhaps that’s true for somebody. That’s what the book goes into. It’s based on my experiences and feelings on the topic and those of about twenty people I interviewed.

Zibby: Have you thought about doing an accompaniment called Hair? I’m sort of in that fact-finding — now that I have to spend all this time covering up all my gray hair, anyone I meet who has all white hair, I’m like, tell me about that. Why did you decide to let your hair go gray? I think it’s a corollary on this because it shows your age. There are ways you disguise your age and ways you don’t.

Justine: Do you follow — wait, I don’t want to mispronounce her name — on Instagram, Maayan Zilberman?

Zibby: No.

Justine: Maayan Zilberman, she’s in her forties, I guess. She’s had gray hair for a long time, but it’s silver. It’s so cool. I love my gray hair because it looks like I had little silver pieces woven into my hair. I think it looks rad. Anyway, I won’t go into that. I have a whole plan for the layers of color I will have in my hair if my hair went all gray. I can’t do it yet. If it went all gray, I have this plan, what color I would have the tips and what color I would have this section and stuff. I think it looks cool. If somebody doesn’t think that, then isn’t that something for them to look at? What’s underneath that? That’s what I’m looking at. What’s underneath that? Then whether or not they dye their hair, whatever. It’s an opportunity to get rid of a fear that may be driving other decisions in your life that you may or may not actually want to be taking.

Zibby: I feel like part of it is just this age-old fear of mortality itself, maybe.

Justine: Are you closer to death right now than you were at twenty? Do you actually know that, though? You don’t. People die at twenty all the time. You could’ve been hit by a car at twenty and died. You could live to be ninety-five years old. You don’t know.

Zibby: You’re right. I don’t know.

Justine: I always say there’s two ages, dead and alive.

Zibby: I just meant I thought maybe that was the root. I feel like any day could be my last. I live every day — I’ve had a lot of people die very suddenly. I’m like, well, I made it through today. That was good. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.

Justine: You’re right. That could be the reason for somebody. If that is, then that’s something to write about, journal about, and go, how is it serving me to hold onto that idea? We don’t hold onto ideas or fears unless some part of us feels like it’s serving us. For me, oftentimes, it’s an irrational reason. It’s irrational rationale. I find that in writing it or saying it out loud to somebody, it allows it to begin to erode just by virtue of having broken it open. You know?

Zibby: Totally. I felt the worst for Donna in all of these stories, who went back to her high school reunion and had so many people be so nice and falling all over her, and then as soon as she was somewhere else and thinking that she was in the bathroom or whatever, overhearing guys talking about her, girls talking about her and then, of course, turning around being nice again. It’s the worst.

Justine: Let me tell you about that one. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, this is a story about a woman who’s very famous, Julia Roberts-level famous, and goes back to her high school reunion. Like Zibby said, they’re like, oh, my god, I can’t believe you’re here. This is amazing. Then she goes to go to the restroom. On her way to the restroom, she hears some guys talking in the hall by lockers. She smiles. She thinks they’re talking about her. Then she realizes that they’re tearing her face apart. She starts feeling very panicky and then goes into the bathroom and goes into a stall and is gathering herself. Then some women come into the bathroom. They don’t know she’s in there. They are at the sink having a conversation about her face. All the dialogue of what the men say in the hallway and what the women say in the bathroom is cut and paste from message boards where people were talking about my face.

Zibby: Stop it. Seriously?

Justine: Cut and paste. If anybody’s curious what people are saying about my face, the Donna story is exactly — those were conversations about Justine Bateman’s face. One was from, I discerned it was sort of a mommy blog kind of place. The other was from a sports-related site, so I assume it’s all guys. Maybe it’s not, but I can assume that, I think.

Zibby: Isn’t it crazy how much people care about your face or that there would be all these message blogs even about it?

Justine: Yeah. It’s something I think they should talk to their therapist about. It’s kind of weird.

Zibby: The comment that happens at the end where Donna retaliates and says something, is that what you wish you’d said to the people on the message boards?

Justine: I guess it would be fun to. The thing about that is you sure say a lot of things online that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face, but you know what? I don’t care. I think what I would say to them is just, I feel really bad for you because I know that’s what you say to yourself when you look in the mirror, in all truth, not as a clapback or bullshit, whatever. Honestly, you will respond to people in the same way you respond to yourself.

Zibby: Yes. There’s a lot of projection.

Justine: If someone’s criticizing anything — not anything about me. If someone is giving an honest, insightful critique of my writing or my films, maybe there’s something in there. I mean if someone’s just being critical with no basis, then they’re telling me about themselves. They’re not telling me about me.

Zibby: It’s so true. I feel like they should teach kids that. Let’s start early here.

