Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are maybe the hottest comedy writing team in Hollywood that have yet to release a feature film. Their first film, "Horrible Bosses," has attracted a mountain of big name talent, their sophomore is set to star Steve Carell as a past-his-prime magician, and they've penned the re-boot of of the classic "Vacation" franchise. PopcornBiz got to speak them recently about their films and their process.
PopcornBiz: It's been a long time, if ever, since one of you had a square job, so where'd the insights come from?
John Francis Daley: Well Jonathan has actually had more traditional jobs, so he could probably answer that one…
Jonathan Goldstein: I had the squarest of all jobs, I was actually a lawyer before I came out here. I graduated from Harvard Law School in '95 and I got a job at a large law firm in New York, which will remain Jones Day.
PB: During the opening monologue, Jason Bateman talks about the importance of "taking s***," is it safe to assume that lesson was learned while you were a lawyer?
Jonathan Goldstein: Very much so—we wrote that voice over with a lot of my experiences at the firm in mind, I think.
PB: How was this story developed?
Jonathan Goldstein: Mike Markowitz, he wrote the original draft and so the actual idea for the story should be credited to him…
John Francis Daley: Where they decide to kill each other's bosses. We sort of created the Colin Farrell character as the cokehead douchebag son of the benevolent Donald Sutherland character.
Jonathan Goldstein: And we moved the Jennifer Aniston character, Mike had her sort of working in a Best Buy, we made her a dentist and made Charlie Day her hygienist. I know [Kevin Spacey's] Harken character had been someone [Markowitz] had worked for originally. For us, it was about grounding [the story] a little bit more, trying to bring it into the world where you can actually see it happening.
John Francis Daley: Where you still sympathize with the protagonists wanting to kill their bosses. 'Cuz it's a very fine line between it becoming too dark of a film.
Jonathan Goldstein: That was always the challenged of it, cuz I think you lose your audience as soon as they start to actually murder anyone or do anything violent or do anything that's unforgivable.
PB: Based on his classic performance in "Swimming With Sharks," Kevin Spacey was the obvious choice for Harken—did you always have him in mind?
John Francis Daley: I think he was the last one to join of all the bosses that were cast. And you know we were thrilled to hear about that. We had been hearing about all these incredible people joining, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx—an Academy Award winner—and all these incredible actors, and when Kevin Spacey came on board, we weren't as surprised as we should've been.
Jonathan Goldstein: You start to gradually get your head around it, you go, "Oh, wow—this is attracting some big people"
PB: How on Earth did this--your first feature to be produced--attract so much talent?
John Francis Daley: As our first produced features, and it was actually one of the last scripts that we wrote. And it ended up being the first one to get made, is kind of bizarre.
Jonathan Goldstein: This came about because we had a relationship with New Line from three other things we had with them. They asked us to come in and do a roundtable on the script, and from that I guess they liked the ideas we pitched and they called our agents and asked if we'd do the re-write. So yeah, you can’t ask for a better first movie than this, we were in New York for the press last weekend, and between there and LA, just seeing the billboards everywhere is pretty mindboggling.
John Francis Daley: I'm so sick of it—I'm so sick of this movie.
PB: Considering the cast—Jason Sudekis, Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jamie Foxx--is it safe to assume there was a fair amount of improv on-set?
Jonathan Goldstein: You know, it's funny, they all have different answers, especially the three guys, they're very nice about crediting us with most of what’s there. They did improv a lot I think in multiple takes, and I think Seth had a lot to choose from. Some very funny lines came from those actors, off the cuff. Some of them were in the script and survived to the screen.
John Francis Daley: There's one sequence that was an idea of one of the actors, I don’t know which one of the three guys. It's just a simple little shot where they're pulling out of the parking lot to actually perform the murders. And you want it to be this sort of clean shot where they all go in their separate directions, they get in each others way, and (the camera stays) on them a long time.
Jonathan Goldstein: They go forward, they back up, you saw the movie, yeah?
John Francis Daley: That, I have to say, is one of my favorite parts, and we didn't even write it.
PB: There's a 16-year-age difference between you two, how'd you come to work together?
Jonathan Goldstein: John was an actor on the short-lived "Geena Davis Show" that I was a writer on and at the time he had made these short films that were basically the same as short films I had made when I was his age—he was just like younger version of me, we had very much the same sensibility despite the age difference. Some years later we decided to try our hand at collaborating on a feature script together. I had been doing TV shows for a long time, but hadn't cracked the feature thing. So we wrote a script, "The $40,000 Man," together. And that sort of launched us as a writing team.
PB: And what's become of the film?
John Francis Daley: We don’t really know—it’s been sort of passed around a few people. Terry Zwigoff was set to direct at one point, with Jim Carrey to star. But that kind of fell apart due to the writer's strike among things. Right now we're waiting for it to gather steam again and hopefully get made.
Jonathan Goldstein: Newline tells us it's alive. They sort of had their output cut a bit by Warner Brothers, so if anything get's a project for next year.
PB: What's your writing process like? Do you guys just lock yourselves in a room on a Saturday?
