Screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are quickly becoming the go-to guys when it comes to high-profile comedies. The duo penned 2011’s massive hit Horrible Bosses and its upcoming sequel, they wrote the script for this year’s great-looking animated follow-up Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and they wrote and will make their directorial debut on a new Vacation film this year with Ed Helms starring as the grown-up Rusty Griswold. Their latest film, the magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, opens in theaters today and it’s a swell mix of ridiculous characters and delightfully dark humor, with some very funny comedic performances from Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, and Olivia Wilde.
I recently attended the press junket for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone in Las Vegas, and while there I got to sit down with Daley and Goldstein for a one-on-one interview. The duo talked about their love of magic growing up, how crazy it was to get Jim Carrey in their film, what Carrey brought to the role, the many different versions of the film’s script, and their penchant for taking jokes to some unexpected and wonderfully dark places. The two also talked about their work on Horrible Bosses 2, Cloudy 2, the Vacation film, Secret Histories, and much more. Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Collider: I hate to start off generic, but I’m genuinely interested in how the inception of this project came about. Were you guys fans of magic as kids and was this something that you were working on for a long time, or was it just kind of an idea that popped in your head?
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: Yeah, it was a four-year process for us. We definitely were both magic geeks as kids.
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Which is weird to look at us now, ‘cause we’re like athletic…
DALEY: …You gotta imagine us as like athletic geeks… as kids… whatever that means. So we had always had a love for magic and I think that’s part of the reason why we wanted to work on this movie, the other reason being money.
GOLDSTEIN: And the fact that there hadn’t been a comedy done in this world and it is so inherently funny and entertaining, so we kinda jumped at it. So, yeah we grew up with it. I loved Doug Henning and David Copperfield, and watched those specials every year. So a part of the appeal of doing this was getting to meet a lot of these guys and talk to them and learn about their world.
DALEY: I would visit Vegas every year when I was a kid. My mom sang and played the piano at the Mirage Casino like every summer, so I would visit for about a week. Vegas, to a kid, is a playground, as much as it is to adults. I discovered the magic store that was in the hotel and would spend hours and hours in there. I bought a magic set just like Burt did. I played a VHS tape of Mark Wilson who was big in the 70s, and it was this totally cheesy little video just like Rance Holloway’s. So I was directly inspired by that.
GOLDSTEIN: Other than Doug Henning, I had the Harry Blackstone Jr. magic kit. I remember as a little kid in the 70s there were these TV specials, like every few weeks there was this bizarre magic thing going on.
DALEY: I was a huge Copperfield fan too, which made it even more exciting when we got to work with him as a consultant. I remember very clearly when he made the Statue of Liberty disappear through the Great Wall of China. More currently, I’m a huge fan of David Blaine. I know it kind of looks like we’re making fun of him [in the film] and his brand of magic, but I genuinely think that he is an amazing magician. I think the way he sort of updated magic, while at the same time staying true to the roots of it, is impressive.
How much did you guys freak out when you found out Jim Carrey was signing on?
GOLDSTEIN: We squealed like little girls.
DALEY: I couldn’t believe it! I probably jumped up in the air.
GOLDSTEIN: We had this experience with Horrible Bosses where we got these emails from the producer saying, “looks like we got Jamie Foxx and Collin Farrell and Kevin Spacey,” and we’re like, “who do we really have?” It was similar with this, where we were like, “Holy Mackrel!” What better comedic cast could you get?
DALEY: I was a Jim Carrey character like three years in a row as a kid.
GOLDSTEIN: For Halloween?
DALEY: For Halloween.
GOLDSTEIN: You dressed up everyday…
DALEY: Right it was as a social problem that I had. For Halloween, I was the Mask one year and I was Ace Ventura, and then…
GOLDSTEIN: Did you tell [Jim Carrey]?
DALEY: No, I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t want to alienate him too much, I wanted him to be my friend! I just didn’t want to be his fanboy. But, yeah when I was 8 years old I loved him more than anyone.
I’m from the same generation and I had the exact same experience, so I can’t even imagine having dinner with him.
