In this raw and raunchy comedy, straight-laced Marcus and Emily (Lil Rel Howery, Yvonne Orji) are befriended by wild, thrill-seeking partiers Ron and Kyla (John Cena, Meredith Hagner) at a resort in Mexico. Living in the moment, the usually level-headed couple lets loose to enjoy a week of uninhibited fun and debauchery with their new “vacation friends.” Months after their walk on the wild side, Marcus and Emily are horrified when Ron and Kyla show up uninvited at their wedding, creating chaos and proving that what happens on vacation, doesn’t necessarily stay on vacation.
It's very rare to luck out in watching a brand new comedy film that delivers the laughs and a fresh vision, and that's exactly what you get with Vacation Friends. I had the immense pleasure of speaking with director and co-writer Clay Tarver about his new film, why this story was the perfect fit for his feature directing debut, and how his background as a musician has helped prime him for collaborating as a filmmaker.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: You have a varied creative career. What initially piqued your interest in wanting to become a screenwriter rather than pursue your music career?
Clay Tarver: Well, it was never really a hard choice. It was just something that I knew I really wanted to do. I ended up doing a thing at MTV when I was starting my second band Chavez. I got a job at MTV, because I knew it was going to take me a while and I did this character with my college roommate Donal Logue called Jimmy the Cab Driver, it was a big hit, and they wanted to turn it into a movie so I mistakenly volunteered to write it. And just one thing led to another. Next thing I knew I was this writer. I was very reluctant to be a writer, but I was and that's what happened.
Sadie: And then just it kind of snowballed from there with you working with some of the greatest in the business.
Clay: Snowball is a little bit overstating it. [laughs] What's the slowest snowball of all time. [laughs] It was a slow roll. But, yeah, I've been fortunate to work with excellent people and still occasionally play with my band, which is gratifying.
Sadie: Yeah, you have to have that outlet. What kind of stories are you excited to write about?
Clay: For whatever reason, I've done a lot of more authentic or real kind of comedy, and even that cab driver character was very real and grimy. And the thing I loved about this movie was, even though it was pushed here and there, it was still sort of a very grounded, authentic story - very simple. And I remember thinking when I first read it, this is one of those premises that you could have seen in the 40s or the 70s. And I love movies like that. I thought kind of Meet the Parents was like that. Like everyone can relate to meeting the parents of your fiancé or your girlfriend, and this had two couples meet on vacation, you sort of overshare and overdo it, and then the vacations over and you're like, “Oops, I got a little too close to these people.” And I really liked how simple it was. And that was something that I connected with. I sort of grew up in the era of like The Bad News Bears and Slapshot. And I love movies like that, that are really on planet Earth, with real feeling characters. And this one's like a big farce in many ways. The characters are pretty real feeling to me, especially with these excellent actors.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. This movie feels like you've seen it before, but there's something that you do with the direction where we're seeing things happen through your characters' reactions to these big moments. And not to give away any spoilers, but with how Marcus reacts to every little thing, it's so genuine and authentic, even though this probably wouldn't happen in the real world, it still feels like this could happen to any of us. The editing of these scenes and reveals, like from a big set-piece moment, we don’t see it happen, we just see the aftermath - those comedy beats land surprisingly well.
Clay: Right, I love sort of dry comedy. And so, I got enough of things that I like in there and that shot to me was, I wanted to tell the story but in a really dry way, and that seemed to get a really big laugh, and it makes me happy because those little, tiny dry real moments in the midst of sort of craziness, are the parts that I love the most. And it was really fun to edit it, you know, sort of peppered the movie throughout with those kinds of moments.
Sadie: Did this script come across your desk already written or were you collaborating with the other writers, the Mullen brothers, Jonathan Goldstein, and John Francis Daley on this as well?
Clay: We ended up collaborating, even though we never met. I got asked to rewrite it in 2016. And I think the Mullen brothers had a draft, I rewrote, and it changed a lot. And then Goldstein and Daley, they’re a very excellent directing team and the came on to direct it and they did a pass. And then I guess that movie fell apart, so it came back to me and they said, “Hey do you want to direct this?” and of course I took my pass on it. And it was one of those moments where the studio system kind of worked because I think everyone made it better. And it was really cool, because the WGA agreed with that and gave us all credit, and I felt like that was really fair and cool. I can honestly say everybody who worked on it sort of pushed the ball forward and just made the script better and seemed to get that it was a very undeniable simple story.
