Game Night: How to Film a Comedy Like a Thriller

The directors of Game Night talk mixing jokes with thrills, the cast and a little project called Flashpoint.

After pursuing careers as a writer and actor respectively, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley teamed for a string of screenplays that included Horrible Bosses, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and, last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (although there were a number of writers on that one, to be fair).

At the same time, the pair embarked on a directing career as well, helming 2015’s Vacation sequel/reboot and now the original comedy film Game Night, starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler and Jesse Plemons.

Game Night is a comedy inside the body of a thriller: Bateman and McAdams play a married, kind of geeky couple whose weekly game night with their friends becomes dangerous when Bateman’s older brother, played by Chandler, lures them into a game of his own that turns out to be all too real and possibly deadly. The movie and story are fresh, stylized and funny, thanks to inventive direction, a sharp cast and a tight script — attributes that have been strangely lacking in a lot of recent comedies.

Apparently the studio behind the film, Warner Bros., liked what it saw when the duo delivered Game Night: they’re in talks to write and direct Flashpoint, the reality-and-time-bending standalone Flash movie that could reset the DC film universe in more ways than one. We tried to pry what information we could about that project out of Goldstein and Daley while also talking about their savvy take on Game Night.

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Den of Geek: Tell me how this project kind of came into your orbit.

Jonathan Goldstein: Well, after vacation, New Line kind of called us in and said, “Here’s everything we have in development. Anything appeal to you?” We read the script for Game Night and really felt like an opportunity to do something different and challenge ourselves to not just make a straight ahead comedy, but to kind of mash up some genres.

John Francis Daley: Yeah, I’m a big fan of thrillers. I love surprise endings and twists and turns and to be able to straddle those two tones was really exciting for both of us, I think.

Goldstein: Bateman was attached as a producer from the beginning of this and we convinced him to play Max, and then Rachel McAdams came on and we were really psyched.

Daley: She was our first choice. She hasn’t done a comedy in a really long time and we think that’s criminal, because she’s incredibly funny and in a charming and natural way that the second she came on we also knew we couldn’t just give her the role of the disapproving wife who is the voice of reason. Bateman’s the straight man in this. She gets to be goofy. She gets to flex her comedic muscle and it really gave us the opportunity to see her in a light that we haven’t really seen her in in a long time.

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Goldstein: I think she’s been offered movies like Spotlight and all these sort of much more dramatic roles, but she always had, I think, this very comedic arsenal. But that’s how Hollywood works. They tend to think of you as the thing you did most recently that did well and that’s what they want you to do. So she’d just come off of doing a super serious movie, Disobedience, and so I think she was ready to do something that was a little lighter.

The idea of game night is very weirdly specific. Did you have your own memories of family game nights or things like that which you kind of channeled into the movie?

Daley: Yeah. I mean I would throw game nights almost every weekend for a good two years at my house. We would play Mafia and it was a chance for everyone to drink a lot and yell at each other. And what I found with it is there’s something very cathartic in that, where you get to let off steam under the context of playing. I liked the idea of setting a film around that dynamic where you have a bunch of highly competitive people, who are all in it to win, sort of thrust into this circumstance they don’t even realize how deep they’re in.

Goldstein: I wasn’t a big game night person, but I was a big game player as a kid and I had an older brother who would always beat me at everything and so I think I carried some of that rivalry into adulthood and really wanted to build that into the relationship that Max has with Brooks, his older brother who’s always been successful, handsome, all that stuff.

Did the script change a lot?

Daley: Yeah, we did a rewrite on it when we came onboard. What drew us to the movie was there were a few key twists that have been preserved since the beginning, but there were a few character personalities we wanted to tweak, a lot of the dialogue we kind of put through our filter.

Goldstein: We did sort of a two-pronged pass on it. One was the drama, one was the comedy. The drama that was in there didn’t really hang together logically, and was really important to us because a good thriller does that, even if you’re not following the plot, subconsciously on some level you are. If you think about a James Bond movie, you never know what the hell’s going on. You go from action set piece to the next. But for us, we at least wanted it to hang together and so that was a big re-imagining of plot points and specifics, like the whole gang going to the mansion wasn’t in there, all that kind of stuff. (to Daley) Right?

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Daley: They go to a big house, but something entirely different happens. But also, what helped kind of inform that requirement that we had to have it all track was when we worked on Spider-Man. The strict adherence to making sure that the villain plot track and everything that he was doing when he was going from point A to point B had logic and reason to it, because very often in superhero movies or just action movies in general, you, like Jonathan said, don’t really know what’s going on. And it’s important to us to keep the stakes up and have the audience know exactly why they’re going to every location that they’re going. That said, it gets pretty twisty and turny throughout our film, so it does require paying a certain amount of attention to what has been established as real, has been established as falsehood.

Goldstein: Part of the fun and challenge of this was maintaining that uncertainty in the audience as to what sort of movie this is. It starts off like a pretty traditional romantic comedy, and then it goes into a scene in a doctor’s office, and then it goes into this weird driveway scene where we meet Jesse Plemons and the music is kind of ominous, along with the lighting and the camera moves. We really like suspending the audience in this place of uncertainty because then it makes it even more fun in terms of their reactions to the jokes and the suspense.