Justine: Yeah, you tell the kids. They’re telling you about themselves.

Zibby: It’s the same thing when you tell someone you’re getting divorced or something like that. Everyone’s reactions, it’s just a Rorschach test for their own feelings about their own marriage. If you want to know how everybody feels about their own marriage, tell them you’re getting divorced. You will find out some really interesting things. Just throwing it out there.

Justine: Give me an example.

Zibby: The people who start sobbing. Some people just burst into — many people.

Justine: Because they’re afraid that that’s going to happen to them next or something or what? What do you mean?

Zibby: Or they wish. They feel so trapped. They feel so trapped that it just reflects on what they wish they could do, versus other people who are like, oh, yeah, how do you feel about that? It just says so much. It could be your next little experiment. I don’t even know why we’re talking about this. By the way, I read Face and then — I have the book, obviously. It’s in my hand. Fame, I didn’t have the physical copy. I was wearing my reading glasses. #Aging, again. I was wearing my glasses —

Justine: — I don’t think so. I think, #ILookBitchin.

Zibby: Okay, #ILookBitchin. Anyway, I was wearing my reading glasses and downloading it on my phone. It was so funny because it says, “Face not recognized.” I was like, this is so perfect. They couldn’t see my eyes. All of our changing faces. I think how everybody’s handling aging, which happens to everybody, is one of the more fascinating things. I love how you really do a deep dive, and even the men. The essay you had in Face about the potbellied, thinning hair, totally unattractive man being like, I wouldn’t even do her anymore. You’re like, like she would do you. What on earth? Why do you think you have that choice all the time?

Justine: There are a lot of things that men do that I aspire to, that men can just be like that. Yeah, I’d do her. Wow, the confidence, the assumption of ranking that is necessary to make that kind of comment, that’s a level of confidence I would love to have. I would love to have that. I want it. It’s interesting. It’s really interesting.

Zibby: In Fame, you start off by talking about your not-so-fondness of memoirs — although, you said it in a different way — and how you were determined not to write a memoir and how the publishing people actually really fought against that. Everybody wanted to make you write a memoir. It took a while for you to find the right home for your book. Tell me about that.

Justine: First, it was finding a book agent. Like you said, the book agents were like — at first, Fame was an academic version. I’d written this long proposal. I had begun writing it, of course, and went around. They’d look at the proposal and stuff. Then they were like, “Wouldn’t you rather write a memoir?” I was like, “No, I’m writing a sociological look at the lifecycle of fame, the beginning, the equilibrium, and then the fading of it and then the without. That’s what the book’s about.” They’re like, “Wouldn’t you rather write a memoir?” I’m like, “No.” I kept just meeting different book agents. Finally, I met one book agent who goes, “Oh, I get what this is. Yeah, let’s do it.” He’s Noam Chomsky’s book agent. I’m like, me and Noam Chomsky in the same — come on. Yes. Then same thing with the publishers. Like I say in the book, went around big publishing houses, and same thing. “Wouldn’t you rather write a memoir?”

Look, even though I’ve published two books, I’m not that familiar with the book business. I wasn’t in the book business before. I didn’t see it change. Of course, I read books. It seems really hard right now. I’m sure they’d rather have something that slides into a particular genre that they’re accustomed to selling. They know what to do with those. They know what the book tour’s going to look like. They know which outlets do well with memoirs and etc. You’ve got either an academic version of Fame or — when I realize in the middle of one of those meetings, wow, I need to change the format into more stream of consciousness, more like a Hunter S. Thompson, kind of direction, that’s what it became, then, with that academic version structure underneath it, though. Then same thing. I met a publisher who just goes, “I get what this is. I love it.” I was like, oh, great. I got to tell you, I don’t even know what I should really have in a publishing contract. My publishers, Johnny Temple at Akashic Books, everybody there’s been so lovely. Their notes are so in line with what the intent is of the book. The notes then just make the book better instead of making it something else. I’ve never had to refer back to the agreement.

Zibby: That’s a good thing.

Justine: It’s a good thing. Then again, if they ever went away and I had to have another publisher, I wouldn’t know what I need to have. Whereas there are other situations, like in filmmaking, where I have long lists of notes of, here’s what — but only because I’ve had situations where I had to refer back to the agreement and then just went, shit, why don’t I have this accommodation, this accommodation? Damnit, damnit. Contracts are for when people lose their minds, not for when everyone’s asking reasonably.

