“Game Night” Screenwriter Mark Perez on How the High-Concept Comedy Came to Be (Interview)

GameNightPerez1New Line / WB

This past weekend, New Line opened its high-concept R-rated comedy  nationwide, and it was a bit of a victory for screenwriters who spend years slaving over for their scripts that never get produced. Game Night is partially the work of screenwriter , who previously wrote the Universal comedy Accepted and Disney’s The Country Bears, which I never saw but my then two-year-old nephew loved it enough to see it twice.

Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a competitive couple whose regular game night with friends is interrupted by Max’s older brother, played by Kyle Chandler, who invites them all to a murder mystery at his home which becomes far too real.

Perez is a great example of how perseverance pays off in Hollywood, because he has been grinding away for years between projects, including writing a book called Win at Life by Cheating at Everything and another one due out called Jews of the Caribbean.

The Tracking Board got on the phone with Perez a couple weeks back for the following interview, which was rather insightful about his own experiences first getting work in Hollywood.

Related: Interview with Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley

How did Game Night come about? Was it always called Game Night?

In fact, that was the genesis. John Fox is a producer from Davis Entertainment who I’m old friends with and who produced the movie. He called me saying, “I have a title ‘Game Night.” I have no idea what to do with it, but the title, though.” I went away, and some of my favorite movies are Three Amigos, where they think it’s a movie, but it’s really a dangerous guy. Or Tropic Thunder, where they think it’s a movie, but it’s really in a war. I was like, “What if we did that with Game Night?” Over one night, and they played murder mystery, cuz I’ve been reading about these murder mystery nights, you know, and everybody does game night, like, what if somebody actually gets murdered? And that’s what I called him back with, and he was like, “That’s it!” And we worked on the pitch, and we were lucky enough to get in a room with Jason Bateman. He liked the idea, and we worked on it with him for, I don’t know, six months or a year, and then sold it to New Line as a pitch.

MarkPerezIt’s a very high concept film, but that actually makes it easier to market because you can immediately understand the premise almost from the title.

Especially now [when] you need to have something that people can go, “Got it!” Because now the marketing people are involved so early, like from the pitch point, or from the moment of the script, they’re already involved, I think, because they’re the ones who have to go out of … The work is, like, how do we sell it? So, if you have a good title and a good idea and a good concept that’s understood by people quickly, I think that helps. And I think that’s why he called me with the title Game Night. I go, “Oh, I got it,” and I got excited.

There’s one studio I know who is having marketing meetings almost a year before a movie’s release, sometimes even before the movie has gone into production. 

Yeah, it’s crazy. That whole business side of it is amazing to me, how they try and get into the zeitgeist and all that stuff. It must be really complicated.

How long ago did you come up with the idea and sell it to New Line? 

I think it sold in either 2013 or ‘14, around there. Wrote the script, went away for a while, did other stuff, and then suddenly, they hired the directors, and I think it was officially a go movie when they got Rachel McAdams. Then I found out that they were making it. So, in movie time, that’s not that long. You know, I’ve had scripts that … I’ve written a million scripts that don’t get made. You work on ’em for 10 years, or things like that, so for it to only take a couple of years, in that regard, is pretty fast.

That’s not bad at all. I spoke to Tony Gilroy, who wrote Michael Clayton and the Bourne movies, at Sundance, and he has a new movie coming out soon that he wrote almost twenty years ago.

Isn’t that crazy? I try explaining it to… my parents will call or friends [and they ask] “What are you working on?” They’re shocked that I haven’t had a movie coming out, and I’m like, “You guys don’t understand. So much goes beyond that.” To get a movie made is such a miracle that writers spend most of their time just writing. The other part is all magic and luck and all these things that have to come together. That’s why I’m so grateful for Game Night. All these stars aligned, and great directors, and great actors, and all these things happen and it turned out to be, you know, kind of a miracle.

Obviously, Jonathan and John Francis Daley are writers themselves, so once they get involved in the project, are you still involved, working with them or the actors, or do they take your script and go off on their own?

On this one particularly, I was not [involved]. I went off and was writing other things. People always ask me, “Oh, is that weird? Do you feel weird about it?” When the studio hires directors that are funny writers, instead of getting jealous or going what are they changing, I get excited, because I know that they’re really good, and I know it’s in good hands.  I wasn’t involved after developing with Bateman, which took a long time, and then writing the script, which took a long time, but I felt confident that these guys would stay true to the script and make it even better, which they did.

Jason was involved that early on, before New Line even found the directors?

Yep. Right off the bat. I was like, “What’s my dream guy?” We were talking, John Fox and I, and I [thought] Bateman would be awesome. I’ve always thought he was such a genius, and to play this part ofthe guy with this problem that’s too big to handle is totally in his wheelhouse. When I pitched it to him, he dug it, and he’s such a good dude. Sometimes you sit down with movie stars and they’re hard to develop with, but he was such a regular, good, down-to-earth guy that it was really a pleasure.

