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John Francis Daley on His Segue From TV Actor to Horrible Bosses Screenwriter

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

John Francis Daley isn’t content with just his day job. Best known for playing the psychologist on Bones but also beloved for his role in the seminal canceled dramedy Freaks and Geeks, Daley and his partner Jonathan Goldstein have quietly become two of Hollywood’s most in-demand comic screenwriters. Their first produced movie, Seth Gordon’s black comedy Horrible Bosses, hits screens this weekend (with Daley himself taking a small role), but in the meantime, they’re busy attempting to reboot the Vacation franchise and working on projects for actors including Steve Carell. How did Daley get bitten by the written word? He told Vulture about his path to screenwriting, his surreal meeting with Steven Spielberg, and the significance of his empty fridge.

At what point did it seem like you might go down the path of a writer?
Ever since I was 7 years old, I was writing. I remember being in the basement of my house, this dank, horrible basement, putting on plays with not-very-willing participants, and I would promise kids in the neighborhood that I’d play Nintendo 64 with them after we’d rehearse this stupid play that I wrote. The epic I remember best is this tale that took place in Pompeii during the Vesuvius disaster. You’d laugh, you’d cry …

And then you’d go play Mario Kart?

When you were first going into meetings as a writer, were people surprised to recognize you from television?
A lot of the time. I remember one particular meeting with Stacey Snider at DreamWorks, and all of a sudden, Steven Spielberg walked in just as she was telling us some idea that he’d had. I had met Steven ten years earlier back while I was filming Freaks and Geeks, and he had told my dad to get me a computer with editing equipment and a camera so that I could pursue filmmaking, because it’s something I had expressed to my dad that I had wanted to do. I don’t think Steven remembered that meeting, but he looked at me with that look of, “I know I’ve seen you … ” and I reminded him and he said, “Oh, wow, so you’re writing now? And you’re still acting?” And then he proceeded to pitch us this idea he had, which was a project that we ended up signing on to write. So it was one of the most surreal meetings that I think I’ve ever had.

Did you ever think of playing one of the three leads yourself in Horrible Bosses?
Actually, before they had gotten any of their cast, it was up for debate what the general age of the three guys would be. They were reading everyone, so I actually read for Seth Gordon the role of Nick, who’s now Jason Bateman’s character. That was very strange, to be auditioning with material that I had written. But I’m very glad that they were able to get these incredible players, and it works so much more that they’re older, because I don’t think you would buy that someone so young in their career would already have the impulse to kill his boss. You might not be onboard with that person.

Have people asked you how you could write something like this when you’re someone who’s probably never had to work in an office?
They do. The biggest question is always, “Have you ever had a horrible boss?” But since I’ve never had a boss in the traditional sense, the only answer I can give is, “Yes, the heads of the studio who canceled Freaks and Geeks.”

Do you have an assistant?
No, I don’t, and I’m avoiding having an assistant because then I would become the horrible boss. I can’t justify having an assistant as a 25-year-old, I just can’t do it! I should have one, even for the most basic things — like, I go home and my refrigerator is full of exactly nothing, because I never have time to do anything but work. So it would be helpful, but …

If there are 13-year-old actresses out there with assistants, I think it’s cool for you to have one.
Yeah, but their assistants are usually their parents. [Laughs.]

So many people from the cast of Freaks and Geeks have gone on to write and direct movies. What do you think is the common factor there?
I think Allison Jones and Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, they all were brilliant in finding the potential in these unknowns. I really don’t know how it came to be that they were able to find such a creative group of people without seeing their previous work. Nobody really had previous work! Some of it could be chance, but a lot of it was them being able to detect these hidden gems of talent in their main casts

Many of the main players from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared continue to work with Judd Apatow. Have you discussed collaborating with him?
We talk occasionally, but it’s never really come up, the prospect of working with him again. I’m obviously very open to it, and I’m sure he would be as well, but we’re both so busy working on our own projects. But I can take a little bit of satisfaction that I’ve been able to start this new career with basically no one’s help but my writing partner’s.

What did you think of the big pregnancy twist in the Bones finale?
Well, I knew that it was coming before a lot of people did. Once I found out that Emily [Deschanel] was pregnant, I knew they would somehow incorporate that into her character. It’ll be the first time that we see them in a completely different light, and I’m just speculating, but I’m assuming that they’ll have some sort of relationship this next season. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes their relationship and their chemistry.

There are a lot of fans who were upset that they didn’t get to see any Booth/Brennan consummation. Do you count yourself among them?
Well, if it were an HBO show, things might have been different, but they had to hide Emily’s pregnancy in the last few episodes, and I don’t know how you’d hide that if they were naked in bed. But I actually saw it happen live. I’ve already seen too much. [Laughs.]

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John Francis Daley on His Segue From TV Actor to Horrible Bosses Screenwriter