GOLDSTEIN: I’m in that generation too…
DALEY: He has progeria.
He’s hasn’t played a character this crazy in a long time and it’s really great to see him harkening back to those early years. How much did he bring to the role? How much did it change from the script?
GOLDSTEIN: We had the initial conception of it as like no one had done a low-key, bored villain before. So that original conception was like you can’t even hear what he’s saying, you have to lean in. Then Jim came in and wanted to take it in like a Jesus-y direction, and once he had that hair piece…
DALEY: …It transformed him. I mean the second he put that wig on he changed into the character.
GOLDSTIEN: We worked with him a lot. We went over to his house, spent time working on his scenes, and sort of pitching stuff, and then he would get up and try it and see how it fit him and then we’d analyze it. So we were tweaking things. He would do these crazy runs and we never knew where it was gonna go.
DALEY: Before working on this with him, I think I literally had dreams where I’d be telling Jim Carrey, what to do! Then all of sudden…
GOLDSTEIN: That’s creepy…
DALEY: No, it’s not creepy! [Points to Adam] He knows.
DALEY: Boys from my generation all love Jim Carrey! But you know just being in his house with him and pitching jokes that he would act out, literally felt like the dreams that I had, so it was amazing.
Did the script go through any other major changes? I know an early logline had Anton dying. I don’t know if it was true or not…
GOLDSTEIN: There was a real early version where that happened.
DALEY: There were so many different versions that we had.
GOLDSTEIN: We had a different director for awhile, so we were probably on this three and a half years and probably wrote… I don’t know fifteen different versions of it.
DALEY: There were four different endings. Four different final acts. There was a more subtle one that was more like a misdirect where we think they’re doing one trick and then something goes terribly wrong, but then you find out that it is a part of the trick.
DALEY: That was inspired by The Secrets of Magic Revealed on Fox. We did so many versions. I think there were fifteen illusions that we came up with that never actually saw the light of day.
One of the things that I really liked about the movie was Olivia Wilde’s character. Instead of just being the love interest or second fiddle to Carell and Buscemi, she is really taken seriously as a three-dimensional female lead. Was it always your intention to make sure she stood really well on her own?
GOLDSTEIN: We just wanted to have a pretty girl, we didn’t care what she did. [Laughs]
Well it’s rare nowadays. A lot of the time you see that kind of character just being thrown in and not fleshed out.
GOLDSTEIN: You’re not gonna get the best of those actors if it is just that reality and so we wanted her to stand up to [Burt], and she does. We wanted her to hold her own. We also wanted her to have her own dream. Just the idea of being a magician’s assistant isn’t necessarily the most satisfying thing, so we wondered why she was still in this world, putting up with guys like Burt. It’s ‘cause she has her own dream of being a magician.
DALEY: And you don’t see a lot of successful female magicians, so if anything we hope that this will inspire girls who are into magic to pursue it. And when I say girls I mean actual girls, I’m not talking generally about women!
One of the things I really love about your films is that you take a joke that seems fairly straight forward and benign and then you go five steps further to some place that is deliciously dark and just kind of strange. Is that kind of consciously a part of what you’re doing while you’re writing?
GOLDSTEIN: That’s what we try to do in everything we write. There’s so much laziness in comedy, where it’s like, “Eh, people laughed at this before, let’s give it to them again.” What we try to do is take the audience down a path that feels familiar and then surprise them in some way.
DALEY: Almost every joke has been done at this point so we have to find a variation on it, something that you haven’t seen before. It’s not like we’re trying to reinvent the wheel with these jokes, but just figure out a way to make it a little different.
GOLDSTEIN: And if you think about all of our influences… that’s kind of what was great about Monty Python and Woody Allen and Albert Brooks… I mean that’s what they do. They foil your expectations.
GOLDSTEIN: Not on that particular point.
DALEY: There are always gonna be studio notes, but what’s great is that we have a good relationship with New Line. We’ve been working with them since our first script that we sold…The Forty Thousand Dollar Man… so it’s a luxury to be able to have them trust us to a certain degree.
