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How Game Night Broke Modern Comedy’s Rules to Win at the Box Office

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in Game Night

When Game Night arrived in theaters in February carrying the tagline “From the guys who brought you Horrible Bosses,” there was almost nothing to suggest the R-rated comedy-thriller would be much more than a lowest-common-denominator romp, or worse, a bomb in the making. Its late winter release frame — typically Hollywood’s dumping ground for presumptive money losers — suggested the film had something less than the full faith of distributor New Line Cinema. Then there was Game Night’s provenance: Based on a script by Mark Perez (Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Country Bears), the project had languished in development hell for four years only to be picked up and dusted off by co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the writers behind Horrible Bosses, its sequel, and Spider-Man: Homecoming) whose maiden directorial effort, a reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation, had been mauled by critics three years earlier.

But a funny thing happened on the way to movie oblivion: Game Night earned a raft of glowing reviews for its whip-smart script, energetic performances, and deliberate avoidance of modern comedy’s ubiquitous tropes. Starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as a hypercompetitive suburban couple striving to conceive a child — but plowing more of their energy into Tostitos-and-Pinot Grigio get-togethers, where they play Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit with a group of similarly game-loving pals — the film is plotted around the kidnapping of Bateman’s character’s rich asshole brother (Kyle Chandler), which the sextet of gamers mistake for an absurdly realistic role-playing game. The movie feels experimental, chockablock with arty production design and ominous electronic music cues; every joke seems polished to a high-gloss sheen; even smaller supporting characters arrive onscreen with fully fleshed back stories. The upshot? Positive word of mouth helped turn the $37 million movie into a respectable slow-burn hit, grossing $117.1 million worldwide.

Perez retains sole screenwriting credit on Game Night (which came out digitally and on DVD last month) mainly because Writers Guild of America rules pertaining to when a director rewrites another writer’s work make it exceedingly difficult to reassign or share “screenplay by” credit. But Daley and Goldstein now admit they rewrote almost all of the original script’s dialogue, totally overhauled the characters — most notably a creepy cop portrayed by Jesse Plemons — and comprehensively reworked the original script’s third act, all in the service of providing an alternative to the prevailing M.O. in mainstream comedy. While never mentioning Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen by name, the filmmakers steered clear of those writer-directors’ signature brand of unscripted, ad-lib-heavy comic set pieces, in pursuit of something more carefully constructed.

“I think there’s a bit of fatigue for audiences in this kind of off-the-cuff style of comedic filmmaking where it all feels improvised and there doesn’t seem to be a solid direction,” Daley tells Vulture. “This was kind of our response to that. We’re a throwback, if you will, to the days where comedies were crafted.”

“Part of the fun of this — part of the challenge — was to try to keep the audience uncertain of what the movie is,” Goldstein adds. “What genre is it? Am I supposed to be laughing? Am I supposed to be … uneasy?”

Game Night first took form in 2013, with producer John Fox approaching Perez with the humblest kernel of a pitch. “He called me up and goes: ‘Game Night.’ I was like, ‘Fuck, that is a good title!’” the writer recalls. “He didn’t have an idea, really. But he’s like, ‘What if everybody got together and something happens over a summer?’ I sat with it for 30 minutes. I’m like, ‘No, it happens over one night. What if it’s a murder-mystery party, everyone thinks it’s fake, but someone actually gets killed?’ He’s like, ‘That’s it!’”

Perez wrote the lead male role with Bateman specifically in mind (his character was named Jason in the original draft), and his script ultimately compelled the actor to sign onto the project as a producer. Six months later, Game Night was bought by New Line, where it languished for the next four years while Bateman hired a roundelay of other writers to take a crack at the material and even considered directing the project himself. The Warner Bros. subsidiary had distributed Daley and Goldstein’s hit Horrible Bosses films (in which Bateman stars) as well as their version of Vacation, and offered the duo the opportunity to direct another movie in 2016. Presented the choice of several scripts in various stages of development there, the filmmakers gravitated toward Game Night, but would only agree to board the project if Bateman allowed them to rewrite and direct it. “We saw the potential to do a movie that could cross genres,” Goldstein says. “We really wanted to push ourselves to aim for something that was not a typical comedy, but lived in the zone of both comedy and thriller.”

“We also knew there was a bad version of this movie that could exist,” Daley says.

To head off that bad version, the directors set about deconstructing every aspect of the original script. “We changed the characters pretty considerably, we changed the third act almost entirely,” says Goldstein. “Because it was important to us that this thing have a clear, thriller movie story line, we sort of broke down every plot point and made sure it all hung together.”

“I would say 99.9 percent of the dialogue changed,” adds Daley. “Gary the cop was a loudmouth brash asshole in the original draft. We turned him into this strange, polite, overly articulate weirdo.”