I feel like he does a lot of comedy, but usually as the straight man, but with his series Ozark, he’s proving that he can do drama just as well, so that fits into what you were doing with this movie.

I wrote this, and he did this, and there’s some drama and all that stuff, then I saw Ozark, and I turned to my wife, and I go, “Holy … I didn’t even know he had this in his bag of weapons.” He’s so good dramatically, like really good, and to add that to how funny he is just amazing.

GameNightJessePlemonsNew Line / WB

I love all the characters around Jason and Rachel, especially Jesse Plemons as Gary, their creepy neighbor, but audiences absolutely love him. How did that character evolve into what he became?

I’m always fascinated with couples. When couples break up, who gets the friends, right? It happens all the time. Couples break up, and then it’s like I turn to my wife, and I go, “Okay, who are we hanging out with, Larry or Carol?” It’s like, which one gets to stay, so it’s like, wouldn’t that be interesting? And then what if they lived next door? And the one you like left? And you’re left with Gary? In in my version, he was a little goofier and more pathetic, and what I think the directors did, and what the actor did that was so smart was that he made him weird. And I mean that in the best of ways. They made it not a goofy comedy character but they made him edgy and weird, though he’s a good dude and trying to do the right thing, and it was a choice, and it’s a brave choice, I think, and I think it was the right one.

I think Jesse Plemons has been proving he can do anything, the fact that he can play a character who is so funny without telling any jokes.

You’re absolutely right, and by the way, he’s in everything good. I got all the [awards] screeners, and there he is again. He’s the sign that the movie might be good if he’s in it.

What about some of the other friends like Billy Magnusson’s character? How did they evolve in the script to what they became in the movie?

I was trying to tell people I’ve written every friend character, you know. I’ve got a few movies made — you know how Hollywood is — but I’ve written like 35 scripts or so, but I’ve written every friend character. You know, the fat friend whose lonely, the aggressive friend, the friend whose broken up with his … so I’ve written every friend. So we went through developing a lot of different characters, as far as who the friends would be, plausibly, and I think the ones that ended up … Especially after casting, it’s like, what’s cool about it is the directors cast people and then adjusted the characters around who they cast, which is really smart, because you believed that these people would be friends, which I think is the big important thing. The big buy in the movie. You want to buy that they’re all friends, that they would hang out. They’d all be eclectic and all different, but at the end of the day they’d be tight and close to go through something as crazy as that night.

I believe that whenever Kyle Chandler shows up anywhere, Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” plays….

You know what’s funny? I just had dinner with him — we have a mutual friend — and he’s the nicest dude ever. He’s really lovely. He’s just as cool and nice in person as he is on screen. Yeah, he’s awesome. He’s awesome.

Making movies just isn’t as much fun as it used to be when everyone is nice and gets along. It used to be that everyone on a movie was feuding or not getting along, but that’s all changed.

That’s right. It’s funny. One of my first movies the producer told me that for a movie to be good, everybody needs to be fighting. I was a kid in my 20s, and I was like, “Really? Is that true?” and I believed it for the longest time. You hear all these stories about all these great movies where there’s this acrimony and crazy stuff going on, and then the movie turns out to be good, so I mean, I guess it’s plausible. But I was like, “This sounds terrible, the movie business, if we all have to be fighting all the time.” But I don’t think that’s true at all. 

It sounds like you’ve had some good experiences. I know that it’s frustrating for writers sometimes, because you spend all that time writing and then hand your baby off to someone else.  Are you looking to direct more?

You know, I directed a pilot for Spike called Back 9, and it was about a golfer trying to get back his life. It was around the Tiger Woods time, so 2010 when he was falling off. I directed it with a partner, this guy Jason Filardi, another screenwriter, and I was like, “I want to be a director, I want to be John Hughes.” It was a five-day shoot, and I shared duties with another guy, and I was exhausted. I’m like, “Maybe I don’t want to direct. Maybe I just want to be a writer.” It’s really, really hard. I mean, like, you have to have a lot of energy and answer a lot of questions all the time. I’d come home, and my wife would be like “What do you want for dinner?” and I’m like, “I can’t answer. I have no answers for you.” I used to think I wanted to do that, but I love writing. It’s what I do, and I think I want to continue doing that.

And you have someone like Scorsese or Eastwood who are directing a movie a year while in their 70s or 80s. How do they do that?

It’s amazing to me. I don’t know. It’s almost like politicians, to always wonder… like I’ll take a meeting in Hollywood, and I’ll have to come home and take a nap, because just being around that many people and talking.  I always wonder how does a politician spend all day talking to people? It’s another skill set like being a marathon runner. I think directing is that same way, is you have to have this kind of enthusiasm that won’t let you get tired, you know what I mean? It’s amazing to me.

