Night at the Museum: Writing for Ben Stiller and Robin Williams
David Guion and Michael Handelman on what can make screenwriting a "Helpless and terror-filled experience".
By Christopher McKittrick.
It isn’t often that studios want a popular family film franchise to end, so the writers behind Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb were presented with the challenge of wrapping up the Ben Stiller comedy franchise in a meaningful way while making sure to keep the series’ all-ages humor intact.
In Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Larry (Ben Stiller), his son Nicky (Skyler Gisondo) and many of the exhibits from the Museum of Natural History in New York travel to the British Museum in London to discover why the Tablet of Akhmenrah, the ancient artifact that allows the museum to come to life at night, is causing the exhibits to behave erratically. They end up tangling with Lancelot (Dan Stevens), the Arthurian knight who does not realize that he is actually one of the exhibits at the British Museum.
The two previous Night at the Museum films – the 2006 original and the 2009 sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian – have a combined gross of nearly $1 billion worldwide. A third film that would conclude the series was put into production by 20th Century Fox shortly after the second film proved to be a box office success, but it took over four years of script development until shooting began in January 2014. Though several writers were brought in to work on the script, the final screenplay was written by the writing team of David Guion and Michael Handelman.
Guion and Handelman are longtime collaborators who wrote the script for the 2007 comedy The Ex and the 2010 comedy Dinner for Schmucks, which was a remake of the French film Le Dîner de Cons. The two also have done uncredited work on a number of other comedies, which led to them being hired to work on the script for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb for director Shawn Levy, who has directed all of the Night at the Museum films.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Guion and Handelman about jumping on as writers of the third film in this franchise, writing for Ben Stiller, and why screenwriting can be a “helpless and terror-filled experience.”
Since this is a franchise film, what exactly did you start with when you joined this project?
MICHAEL HANDELMAN: When we came on there had been a few drafts that had preceded us. There were elements in place that we knew were going to stay, mainly that we were going to the British Museum, that the tablet was dying and that was the problem they were trying to solve, and that Larry says good-bye at the end to all the creatures at the museum. Those were really the big elements that stayed in place. Other than that almost all the specifics were up for grabs and changed in our draft.
Since a majority of the film takes place at the British Museum in London, did you visit the museum when writing the script or do any research into the exhibits to get ideas?
DAVID GUION: We did research without traveling there. By the time we were brought on there wasn’t time for us to go to London to spend time talking with folks with the target they were shooting for going into production. We had both been there before, and we studied the collection online and we read books about it here in New York. Once we were moving along in the process Shawn was over there quite a bit.
HANDELMAN: There were obviously some liberties taken. We laugh about how the people who work in the British Museum are now going to have tourists coming up to them every day asking where the triceratops or Lancelot is. [Laughs] There were some things, like the Pompeii exhibit, that are not current exhibits but were exhibits they have had.
GUION: Taking those kinds of liberties is an interesting process because you’re working with a real collection that is completely magnificent. It’s a gorgeous museum. But that being said, the audience and the museum itself are totally comfortable with the movie taking liberties with what’s actually there.
When you work on a script, what’s your collaboration process?
GUION: We met at college doing improv comedy together, so we have a very long history of throwing ideas at each other and batting them around. The way we work is that we show up every day at about nine at our office and we sit down and start working. We sort of treat it like a nine-to-five job.
HANDELMAN: There are a lot of writing teams who split up work and have one person writing one scene and the other writing another. Frankly, that sounds a lot more efficient. [Laughs] We sit here with a single computer, take turns typing, and we hash it all out.
GUION: It’s a lot of improvisation that occasionally lapses into more theoretical conversation and lapses into long silence where we just stare. [Laughs]
In the two previous films, Ben Stiller’s character had romantic interests. In this film there isn’t one, but there is more of a focus on Larry’s relationship with his son. What was the reasoning behind the change?
HANDELMAN: When we first came on and we were trying to get a grip on what this story was about, we immediately came to this idea that it was about saying good-bye and specifically Larry having to say good-bye to his actual son at the end, to the creatures who have become sort of his adopted children, and to Teddy, who is sort of like his father. I think that quickly became the focus of the film, and it felt like a romantic relationship would distract from the relationships that we wanted to make central. Initially in the drafts his son didn’t come along on the trip, but it seemed like there was an opportunity to play with this character that we’ve seen grown up who is now getting ready to leave home.
GUION: I think between wanting to make sure Larry’s relationship with his son and his relationship to all these main creatures had enough time, and then to make sure Lancelot’s story had enough time, there didn’t seem to be time for a romance.
Lancelot seems like he was a fun character to write.
GUION: Oh man, he was great, and Dan Stevens did a really fun job and nailed it. Lancelot is one of those fun characters once you get the basic conceit of the character, which is that he is incredibly charming and brave, not too bright, and doesn’t know that he’s not real which makes him an incredibly good-natured but annoying guy. It was one of those things that you we could just write endless scenes with that guy and we had to trim them all back.
One of Lancelot scenes that stood out to me was when he goes to the West End production of Camelot thinking that he’s heading home. How did that scene come about?
