Danny Manus is an in-demand script consultant and founder of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. Follow Danny on Twitter @dannymanus.
In the almost 20 years since his first professional writing and directing effort, Safe Men, was released, John Hamburg has climbed to the top of Hollywood’s comedy ladder with his films having grossed over $1.5 Billion worldwide, and his words having launched dozens of iconic, quotable lines into the zeitgeist.
I recently spoke with the NY native and writer of Meet the Parents and Zoolander and their respective sequels, and writer/director of Along Came Polly and I Love You, Man, about his process and his most recent hit Why Him?, starring James Franco and Bryan Cranston, which was just released on DVD and Blu-Ray March 28th.
Why Him?, co-written with his occasional partner, Ian Helfer, has grossed over $115M worldwide, and explores what happens when an overprotective but loving father is none-too-happy when he learns his daughter’s immature, Silicon Valley mega-millionaire boyfriend is about to propose.
Danny Manus: Everyone asks about your break-in story, but I’d like to twist it and ask when did you feel like you had broken in? Was there a moment or time when you felt you had made it?
John Hamburg: That’s a good question. Even when I was working on (Meet the Parents) as a writer, I still didn’t feel it. I’m pretty sure Bobby DeNiro thought I was someone’s intern and didn’t know I was one of the writers. Even until The Fockers actually. I think when Along Came Polly came out, which I had written and directed, I remember opening weekend it did pretty well and I thought, "God, there’s something to this." But I don’t think you ever reach a point where you go, "I can just coast’ or ‘I’ve done all these movies and now I can do whatever I want." You always feel like you’re only as good as your last thing.
Danny: You wrote and directed Safe Men in 1998 at the start of the multi-hyphenating trend. How do you decide now which projects you want to write and direct, and how important do you think is it to do that for writers and filmmakers today?
John: For me, it’s always what I wanted to do, so having this side career as a screenwriter and script doctor was not something I ever planned on. My heroes were Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Coen Bros – people that wrote and directed their own movies because then you’re totally seeing it through.
I was fortunate because I broke in that way, and a few of the movies I worked on solely as a writer had wonderful directors who were very collaborative and made the writer a real part of the process. But whenever I could, I always prefer writing and directing. I find it the most satisfying and then it’s yours. So if someone loves it or hates it, there’s only you to blame. Some writers don’t have any interest in that and they’d rather sit in the room alone or with a partner and just write, and that’s the beauty of it for them. For me, I love being on set. I love working with the actors and crew, the technicians. Writing is just one step of the process.
Danny: What do you look for in a concept or idea in terms of characters or set pieces, etc., that lets you know it could be a movie? Is there something you flesh out first that lets you know there’s a movie there?
John: It’s elusive. It’s hard to find that concept that’s worth a few years of my time and will be something a lot of people are going to want to go see. For me, there’s got to be a relatability to it. 90% of the movies I’ve been involved with have a relatable premise and main character, and some awkwardness and comic tragedy of the human condition because that’s what’s interesting and what I see every day in life.
There’s so many fraught or awkward miscommunication circumstances that pop up. I look for that. And I look for a concept to hang observations on. Sometimes I’m not the first writer in and someone else has come up with the idea like with Meet the Parents. With Along Came Polly, it just felt like there was a premise I could hang a bunch of things on.
Danny: What was it about Why Him? that made you realize you wanted to write and direct, and that it could be a hit?
John: Why Him? was about observing the culture and seeing that there are so many wildly successful young men and women starting to emerge. For me, when I was coming up, there were no Zuckerbergs. Moguls were people that worked at a company for years and worked their way up, more traditionally. But today… so many people are becoming millionaires and billionaires overnight… the idea of those types of people mixing with a normal person who says, "I did everything right and yet the world is changing on me," was really interesting to explore. It felt like it was the right time to take a classic premise like Father of the Bride or Meet the Parents and revisit it from a totally different POV. That’s why I wanted to dive in.
