For many years, John Hamburg was known as the guy who wrote Meet the Parents and its sequels, but in 2009, he directed a comedy that would become a popular favorite, I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. It also helped solidify the terms “bromance” and “man-cave” in the public vernacular.
Hamburg returns this week with Why Him? a comedy that pits Bryan Cranston against James Franco in the high concept of a father having to adjust to his daughter’s new boyfriend. In the case of Franco, he’s playing an eccentric billionaire named Laird Mayhew, while Cranston plays the straight-ahead Ned Fleming, Midwest father of Zoey Deutch’s Stephanie, who has been seeing Laird without her family knowing. To make up for it, Laird invites Ned, his wife (Megan Mullally) and Stephanie’s younger brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) out to his Silicon Valley mansion over the holidays to impress them. Instead, it turns into a bigger conflict as Ned refuses to believe that his daughter really loves this unfiltered guy whose “estate manager” Gustav (Keegan Michael-Key) is even crazier.
Although it’s still fairly high concept, the jokes and laughs are far raunchier than Meet the Parents--earning the film its well-deserved R-rating--but somehow, that cast Hamburg brought together make those laughs even funnier, especially watching Cranston’s reactions to Laird’s craziness.
LRM got on the phone with Hamburg for the following interview…
LRM: It was a nice surprise to learn that you directed this movie, so how did you get involved in this? I mean, I saw Jonah Hill is involved with the story, although he's obviously not in the movie at all. Was it something that he tossed out there for you to do together and then he ended up doing other things?
John Hamburg: The quick version is that on the set of the movie The Watch, formerly Neighborhood Watch, Jonah, Ben Stiller, and Shawn Levy hatched this basic idea. Then nothing really happened it with, it kind of sat around and a few years later, Shawn Levy and his producing partner Dan Levine--who I knew well from working on a bunch of their projects uncredited, doing some rewrites, and Dan had worked on Along Came Polly with me. They brought this idea to me. They thought the premise might appeal to me and then I brought in my co-writer Ian Helfer, and we took this very basic idea and just turned it into what became Why Him?
LRM: Was that title “Why Him?” something that was there in the beginning or was that something you came up with later?
Hamburg: That was us. We made that up. Their version was set in Hawaii and was just really different. The Cranston character was totally different, it was just a very different story. We just took this very basic premise and created this whole world of this Midwest guy who owns a printing business and goes out to Silicon Valley. We set it in Silicon Valley and in Michigan. We called it Why Him? because, first of all, the father wonders why his daughter fell in love with this guy and also it speaks to the way I think a certain generation looks at this younger generation. It's like, “Why this guy? What did he do?” A guy from Cranston's generation worked their way up and took the more traditional route and somebody invents an app and becomes a billionaire, it kind of had a double meaning for us.
LRM: That is kind of the way the world is these days--that is what happens. Was Laird based on anyone in particular or a combination of said people?
Hamburg: Laird is a combination of people. I mean, I'd say he was a combination of some Silicon Valley types who we had read about and then a couple of people I know in my life. I won't name them, I want to protect them--they're not so innocent. People who have no filter and kind of just say whatever they want and yet they care about family deeply, they're really kind, goodhearted people. They're just misconstrued because they have no social filter.
LRM: How did that character develop once Franco came on board? I feel like Franco, on one hand, is trying hard to be a serious dramatic actor, but he's really great when he's doing these crazy characters like this one and his character in “Spring Breakers.” When he lets loose, he's amazing.
Hamburg: I think he is a true comic genius, I really do, I don't say that lightly, I think because he works from a place of character. He was really instrumental in developing the Laird character. What was important to him was he have this drive, that he really wants Ned's approval and he really wants to be part of the Fleming family. James had the right idea. He's like, "I can do all this crazy stuff but if my essential goal, desire is this very human relatable vulnerable desire to belong to a family, that allows me to go to all these insane places."
LRM: The other half of that is Gustav, Keegan Michael-Key's character, who also seems like another one of his over-the-top characters. Was he given a lot of free reign to play around with the character or was it sort of very well developed beforehand?