GUION: I remember when we first thought of the idea that Lancelot might think that the tablet is the Holy Grail because it is a powerful thing that could give life, where would he go and what would he do? It occurred to us that naturally he might try to go to Camelot and we came up with the conceit that perhaps he would go to a production of Camelot and be faced with the fact there in the theater that it wasn’t real. We were really excited about it, and we wanted to try and do it in a way that wouldn’t feel too intellectual or off-putting meta-theatrical and turn the audience off. [Laughs] For us it was actually wonderful that the story managed to go in that direction.
HANDELMAN: We just loved the idea where he thinks this is some epic life or death quest and he is actually doing something completely stupid.
Were there any characters or aspects of the franchise you wanted to use but you couldn’t work into the script or couldn’t use for whatever reason?
HANDELMAN: There were a limited number of people who we could take along to London. It’s funny, Shawn was saying that kids love the Easter Island Dum-Dum head.
GUION: It was simply too hard to justify bringing him along. [Laughs]
HANDELMAN: The characters that really felt like they were most central to the earlier stories got to come.
You wrote Dinner For Schmucks together, which was a remake of a foreign film and this movie is the third film of a franchise. What are the challenges of working on material that you didn’t originate?
GUION: We do a lot of that kind of thing, and we’ve also done a lot of uncredited script doctoring where we come in for short periods of time and try to fix something. In both cases you are storytelling, but you’re also solving a puzzle. You have to keep certain pieces in certain positions, you have to respect certain conventions of the film that you’re in or the universe that was created in the previous films while at the same time trying to inject something new and fun and telling a fresh story. There is a lot of moving of puzzle pieces and structural and logistical problem solving that comes with that. It’s different from creating your own story from scratch and building your own universe from the ground up.
HANDELMAN: I think the process for Dinner For Schmucks was different in the sense that we were taking something which was an adaptation already. The French film was an adaptation of a stage play, and it felt very much like a play with a single location. We were reimaging the characters and the events that significantly changed the tone.
GUION: Part of our job there was to take a smallish French film based on a play and turn it into a big Hollywood movie, so you sort of have to respect the conventions and not struggle against them too much.
HANDELMAN: Working on a sequel on the other hand, there’s something sort of nice in it which is that you know how these characters talk, you know how they act, you know who’s playing them. You can envision exactly who they are. You’re not creating these characters abstractly and hoping that someone will embody them eventually the way you picture it. You’re writing for preexisting people. It actually makes it a lot easier to create the dialogue and you can think, “Oh, if we put these two together here, what kind of argument would they get into? What kind of funny situation would arise?”
Speaking of knowing what actors would play the roles when writing a sequel, Ben Stiller has a double role in the film as Larry and also a caveman who looks at Larry as a father. Was that something you developed?
HANDELMAN: We came up with that idea. At some point we thought it would be funny if McPhee played a joke on Larry and made an exhibit that was in his image.
GUION: We thought he would make fun of him by making him a caveman, and then we thought, wait, Ben could play the caveman too. [Laughs] It just sort of developed from there, and after Ben liked the idea we thought we should try to use it as much as possible and have it be this weird quasi-adopted son who tries to muscle in on his affections and nudge his real son out. It just became a fun thing to play with.
HANDELMAN: I think Ben had fun playing that role because he so seldom gets to work with a mask in that way and do that kind of really broad, outrageous character. I did see something funny online where somebody had said, “Why isn’t Tom Cruise credited as the caveman?” [Laughs]
The two of you wrote the 2007 film The Ex and something I always wondered about that film is that the theatrical version and the unrated DVD version are very different. Is there a story behind that, and which version is closer to the script you wrote?
HANDELMAN: Well, they’re both very different from the script. [Laughs] That was the first movie that we wrote that was produced and the script that we wrote was very different story than either of those versions that came out. I think what we wrote was meant to be a bit less broad than the film that came out. I think a lot of what you see in either of those films is stuff that was not written by us even though we’re the only credited writers on that.
GUION: That movie was a bit of a cautionary story for screenwriters in terms of that it was a movie that struggled a little bit and didn’t test well initially, and the financers panicked and said, “We better show a lot of people getting hit in the balls.” [Laughs]
HANDELMAN: It was definitely not the tone of the film we wrote or the story we had set out to tell. It was a very, very interesting learning experience. Let’s put it that way.
GUION: It was unfortunate because the director, Jesse Peretz, is great and very talented, but the movie was ultimately taken out of his hands.
HANDELMAN: I think at its worst, screenwriting can be a helpless and terror-filled experience. But I think at its best the fact that you can’t control it can be very fruitful. When you’re collaborating with really good people, the adverse of that happens. You’re getting credit for other people’s great improvisations. In this case if Shawn or Ben were very enthusiastic about an idea that enabled us to roll with it and take different directions that we wouldn’t otherwise have done.
GUION: One thing that I never realized until we started to have movies produced is even if you are the only credited writer on a project, you’re only a partial contributor to what ends up on screen. I’m not even talking about directorial choices. Even lines or much of what you’re implementing are ideas coming from other people. It cuts both ways. Ricky Gervais is great at improvisation, and we get credit for it. [Laughs]