“Game Night” Directors Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley on Making the Comedy Thriller (Interview)

GameNight1New Line / Warner Bros.

and might not be the likeliest of filmmaking duos, coming to writing and directing from different places, but so far, the team-up has mostly worked, leading them to writing the hit comedy Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well as directing the 2015 remake of Vacation and making their most recent comedy Game Night.

Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as married couple Max and Annie, who are incredibly competitive when it comes to their monthly game night, to which they invite a number of other couples. When Max’s equally competitive brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up, he invites them all to his place for a  murder-mystery game night. Things don’t exactly go as planned when Brooks is kidnapped, and everyone assumes it’s part of the game and starts looking for him, only to learn the truth.

The movie also stars Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Sharon Horgan and Jesse Plemons in a very funny role as Max and Annie’s disturbingly creepy neighbor Gary, who literally steals the movie every time he’s on screen.

The Tracking Board got on the phone with the filmmaking duo a few weeks back for the following interview in which we tried to ask them about Flashpoint, but they said they’re still in negotiations.

Before we get into Game Night, I’m curious how the two of you first started working together. You come from different backgrounds and there’s a bit of an age gap between you. 

: Yeah, I was an actor on a show called The Geena Davis Show back in the early 2000s and Jonathan was a staff writer on it. I showed him a short film that I had made, and he showed me one that he made when he was my age that was basically the same thing, and we started throwing ideas around for a show that I would act in that we would write together. That kind of led to several years later, us writing our first feature together, which was The $40,000 Man, which was a silly movie about a guy that came before the $6 Million Dollar Man. We didn’t think much of it. We didn’t think it would get sold, but there was a bit of a bidding war between studios, and it got us in the door of New Line, and we’ve been working together on films ever since.

Was that movie ever made?

:  No, no. It’s still kicking around. Originally, it was going to be Jim Carrey, and then it was briefly talked about for Kevin Hart, but it’s one of those movies… it’s a pretty broad comedy, so it would have to have its moment.

Daley: It seems like broad comedies are cyclical, and I’m not sure we’re in that moment currently.

GoldsteinDaleyNew Line / Warner Bros.

You guys have done well by making high concept comedies. Horrible Bosses was such a great concept that it could literally sell itself based on that title alone. Game Night is kind of the same, although it came from a script by Mark Perez, so did New Line bring that to you?

Goldstein: Yeah, New Line showed it to us, and we really sparked to the whole notion of it. It felt like an opportunity to do something that wasn’t a traditional comedy, but to combine genres and do sort of a comedic thriller.

Daley: We really wanted to lean into the thriller component as much as the comedy, and that’s why we consciously made the effort to have it look and sound and feel like the comedic characters that are thrust into a dramatic movie. Cliff Martinez, who did the music, had never done a comedy before this. He’s only worked on Steven Soderbergh movies, and he’s got this incredible electronic sound to his composition. We thought it was a great compliment and sort of a nod to the movies of the ‘80s that all take place in one night. And then we have Michael Corenblith, our production designer, who has done a lot of Ron Howard’s movies and hasn’t done a lot of comedies either. He kind of put it best when he said, “You want to turn off the sound of this movie when it’s on TV and think that it’s a drama.” We’re very much of the mindset that the music and the lighting and the costumes shouldn’t be what makes the movie funny. It should be the situations and the dialogue, so we tried to adhere to that.

Was a lot of that in Mark’s screenplay originally and was that what interested you in making it when you read it?

Goldstein: I mean, the general notion of a game night among friends that goes very wrong and becomes a crime movie was there. We changed a number of the specifics and the actual criminal plot we’re following.

Daley:  As well as the dialogue and the character of Gary that Jesse Plemons plays was a very different character when we first read it, where he was this sort of brash, loud, rude, bombastic guy, and we thought it might be more interesting to have someone who is quiet and hyper-articulate and polite to a point, but also very unsettling. When we got Jesse Plemons, he really turned that character into something truly unique and original and different from even what we were entirely imagining.

How did you come up with Jesse for the part? He kind of steals the movie. I saw it with a pretty rowdy crowd, and they really reacted to the character.

Daley: It’s a testament to the studio really, because you wouldn’t normally pitch Jesse Plemons for that big of a role in a comedy and have the studio immediately be on board with it, but they were like, “Oh, we get what makes this fresh and funny and original.” They were totally cool with hiring him.

He’s probably one of the more underrated actors out there right now. He’s in so many movies where even if it’s a small part, he’s quite great.

Goldstein: I think people are discovering him and this will open a whole new world of comedy potential to him.

Daley: Yeah, he’s so good. I can honestly that I think he’s one of the best actors of his generation.

GoldsteinDaleyGameNight1New Line / Warner Bros.

Jason Bateman was in Horrible Bosses, but it was interesting seeing him in this because I’ve been watching him in Ozark, so he’s doing dramatic work as well as comedies, so was that an easy call to have him in this?