Zibby: True. I do think that publishing contracts, though, are not the same. It’s not like you’re going to get a private car. They’re not going to put any of that stuff —

Justine: — No, I don’t mean things like that. I mean deadlines, approval of the cover art, approval of the blurbs, approval of the tour plan, the press, all this kind of stuff that makes — if I had a different cover — sure, there are a multitude of other covers I could’ve had. They say you can tell a book by its cover. I think you can tell the marketing team by the cover. What’s inside the book might be really good, but the cover is shitty. You pick it up. Or the cover’s really great, and you look inside and you’re like, hmm, good marketing campaign.

Zibby: Were you involved in doing the cover? Did you have choices?

Justine: I designed the cover of both the books. I went to a plastic surgeon and asked him to give me a consultation and then to mark up my face with whatever he was going to do if I was going into surgery. Then my friend, Steven Meiers Dominguez, took the picture. He took the author picture as well. Then this around here with this kind of font, to me, suggests you’re in a hole, and you’re being stepped on. That was the idea behind that.

Zibby: I love it. It came off looking great. It’s really awesome. I think it matches the content, if you want my humble opinion.

Justine: That’s what you want. You want it to match. This is what you’re going to get, this kind of style, this kind of message. Make it easy for the reader. What are we diving into?

Zibby: It’s interesting, in both Face and Fame, you’re taking things that other people take for granted and you’re just stepping back. I feel like you’re zooming out and taking stock of the whole thing. Okay, here’s my face, but let’s talk about face and aging. Here’s my fame, but really, I’m more interested in what makes a person famous. What is it giving all the people who have other famous people to revere? Why is it like a crush? What is it doing for them? I feel like you must do this with everything in your life. What else do you zoom out and think about like that?

Justine: That’s funny that you say that. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always looked at somebody and wondered about, wow, why did they just stand like that? I’ll look at somebody’s clothes, like their sweater, and go, at some point, they didn’t have that sweater. Then did they see that sweater in a picture and they said, “I want to buy that sweater”? Were they just out shopping for sweaters and they found it? Were they not shopping for sweaters and they saw it in person? Then did they try it on? Did they get it immediately? If they did try it on, did they try it on and go, “Wow, this makes me look like…fill in the blank”? Now every time they put the sweater on, does it make them feel that way? Did somebody leave that sweater at their house and they wear it because they feel guilty that they’re not nice to that friend anymore? You know what I mean? There’s so many reasons for everything. There’s a story behind everything. Yeah, I do trip out on that. There’s other things. If science is interesting to anybody, you can really trip out on shit with science, like cloud formation or the content of the air. You just go, oh, my god, you know that — you start thinking about what’s under the streets, systems that are under the streets. If you’ve ever played a Sims game or something where you have to set up a world, the infrastructure under the streets, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. If you’re in a flower store and you just look at all the different flowers, if it was your job to come up with different flowers, would you have come up with all these combinations? Some of them are just crazy. I forget all the names of the flower parts. The center pieces that have the pollen on them — I know somebody’s going to put in the comments —

Zibby: — It’s okay.

Justine: There’s some flowers where at the tip of each one of those little long pieces, there’s another little flower at the top of each one of those.

Zibby: Is it called a stamen? Did I just totally make that word up? I think I might have just made that up. Anyway, whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Justine: That might be right.

Zibby: I don’t know, but yeah, that’s crazy.

Justine: Yeah, I do. I love learning about little pockets of our society, like the rodeo circuit. I dated someone who was a rodeo cowboy once. That’s a whole society, a whole world.

Zibby: I love how you just threw that in. That could be a whole book in and of itself, dating a rodeo cowboy. Keep going.

Justine: That’s my private life.

Zibby: I’m kidding.

Justine: Then other things. There’s so many things. I could go on and on and on about — I was just at a Chanel fashion show. My friend works at Chanel. That’s how I got invited. I think it’s pretty hard to get those invites. I was talking to these women who collect Chanel clothes and accessories and purses and everything. It was really interesting. They’re curators of these little tiny museums of all these really beautiful, beautifully constructed — it’s like being a car collector or something when you’re collecting something like that that’s that well-made and has that kind of history. I love pockets of — which is good news for me as a screenwriter because I love doing research. I’m writing a script right now where the research is pretty interesting, into the influencer world.

Zibby: Ooh, that sounds good.

Justine: The research is really interesting, interviewing a bunch of…

Zibby: Have you listened to Jo Piazza’s podcast, “Under the Influence”? You should listen to it. It’s really good. She goes underground and finds all these influencers and does a whole podcast. I remember listening to it when I had COVID. In my haze, I was like, oh, that’s cool, Like to Know It. Maybe I should apply. This is a couple years ago. I was like, this sounds fun. Then totally forget about it. Then months later, I get some email. Congratulations, you’ve been — I was like, what? Oh, my gosh, was that when I was listening to Jo’s podcast?

Justine: You applied?