“Billy’s character was a dumb jock who was really good at playing beer pong, so there’s a beer pong thing in the original draft,” Goldstein says. “There was a muscle-bound boss character who we eliminated entirely.”

“I think the approach in the earlier draft was to not worry as much about the underlying plot and care more about how these characters were reacting to it,” says Daley. “But we felt that did a disservice to the characters. We wanted there to be a consistent through line that audiences could look back and see. ‘Oh, it all tracks and makes sense.’”

Among the holdovers from the original script, however, is a certain gender equality in terms of which actors get the goofy jokes, as well as the showcasing of a marital relationship in which man and wife actually like and support one another. “The wife part, a lot of the time, is not the best part in the movie. But she’s a peer in this,” says Perez. “And usually the woman in these movies is like, ‘You’re a loser. I’m mad at you. Our relationship is on the rocks. And by the end of the movie, we’re going to come together as a couple.’ But these two are already a team. ‘We’re going to figure it out together. High five!’”

“It was crucial to us to have a strong, comedic female lead,” says Daley. “Too often we see the wives rolling their eyes at the funny shit that husbands get to do. We wanted to make her be the one that makes the mistakes and gets the laughs.”

After six months of development, the reworked script ultimately convinced Bateman to sign on as co-star, and lured McAdams, who hadn’t taken on a project that showcased her not inconsiderable comedic talents since 2004’s Mean Girls. Production took place in Atlanta (where Bateman had also been filming the Netflix series Ozark) in April 2017, involving more than a little magical thinking on behalf of both the studio and Daley and Goldstein’s collaborators. “The choices we were making were by no means obvious ones in terms of preparing for a comedy,” Goldstein says. “A lot of the casting we did were not your typical comedy people. Our production designer was a guy known primarily for dramas. Our composer had never done comedy. They kind of had to take a leap of faith with us.”

In keeping with that atypical approach to shooting comedy, the co-directors instructed Plemons — a journeyman actor and series regular on Breaking Bad and Fargo — to channel the intensity of Michael Shannon for his performance as a weirdly fastidious police officer who has been kicked out of the game-night group after divorcing his wife. “Much more than anybody else in the movie, he’s committed to the seriousness of the role, without ever acknowledging it as a comedy,” says Goldstein. “You could lift that guy and put him in a horror movie and it wouldn’t change anything.”

“Never breaking character. Never wincing at the audience and saying, ‘Aren’t I a riot?’” continues Daley. “I think that was crucial for this film. It definitely sets the tone for everything that follows.”

Similarly, for a scene in which McAdams attempts to remove a bullet from Bateman’s arm after accidentally shooting him — using a bottle of Chardonnay as antiseptic, shoving a squeaky toy in his mouth to bite down on, and looking up instructions for bullet removal on an iPhone that keeps going to sleep during their attempt at ad hoc, al fresco surgery — the filmmakers exercised a kind of restraint seldom found in mainstream comedies that serves to both dramatize and heighten the scene’s absurdity. “Whereas most comedies go to the gross-out scenes with a profusion of blood, grossness and all that, we approached it with a ‘less is more approach,’” says Goldstein. “It could very well be a dramatic moment to have these two characters go off on this sidetrack, arguing about getting your phone on sleep mode — an indicator of the world this average suburban couple gets thrust into.”

“This is something I think people picked up on — this is a relationship, they really love each other and you’re rooting for them in a way that’s important,” Daley says.

Leading up to the film’s release, Goldstein and Daley feared audiences wouldn’t get the film, and secretly braced themselves for withering reviews. “We had a little PTSD from critics of our last movie, so we were already protecting ourselves by saying, ‘You know what? They’re probably going to hate it,’” says Daley. “We were confident in making it, not in the reception.”

“We were writing the headlines before the movie came out: ‘Game Night’s a Loser! Game Over,’” says Goldstein. “The first screening of that was probably the scariest thing we’ve done in our careers to date, because we really didn’t know for sure if it was going to work because it was so crossing genres. And it could fall on its face.”

Those headlines, of course, never materialized. But given Game Night’s 83 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes — with special emphasis given the originality of its screenplay — it brings up the question: How does Perez feel about being so extensively rewritten by the co-directors? “People always ask me, ‘Were you mad? Were you insecure that they hired directors who are writers?’ No,” he says. “They hired directors who wrote a ton of funny shit! I was psyched. They took scenes and made them better. They made changes. But it was all within the confines of what the script was and wanted to be.”

For their part, the directors remain philosophical about their success as well as the experimental qualities that make Game Night stand out in a crowded movie marketplace. “As an audience member, I get sick and tired of the comedy tropes that people are so used to at this point. It’s just an indicator of laziness on Hollywood’s part,” says Goldstein. “It’s not like we’re inventing the wheel here. We’re just listening to what audiences are tired of — and giving them something different.”

How Game Night Broke Modern Comedy’s Rules