John Francis Daley: Actually yes, we work every day basically. Jonathan has a TV writing career still, and has a pilot deal almost every year, and I'm still working on "Bones," so between and doing that and writing these movies, we really have no free time.
PB: Sounds awful—do you guys have time for families or anything like that?
Jonathan Goldstein: It's funny—we're co-families in a weird way, like my wife is always asking, "Is John coming over today?"
John Francis Daley: My girlfriend is friends with his wife, so it's one big weird family.
PB: Why did it take Hollywood so long to realize that reasonably intelligent grown-ups enjoy raunchy humor?
Jonathan Goldstein: There was a time in the '80s when I was sort of coming of age, when it was all R comedies like this, you know? Like "Caddyshack." The greatest comedies were fairly raunchy but clever and had something to say about the culture we were in. I think it's from that Lampoon world, "Animal House" and "Vacation."
John Francis Daley: And then it sort of drifted into sort of grounded, raunchier R comedies in the early 2000, with "Wedding Crashers" and (Judd Apatow's) movies, obviously. It's refreshing because it's the way that people actually talk to each other. It's nice to sort of see that play out on film.
Jonathan Goldstein: The fun of this project for us was that you get to take a somewhat heightened notion—OK, would you kill your boss?—but we try to keep it in the world of "What would real people do and say and how would they go about it?" It’s very liberating to not have to bend over backwards to make it family friendly.
PB: How do you walk that fine line between funny and just crass?
Jonathan Goldstein: You just go right for crass (laughs). I think there were versions of scenes in this movie that did cross that line and we pulled back. I think for us—there's what you think of as the low-hanging fruit. There's always easy, gross-out, offensive kind of jokes, and to us we always want to try to go past that, to twist it a little and do something you haven’t seen before.
John Francis Daley: Yeah, because generally those low-hanging fruit jokes are things that you've seen in a dozen movies. And we're not saying that we're re-inventing the wheel by any means, but we're putting new tires on it, let's say.
Jonathan Goldstein: I picture my mom saying it. In fact, my father is taking a dozen or so of his friends in New York to see opening night, and I've said, "You've warned them, right? This is not exactly a family feature." And he say, "Oh—we're grown-ups."
John Francis Daly: Id love to be there to see them try to be polite to his dad after the screening.
Jonathan Goldstein: We just directed a short film for Funny or Die that starred Will Forte, and he told us a great story about the shooting of "MacGruber," where his mother happened to b eon-set the day shot the scene where he runs around naked with a piece of celery in his butt. And it was not the best day for him. But you know, I think it’s an instinct—it's the same kind of instinct of what's funny. If we make each other laugh, than we think we have a decent chance of making other people laugh. If we make each other feel dirty, it's probably going to make other people feel dirty.
PB: What people you've worked with have inspired and influenced your writing?
John Francis Daley: I come from "Freaks & Geeks," and working with Judd Apatow and Paul Feig was incredibly inspiring, first of all. And I learned so much from them on how to balance comedy with tragedy, really, because Freaks & Geeks was tragic, every episode. And it was the way that they dealt with that tragedy that made it so funny.
PB: Speaking of "Freaks & Geeks," what was craft services dishing up that all that talent came out of that show?
John Francis Daley: A lot of LSD
PB: What can you tell us about "Burt Wonderstone," you're next film, starring Steve Carell?
Jonathan Goldstein: Burt Wonderstone is at the top of his game, he's a Vegas magician who for 20 years has been at the top of the heap. Suddenly, there's a new guy on the scene, a David Blaine-type sort of stunt street magician.
John Francis Daley: Very low-key, like one of his stunts is holding his pee for two weeks
Jonathan Goldstein: And so he's threatened as the audiences are changing, they're drawn more towards that guy. Burt has become every cynical over the years and he breaks up with his longtime stage partner and kind of hits rock bottom and has to find his way back up to the place where he started.
Jonathan Goldstein: It's a script, it’s another one we came on for New Line, it had been written by a guy named Chad Kultgen. We spent, what, 2-and-a-half years on it?
John Francis Daley: Yeah, doing several drafts. It had gone through a couple different director possibilities, including Jake Kasdan, and then settled on Don Scardino. That should start in October.
Jonathan Goldstein: We're hearing some great names for some of the other magicians. It's a blast to work on that, but the hardest thing is to come up with tricks, because they have to be something you can actually shoot and they have to be funny and a little twisted.
John Francis Daley: Magicians have the advantage of being magicians their entire lives to come up with these incredibly creative tricks. We sort of jumped into it with only a few months to create tricks that are feasible and also funny. It’s a real challenge.
PB: You guys got anything else on the horizon we should know about?
John Francis Daley: "Vacation"—we wrote the reboot of "Vacation" and that obviously had a lot of weight attached to it because it was such a memorable classic from our childhood
Jonathan Goldstein: We wanted to make it a little less broad. The sequels were not always of the greatest quality, so we wanted to make it a little more "Planes Trains and Automobiles" in tone. And that's what we've tried to do. The story now is Rusty s grown up and he's taking his family to Wally World, so if we're fortunate, we'll have Chevy [Chase] and Beverly D'Angelo.
John Francis Daley: That's one we're excited about.
"Horrible Bosses" opens Friday July 8.