“The Real Writing Is In The Outlining” Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky Talk ‘Good Boys’
Known for writing TV hits including The Office, Bad Teacher, and Hello Ladies, screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky have teamed up with their Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg (Superbad, The Interview) produced tween comedy, Good Boys.
The story follows three plucky sixth-graders who ditch school to embark on an epic journey involving accidentally stolen drugs, teenage girls, and a long-awaited kissing party. What could possibly go wrong? The writing team was asked how the idea for Good Boys first came about.
“We had never seen an R-rated movie with children before. There’s a book called Hit Makers [by Derek Thompson], where there’s an expression called MAYA, which is Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, and when you hit MAYA, that’s when you have a hit. When something feels familiar, but tweaked, and not too far out there, we get excited.” It’s the screenwriter equivalent of enlightenment.
“We first come up with a loose concept for a scene and then slowly start expanding it from there and seeing if it has a runway. I think the first thing we talked about was a couple of twelve-year-old boys spying on some sixteen-year-old girls with a drone.” This was the visual that served as the nucleus of the story.
Then the hard work of constructing a story began. “We also thought it was interesting to have sixteen-year-old girls as the antagonist. Then, we try to come up with fifty of anything for the movie—like lines of dialogue, character moves, and story ideas.”
“We’re not judging ourselves at this stage. We’re just trying to see if there’s enough in the concept to sustain a full screenplay. Sometimes you get to page thirty-six and you’re like, ‘Well, I guess this doesn’t really have a full idea, because if you can’t get to fifty, then you’re probably going to struggle to get to one hundred pages,” stated Eisenberg and Stupnitsky.
While coming up with the idea of Good Boys, they insisted on a small obstacle for the small characters which seemed almost insurmountable. “The idea that they were only traveling about four miles was decided on from the very beginning. There were other versions, like one when they were trying to get to a kid’s house whose dad has turned off the adult password on the TV. The ideas were different, but the core idea was the same to illustrate naïve kids.”
For these two screenwriters, there isn’t just one way to skin a comedy. Their writing process varies between projects. Sometimes they come up with a list of a hundred items, but still didn’t have a plot for a film, or eighty items, but are still fuzzy on characters.
“We sometimes avoid talking about main characters too early even if we know the premises they could be in. Sometimes, comedies present themselves in different ways.”
The Necessity Of Outlining
Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky are firm believers of outlining before they start writing their screenplays. “The real writing is in the outlining. The first draft of your screenplay is always the easiest if you have an outline in good shape. Generating the first draft takes a few weeks for us. Once you know the ending, you can start writing the beginning. Some people write without knowing the ending, but we’ve never subscribed to that notion. We’re not discovering our story through writing. We’re discovering it through conversation and outlining.”
“The idea of writing twenty pages to uncover a character is the last thing we would do.” That said, the writers still find occasional surprises during their writing process. The outline is meant to design eighty percent of the story. “A good idea can come at any stage of writing, but the structural blocks of act breaks and the mid-point shouldn’t be surprises.”
Writing teams have different ways of dividing screenwriting duties. After writing a substantial outline together, this duo splits up to write different acts, then comes back together to work out the kinks in the story and build upon the original versions. “If we write ten pages of first draft stuff, we can rewrite it together and that’s the real work. There’s only about fifteen percent that survives if we write individually.”
Good Boys is unique in that it’s a movie about tweens rather than teens. “Tweens are way funnier. They’re going through puberty. Their view of the world is funnier because they know much less. We’ve all seen coming-of-age high school stories about losing your virginity, but we hadn’t seen the R-rated treatment for this age of character before. The comedy engine is different,” explained Eisenberg and Stupnitsky.
In this film, the comedy comes from the earnestness and eagerness of Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon). One comparison, of course, would be Superbad. The finale of Superbad is about the characters yelling at one another to express themselves. In Good Boys, the characters often hug rather than scream at one another.
