Last October, I went to the set of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s new Vacation. The movie follows Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) rounding up his reluctant wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two kids (Steele Stebbins and Skyler Gisondo) to take them on a trip to Walley World. Like in the original vacation, the hapless family runs into a series of comic misadventures, although they’ll be unique to this latest chapter in the Vacation series.
During my set visit, a couple other journalists and I got to interview John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein about the movie. They talked about how they didn’t know they would get to direct when they were hired to write the script, homages to the original, working with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, the R-rating, and much more.
Check out the full interview below. Vacation opens July 31st, and also stars Leslie Mann, Charlie Day, and Chris Hemsworth.
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I think it’s always been a balance of homage, respect for the original, but making it our own and making it something that will work for this generation and those who haven’t seen the original. They’re out there.
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: Yeah, we knew we couldn’t redo it.
GOLDSTEIN: We didn’t want to.
DALEY: New Line wanted to bring this thing back to life, and we figured it would do the franchise justice to bring Rusty back to Walley World, where it all started.
So that was always the pitch? There was never another idea?
DALEY: Rusty going to Walley World was generally the idea from the get-go.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it was never pitched to us as a remake. We weren’t going to try to get an actor to replicate what Chevy did or anything like that. One of the things we always said was, “We want Chevy and Beverly in this to give it that stamp of approval.” Luckily we got them.
The first one is kind of a critique on middle-class entitlement. What’s your take on the material?
DALEY: There’s a big existential conversation that could from this. [Laughs] But we touch on technology acting as a buffer between family dynamics. We have a part in the movie where Rusty tells them they can’t use any screens on the trip so they have time to get back together. And he remembers his trip fondly.
GOLDSTEIN: Selective memory is kind of the thing.
DALEY: Yeah, he forgets all the bad things that happened.
GOLDSTEIN: We all tend to look back fondly on our childhoods even if they weren’t necessarily so great. We’re kind of playing that up. There’s sort of a universality and timelessness to the family road trip, and we feel like that’s what we’re trying to tap into here. I mean, I took them with my parents as a kid, and it’s great, but it’s boring and it’s frustrating, and you beget all sorts of adversity you have to deal with. Yes, that’s what John Hughes was doing in that Lampoon piece originally, but it’s sort of a comment on what it is to be part of a family, the good and the bad of it. I think that’s what Ed brings to this so well, that every-dad feeling.
DALEY: And Ed is so likable too. He really does feel like everyone’s dad in some way.
What is Rusty like as a husband and father? Because we know who Clark Griswold is, and obviously he has this idea of the perfect vacation he can’t ever capture. Is he similar?
DALEY: He’s got that relentless optimism that Clark has and chooses to dismiss the trials and tribulations and wants everyone to have a good time — whether or not they actually are.
GOLDSTEIN: He kind of forces the trip on them from the very beginning of this, and it’s not necessarily what any of them want. But he’s determined to bring this family closer together, get them out of their rut, by forcing them on this road trip, basically.
DALEY: Where he differs from Clark is there’s a little bit more of self-awareness, with Rusty. He’s also not the type that would be tempted to cheat on his wife. [Laughs] He’s even more wholesome than Clark is in a way, and we kind of see how that dynamic differs from Clark when they all get together.
This is your directorial debut. What’s it been like doing that, and what lessons did you learn from previous movies you had written?
DALEY: We had always wanted to direct from the get-go. Any script that we wrote we kind of imagined how we wanted it to play out.
GOLDSTEIN: When we write, we write on the page what we imagine on the screen a little bit. So it was always a little bit of a challenge to hand it over to another director and see what they did with it. We had limited input at that point. So it’s been super gratifying to put this on the screen the way we imagined it.
DALEY: What’s funny is that when we came onto this project we didn’t know we would be directing it. So we were just writing the script. Of course, now that we have to deal with all these sequences that we wrote, we wish we could go back and simplify them. [Laughs]
GOLDSTEIN: That’s the other thing. I think as writers now we’re going to be more circumspect as to what we put in there — because it’s hard! It’s really hard.
DALEY: “Everyone’s going to face in one direction, in a blank room… for two hours.”
GOLDSTEIN: It’s much easier to write a whitewater sequence than shoot a whitewater sequence, it turns out.
When this first starting to get going, there was kind of a tiff about what the rating would be, and you delayed the film for quite awhile. I’m curious if you can talk about that a little bit, what kind of changes you wanted to be made and how you compromised on that.
