John Morris is a man with a finger on the pulse of modern comedy. Soon after he wrapped Daddy’s Home 2, we cornered him for a quick chat.
Greg Gerding, The Big Smoke: Hi John, how are you doing?
John Morris: I’ve been working like crazy, we just wrapped Daddy’s Home 2 a week ago.
It seems like the release date for Daddy’s Home 2 was always set and you had to work backwards from that. How has the process been to get this movie done in time?
The corralling of the talent was so hard. When you’re doing a sequel and you’re getting the same people back, it’s hard to get them on the same schedule, finding a time when people can do it – for example, John Cena was shooting another movie while shooting ours; he would come in on a weekend, be up all night Sunday night in Boston, and then fly back to Atlanta to shoot his movie and be on set at 6am.
We worked backwards to get all these people ready, and we spent a year working on the script, and then it was finally like, GO! And then it was rush, rush, rush.
It doesn’t seem like much time has passed since the release of Daddy’s Home.
Yeah, we didn’t really do anything in between. I’ve been in this Daddy’s Home universe for about four years, I’m ready to step off. [laughs]
Do you look forward to each new movie’s premiere?
It’s weird. I used to. The premiere is fun, but the actual date the movie opens, that’s the terrifying part, because you wait all day and then they send you these reports that tell you how much the movie’s making. So, you’re sitting around waiting for these emails that say, “Yeah, it looks like it’s going to do okay, but we’re not sure yet…”
The whole weekend you’re just terrified. You’re thinking, “If this thing bombs, I’m in big trouble.”
It seems like you’re set up for success with Daddy’s Home 2. You’ve built upon the first one and amplified everything.
It’s tough though, comedy in general has not worked very well over the last year, and sequels are not a guarantee. This is our third sequel, we did Horrible Bosses 2 and Dumb and Dumber To, so we weren’t chomping at the bit to do another sequel. It was, “How can we make this one interesting enough to warrant people wanting to see it?” Hopefully, Lithgow and Gibson bring that extra specialness to it that will drive audiences to it. We’re tracking well, they say it’s on target to do well, but you never know.
What do you say when you’re asked about the decision to include Mel Gibson?
The message of the movie is right in line with what he’s gone through in his personal life, it is about redemption and forgiveness and growth, and he’s perfect for the part. When you see the movie you’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah, he’s great.”
It’s been fun tracking your career. It spans 14 years now, if you include the time it took to make your first film, Never Been Thawed. Can you talk about your path between there and here?
With Never Been Thawed, we met a guy who had a connection to the Silverlake Film Festival, which no longer exists, and he said, “I think I can get you guys in.” He suggested we promote the movie, so we hired this publicist and he got us in a good time slot and he got an article written about us in the Los Angeles Times; it created enough buzz where a couple of lower-level people from agencies showed up to see it. Because of that, we met with this boutique agency and wound up signing with them, and once you sign with an agency they send you out on the town: “Here’s our new writer guys, talk to them.” So, we went out and we talked with a lot of people and, in a year’s time, we didn’t get any jobs out of it.
We were waiting, and nothing was happening, and then it felt like our agency wasn’t going to return our calls after a while. We had this one last meeting with Judd Apatow just after The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a giant hit and he was writing Knocked Up. We asked him, “What are you working on now?” And he said, “It’s this thing where a girl gets pregnant after a one-night stand and they have to deal with the relationship and having this kid.” And we’re like, “Oh! It’s so simple and clean.” All of our ideas before then were kind of wacky.
Once we sold the script and there was real money, it elevated our status. We’ve been going nonstop ever since. You could blame Judd Apatow for most of our work. He did inspire us.
We decided, “We’re gonna end our run here unless we come up with some easily conveyable idea that can translate into the multiplex.” We came up with She’s Out of My League as a metaphor for how we were feeling in Hollywood: “We’ve got this opportunity, but we don’t feel like we deserve it.” And we came up with how in most comedies there’s a nerd guy going after a hot chick, but instead we started with the nerd guy getting the hot chick and then he couldn’t handle it. It felt like a simple idea and we decided to write that.
We wrote She’s Out of My League desperately over the Christmas holiday in two or three weeks and we turned it in to our agents – by then we had also signed with a management company, and they were like, “Hey, we actually think there’s something here.” So then we spent six months doing rewrites and then finally we took that out to the town, which they call “going wide” with the script. It got a couple of bids on it, and then it sold to DreamWorks. Once we sold the script and there was real money, it elevated our status. We’ve been going nonstop ever since.
You could blame Judd Apatow for most of our work. He did inspire us.
How did Sex Drive fit into that?
Sex Drive was interesting. We had met these guys who would send book properties all over the studios to turn them into movies, and one of the books they had was a YA book called All the Way. We met the guy who held the rights to it, came up with a pitch for the movie that was quite different from the book, took it out to all the studios and tried to set it up, but basically everyone passed on it.