Goldstein: Yeah, he was actually attached as a producer before we even came on, so it was just a question of convincing him to play the lead. He knew that our intention was to do something a little more ambitious, and I think that appealed to him. Obviously, we’re fans having worked with him, and there’s nobody who does understated comedy better. There’s no better straight man in comedy right now.

Daley: And having Jason be the straight man allowed us to give Rachel, the arguably more fun role in just getting to be goofy and make a lot of mistakes and fuel a lot of the punchlines. Any opportunity to give Rachel something funny to do, we would take it, because we’re such huge fans of the comedies that she did, but it’s been a while since she had done them, so it was refreshing to see her in this light.

It’s nice that people are giving her a chance to be funny again, because she is a great dramatic actress but I enjoyed some of her earlier comedies. What about some of the others you cast around them and how defined were the supporting characters in the screenplay?

Goldstein: Yeah, we tried to put as much on the page as we could and then every actor brings their own spice to it. Sharon Horgan was such a great get. She’s also somebody who I think after this, Hollywood is going to start calling her more. Kyle Chandler is just sort of hilarious and unexpected in the role. We had Bateman, and we had to have someone who could out-Alpha him, and there aren’t that many actors who can bring the charisma and looks and confidence that makes Bateman seem less like the top dog.

Daley: And also, just technically speaking, we also wanted him to look somewhat like Jason’s brother and he does. They look like they could be cut from the same cloth.  The thing that we were most impressed with by working with these actors is the immediate chemistry that arose from all of them. Kylie [Bunbury] and Lamorne [Morris] had their own unique banter, and the fact that they are probably the youngest couple in the group yet they feel like the oldest in that they’ve been together for the longest was kind of a unique take on an old couple. And then, Billy [Magnusson] and Sharon [Horgan], that was the outlier in that we didn’t really know if they were going to have any chemistry at all, because we cast them entirely separately. Sharon we cast when she was in England, so they met for the first time on Day 1 of shooting, and they immediately became best of friends. They were hanging out all the time on the weekends, and a lot of the back-and-forth that you see in the film is somewhat reminiscent of the back-and-forth that they have in reality.

Is Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” really Kyle Chandler’s entrance music? I can definitely see that song playing every time he shows up on set.

Goldstein: Yeah, that plays wherever he goes.

I seem to remember liking your choice of songs for Vacation as well.

Daley: Yeah, well we wanted his intro music to be very anthemic. I think we have a theme of late ‘70s, early ‘80s songs encompassing this film next to all of the score. That’s why we book-ended it with a different Queen song, and “Captain Jack” is such a ballsy and masculine intro for a character that’s supposed to be just that.

I know you guys just signed on to Flashpoint, and I know Warners has been trying to make a Flash movie for a while, so had you been looking into directing something bigger? What interested you in doing it?

Daley: Well, we’re currently in negotiations now, so there’s not much we can say about it, but we’re very excited to even be part of the conversation. We’re huge fans of the character and the comic book, and just the notion of being able to tackle that new genre is incredibly exciting to us.

GoldsteinDaley1New Line / Warner Bros.

You guys worked with Phil Lord and Chris Miller before, who are also making a Spider-Man movie. Have you talked to them about doing the movie that they were going to do at one point?

Goldstein: No, we haven’t spoken to them.

Daley:  You were talking about Flash before, right? We talked to Chris and Phil when we did the sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which they wrote and directed. We did a draft of that script, and they’re awesome guys and equally ambitious and want to explore every genre in the same way that I think we aim to.

Do you both read comic books since that would be your second superhero movie after Spider-Man: Homecoming?

Daley: I think Jonathan’s the bigger comic book guy.

Goldstein:  Yeah, I don’t currently read them, but as a kid, I collected them avidly. All my allowance money went to Superman and Flash, some Fantastic Four.

Daley: I was more of a casual reader, but of the characters that I would always kind of gravitate toward, it was Spider-Man, Superman and the Flash. 

Are you guys involved with the Hasbro movies they’re making based on the ’80s toys? I’m especially interested in the Rom movie since that was one of the comics I read as a kid.

Daley: Yeah, it was an interesting thing that Paramount did and Hasbro, where they got together all these prolific writers and put them in a room for two weeks to come up with worlds to surround these properties, some of which only have a commercial and a few little plastic toys to their name. To give any kind of meaning and purpose and any sort of dramatic stakes to something is so small was a definite challenge. I don’t know where it currently is. I don’t know if it’s being pursued any more than it is now, but it was a lot of fun at the time to work on.

Before we wrap, I was curious about how you guys break up your directing duties. Is there a practical way you split things or do you both just do everything? 

Goldstein: What’s our process? You know, we collaborate on every step of the process, whether it’s figuring what projects we want to do or the people we’re going to bring on board crew-wise, and then once we get into pre-production, we’re together a lot of the time. Its very much a one single brand kind of thing.

Game Night opens on Friday, February 23, and check back sometime next week for an insightful interview with screenwriter Mark Perez.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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