DALEY: What’s funny is, I don’t think we ever really compromised. We also never really thought of it as being one thing or the other. We kind of wrote it deciding what the rating would be later. So when that whole conversation happened, which put the breaks on this project for a year, we knew we couldn’t make it a PG-13 or an R and accomplish basically the same thing.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, without fundamentally changing what the script was. Set pieces went a little further than they had been in the PG-13. Some of them went in a different direction. It liberated us, as the R rating does, in some ways, to go further. But no, I think we both feel like it’s a better movie in this form, probably, than it would have been in the original PG-13. We’re pretty happy with that decision.
DALEY: Because there’s some really dark shit in the original, and now we get to do that as well.
GOLDSTEIN: They kill a dog, an old lady…
Question: We were instructed to ask what happens to the girl in the Ferrari.
DALEY: We can’t say. [Laughs]
Is that going along with the dark shit?
GOLDSTEIN: No comment. [Laughs]
What was your approach to Chevy and Beverly knowing, as you said, it’s going to be an important moment for fans of the original to see them? Can you talk about their roles and working with them?
GOLDSTEIN: We got very drunk every time we dealt with them, just to be sort of loose. I know that helped.
DALEY: We watched the original a bunch of times before we got into our stuff. Even though this is a different movie from the original, they are the same characters that they were, and we wanted to make sure we preserved that. So we did our best to make Clark and Ellen the same Clark and Ellen that fans remember.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, we wrote to their voices. We tried to write to their strengths. We gave Chevy some physical comedy to do. It was great, because the two of them, they are like a married couple, Chevy and Beverly. It’s fun to just watch them off-camera, their sort of bickering and what they do. It’s very sweet in a way. They’ve been together for so long. So it’s not a big leap for them to get back into those characters. The moment, I’d say, when we have them on the porch, their house, in the movie and they come out of there — their first appearance on screen — it was very exciting for us to sit there, because it’s like, “That’s Clark and Ellen Griswold!”
DALEY: The only difference is now we’ve made them British, and they’ve both got big afros. Other than that, we’re really preserving the characters.
GOLDSTEIN: We were drunk, so we’re not sure.
When they came on set, was that the moment they were game for suggestions?
GOLDSTEIN: For sure, for sure. They’re both very strong characters.
DALEY: Yeah, they’re very protective of the family that they’ve created. All of their notes made sense and were awesome.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, Chevy came down and we met for a drink before we shot the next day. He came out with the pages like, “I’ve made some changes!” We were like, “Oh, no…” but they were all small, good tweaks that made it more in the Clark voice. It was nice that he was engaged in it in such a way that he wanted to tweak it. It was kinda fun.
We were told that there are homages to the original in this one. How many are there, and how does that balance with your voice?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, we are at Walley World now, so there is that.
DALEY: Honestly, though, not enough to distract the people who have never seen any of the movies. Because we wanted to make sure this one would stand on its own. Something that people who aren’t familiar with the franchise can also enjoy. So the ones who have seen it and loved the first one I think will appreciate what we do. But it’ll also give kids a chance to become fans of the Griswolds all over again.
Is there any acknowledgement of the ever changing Rustys and Audreys?
DALEY: [Laughs] I think there is, actually.
GOLDSTEIN: There’s a visual joke, yeah, where we’re referring to the various casts.
Can you talk about Audrey’s role too? It sounds like she’s gone through some changes when we see her.
DALEY: Yes, she has!
GOLDSTEIN: Yes, well, she’s Leslie Mann now.
DALEY: What’s funny is, Audrey’s character was not totally defined throughout the course of the other movies. So of took pieces of her characteristics from the earlier versions and created this sort of Frankenstein. [Laughs] She’s not 100-percent together.
GOLDSTEIN: She’s had a rough road. She’s in a complicated marriage with Chris Hemsworth. That’s what we liked about both — Rusty’s a bit of a blank slate, too, in the originals. He’s generally dorky, but that’s about all there is. So we were able to let him evolve into an adult and make him into a character that served our purposes. And Audrey the same, sort of. It was kind of an open thing like, “Okay, what would she be now?” I think we have some fun with that character.
Chris Hemsworth isn’t really known for comedy. What was it like working with him on this movie?
DALEY: We really didn’t know what we were going to get ourselves into, honestly. There was a certain amount of trepidation about if he could make us laugh.
GOLDSTEIN: Well, first thing he requested — we gave him a dialect coach, because [his character is from] Texas and he’s Australian. So we were like, “Okay, he’s taking it seriously,” and that was cool, but you still don’t know with a dramatic actor what they’re going to bring. Sometimes you get people who push too hard to try and be funny. He was unbelievable. It was so great, because he just embodied the character. He showed up, he was this big, handsome, Texan guy, and it was so believable.