Across the board, the screenwriters somewhat describe their comedy as “awkward,” with a focus on beta males, cringe jokes, and their love for the British version of The Office, who’s comedic style often made its way onto the page for their scripts for the American version of the show.
The awkward or cringe moments only succeed if they inevitably make the duo laugh as they’re writing. “If it makes us laugh, ninety-nine percent of the time it will make others laugh too. The benefit of having a writing partner is that there is some validation or a stress test moment, so the best of us is seen by others.”
They also filter their comedic process in terms of repetition. “If one of us makes a joke, the other one can say, ‘Well, that’s from Superbad or Talladega Nights,’ then it doesn’t go in. There are definitely jokes that are one of us more than the other, but the majority of the jokes are an alchemy of the two of us.”
Apart from repetition, there are other moments that don’t make the final screenplay edit. One example the writers came up with was a deleted scene where the boys were headed to the mall to buy the drone, but they didn’t have enough money because they didn’t understand sales tax.
In the script, the boys didn’t have another $45 so they did a “semi-sexual” dance in the food court to raise the money. “It took three days to film and choreograph that scene, but when we watched it, it didn’t feel R-rated, and it didn’t inform the audience about the characters, so we took it out.”
A lot of similar comedies are known for ad-libbing, but most of the added jokes for this film were around the F-word and colorful profanities. “Max would occasionally improvise some funny lines that were surprising, but he wasn’t like Steve Carrell in The Office, where he would add something that was pure genius.”
The adult characters of the film include Lil Rey Howery, Retta, Sam Richardson, and Will Forte, among others. “When you had a day with the grown-ups, you could give them a version of an idea and they would simply build it out.”
Writing The Spec Script
The team wrote Good Boys on spec and wanted someone special to present the movie to producers since a kid-driven movie wouldn’t necessarily be led by stars. The producers that made the most sense were Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. “They’re one of the few producers that consistently make successful R-rated comedies.”
With that idea in mind, the screenplay was somewhat of a younger version of Superbad, which was based on the early lives of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. “We went through the screenplay scene by scene with Seth and Evan to deepen the relationships, bring out the comedy, and see a new perspective. We took their ideas we agreed with and that became the evolution of the script as we went into production.”
Officially, the movie is credited as directed by Gene and written by both Gene and Lee, but both actually wrote and directed the film together. “It’s because we know what we want. We don’t want another director coming in and changing it. We wrote it to direct. I think we talked more about visuals for this screenplay because we also wanted to direct it. We talked about songs, score, and the feel more than we usually do.”
Described as an R-rated action-comedy about twelve-year-olds, the movie is somewhat unique in finding its core audience. “We asked ourselves who is this movie for? It’s for adults, but starring children. Will adults turn up to watch kids? Hopefully. We know people like Stranger Things, It, and Stand By Me, so there’s a history of it. I don’t think the age of the characters always defines the audience. It’s a movie about kids for adults.”
Many adult audience members will feel some version of nostalgia while watching the movie. “You’re going into town on your bike without letting your parents know. or skipping school, or going into the forest to have that beer. Whether you’ve had that exact experience or not, you understand that feeling. Or, just being scared of high school girls.”
In addition to those feelings, the deeper theme of the film also focuses on the nature of friendship. “You hold on tight to your friends as a kid because you’re terrified. That carries through high school. At the end of the movie, the kids don’t know what their relationship with each other will be like five years from now. That understanding is very relatable to everyone. Childhood friendships can go in all different directions and we like that the audience knows more about what could happen to the characters than the characters themselves.”
“Thematically, Good Boys is also about letting go, shedding that skin and being okay with that. There’s also a saying from William Wordsworth that is, ‘The child is the father of the man.’ The child version of me has been around much longer than the 40-year-old version of me. Seeing a dead body today versus when you were five would profoundly affect you as a child. It would shape your personality and color your perception of the world today.”
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