Hamburg: No, it was a combination. Gustav on the page was this sort of estate manager slash martial arts trainer slash life coach. Then when you cast Keegan, it goes into this entirely different realm where he just brings so much to it. He's a really good actor, a genius improviser, and yeah. It took on a life of it's own. As a director, I am of course very open to that. Improv is a big part of my process. The character on the page is this ridiculous sort of Eastern European sensei-type but Keegan just ran with that.
LRM: He really goes to town with that, doing everything he can to make Bryan more uncomfortable.
Hamburg: Yeah. I mean, I love the way he played in that scene on a smart toilet where Bryan's having a little trouble and Keegan needs to help him. What I love is how quiet that scene is, in a way how subtle Keegan is. It's a ridiculous scene and yet it's played very real and quietly and that really thrills me to watch guys work that way.
LRM: The cast you got together for this is absolutely amazing. You could've done the same premise with different actors and it'd be a completely different movie. Let's talk about Bryan Cranston, because obviously he's done comedy before, and he’s actually very funny even when he's doing some more serious stuff, he has a way of making us chuckle. It's just great to watch him being put through things. How did you convince him to do all this stuff?
Hamburg: Bryan, getting him onboard was a process, as it should be because he has so many opportunities after playing Walter White and then Trumbo, LBJ, you know. I think we talked a lot. He wanted to make sure that I didn't want to just make a broad joke-driven comedy, that it came from character. That is the comedy that I love and the movies that I aim to make are character-based. We spent a long time revising the script and dimensionalizing the Ned character and working on the story with Bryan and James and Ian, my co-writer. Then once he was in, he just completely embraced the style of movie we were making. I think he loved the freedom of improvisation because let's face it, on Breaking Bad, you're doing your script to the letter and of course on Broadway in All The Way and these other dramas, there's no room for improvisation, or very little. I think it was probably a great sense of freedom and he just delighted in it. I also, was not surprised at all, but found that he was a top-level improviser. You could throw things to him, he could come up with things, he's just so smart. The key is that so much of it came from character; he's really focused on character and story. A lot of times you have guys improvising and you can't really use it because it has nothing to do with the story, but he's smart enough to know that the improv should have to do with the story.
LRM: I don't want to go through the whole cast but Megan Mullally is also kind of amazing as his wife. The scenes where she throws herself at him is probably one of the funniest things I've seen this year. She's great and she's always been great but we don't see her used in a way that really could have played to her strengths, and this movie does that in some ways.
Hamburg: No, that's why I wanted her. She's so funny, she's one of the funniest human beings you will ever meet, and we know that obviously from Will & Grace and her guest stars on Parks and Recreation and everything else. She hadn't really been given the opportunity to be as funny as she can be and play a grounded human being. Albeit, she does sort of go to extremes in this movie but she's this normal Midwest wife who kind of lets loose on this trip to Silicon Valley. I think I just had an instinct that she would be able to pull that off and I think, kind of like Bryan in the same vein. She just embraced playing this real character, so all her comedy comes from a really true place.
LRM: This is kind of a Christmas movie with heavy Christmas themes and Christmas parties, stuff like that. How does a nice Jewish boy end up making a Christmas movie?
Hamburg: (laughs) Interestingly, as a kid, we used to have this house in Vermont even though I grew up in New York City. I didn't really know that Jews didn't have Christmas until I was a little older. I think I always idealized Christmas. Hanukkah just was never quite as exciting to me. I think that's why, I come from a tradition of very bad Jews celebrating Christmas.
LRM: I must come from the same tribe. I feel like being Jewish in New York, you're sort of surrounded by Christmas so much around this time of the year that it's kind of hard to avoid it. You kind of get sucked into it.
Hamburg: Yeah. You know, the real Jewish New York Christmas is you get Chinese food and go to the movies. It's hard to get studios to green light movies about that, so I went with this direction.