DALEY: He couldn’t have been funnier, better, in the role. I really do think he’s going to stand out as one of the more memorable characters in the movie.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, I think he’ll start getting comedy offers after this.
With the original, we talked about the rating and the kids in this film and what are they like and what do they get involved in, since like you said the first film got fairly dark.
DALEY: The kids definitely have a different relationship. In the old one, it was Audrey and Rusty as kids. It’s two boys now, and the older one, James, played by Skyler Gisondo, is a very thoughtful, introverted, bookish, innocent guy, who takes off of Rusty’s characteristics, whereas Kevin, the younger brother, is a total bully. And we’ve seen the whole older brother bullying the younger brother dynamic a lot in movies, but we haven’t seen a lot where it’s the younger brother terrorizing the older brother, and that’s kind of what we’re doing in this.
GOLDSTEIN: And we’ve found the most angelic, sweet little boy who when he spouts these vile things, it’s really terrifying.
DALEY: He says the F word more naturally than I ever did.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s really amazing.
On set, do you guys ever try to feed out different lines to see what would work?
DALEY: We throw him a lot, and that’s another thing that Steele [Stebbins] is so amazing at, is just rolling with the punches and giving us so many good things to work with. He’s so talented, both of these kids are so incredibly talented that we thought to ourselves going into this we need to allow ourselves some time to work with the kids, loosen them up, because often when you work with kid actors, you don’t really know what they’re gonna be like on the day. When you’re auditioning them, you know oh okay they work with their parents on this thing, so they’re gonna do it the way we want them to do it, but who knows what it’s gonna be like when we throw them a bunch of alt lines. And when we got there, it was really comforting to know that we can give him anything and he’ll just do it perfectly every time.
GOLDSTEIN: We kind of come from TV writing and the Judd Apatow camp, and it’s like you put as many alts as you can fit in. It’s good to have them in the editing room to see what works best. Our actors are very versatile being able to just throw them a line and they do it and switch it up and that’s fun.
I have a very important question which is how will “Holiday Road” be involved? Will it be the original version?
DALEY: It will be involved, yeah. The specifics we don’t know quite yet, but it’s gonna play a somewhat pivotal role in the movie.
Now, you’re shooting at a theme park. Is there any photography of the family on the rides, or is that something you’re going to scoot around?
GOLDSTEIN: Oh, no, we’re gonna have them on this one right here. We call it The Velociraptor. It’s supposed to be the tallest, fastest coaster.
DALEY: It’s a little more current. Ninjas are old school, Velociraptors are new.
Now Walley World’s about to close though in this, right?
DALEY: No, that was from an earlier draft. We decided it would play more grounded if, like Disneyland and all these big theme parks, it’s constantly being updated and refurbished, and so at this point Walley World is the way that Disney World is now, where they’ve given it a bunch of new rides, and it’s polished.
So we’re seeing your cameo today?
GOLDSTEIN: I have a walk-on, no lines in this one. I’m just reacting to something.
DALEY: His cameo’s real funny.
The original version we heard about, Walley World’s closing and he’s trying to get his family there before it closes. Is there something that really spurs him at this moment now?
GOLDSTEIN: Early in the movie, he learns that the vacation he’s been taking with his family for many years is no longer that exciting to them. And he’s looking through old photos and he remembers his trip to Walley World, and he goes, ‘you know what, maybe this is something worth pursuing’.
DALEY: It becomes more of a priority to him to get there though the longer they go on this road and the more difficulties they face, much like with Clark and his trip.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s the Holy Grail.
DALEY: He realizes ‘you know what there’s nothing that’s going to get us in the way of this’ because it seems like everything’s trying to stop them.
GOLDSTEIN: You know what’s funny is Chevy [Chase] told us that in the original Vacation they shot the original ending they don’t get to Walley World. They go to Roy Walley’s house and they break in and make him do a show, and then they tested it, and they said ‘this is really depressing, we want to see them get to Walley World’. And then they did that. So to us, it felt like if we don’t go to Walley World, there’s gonna be a certain feeling of ‘eh, you’ve got to embrace that aspect of the original’.
DALEY: That said, they never get what they want, the Griswolds. You can rest assured, it’s still a comedy.
Can you talk about what we’re seeing them shoot today with Ron Livingston and this confrontation?
DALEY: I don’t know if we want to give too much away.
GOLDSTEIN: But we meet him early in the movie and he’s a bit of an obstacle to Rusty. And then we meet him again in Walley World by chance and he becomes an obstacle again.
