Director John Hamburg and Co-Writer Ian Helfer on How a Jonah Hill Pitch became ‘Why Him?’

     December 22, 2016

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Why Him?, the upcoming James Franco vs. Bryan Cranston Holiday-set comedy, like most big studio films lived many lives before finally reaching the big screen. The genesis of Why Him? actually started from an unlikely source: Jonah Hill (who shares a ‘story credit’ on Friday’s release). Hill, during the making of The Watch, pitched a somewhat-different film altogether – then titled ‘Aloha’ (completely separate from the similarly titled Cameron Crowe bomb.)

“He [Jonah] was maybe dating somebody at the time and was having trouble with her dad or something and came up with this idea of a brash Silicon Valley guy…”, co-writer Ian Helfer revealed. The original script had this brash Silicon Valley guy butting heads with the father of the girl he’s dating over a “Holiday in Hawaii.” This script though languished in development until writer/director John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) and his co-writing partner Ian Helfer were asked to come on-board and reshape the project.

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Image via Fox

Helfer and Hamburg have known each other for over twenty years, the two roommates in college. “I was an actor for a while and John almost instantly became a successful writer and director.” Helfer stated, “Then I started writing. I sold a couple things and [John] gave me my first real job as a staff writer on a short lived show called Welcome to The Captain on TBS.” After the show was cancelled, Hamburg and Helfer started writing together as partners, collaborating on a number of script polishes and un-credited work.

When they were approached to refine ‘Aloha’, the writing partners decided to start from scratch. “It was a page one rewrite,” Hamburg revealed. The general concept of this clash between different generations remained but everything else around was completely reshaped. “Everyone liked the kernel of the idea – looking into this conflict.” Helfer added, “What does it mean to be a successful man in America today. That was really all anybody wanted to preserve was that basic idea.”

So what changed? Per Hamburg: In ‘Aloha’, the Silicon Valley boyfriend was only semi-successful, but Hamburg & Helfer have now shaped the character into a multi-millionaire with his own video-game corporation. Originally the characters all travelled together to Hawaii, but now it’s Cranston’s Mid-Western dad taking the trip to Franco’s lavish Palo Alto mansion. The writers focused on doing a “fish-out-of-water” story with Cranston’s Mid-Western dad “coming to a world he’s never seen before.” “We wanted it to be a little bit of a different look at Silicon Valley.” Helfer said, “We’re all familiar from the Facebook movie with guys like Zuckerberg and there’s certainly that geeky stereotype but it seems like Silicon Valley is giving birth to this whole class of millionaires – these creative, strange people creating videogames and all this weird content online. We thought let’s do an ‘Internet Guy’ who’s really different than what we’ve seen before. A guy who’s eccentric but also a creative genius.”

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Image via 20th Century Fox

“It all stems from character.” Hamburg confided, “I always like to ground my comedies in reality… That’s always the stuff that ends up working best.” Even before finalizing the story, the focus was always on “figuring out who these people are.” For Franco’s character Laird, it was figuring out “a slightly different version of the Silicon Valley guy.” For Bryan Cranston’s character Ned, per Helfer, it stemmed from focusing on a guy who had done everything right yet still was struggling in today’s economic climate. “We started talking about him as a printer and what that would be like today. If you’re sitting there in Michigan and you’ve got a printing factory and right now everything’s paperless, how taxing that would be… and then seeing all these kids who are half your age disrupting everything you’ve been doing with your life.”

The two writers spent close to six weeks, refining an outline together. “If a script is 110 or 115 pages, we’ll have a 50 page outline,” Helfer confided. Most of the big set pieces in the film are hatched during this time. Recent trailers have focused on Franco’s character Laird falling into an immersed moose art-piece, modeled after Damien Hirst’s work. “That was something that evolved over time.” Helfer continued, “We knew that we really liked the idea of [Laird] having one of these crazy works of art… It came to the point that if we have this thing, let’s really use it. Let’s have him fall into it and have it explode. It was a genesis – that piece of art always existed and working on the script for a couple of years, it slowly built to the big stunt you see in there now.” Hamburg and Helfer though couldn’t get the approval to use an actual Damien Hirst piece. “In the movie now, they call the art-piece a ‘Phil Manfredi’, which is actually named after two of my writing friends [Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi] who wrote Ride Along,” Hamburg chuckled.

After outlining the movie, Hamburg and Helfer divided the script into separate chunks to write alone. When they finished their section, they’d send it to one another to re-write. During this time, they probably went through close to a “hundred and fifty different versions of the script… That’s the thing with comedy — a big part of the process is never being satisfied and always searching for something better, something sharper, something clearer. We’re always on the hunt to improve what we’re doing,” Helfer stated.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Laird (James Franco) became the most difficult part of the script to fully crack. Per Hamburg – in earlier drafts Franco’s eccentric millionaire was more of an antagonist, but as the script developed it was important for the character to become more relatable. “It was trying to figure out what makes this guy tick. Once we settled on how much he wants to please this family, the rest of the story came out of that.” Helfer later added – “It was really important  to us to make sure Laird’s heart was in the right place. James was really helpful in figuring out ways so that the audience would be on this guy’s side even though the movie starts from Bryan’s perspective.”

Of course the script for Why Him? continued to change on set. “I like to think of myself as an open-minded control freak,” Hamburg joked. The filmmaker who started off with the Sam Rockwell comedic-caper Safe Men (where there was no improvisation) has grown much looser with each subsequent feature. Hamburg credits Judd Apatow and in particular his time working on the short-lived series Undeclared as the point in which he began to embrace improvisation. “Working with Seth Rogen and Jason Segal and all the great comedic talent there” opened Hamburg up to how great a scene could become when you let an actor riff. He’s applied this same technique more with each subsequent film, Why Him? being the most heavily improvised yet.

Per Helfer: “You don’t really get to rehearse movies — so you’re really discovering it in the moment. Some of it is literally rewriting scenes for the next day as things change. Some of it is sitting there calling out lines and calling out ideas. The [actors are] improvising stuff. We’re throwing out ideas. We’re collectively discovering the movie as we go… Bryan and James and Megan — they start to know the characters in a way better than we do. They’re living inside their skin and wearing their clothes. They have tons of ideas. ‘I wouldn’t say this’ or ‘I wouldn’t do that’ — so there’s tons of moment to moment stuff [that changes].”

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Image via Fox

And then finally in post-production, the film shifts yet again after testing different cuts in front of an audience. “We test the movie in front of a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred people…” Hamburg stated, “It’s crucial because ultimately the audience tells you what’s funny.” In fact — one of the big set pieces (glimpsed in a couple trailers) was completely cut out after testing. “There was a big scene where there’s a drone flying, and Ned mistakenly thinks Laird is spying on him,” Helfer said. Ned attempts to throw a stone at the drone but ends up hitting a hapless guest (Casey Wilson) instead.

“That’s a good window into the process – because that scene when were writing it seemed like a really fun organic idea. We spent a ton of time shooting it and then when that made it to some tests, it just wasn’t funny. It didn’t work — and so that was a big thing that was gone pretty early on. I would’ve never bet on it. I thought it would be a huge part of the movie and then it was gone two weeks into post.”

Why Him? finally arrives into theaters this Friday.

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