Following a string of screenplays that has included Horrible Bosses, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, writing partners Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have made the jump to directing with Vacation, the fifth in the series started in 1983 with the now-classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. In the new film, Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of the original movie’s Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), who decides that it’s time for him, his wife (Christina Applegate) and his two sons to reconnect by driving cross-country to Walley World, where his dad infamously took him and their family in Rusty’s youth.
Of course things don’t go as planned and the Griswolds get into some off-road adventures of their own, including a dip at a toxic waste site, an unusual encounter with a trucker, and a stop at Rusty’s sister’s (Leslie Mann) house, which features a memorable appearance by Marvel superhero Chris Hemsworth. And speaking of superheroes, Goldstein and Daley have recently been tapped to write Marvel and Sony’s 2017 Spider-Man reboot for director Jon Watts and star Tom Holland, but when we spoke with them, the deal was not yet done and they were not allowed to discuss it (they were finally able to comment later — read that here).
Den Of Geek: How did this come about? Did you pitch doing a Vacation remake, sequel…?
Jonathan Goldstein: The studio wanted to bring back the franchise in some way. And they asked us to come and pitch how we would write it. We did and they hired us. We wrote it without intending to direct it. And then they said, “We know you are interested in directing. Throw your hats in the ring.” We did and we got the job.
John Francis Daly: What’s funny is we jokingly threw out hats in the ring to direct after we wrote it. We were like, “Hey! If you want directors…” And they were like, “Maybe!” But we thought that they were totally just patronizing us. In fact, they took our offer seriously.
Jonathan Goldstein: One of the great things about New Line is they are very loyal to people.
Once you actually said that and they said, “Yeah, do you want to direct,” did you suddenly think…
Daly: Holy shit? Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s a minefield. And there are so many die-hard fans of the original, including us, that we didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Obviously you are going to disappoint a certain group of people regardless. Even if it was the best movie in the world, it’s still going to have backlash when it’s covering territory that was covered 30 years ago. But we did try to make it very much our own movie to sort of quell some of those fears and, at the same time, pay respect to the original with a few homages.
It seems to me that you had a lot of space to do that, because you weren’t exactly remaking the original.
Goldstein: There’s a lot of animosity…
Daly: It feels like there’s a lot of animosity just because of the internet. It’s a small group of people that feel passionate enough to go online and talk shit.
Goldstein: I guess if heard just out of the blue that they were doing some new version of Vacation that meant I would be skeptical because I’d be afraid of someone tarnishing something that I grew up with a great affection for. So I understand it. But we kind of address it in the first part of the film where Rusty says, “This is going to stand on its own.” That’s basically our way of saying to the audience, “We know what you’re thinking, but relax. Give us a chance…”
Daly: At the very least, watch the movie and decide for yourself if we’re tarnishing the original in any way.
Did you feel like your writing partnership, which has been going on for years now, translated easily to directing?
Daly: Yeah, it actually did…
Goldstein: Surprisingly easily.
Daly: Our intention was always to direct when we were writing. So we knew that was ultimately what we wanted the course of our career to take. So when we had this opportunity, we had to take it. It felt just like a natural next step for us.
Goldstein: It was very organic. On set we were mostly of one mind. And we prepared a lot before we ever got on set so there weren’t surprises or disagreements. And everything flowed very nicely.
Do you delegate duties to each other?
Daly: No. it’s always sort of the same thing.
Goldstein: We tried to delegate…
Daly: It never worked. Because we have very strong opinions. Often they are aligned. But when they’re not, you have to try it both ways. And if we were sort of delegating we wouldn’t be able to try all the options. It makes it a lot, I think for us, a lot more conducive finding the funniest comedic moments, because you have someone to test those ideas off of.
Obviously the goalposts for comedy have moved in terms of how raunchy we can get with things. So where was the line in doing that, in making it appeal to people walking in fresh who may not even have a history with the old ones, and yet not turning off people who had seen the earlier films?
Goldstein: It’s an R-rated family movie, which is kind of a rare bird, in a way. We wanted to kind of make a point that just because you become parents you don’t stop being a person and have a history and all this stuff. And so, that was kind of a defining line. Sometimes we worried we were going too far: “If she says this, is she no longer a good mom…?”
Daly: Like when (Applegate) says, “Little fucker…” (about one of her kids)
Goldstein: That was a version we did we weren’t sure we were going to use it. But it got laughs…
Daly: And people still liked the character afterwards, which is the most important thing.
Goldstein: And we wanted to make sure that the emotional stuff was real and not tacked on. We find a lot of R-rated comedy out there is gratuitous and sort of mean-spirited, everybody kind of hates each other. We wanted this to be a legitimate family with some problems, but still, they love each other and Rusty is determined to make everything right and better, so that when you get to those emotional beats in the third act, you are onboard for it and it’s not just after the fact.
Daly: To address the raunchy/edgy question, I think our goal was never to set out to make the most offensive, edgy comedy. But I think what is fun with the fact that it’s a family and the fact that they are a likable group of people is that it does allow you push the envelope in certain situations, because as long as it’s being seen through these relatable, innocent eyes, you can get away with a lot more. But, obviously, we didn’t want to make Jackass 4.
What was the most surprising thing to pull of shooting-wise in terms of either something that worked better than you thought it would or maybe was harder to get?
Daly: I will say the Hemsworth penis scene on paper isn’t funny because it’s just he walks in and flaunts his enormous member. But there are no jokes about it. He’s playing it straight the whole time. He’s asking them if they need anything. He’s talking about how quiet it is there, while the elephant in the room is his elephant-sized penis. So that was a surprise to us at how well it played. We had an idea that it would probably play well, but we didn’t know how Chris Hemsworth was going to do it. And the fact that he played it straight all the way through I think is what made it so special.
Goldstein: Also that hot tub scene where Rusty is trying to be the wingman for the son. That just cracked us up. We were worried a little bit at first, like is the audience going to get what he’s trying to do? Is he clear…?
Daly: …that he’s trying to be a wingman.
Goldstein: Yeah. It always worked, so as we were shooting it, we were throwing in even more ridiculous lines.
Daly: Yeah. Once the setup is accomplished and people are onboard, you can really go far with how scary Ed’s character is in that.
Goldstein: “Take off your shirt…”
Daly: “Pop that shirt. Make a muscle.” And we shot him from underneath in the sort of horror vein where he looks like a ghoul, which helped us sell it.
If you guys were theoretically writing a Spider-Man movie, do you have favorite villains that you might want to include?
Goldstein: I mean, I love Lex Luthor. (laughs)
There’s my headline.
Goldstein: I don’t know much about the comic books.
Vacation is out in theaters now.