Actor-Writer John Francis Daley on His Horrible Breakthrough and Reworking Vacation
You know John Francis Daley from the Freaks and Geeks shrine you maintain in your rec room, but you may not realize that you also know him from his success as a screenwriter: His Horrible Bosses, which he co-wrote with Jonathan Goldstein (whom we also interviewed -- stay tuned), pulled in $28 million over its premiere weekend, edging out even Bridesmaids's debut. We caught up with the 25-year-old scribe, whose future projects with Goldstein include the Steve Carell starrer Burt Wonderstone and a remake of Vacation, and asked about Horrible Bosses's original ending, dealing with success, and residual Freaks and Geeks fanaticism.
Congrats on the strong premiere!
I've just been told that ever since it came out Thursday at midnight, I became a giant asshole. All my friends have told me. [Laughs.] It was like Jekyll and Hyde. I don't know what happened.
Does the success get into your head? Do you think, "Well, I'm done with comedies, it's time to write my The English Patient now?" Or is box-office success more... just validating?
Absolutely. We've been writing movies since 2007 together, Jonathan and I. It's funny because the last script that we wrote, horrible Bosses was the first to actually go into production. It's weird how things work. The stars have to align in order to get a movie made. Fortunately, this was fast-tracked because of the success of The Hangover and the rebirth of the R-rated comedy. We were just fortunate enough and in a good position with New Line where they wanted to use us.
Is the R-rated comedy your preferred domain?
Oh, absolutely. There are the type of jokes that you pitch in the room that then you know you'll have to sort of soften. Fortunately, with R-rated comedies, the first joke that comes to your head, you can generally put to the page. Very freeing in that way.
The history of your involvement with Horrible Bosses is interesting. It's also confusing remembering who was hired when and which actors were signed on, and so forth. Can you simplify the tale for us?
Well, here's how it went down: In 2005, Michael Markowitz sold the original Horrible Bosses script. It was quite different; it was slightly darker in tone and it went through a bunch of different writers and actors. The Hangover breathed new life into it and made New Line excited about it again, enough to have a roundtable with a bunch of comedy writers to pitch jokes and ideas. We were brought into that since we had a previous relationship with New Line for The $40,000 Man and Burt Wonderstone. We were hired for the new draft, and we spent about a month and a half on it. Obviously the fundamental premise remained, where the three guys want to kill their horrible bosses.
Who had been cast by the time you signed on?
No one had been signed on when we wrote it. Not even a director. Seth Gordon signed on very shortly after we turned in our draft, and that's when they started sending out the script to all these A-list actors. We didn't know that any of these offers would stick. It was incredibly shocking that we'd gotten this caliber of cast, and obviously very exciting.
I'm particularly interested in the fact that you tweaked lines on set and tailored them to the actors' voices. With Jennifer Aniston, did you make her more raunchy as you went along? The line she has about pleasuring herself to Penn Badgley was a scream.
Actually, no. The Penn Badgley line was there from the beginning with our draft. We actually thought we might have to tone it down as far as how much raunch was in her dialogue. We didn't think she'd necessarily be comfortable. But she was absolutely all for it -- she did not hold back at all. That was refreshing.
There was a minor blogger skirmish over the fact that her character says "faggot" in the movie. I take it you felt that was just a necessary way to establish her.
Here's the thing: What we needed to do was maintain the likability of our three guys. We didn't want them to be too crass or misogynistic, though clearly there is misogyny there. Generally our three guys are likable enough that whatever inappropriate things they say, you're willing to let it fly. But with the bosses, you can have them say whatever you want because we're trying to get across that they're horrible, terrible people. The dialogue has to fit with that personality type.
Did you have a favorite character to write for?
I mean, Bobby Pellitt was up there, Colin Farrell's character. He is truly the wild card of the three bosses. He's not only a terrible, selfish person, but he's also very stupid. And stupidity is always fun to write.
I hear there was a different ending to the movie originally. Care to share?
In Michael Markowitz's draft, the character Motherfucker Jones, who was originally named Cocksucker Jones [laughs], he was actually more a killer type. A real badass. Dave Harken [Kevin Spacey] gets gunned down by Motherfucker Jones, or at the time, Cocksucker Jones. He happens to walk in at the bar where Motherfucker is staying, and there's a confrontation. And he shoots him. So it's very different. But what Michael Markowitz managed to accomplish was a very universal theme where everyone has had a terrible boss at some point, and has had to deal with that person in some way. It's either grinning and bearing it or quitting. Not many people kill their bosses, and we probably wouldn't endorse that. It was just a lot of fun to change it up.
I read that you were frustrated at first watching some of the actors ad-lib during shooting. Is it difficult not to be precious about your own material?
Yeah. Obviously at first when you've written something and haven't gotten anything produced yet, it's easy to think that the lines that you write are the best and the funniest. And that there's no way they could be funnier. But then the lines are voiced by incredibly talented actors and you sort of see how much better it could all be, whether by sticking to the page or varying. These guys are experts in ad-libbing. Seth Gordon was smart enough to do multiple takes of each scene where they sort of play it straight according to script and then let them have fun and go off on tangents. You catch a couple tangents in the movie, but I think he did a great job of sort of splitting the difference between fun ad-libbing and keeping the story on track.
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