When Spinoff Online sat down with screenwriters-turned-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2) to talk about their revival of the Vacation film franchise, we learned to check our expectations. For example, in talking to the press the duo will 1) frequently provide amusing behind-the-scenes "making of" anecdotes; 2) occasionally make stuff up if they think it's funny; and 3) totally evade questions about penning the Marvel/Sony Spider-Man re-launch film.
(The last part was not their fault, though – the ink wasn't yet dry on the contract when we chatted, and they couldn't say anything yet)
But all of their responses were in good fun as they revealed the various ways they wanted to pay appropriate tribute to the 32-year-old comedy classic that launched the Vacation franchise as well as launch a new generation of Griswolds to generated a fresh round of laughter.
Spinoff Online: Now that this in the rear view as much as it can be, how did the experience of putting it all together match your expectations?
John Francis Daley: Well, when we first signed on to write it we didn’t know that we would be also directing it, so we were approaching at first like it was any other writing job. But we’ve always wanted to direct –
Jonathan Goldstein: It’s that old cliché of what all "I really want to do is direct."
Daley: But that was the case with this, and so when we got the opportunity, I mean, the biggest difference between that and writing was just the level of preparation that goes into actually directing a movie. It’s mindboggling how many decisions you have to make.
Goldstein: And how immersive it is. I mean, with writing you kind of make your own hours, and when you're filming a movie it’s basically before the sun comes up you’re in a car going somewhere and then you spend the whole day running around racing to get everything you need, and then the sun goes down and you go home and fall asleep.
Daley: I felt bad for Jonathan's wife and my girlfriend because all they lived in was us just talking about Vacation non-stop.
Goldstein: It becomes an obsession. It’s like its your whole world for the three months: you shooting and then it slowly tapers off and you get your life back in post-production. But that said, it was incredibly gratifying because having had a couple movies made and turning them over to other people to make, it’s difficult not to say we are the only ones who can execute our vision. But everyone’s going to do it a little differently, and so to be able to translate it directly to the screen was so great.
Daley: Yeah. That creative freedom was really gratifying and empowering.
Can you talk about the tone you set? This is a somewhat raunchier, darker take than the original films, where do you kind of draw the line and did you have even edgier scenes that you edited out?
Daley: We knew when we started prepping this to direct that it was, that we were making an R-rated movie and that there are certain expectations that come with something like that. But what we tried to adhere to was at the very least preserving the characters' voices, and as long as our characters weren’t betraying what we had already established with them you can get away with a lot.
Goldstein: We also tried where possible to undermine expectations so it’s not just, you know, the easy, low-hanging-fruit joke, hopefully. You know, some of the fruit are very low and you have to pluck them, but by and large…
Daley: Some of those fruit are actually turds.
Goldstein: From the turd tree. But also part of what we think is funny is when the audience expects it to go one way and you take it the other way. We’re all about sort of undermining and sometimes that can be frustrating. We got a lot of notes in early cuts of this of like can’t "You just let them get through that rollercoaster successfully. Can’t you give them one thing?" and it just felt like "No, you’ve gotta snatch it away."
Daley: That’s the whole theme of the movie, is a setup and then: blue balls.
Goldstein: Nobody gets it.
How much did you guys become sort of professors of "Vacation"-ology by looking at the other movies to prep for this and figure out what a "Vacation" movie needs and is all about.
Goldstein: There’s a balance. We didn’t want to be too slaves to the originals.
Daley: I’ve never seen any of them personally because I wanted to--
Goldstein: He’s lying.
Daley: --to go into it –
Goldstein: He’s lying.
Daley: --from a completely blank slate--
Goldstein: He’s lying!
Daley: No, I was a huge fan of the original and knew that we had to pay our respects to it to a certain degree, but also tell our own story. And that was the challenge because we didn’t want it to be just a bunch of "Remember this scene?" and "Remember that scene?" But we did have a couple of those moments for the die-hard fans.
Goldstein: And the truth is the sequels did their own undermining of the original: they cast different kids every time – I mean, how ridiculous is that? You would never do that now, Louis CK is the only one who cast different actors in the same role from episode to episode but…
You guys will do that for any sequels.
