The comedy Vacation, written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, focuses on the next generation of Griswolds, as Rusty (Ed Helms) follows in his father’s footsteps and takes his family on the road for an ill-fated adventure. Hoping for some much-needed family bonding, Rusty packs up his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) for a trip to the Walley World theme park, but as more and more mishaps and misunderstandings happen along the way, they all begin to wish they’d just stayed home.
While at the film’s press day, filmmakers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how Vacation ended up being their feature directorial debut, why their humor tends to lean more towards the R-rated, why Ed Helms and Christina Applegate were the perfect heads of this Griswold family, getting Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo involved, which cameos they were most impressed with, being of the mind-set that comedy can be short, and why test screenings can be a good gauge for comedy. They also talked about not being able to talk about whether they’ll be writing the next Spider-Man movie.
Collider: What made this the script that you also wanted to jump in and direct?
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: We didn’t have that much freedom in what we could direct or not direct. Because it was our first thing, they asked if we would be interested and we jumped at the opportunity. It was our foot in the door of directing.
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: We also thought that the script was so good that we wanted to be a part of it. Does that sound self-serving?
DALEY: And it gave us the opportunity to ignore the writers.
GOLDSTEIN: Obviously, we were huge fans of the original film. The thought of updating it and bringing it to the next generation was a thrilling opportunity for us.
DALEY: And it was an absolute challenge, like a roller coaster. It was death-defying, but also gratifying.
Did you know from the beginning of writing this that you were going to be directing it, so that you could write to what you could realistically do?
DALEY: We didn’t. But as is the case when we write, we always imagine how it would play on the screen. That can be very annoying, if it’s another director that we’re writing for.
GOLDSTEIN: Had we known we were going to direct it, we probably would not have included a white water rafting scene.
DALEY: It was really exciting and a hugely ambitious undertaking. We saw it as a challenge, and the fact that we had such a talented cast and crew definitely helped.
Your comedies have definitely been R-rated. Is that where your personal sense of humor lies, or have you just not had much opportunity to do comedies for a younger audience?
DALEY: We did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.
GOLDSTEIN: And we’re helping out on a Disney thing. We definitely can walk that line. I think that real life is R-rated. Given the freedom to decide on the direction of a script, our comedy will probably tend toward R-rated.
DALEY: There’s a freedom that you get in R-rated comedy that you don’t have in PG-13. A lot of the things that initially make us laugh, when we’re writing a scene in the room, is something that is generally too inappropriate for PG-13. This gave us the opportunity to put in all of the jokes that made us laugh the most without really worrying about it.
GOLDSTEIN: But, we don’t set out to be R-rated. That’s never the intention. Hopefully, we’re not just putting raunchy stuff out there because it’s shocking. That’s too easy. It’s more that people find themselves in situations that are edgy or unconventional.
DALEY: We try to approach it from a character standpoint where, as long as a character is reacting to a situation as they really would, you can get away with a lot more. It’s only when – and you see this a lot of the time in R-rated comedies – a character does something that they would never do, but it’s just to serve the comedy, that it starts to lose the audience. All of a sudden, all the stakes are gone and anything is possible, and you don’t really give a shit. That was something that we were very mindful of, as we went into this.
You guys have had a successful writing partnership for awhile now. Did the directing partnership go as smoothly, or will you only be directing alone from now on?
DALEY: One of us always had a black eye. No. It came as easily as writing has come to us. I’m not going to say that’s easy, but it was basically the same level of collaboration. We share the same mind, a lot of the time, and the same sense of humor. So, we were able to let that translate from writing to directing.
How difficult was it to decide on Ed Helms and Christina Applegate to head the Griswold family now?
GOLDSTEIN: Interestingly, we put together a book when we were pitching ourselves to the studio to direct, and part of that book was casting suggestions. In the middle of the page of Rusty was Ed Helms, and in the middle of the page of Debbie was Christina Applegate. They were always the archetypes for us, in writing it. Ed is just the most likeable perfect dad character in comedy.
DALEY: He’s so fun-loving and optimistic and sweet that you really can get away with a lot of edgier material because it’s seen through the eyes of this everyman. And we loved the idea of Christina’s character having this backstory and a history and something to play out, over the course of the movie. She was the perfect person for that role because Christina herself has had such a wild past. Having started on a really successful sitcom, as a child star, and growing up in the spotlight in a rock star lifestyle, definitely gives her more experiences than other people. We definitely wanted to take advantage of that, in the role of Debbie.
How worried were you about getting Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo on board for this? Was there any point where you were afraid they would say no, or were you going to do whatever it took to get them to say yes?
GOLDSTEIN: Luckily, it turned out not to be a big struggle. They were really into it and excited to be a part of it. We were thrilled.
DALEY: It was crucial to us to have them involved because they were the ones that started it all. It was their performances that definitely made the franchise the iconic thing that it is.
GOLDSTEIN: It was also important to us to let the world know that this is not a remake. Having them on board made that even clearer.
DALEY: It was so cool to be able to see Chevy re-embody that character, and he was really into it, as well.
You have some really fun cameos in this. Aside from the obviously hilarious Chris Hemsworth, who else were you most impressed with, as far as what they were willing to do for the comedy?
GOLDSTEIN: Keegan-Michael Key is so funny and he’s such an amazing improviser that it was a joyous day for us. We had so much fun just letting him riff with that little boy, Alkoya [Brunson], who played his son. He was just so incredible. It’s very difficult to find kid actors that are good. I’m proud of our casting of the kid actors. I would also give a shout out to Ron Livingston. He was in Atlanta doing another movie, and he gave so much of his time for this small role, including coming in during his off time to rehearse the fight scene at Wally World.
DALEY: And he was 100% game for getting slapped really hard in the face, a bunch of times, in front of that high-speed camera.
How long was your first cut of the film, and how challenging was it to get it to what we see now?
GOLDSTEIN: It was nine hours long. We’re going to do it as a mini-series. No. We were never super long. We shot a certain amount of stuff, as you inevitably do, that we wound up cutting. We were never much over two hours. Now, the film is an hour and 35 minutes, I think.
DALEY: We come from the mind-set that comedy can totally be short. Not to say that long comedies are bad, but I feel like when you’re going for laughs and you want people to have that visceral reaction, at a certain point, they get tired of laughing. That was our viewpoint, going into it. We also just wanted to have the best possible material and scrap anything that was below that, in our eyes.
Did you do many test screenings or have any friends and family screenings?
GOLDSTEIN: We don’t necessarily actually believe in literal friends and family screenings because I don’t think you get a real genuine reaction. So, what we did was invite certain writer and director friends, but mainly it was about a hundred recruited strangers, and we had them fill out cards and give us their reactions. Just seeing the film with an audience is so instructive ‘cause you can feel the energy. You can feel what works and what doesn’t, and you know where you have to change things.
DALEY: Even more important are the legitimate test screenings where it’s non-industry folk watching it. Being able to hear where the laughs are, it really becomes a science. For comedy, I think that’s really important.
It was just announced that you guys would likely be writing the next Spider-Man movie. Was that something where you pitched your idea to Marvel and Sony, or did they offer you that job?
DALEY: Unfortunately, we can’t even talk about that. It’s like we’re in the running for President, and we’ve been caught having an affair. Sorry!
Vacation opens in theaters on July 29th.