Sadie: And so with that, this being your feature directorial debut, what skill sets did you borrow from your background being a writer and producer for Silicon Valley that brought over to directing this feature?
Clay: I sort of had the same method and I used the same Director of Photography Tim Suhrstedt, who I've worked with for years and years there. And it's funny, we would always have these scenes in the hacker hostel with like six guys sitting around talking and it took forever to cover. And in this movie, there's four people in every scene it felt like it was just a way to get enough coverage so that, you know, wides, two shots, singles, so that we could really control the comedy and give every moment it's due. And it was a pace that worked really well for this movie. Of course, we got thrown some curveballs which nothing could prepare me for [laughs] then the pandemic, and then we had a hurricane or two. And I think we were one of the first movies back during the pandemic and so that was really tricky.
Sadie: Wow. No pressure on you guys. What was the casting process like?
Clay: Well when they came back to me and said let's do a smaller version of the movie, I sort of didn't know if we would actually come together, and the next thing I knew, Rel came on, and I was thrilled. And then right after that, John Cena came on. And suddenly the whole thing started to come together and then we got Meredith Hagner and Yvonne Orji, And I just have to say it was such a fantastic cast, there was no weak link. And so, it was one of those things where it just felt like, once we got these excellent actors, it felt like these are the only people that can even play these characters.
Sadie: Stellar casting. Did you ever let them improv in scenes and kind of just have at it or did you make them stick to the script?
Clay: They’re all super gifted and that they were all so much better than I could have ever dreamed of and I know every director must say that but it really is true. They were amazing, and I've learned to let them play. Sometimes in comedy, you have to hit something precisely and sometimes you really have to feel authentic and play, you've got to let the actor do something with it that they really want to. And some of the funniest moments were when Rel just took it and made it his own. And the chemistry was so good, we really believed they were two couples that had been together. And that's not so easy. You don't always get that and that's just a testament to how good the actors are.
Sadie: Changing gears, there's a lot of crossover I feel from film production to collaboration with a band, be it booking shows and all of that, do you ever find yourself carrying over those skill sets from being a working musician to your productions, even on this movie?
Clay: Absolutely, because I think when you're in a band, you have to collaborate. And sometimes you can't even really articulate a drum beat or a bass line or a guitar part - there's no words for them, well there are some words [laughs] but you can't really be precise and so you kind of have to let people bring their little gifts to the thing, and you can't hold on too tightly, you need to let it go at times. And I'll just say it really prepared me for being in a writers room, and for being on set [laughs] I felt like being in a van on tour, everything seems to go wrong, but to get there in the end, it's sort of how I felt doing this movie. I've had vans break down on bridges, I've had guitars left behind in other cities, I've had everything go wrong and you just kind of figure out a way to still do the show. The show must go on.
Sadie: You mess up once on a solo, you play the wrong note again then you just call it jazz, I feel like you can't always do that with movies, you can certainly try.
Clay: [laughs] You kind of can. There's a lot in the movie that I would love to take credit for, but it just kind of happened. Then other things you have to be super precise on. They have their own rhythms. And I do feel like music really gave me kind of a backbone to build all of that.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. Any advice to comedy screenwriters who are interested in directing a feature of their own? What is something maybe they should avoid when approaching the material or maybe even embrace approaching as a writer-director?
Clay: Well for me, I've been trying to direct a movie for years. I've written two that I was really close to making. And then I didn't happen. I don't want to say I gave up on the dream of being a director - but I did. I thought there was just no way it was going to happen and then when this did, I remember the night before we started shooting, I was asking myself, ‘Wait, do I really want to do this? What if it's too much pressure? What if it's a huge pain the ass?’ [laughs] And about an hour in, I was having so much fun with it. And as far as what to write, one of the things I knew - I loved these types of movies. As I said, that was sort of a really simple strong premise. And I just knew how contained it was because it's basically like a week of a vacation, and then the rest, pretty much takes place over two or three days. And I just remember when I read the first draft, I felt like I could do this, this was the kind of comedy I knew I could do. I always wanted to make it feel simple, but you know a little more emotional and just embrace what I could do.
Sadie: Embrace what you know you can do, love it. Well Clay, thanks so much for your time. I really hope that you keep directing and writing and doing more of this.
Clay: Thank you so much, this was great.
Vacation Friends is now available to stream on Hulu.