Was there a lot of trial and error with that in terms of balancing the comedy and the thriller elements?

Daley: No. Honestly, just to give an example, for the music, we got Cliff Martinez, who has never done a comedy before. The most lighthearted thing he probably ever did was War Dogs for Todd Phillips. But generally he’s done Steven Soderbergh’s films, a lot of Nicholas Winding Refn’s films, not the person you generally think of as the go-to for a comedic movie.

Goldstein: Yeah, our production designer, Michael Corenblith, he did Ron Howard’s movies and he’s also known for dramas.

Daley: That was a conscious effort on our part because we are not a fan of music or lighting, for that matter, that tells the audience that you should be laughing. We think that the joke should not at all be related to bright colors. You know, if you have a character wearing red, it’s supposed to be funny! We really wanted to make sure that we were strictly abiding by the rules of the thriller.

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Goldstein: I think I mean the truth is most studio comedies do not look great because there’s not that emphasis placed on that. It was important to us to have this movie have a specific look.

Daley: Yeah, we wanted something unique that you generally only associate with dramas, because it doesn’t hurt the comedy. We weren’t entirely sure of that, though, until our first test screening. We thought, “Maybe this works for us, but it could fall flat with audiences.” And we were pleasantly surprised that audiences were entirely onboard with the fact that we were kind of seesawing between these two tones.

How did you come up with the idea of the big establishing shots looking like game boards and then pushing in until they become real?

Goldstein: That was something we talked about early on. We wanted to convey a sense visually that these characters are themselves pieces in a game that’s being played with them at the heart of it, and so that was a way of doing that visually. We did it with visual effects and using drones and it was a recurring sort of motif through the movie.

Daley: Barry Peterson, our DP, was just as interested as we were in kind of breaking the mold of what you associate with the traditional comedy and so we got together and we were like, “Okay, we want an establishing shot here, but we don’t want it to look exactly the same as all the ones that we’ve seen before. How is there a way to kind of evoke this mood of a game night within this one shot?” It just came from that conversation.

You talked about Rachel earlier, but I also think people are going to be talking about Jesse a lot coming out of this movie.

Daley: He’s incredible. I mean, he’s good at everything he does and we knew he would nail it from the get-go, but we didn’t know the extent to which he would nail it. I mean, the first day of our rehearsals when we did a table read, he said his first line and I remember looking over at Jonathan and thinking, “Oh my god, we hit the jackpot with this guy. He’s perfect because he’s not at all trying to be funny. He’s playing this character. He has inhabited this character in a way that you don’t normally see very often.”

There are a few iconic characters you can always kind of pinpoint and it helps also that he’s always in the same wardrobe throughout. He becomes this sort of totem. But it was just a sheer pleasure to watch him perform. The subtle changes he would make to each take, so minute, but because we’re pushing in on his face the whole time you get to actually see the micro-shifts in his expression.

Let me make the usual awkward transition here, not to put too fine a point on it, but there was a news flash about you guys recently…

Daley: Where are you going with this?

Where are things at with the possibility of you guys doing Flashpoint?

Daley: Well, we’re very excited at the possibility. We’re in negotiations right now, so we can’t really confirm anything or say much about it, but we will say that we’re a huge fan of the comic book, we’re a huge fan of the character, we love that he is not your traditional super hero, like Batman or Superman who have their shit together and are filled with angst and aguish.

Goldstein: Yeah, in much the same way that Peter Parker is sort of the entry level way into the Marvel Superhero Universe, they both share that quality that they’re still a little excited to have these powers and they’re newbies and all that.

Daley: Yeah, they’re sort of the entry point for the audience, too, because as an audience member if you were gifted with these powers, you wouldn’t immediately use them just to fight in the name of good, you’d play with them and experiment with them. I think there’s just something really fun in meeting someone that’s younger who doesn’t have all that extra baggage, having fun with their new abilities. But this is all hypothetical.

I was going to say, on a hypothetical basis, do you have an approach that you’d like to take?

Daley: We do have a take on it, but we can’t really get into it.

Goldstein: I mean, we can’t put words in the mouth of Warner Brothers, but obviously it’s the same studio that did Game Night and you know, we speculate that they were pleased enough to engage us in this.

Are the two of you a hive mind on the set or do you delegate jobs between each other?

Daley: Generally, we are a hive mind. Sometimes we disagree on things and in that case we try it both ways. It’s very important to us that we each get what we want out of a scene or performance because it only gives us more options after the fact.

Goldstein: Yeah, a lot of times you don’t know on the day how it’s going to play out, and then you get in the edit room and you’re really grateful that you do have some more options. We do a ton of prep before we ever get to set, so that we make sure there’s no daylight between us, because the last thing we want when you’re under the pressure of shooting is disagreement. It’s just so dysfunctional if that were to happen.

Game Night is out in theaters now.