LRM: This movie really doesn't pull any punches in terms of comedy. It really goes for the laughs. Some of the best comedies have literally joke after joke after joke or visual gags and you really go for it with the raunchy stuff. Why is it important to have movies like this these days to make you laugh? I feel like it is important these days and I was curious if you thought the same thing.
Hamburg: Yeah, I mean, look. In an era where there's fewer comedies getting made and people just say, "Why don't you… ?" you know, Adam Sandler makes his movies for Netflix now. I still believe in the communal theatrical experience of 300 people sitting in a theater laughing. We just had our premiere last night, and we've had all these preview screenings and we've listened to audiences laughing at the movie. I don't say it's the most important thing in the world or it's going to bring us together as a country. I do think that there's something wonderful, and it's the reason I got into this business all those years ago, is there's something joyous and wonderful about sitting in a big group of people and everybody's laughing. I think there's still a place for these kind of movies and for the theatrical experience. Of course, I've had the experience with most of my movies that, at the end of the day, the majority of people see them at home on iTunes or Netflix or, you know, on TV. I love that because people can get to know the lines in a more intimate way but still, it's my crack cocaine listening to an audience laugh and trying to fine tune that and make it work for a big crowd.
LRM: Have you been developing anything else since “I Love You, Man”? Is there anything else you've been working on or has this been kind of taking up all the time?
Hamburg: There was a script I wrote called Brother From Another Mother. Part of the reason I have this little bit of a gap between movies is because I'm a writer-director so I write these things. If I don't get them made, then I've got to start from scratch and write something else. That's a script I really love; it's really close to my heart. It's a comedy but maybe with a little more drama thrown in just because of some of the family dynamics. I couldn't quite cast it the exact way I wanted to a few years ago, so I moved on to Why Him? That's one that I may put together sometime in the next year. I'm definitely just focusing basically on doing my own stuff and trying to write and direct with more frequency.
LRM: I’m sure it’s tough when you are writing stuff for you to direct. I've spoken with a lot of directors who just would say, "Okay, I'm just going to direct stuff now because I can work more."
Hamburg: My way into directing really is through the writing. I’ve been fortunate to get offered some stuff, and I just basically say “no,” because I just like to write or co-write my own stuff. I know that makes me not as prolific as say, my producer Shawn Levy, as a director. The guy can't stop directing, and he's great and talented, but when you're a writer, there's a whole other thing that takes up half your time.
Why Him? will open nationwide on Friday, December 23.
Oh, and we also have John Hamburg talking about one cameo in the movie that may be considered a MAJOR SPOILER, so if you want to be surprised when you watch the movie, STOP READING NOW. (And then come back and read this after seeing the movie.)
LRM: I want to ask about Kiss. In “I Love You, Man” you had an appearance by Rush, and it became this huge thing to the point where they even use video promos of Jason and Paul at their concerts. It became a huge thing kind of back and forth, because Rush fans love the movie, and maybe new people discovered them. Now Kiss is a different thing because I get the impression that they're very serious people, from what I understand, business-wise. When you started going down that avenue, did you realize you had to get them to agree to do it very early or the joke wasn’t going to work? How early did you get them involved?
Hamburg: No, no, no. The key was… there was a few things. I knew that there would be a band that Bryan and Megan's character grew up listening to. What's that era? They're playing in their mid-50s in the movie and Kiss felt like the right era. I like the idea that you think they're sort of buttoned-up Midwesterners, but they partied when they were younger. They were just normal people in their 20s and 30s having a good time. and Kiss was the right era. Then what would make a statement in this small Midwest city, you know? Who would be really out of place in Grand Rapids, Michigan? We did talk about different musicians but at the end of the day, the visuals of these two guys standing seven feet tall in platform shoes wearing all the makeup is hard to beat. I think once I explained to Gene and Paul that I'm a fan and similar to Rush, this all comes from a good place and they're going to be seen in a good light and it's going to be fun, so they were on board. It was pretty surreal and thrilling to see those guys in full Kiss regalia on our set.