Goldstein: Of course!
Daley: Don’t tell the kids!
Goldstein: They're in the next room, so shhh. They think they're in the sequel.
I meant Ed.
Daley: Me too, me too – we’re going to back to Anthony Michael Hall. No.
Goldstein: That’s off the record.
Daley: It was…What was the question?
Goldstein: How high are you right now?
Daley: It’s the only way I go.
Just digging deep into the old movies and deciding what was going to influence what you were going to do.
Daley: Right, well, it's funny, there are so many things that you forget about the original movie even if you’ve seen it dozens of times. I remember to sort of celebrate when I was about to go off to Atlanta to start prep my girlfriend hosted this screening of the original "Vacation" and there were parts of it that I completely forgot where it tonally takes a bunch of shifts, and there were moments in it that I completely you know either blocked out or forgot. Like, there’s a whole scene where Clark was trying to get Ellen to, uh, fellate him while the kids are in the back that I think as a kid I didn’t even understand. But then seeing it again it, it was a real surprise
Goldstein: And it's funny because the question about the tone and that this is so much raunchier and darker – I don’t know that I totally agree. I think the original had a real darkness to it. That’s kind of what the Lampoons thing was doing, just like Animal House. It was this very dark form of comedy that we hadn’t really seen in mainstream comedy.
Daley: I mean, killing the dog was enough, but then you have the cop talking about what probably happened to that dog.
Goldstein: They dragged a dog behind a car.
Daley: Like, "He probably ran the first couple miles…"
Goldstein: There’s darkness in both, but I think people have a somewhat rosier memory of the first movie than is actually the case.
How crucial was Ed Helms to the casting of this film?
Goldstein: We could have had anybody, you know. He’s nice and all…
Daley: We first tried our hands at starring in it ourselves, alternating with each scene…
Goldstein: It was weird. Nobody was buying it. Ed was always – we made a little book of casting ideas when we went in to pitch ourselves as directors, and Ed was the center guy on the page for Rusty. He’s just the first choice.
Daley: He has some of the mannerisms that Clark Griswold, has but also this innocence I think to him that Clark didn’t have as much of. And he’s also just the nicest guy in the world, and it shines through his performances. So we definitely were able to take advantage of that.
Did you have any family vacation histories yourself to draw from for this?
Daley: Yeah. I had been on frequent road trips through my childhood, cross-country, and it's always fun in theory and then halfway through the trip you’re ready to kill each other.
Goldstein: Just being tented up with your family in a car for any extended period of time, as a kid especially, becomes a nightmare.
Daley: It’s funny to think that you spend so much of your day commuting to an from work that the one time that you have off of work you do so much more commuting than you ever would when you're working.
Goldstein: We were talking to some of the foreign press this morning about the difference between the like the American vacations and European vacations. For example we get maybe two weeks, and Americans by and large they say they would rather take money than take those days off if they had that option, which is so weird. And so what vacation you take nowadays, there is so much pressure on it to be the best part of the year and this great time, and it is almost killing it before you ever set out.
Daley: Yeah. You’re so desperate to have fun it sometimes comes at the cost of having fun.
Goldstein: And that’s I think one of themes of this movie.
Did you guys choose the Seal song, "Kiss From a Rose," yourselves?
Goldstein: I did.
Daley: We did, yeah. It’s a beautiful song, first of all, and it's filmic…
Goldstein: Arguably. Seal is my uncle, so…
Daley: Do you see the resemblance? No, we wanted for Rusty to have a song from the ‘90s that he was a big fan of.
Goldstein: We figured that’s when he stopped paying attention to music when he had a kid and was just like that’s the last thing he liked.
Daley: There was a minute there where it was Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car."
Goldstein: But Tracy doesn’t like her music to be used.
Daley: She doesn’t, especially in a comedy…[Seal's song is] placed three times in the movie, and so it really is a testament to the song. I mean, all kidding aside, it's so incredibly catchy.
Goldstein: I’ve heard it 80,000 times and I still don’t know what its about. "The drug and not the pill…"
Daley: Which makes you want to listen to it even more, to finally figure it out.