GOLDSTEIN: To that point, actually, we had Alan Arkin dying in the hospital scene when he does that thing where he goes under the bed…
DALEY: …He goes under the bed and that’s the last we ever see of him and presumably he dies.
GOLDSTEIN: Wherein he dies shortly after. And the studio felt, probably rightly, that the audience was gonna have too much of a connection to him, so we kept him alive.
DALEY: There were a couple other things. I don’t know if they were studio notes or actor notes, but there were darker versions of the disappearing puppy.
GOLDSTEIN: [Laughs] Yeah. One of my favorite bits from the movie is when the kid goes, “Daddy, he crushed my puppy!” and James Gandolfini’s like [Gives an “it’s fine” head nod and waves]
Obviously, I have to ask about Horrible Bosses 2. I loved Horrible Bosses. Do you guys know when that might start filming? Is there a script ready?
DALEY: We wrote a couple drafts of it. We don’t know what’s gonna happen with it.
GOLDSTEIN: I think they’re in the deal-making phase and so it’s a little tricky to know right now. They don’t want to blow the budget, so… We don’t know. I think they’ve hired [director] Seth Gordon back and they’re talking to the guys now. It’s tough to say what the future is with that one.
Can you tease anything about the plot at all?
GOLDSTEIN: We probably don’t want to put things out there that turn out to not be true.
Well I am very much looking forward to your Vacation movie. Do you know when that will be getting started?
DALEY: Yeah we shooting in June in Atlanta and in New Mexico.
GOLDSTEIN: Rusty Griswold is grown-up, and that’s Ed Helms. We’re casting the other parts now and it’s pretty exciting. I mean we’ve been directing shorts together, but this is our first feature. When we wrote the script we didn’t know we’d be directing it and then New Line said, “Do you wanna pitch yourselves to direct it?” And we were like “You bet!”
DALEY: And then we looked at the script and it was like, “who wrote this piece of shit?”
GOLDSTEIN: We immediately turned into directors.
Do you have any plans to bring back any of the other original cast members or anything?
DALEY: We do, we do.
I am a huge fan of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and that first trailer for the sequel was spot-on, it was fantastic.
DALEY: We were huge fans of that movie as well, which is part of the reason why we took on the project.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s such an unusual movie, that first one. It’s really weird and edgy and kind of surreal and beautiful.
DALEY: And really dark at times, but only to adults. Kids wouldn’t necessarily get the darkness in it. We loved that about it. Working in animation really gives us the freedom to try any joke that we pitch.
GOLDSTEIN: That’s really liberating and fun. I think tomorrow we’re doing a day to punch some stuff up.
And that’s what I was going to ask about, kind of the scripting process for animation like that…
DALEY: Yeah, very different.
DALEY: Somewhat. If something isn’t working though they’re gonna have to go back and figure out a way to tweak it.
GOLDSTEIN: They’re storyboarding throughout. So they’ll break it into sequences and then we’ll be rewriting sequences, but they’re already boarding that.
DALEY: They had boarded it before we even started working on the movie, so we saw screenings every couple months with boarded sequences and a couple crudely animated sequences.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s funny ‘cause you know it’s gonna look good, but it looks like crap when you see it in that form.
DALEY: You really have to use your imagination. But they did a screening for kids where it’s still very crudely animated and the kids still seemed to enjoy it, so that’s a testament to either their imaginations or the script.
GOLDSTEIN: And it’s got this great cast with Will Forte and Kristin Schaal.
Well MacGruber is incredible.
DALEY: Same with us! I mean we love that movie and it is devastating that it didn’t get the audience that it deserved.
Can you tease anything about Secret Histories? If I am not mistaken you guys did some script work on that as well.
DALEY: I think they’re going out to cast now with that.
GOLDSTEIN: That’s what they said. It’s what our agent keeps calling “world creation”… it’s creating this world about a nerdy guy who discovers a reason he’s such a nerd is that he’s part elf, and then just putting him in this secret order where it turns out he has potential to be a hero. So it’s a wish-fulfillment kind of thing.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens on Friday, March 15th.