DALEY: But Ron’s awesome. He’s out here shooting The 5th Wave.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s one of the nice things about being in Atlanta. There are so many movies being shot here now that we can pluck from the cast that would be here on their off days from their movie. There are a lot of cameos in this. There are a lot of surprising, small roles with cool people in it, so that’ll be fun.
Was the rafting scene the most difficult one to shoot? What’s been the biggest challenge on this movie?
DALEY: It was difficult. Knock of wood, nothing really has been a huge challenge yet. I would say dinner scenes are more difficult inherently because of all the coverage and eye lines. That’s what we learned. When you have six people eating dinner at a table, and you’re reliant on the light and the kids’ hours, it becomes slightly stressful.
GOLDSTEIN: The whitewater rafting is daunting because you put your actors in a certain amount of, not real peril, but fast moving water. We did it up at North Carolina. There’s this white water training facility, rather than going to the Grand Canyon. We drove up three hours to this place. It was pretty cool. If it cuts together well, it’s going to be very believable that they were in whitewater.
How long has the shoot been?
GOLDSTEIN: It’ll be a total of thirty-six, thirty-seven days.
DALEY: Yeah, we have a week and a half left here.
So you have quite a lengthy window from when you finish to when it releases. There’s not like a huge need for visual effects or anything in this film, is there?
DALEY: There actually is, there are a lot of visual effects. We’ve actually reallocated a bunch more money in our budget just for post and visual effects work because as you guys will see, we’re very ambitious with this thing.
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. We have a desert festival that takes place. It’s actually in a bern and bulk gravel plant with all this white sand. But you see the edges are knocked out, there are trees off to the side.
DALEY: It’s gonna be a lot of matte work, digital stuff like that.
Do you think this might be a film that comes out earlier or later on?
DALEY: We don’t really know. A lot of it depends on how it tests.
GOLDSTEIN: Because it’s a summer road trip movie so maybe it ends up in summer. Summers are hard though; it’s very competitive every weekend. It’s a blessing and a curse if you wind up there. [Ed. Note: When this interview was conducted, Vacation was slated to open in the fall]
Having worked with Judd Apatow, he likes to test his movies a lot and uses that to tweak the material. Is that sort of the plan as well for you guys?
DALEY: I mean, absolutely, to a certain extent. You become sort of insulated in this bubble when you’re working on something that it’s hard to have an outsider’s perspective on what works and what doesn’t so it’s always good to see what other people think. I put all of our scenes through the girlfriend test and she tells me what she thinks works and doesn’t. It helps; it’s pretty insightful.
Talk a bit more about Christina [Applegate’s] character. You said you’re not gonna copy the Clark and Ellen dynamic, but what is Debbie like? What is the woman who would marry Rusty Griswold like?
GOLDSTEIN: We find out about a half hour into the movie that there’s a whole backstory to her that he never knew about and it’s kind of a big reveal and it changes their dynamic a little bit. So she, Christina Applegate, has kind of a whole arc that we follow throughout the movie and then that all culminates at Clark and Ellen’s. There they kind of hash out their issues.
You mentioned that Rusty has Clark’s wide-eyed optimism. Is he also kind of a dupe in the way that Clark was?
GOLDSTEIN: He’s a little bit of an innocent. They get taken advantage of. His desire to see the good in people sometimes bites him in the ass.
We were talking about how the original was John Hughes’s script and Harold Ramis directed. Do you ever think about that pedigree and getting to follow in those footsteps?
GOLDSTEIN: It’s huge. We were bummed, we really wanted to talk and meet with Harold before he died. We didn’t get the chance. You feel those big footprints you’re walking in. That’s why we’re not trying to redo anything they did, we’re just trying to do our own next generation on this amazing thing that they created that has lasted in people’s hearts for so many years. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be doing this.
Does this, in terms of adhering to, just stick to the first Vacation film, or are there winks and nods to the sequels?
DALEY: It’s mostly a sequel to the first one.
GOLDSTEIN: Tonally, I think it’s more like that one. The sequels got a little broader I think in some ways as they went along. We describe it like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles a little bit in tone, or Lost in America not quite, but that’s what we’re trying for. It gets broader in places but it’s a little more character driven than the sequels.
You have the R rating. Is it a hard R rating, or are you guys shooting for a campy, softer R rating?
GOLDSTEIN: It’s hard R in places definitely but it’s still a family movie. With Horrible Bosses, it was easier to go really dark with that kind of movie, but with this you still have to believe in them and root for them as parents with little kids. You can’t get too crazy because then it goes off the rails. It’s got some pretty hard R moments I think.