Zibby: I applied, so now I have a thing.

Justine: You too are an infomercial salesman.

Zibby: I am.

Justine: Everyone’s a salesman.

Zibby: By the way, I saw this sweater in a store when I was not shopping. I was like, that’s cute. I did not try it on. I always remember it because I was walking around with my husband that day. I remember exactly where I was and how it was a beautiful, sunny summer day. I think back and remember that wonderful moment every time I wear my sweater.

Justine: You are a collection of all the books you’ve read.

Zibby: Yes.

Justine: Your sweater and its multitude of colors is a collection of everything behind you.

Zibby: That’s true. I match today. Look at that. What’s coming next for you? What’s the next exciting thing?

Justine: We’re casting right now, the film version of Face. Face is short stories. I adapted fourteen of them. I’d love to do a series after the film that films the rest of them. That would be cool. That’s coming together right now. I’m also, like I say, writing that influencer script. Then I have a bunch of other scripts that are in varying stages of inching forward. It’s really a process. Every film, every book, every song — I don’t know that much about the music world. A lot of work went into not only the project itself, but getting it made. It’s a long slog. Sometimes you see these people accepting Oscars. They’re wiping the tears away. They’re like, this took ten years to make. Not that many people can relate to it unless you’ve had to do that yourself. Imagine you just hammer at it every day, every day, every day. Sometimes it could be two steps forward, one step back. My experience with film producing is that it’s not two steps forwards, one step back. It’s half a step forward and then a quarter step forward and then half a step forward and a half a step forward. You’re just like, why is this taking so long? It’s worth it. I really don’t have any choice. This is my path.

Zibby: At least you got into the very speedy world of book publishing as a backstop.

Justine: Yeah, and that one too. Because I have a great situation with my publisher and my agent, that one just is a tremendously long lead time. It’s like, great, we got it. We’ve gone back and forth and back and forth on getting it in shape editorially. It’ll be released in a year. You’re like, oh, okay. We’ll start the press in six months. Long lead time, but it’s very satisfying. It’s very satisfying. For whatever it’s worth, I would say to anybody who’s making something, whether it’s a book or a film or a song or whatever, I would say be mindful of compromising. This is actually a quote from my brother Jason. I was telling him about some notes someone gave me on my script. I’m like, “It’s like they didn’t read this. They gave notes on the script without even reading it. They don’t even understand what it’s about for them to have given a note like this.” He said there are two kinds of notes, notes that make your film better, or your book or whatever, and notes that just make it different. I would say if you’re trying to accommodate — maybe it’s not even notes.

If you’re trying to please the majority of people, if you’re trying to make it a best-seller, if you’re trying to do this and you’re trying to do that and you know you are sacrificing the true direction that the book or the film wants to be — you may think you have one problem in that maybe your film or your book isn’t going to be a best-seller or something. If you betray the project, you then potentially have two problems. Maybe it still won’t be some New York Times, on the best-seller list, and you put a project out there that is not only not indicative of your work, but a betrayal of what you knew the project was supposed to be. To me, I just think creatively, it’s almost unethical creatively. You know absolutely what a project needs to be. Then if you betray that and send out something that’s half-baked — if you’re an artist. If you’re somebody who’s not and you’re an accountant or whatever and you’re just putting a book out there, have at it. If you’re an artist and you have a feel for it and you betray it — don’t do it. You would have to live with that for the rest of your life because it’s going to be out there for not only the rest of your life, it’s going to be out there forever. You will never have delivered the thing that you were charged with delivering.

Zibby: I love it. No pressure for anyone, but yeah. I’m kidding. You’re right.

Justine: I guess the pressure would be, just deal with your fear. Oh, no, I’m afraid it’s not going to be a big success. Odds are — what do you consider a big success? If you’re faithful to that project and you get it out the way you know it needs to get out, that’s a massive success. If you’re just eyeing, I want to make sure I sell twenty thousand copies in the first week or something, to me, that’s not an accomplishment.

Zibby: This was so much fun. Thank you. I had a really good time. Thanks for talking about Face and Fame. Maybe the next one will be clothes, maybe not hair. I’m going to follow. I want more of these bird’s-eye views on things we all think about every day.

Justine: Violet is about the fear that causes you to make decisions that take you off track, so there’s one there. Then the third book is going to be about my experience with going to college as a freshman at forty-six.

Zibby: Like Rodney Dangerfield.

Justine: Exactly like Rodney Dangerfield.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Oh, my gosh, so cool. I can’t wait to read. Thank you for the time and all of it. Thank you. That was fun.

Justine: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Justine Bateman, FACE: One Square Foot of Skin

FACE: One Square Foot of Skin by Justine Bateman

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