Goldstein: It's very cryptic. It's different things to different people.
Did your cast do any improv while on the set?
Daley: They riffed off of each other especially later into production, because they established such a great rapport. Ed is very much, you know, from that school of improv.
Goldstein: The truth is we didn’t have a lot of time. Each day we were so rushed to get everything that we needed that we at most we would try a few different versions. We would throw some alternate lines out or they would try a different riff, but often it was racing.
Daley: It was a fast-paced production schedule for sure, but I feel like everything that we wanted we got and there were obviously more riff-heavy scenes in others.
You have Chris Hemsworth as sort of the anti-Cousin Eddie with his professional success and physical perfection. What was fun about sort of letting Chris really cut loose with some comedy like that?
Goldstein: I mean it was scary at first because we didn’t know what we were getting. He had never done anything like this and his people called and said "Chris wants to do comedy – are you interested?" And we thought, "Well, it's risky, but let's try it." And he showed up and he took it so seriously, like a dramatic role: he got a dialect coach, and he just was so real with the part.
Daley: Yeah. He couldn’t have been funnier. He treated it like he probably treats any other role and took it very seriously so he wasn’t trying to be funny, He wasn’t trying to be goofy which often falls flat, especially with dramatic actors. He embodied the role, and I think that’s what made it work so much, to the point where we were getting calls from other directors asking us how funny he actually was because they liked the trailer so much they wanted to cast him in movies.
Goldstein: In fact, I think his role in Ghostbusters was because Paul Feig called and said "How was he?" So you’re welcome, Chris Hemsworth and Paul!
Provided there is another film, where you want to take them next?
Daley: You know we’ve been toying with locations, I don’t know if we want to say yet in case it is subject to change.
Goldstein: Or the movie bombs.
Daley: Yeah, that too, But we’re excited to revisit the Griswolds if we have the opportunity, for sure. We have an idea in mind, but I don’t know if it’s worth saying.
Goldstein: A very, very initial conversation with the studio.
The Griswold family car, the Tartan Prancer, was a character on its own in this film.
Goldstein: That was always the intention.
Daley: The idea of it being basically symmetrical came in the middle of the design process because we liked the idea of it being cute and button-nosed. But only later did we realize that it was starting to look very symmetrical front and back, so we said "Let's put side view mirrors on the back."
Goldstein: We said "Let's go with that and headlights on the rear." We wanted it to be a character in the movie, kind of like the [Wagon Queen Family] Truckster was in the original film. And so we devised [the manufacturer] – you know. Albania is probably the country Americans know the least about and so we thought we could get away with anything.
When you saw the finished car what was your reaction?
Goldstein: We were thrilled!
Daley: We were laughing.
Goldstein: They rolled it off the truck and we were just like "Holy shit – this thing is so stupid-looking."
Can you talk about working on scenes for the originals, Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, and then seeing them put it together for you? How was that experience?
Daley: It was the coolest thing in the world, because they really do feel like husband and wife. They make fun of each other incessantly – he gives her hard time and she does the same.
Goldstein: And they go outside and smoke.
Daley: But no, it was one of the cooler most more surreal moments in our directing career, directing Chevy and Beverly in a Vacation movie.
Did Chevy improv at all?
Goldstein: No, not really. Well, one thing he suggested when you first see him is doing that thing of like “Ellen? Oh, there you are,” which is from the original. He suggested that so we did that, and then the guitar thing where he is fiddling with the guitar we just sort of found that on the day he did it the first time and then he clunked it and we said "Do you just want to make a meal out of that?" and he did and it felt very Chevy.
Daley: There were deliveries that we weren’t expecting from him, like when with the Jimi Hendrix riff and he says "no" in sort of a "yes" response. We didn’t imagine it said that way and it elevated the humor so much more for us.
There was a lot of news that you may be working on a movie starring a very famous superhero with Marvel and Sony, and I don’t know if you are at a place where you're able to talk about it--
Daley: We can't. We can't.
Goldstein: [Playing dumb] We don’t even know what you’re talking about! I wish we knew what you were talking about!
Daley: The Green Lantern?
Vacation is in theaters starting today.