In the meantime, we had sold this pilot with our manager and were shooting it, and while we were waiting to hear if they were going to pick up the show or not, we got a call from Summit, and they said, “Hey, we liked your pitch, we’re interested if you guys can come back in, we’d like to buy it.” We were like, “Oh, well, we’ve got this TV show thing going, but if you let us direct it, then we’ll come back and we’ll write that movie for you.” They were originally wanting to hire us to write it, but they said yes to us directing it as well.
We really wanted that first directing job, so when Fox called and told us they were passing on our pilot, we were like, “No problem.” We were then free to make that movie.
It’s usually pretty hard for writers to think they’ll transition into directing. The only reason we were able to pull it off is because we had this leverage of, “Yeah, we’re too busy right now doing our TV show, but if you give us this, we’ll do it.” And they said okay.
Our success is always linked to telling people “No.” It’s just the best thing you could say to them, it drives them crazy. Once they get it in their head that they want something and you tell them no? That would be my advice to struggling writers: tell people you’re not doing any work, you’re not doing anything.
Which was written first, She’s Out of my League or Sex Drive?
She’s Out of My League was written first, but then it went through a couple of directors, and then a bunch of studios had people trading jobs, and then it got lost in development, and then finally it got made like two years after Sex Drive came out. It was, technically, our first thing.
Sex Drive came out and it bombed. Then you’re in “Director Jail” for a while and you’re trying to write your way out of it. We got Hot Tub Time Machine and Mr. Popper’s Penguins and we did a good job on the scripts that got the movies greenlit, and those movies came out and people looked at it again and people were willing to take another shot at us – then That’s My Boy comes out and it bombs and you’re put back in jail, and then you try to write your way out of it again. We wrote We’re the Millers and that was a big hit, and people thought, “Okay, we’re gonna give you another shot,” and we got a shot at Horrible Bosses 2 and it did okay – it didn’t bomb and it kept us in the game. Then we get Daddy’s Home and it’s our first big success. From there, the doors have felt opened.
To me, your career reads like one success after another that’s building upon itself.
Which is funny, because from my perspective, it feels like failing upwards.
The benchmark seems to be if a movie makes $100 million domestic, then it’s considered a success. If it does $90 million? Yeah, not bad. Pretty good, right? Yeah, not bad. No one’s beating your door down if you don’t break $100 million. Once you do that? Then everyone wants to be in business with you.
Do sales following a movie’s release play into the formula at all? DVDs, streaming?
It doesn’t seem like anyone cares about DVD sales anymore, it seems like that’s dead. Streaming is probably a pretty sizable market, but it isn’t anywhere near as big as box office take. There’s just so many movies coming out, there’s not a lot of theatre space for movies to hang around.
With Daddy’s Home 2, we’re worried about the November 10th opening. It’s a Christmas movie; can we last until Christmas Day? Is there enough space? Against Jumanji and Star Wars and Thor and Justice League and all these others – and they’re like, “Well, Home Alone opened at the same time and it lasted until Christmas,” and we’re like, “How many movies was Home Alone up against at that time?” Probably not as many.
It’ll be interesting. It’s an experiment. I don’t know if it’ll last through the holidays; I hope it does. And if it has those kind of legs and we only open with $25 million, but it plays until Christmas? It will still be considered a big success.
Any fun stories from being on set with all of those actors? Anything special happen during filming?
Probably my favourite scene in the movie is with Adrianna, who is Mark Wahlberg’s stepdaughter. She likes to sleep with her window open, and it’s winter, and then she turns on the thermostat, and then you have the four dads – Lithgow, Gibson, Ferrell, and Wahlberg – all discussing what to do about it. When we wrote the scene, it seemed like it was going to be fun, but when they’re all standing there in their underwear, they’re all sweating because she’s turned up the thermostat to 90 degrees… and the way they interacted in that scene… you’ll see, the whole crew was laughing. It had this vibe to it that was like, “Oh, we just captured some magic here.” Probably the best scene of the movie.
One funny behind the scenes thing: Will Ferrell’s assistant came on set with a birthday cake one day, she takes it up to Will and we all go, “Oh my God, Will, it’s your birthday? Holy shit!” And we all sing “Happy Birthday.” And then go back to work. And then three or four days later, she comes out with another birthday cake and she takes it to Will, and Will goes, “Oh my God!” and the rest of us go, “Huh?” Everyone acts like, “Are we doing this again?” And we all sing “Happy Birthday” again. And Will says, “Thanks, everybody.” And then a week later, she brings out another birthday cake and takes it up to Will and Will goes, “Oh my God!” And we’re all like, “Okay, alright, you got us.” None of those times were Will’s actual birthday.