GameNightPerez2New Line / WB

When was the first time you realized that you had the inclination to write movies?

I went to Florida State, and I had terrible grades, so the only major you could get into at FSU without having a good GPA was English, and I started writing. I’d take all these Women in Literature classes, and I’d be the only guy. I would get A’s on all the papers, and I guess I had low self-esteem, so I’d be like, “Writing’s easy! This is the easiest sh*t ever!” My wife and I — my wife now, my girlfriend at the time in college – we moved out to L.A, because she wanted to be an actor, and she goes, “You need to be a writer and do that,” and I was like, “Okay.” We were out here a couple years, and I go, “Why don’t I do a short film?” And we made a short film that was terrible, but it got me a manager, and then a year after I got a manager I was working on… I don’t know if you remember this, but The Gong Show had a revitalization — Extreme Gong. I would write all the jokes, and I would do all my work in like an hour, and then I’d write scripts the whole time. I bought a book from Sam French, a bookstore in LA where you could buy a “How to Screenwrite” book. I bought that, and I just started writing scripts and then give them to my manager. Finally, I wrote a script called Find Stevie. This is the premise: a 30- year-old guy runs away from home, and the parents treat it like [he’s] a kid, so his picture is on milk cartons, but he’s 30. It’s an absurd movie. Disney doesn’t buy it, but I guess the reader gave it like a 95 or something, so they offered me —  and now mind you, I’m working in a bank, putting away files. Not a banker, I’m the file guy. I was in a meeting, and Disney goes “We want to hire you for a year. We want to pay you $150,000 a year to write Disney movies.” And I was like, “Okay?” And I remember going to my car, and calling my manager, and saying, “I think Disney just offered me $150,000.” I couldn’t even believe it. And then in that year, I wrote The Country Bears, and that was it.

And the rest is history. I talk to a lot of producers about what they see in writers they work with, and I talk to many writers about what they want to do. It’s always interesting that there are so many stories, and they’re all so different. 

Yeah, everybody’s got a different [story] … I’m always fascinated. That’s what I always ask when I bump into writers. I’m like, “What was your break? What was the thing that …?” Because everybody needs that one thing, and then you get in the door and that’s another whole batch of luck that you need.

Even if you win an Oscar for your writing, it’s still hard selling your script. It’s a little easier, I’m sure, but there are Oscar-winning writers who haven’t been heard from again.

I remember when I got my deal at Disney, and they put me in an office on the casting side, and I remember in my office I’d see actors waiting in line to go in to read, and there were people I knew. It was, like, famous people. And I was like, “Whoa, this business is hard.” And that’s what Hollywood is. You can get embarrassed and feel bad about yourself real easily, but you just gotta keep grinding, you know?

HowtoWinatLifeDo you have any idea what you want to do next? Obviously, you have a proclivity for writing. Do you just constantly write comedies or are there other things you want to do?

I think it’s a really hard time for comedy in the movies right now. I was talking about it to someone. When I was a kid, every weekend there was a comedy, it felt like. Can’t Buy Me Love, and Hiding Out, all those fun kind of late 80s comedies. So I love it — it’s what makes me happy, it’s what I want to do. So yes, I just wrote a book. It was the first time. I wrote it with Dark Horse Entertainment, called How to Win at Life by Cheating at Everything. It’s kind of a father-son story about a father teaching his son all the wrong sh*t, which is kind of based on my dad. My dad was kind of a grifter like that, and its kind of like a quasi-graphic novel, but it’s got a story, and Dark Horse is attached, and now we got a big TV producer I won’t mention, because I don’t want to jinx it. So we’re out selling that as a TV show, almost as a comedic Ozark, if that makes sense?  Like a really effed up family. I just wrote a script called Low T for Riverstone Pictures, and it’s basically what if a bunch of action stars jumped in the pool in Cocoon. But they’re old ones, so it’s like now they get to be young again. So, it’s Mel Gibson, but he’s young again, and all those guys, you see them. Mel Gibson’s attached, and we’ve been looking to get two more actors for that, but I’m excited about it. And then I just wrote another novel called Jews of the Caribbean, cause I’m Cuban, and we moved around a lot, and my dad, every time we moved, we would move to the sh*ttiest house but in the best school district, so me and my sister went to all the best schools, because we were broke. Every town, we’d get there, and he’d be like, “Listen to me. Cubans are the Jews of the Caribbean. We can make it anywhere.” You know, he’d always tell me that, so I just finished it and that’s my real first novel, and we’re going to go try, I want that to be like The Goldbergs, but Cuban, on TV. Yeah, so that’s the plan for me in the immediate future. Cubans always deferred to the Jews. Because they came to Miami and Miami was nothing, and we made it, and [my parents] would always beat into my head that we could make it anywhere in that regard.

Game Night is now playing across the nation.

  | East Coast Editor
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