I was aware, since I was involved with Meet the Parents, that it is a premise that on the surface seems to have been done before, but I feel we gave it a totally fresh POV… Our intention was to turn the concept on its head.
Danny: Any insight on your writing process – are you an outliner? Beat Sheeter? Procrastinator? Is structure vitally important to you or do you just write and see where it goes?
John: Procrastination is certainly an element of it. Any writer who says they don’t, is lying. I do like to outline. I work by myself and sometimes with a partner (Ian Helfer) and we outline a lot of the scenes. It starts with a beat sheet and then a larger outline… I’m a big believer that once you have that outline, you have to do the “vomit draft,” which is my current favorite term for it. Because that’s when you can write without being self-conscious, without being afraid to fail. Every film I’ve written or been involved with, whether by myself or with a partner, I’ve done that kind of draft.
Once you have that outline, you just go. But I need that piece of marble there that I can chisel away at. I’ve heard writers, like Nicole Holofcener, who’s wonderful, say she doesn’t outline. And I wish I could work that way because it sounds like so much fun, but I need that structure and that outline first.
Danny: Are there people you go to for notes? Who are the people you seek feedback from?
John: Sure. Teddy Shapiro, a composer on comedy films and others. He’s not a writer, but he has a great sense of story. My wife, Christina, who’s an actress, she calls me on a lot of stuff. Which is painful, but excellent. Friends Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Ride Along, Clash of the Titans), who are great screenwriters. And a few directors like Jay Roach, etc.… The one thing about the comedy world is there’s a lot of support. We all wish each other well... not that well (laughs). But well. And I am of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what your job is, anyone can have a great idea or strong POV.
Danny: Were there any studio notes on Why Him? that you didn’t love or did love? And how did you address them?
John: FOX really was a great partner. They were definitely of the mindset that "we hired you to do your thing." They weren’t hands off, but they were very supportive. There weren’t any notes they gave that I thought, "Oh God, here we go," which is the nightmare of studio notes. But I’ve been really fortunate in my career not to work with execs who shove notes down my throat. It’s more like, here’s a thought, what do you think?
With Why Him?, there were questions about James Franco’s character – did he curse too much, is he too extreme? Not because they were scared of it, but just to ask the question. Which was a great question. My answer was, I think it’s okay because so much of his motivation comes from such a good place. That was James’ (Franco) instinct as well. His character just wants to win over the dad and family. He has no ulterior motives except to be this big puppy dog. And I told the studio, we’re going to shoot a lot of stuff and trust me that we’ll find the right tone and the right amount of that. But the studio never said, “You have to do this.”
Danny: As a director, are there any exercises or tools you use on set to bring more comedy out of your actors or make them comfortable to go to extreme places in comedy?
John: The biggest tool is starting with the script and then trying different stuff. Could be me offering alternative lines or Ian writing alt lines, having ideas in the moment, or having the actors improvise. When you create a collaborative process, it makes you less afraid to fall on your face. When there’s trust and respect and understanding, it’s a safe environment and liberating. And they surprise me all the time with things they come up with and it’s a real back and forth.
Early on in my career, I didn’t understand there was this tool. The first couple of things I did were very scripted. Polly had much less improv, but after working with other directors, and having directed the show Undeclared with Judd (Apatow) and learning how he works, and as I got older, I got looser. And I put a lot of that into I Love You Man. That was the first project that was highly scripted but left room for lots of improv. And I’ve worked that way since.
Danny: Is there one thing about writing or directing comedy you wish you had known doing Safe Men or a piece of advice you’d give yourself looking back?
John: To not be so tight. Be more open to the moment. Frankly, I can look at Safe Men and I’m glad I didn’t do that on that movie. It wasn’t right for me at the time and it allowed me a natural evolution of learning and watching others, and it’s been a great journey. I’m not sure how Polly or Safe Men would’ve turned out with more improv. My experience is that 5 or 7 years later, you look back and see how things hold up and see what works.
Why Him? is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Fox Home Entertainment!