One of my favorite Wahlberg things: Mark gets up at 3:30 in the morning, he works out until dawn, he goes and plays 18 holes of golf in an hour and a half, and then shows up on set at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, ready to go. I’m like, “Holy crap! Aren’t you exhausted?” And how do you play 18 in an hour and a half? I don’t get it.
So, he’s working out every morning for like three hours? What is he doing?
Yeah, I have no idea. [laughs] That’s why he’s in great shape and I’m not.
For you personally, how do you measure success when it comes to making movies? Are you pretty focused on the numbers too?
I’m always asking, can we keep doing this? It’s weird to even think this, because we’ve done better when our movies fail. But I think that’s because when you’re faced with failure, you can either give up, or you can work your way out of it. Keep pounding away until you get your next break.
There’s a trajectory in art, if you’re not struggling for it, it seems like your art suffers. I don’t think failing is bad for you, I think it makes you stronger and more interesting.
At the core of what you’re doing is storytelling. What made Daddy’s Home so successful is that it wasn’t a typical comedy and you guys have tapped into something that conveys heart.
The key to most of the movies that I like, and what we try to aspire to, is that you have to care about the characters, or the protagonist. And it’s not that they have to be likable; like Mel Gibson was a rascal in our movie, but you still like him. When you read something and you don’t relate to the protagonist, then you’re not going to care about what they want or their story. Sean [Anders, writing partner] and I have a healthy dose. When you see our movies, they’re silly, low-brow comedies, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we’re not in any jeopardy of letting success go to our heads because we’re still like, “Are we successful? I don’t even know.” If you buy into your own hype, then I think you’re in trouble.
How has your past interests in music influenced you? It feels as though there are parallel worlds between music and movies in that as a musician you’re trying to get from playing dive bars to playing arenas.
I think being a failing musician helps you build that humility that carries us through being failing screenwriters and filmmakers. You have to be able to recover from them and learn from them and keep going at it. I have a feeling a lot of people give up after ten years of banging your head against a wall.
Back in the days when you were in Dryspell and Sean was in Stone Bogart, how did you guys figure out that you should be making movies together?
We met completely randomly playing Long Wong’s in Tempe. His band had moved to Tempe from Madison and they pulled up on their first night in town to Long Wong’s where we were playing, and I met him and his band that night. After that, we started playing shows together. And then Sean wanted to make an indie, sketch-type movie and no one kind of jumped on it, but I was like, “Send me what you’ve got.” We didn’t know anything about writing scripts. And I thought what he had was funny and I made suggestions about what if they did this or what if they did that, and he was like “That would be cool” and then it just kind of ballooned from there. We bonded over ideas about what we thought would be funny.
Being a failing musician helps you build that humility that carries us through being failing screenwriters and filmmakers.
It just kind of grew from “wouldn’t it be funny if we did this” to “hey, we’re making a movie” and it took us two years to do. At times it felt like, “I don’t think we’re ever gonna finish this thing.”
What do you think about when you think back on Never Been Thawed?
I tend to be more forward-thinking; it’s like, once the story’s out of my system, I don’t really go back. Like music, once it’s recorded, I don’t listen to it again. I haven’t watched NBT in a long time. I remember it fondly. It was like going to film school, like a boot camp. There was good stuff and frustrating stuff, like shooting in crappy apartments in Tempe in 118-degree weather and there’s a dog humping my leg. It wasn’t my highest moment.
Instant Family is up next?
Yes. It’s with Wahlberg and it’s loosely based on Sean’s life. Sean adopted three kids about six years ago and it’s based on the adoption process. We wrote this script in between Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2. Paramount asked us what we had next after Daddy’s Home 2 and we also showed it to Wahlberg and it all came together. Hopefully, it’ll come out next Christmas. And then we’ll see if the career continues or not. [laughs]
As someone who is interested in screenwriting, what advice do you have?
It’s the hardest thing to find people to take a crack at screenwriting. A) It’s fucking daunting. B) There’s no pay in it. And it’s gonna take years.
Don’t give up on it.
We [Sean and I] do the work. We just pound the idea for a month until it either works or we move on. We’ll go down every avenue, and it’s hard, and it takes forever, and it’s monotonous, and you want to kill yourself. It’s a struggle. Doing it alone seems particularly daunting, just being in a room by yourself; “I don’t know if this is funny or not, I’m just sitting here by myself.”
The other thing I’ve seen people do is hold themselves back looking for it to be perfect. Our goal, when we start off on something, is to write what we call “the shit draft”; because it’s a piece of shit and that’s what you want. “I have a hundred pages and it sucks, but it’s something.” And then it’s so much easier once you have that to go back, and then we’ll rewrite it for a year. Just press forward, drive through it, and come up with something. I don’t think people get the process. They’re like, “Well, I read your script and it’s pretty awesome.” And I say, “Well, it didn’t start that way.” Anything you like, any song or movie or whatever, there were stages where it sucked, it was fucking terrible, and then they figured it out and made it better.
Keep at it.