Walking a Tightrope: John Hamburg on Why Him?
John Hamburg discusses character motivation and infusing back story into the comedy, and reveals a serendipitous behind-the-scenes anecdote.
Meet the Parents screenwriter John Hamburg knows something about finding the funny when it comes to men meeting their girlfriends’ families for the first time.
In Why Him?, directed by Hamburg and co-written by his actor-pal Ian Helfer, straight-laced Midwesterner Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) struggles to find common ground with his daughter’s eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco).
Laird genuinely loves Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), but his low emotional IQ is working against him. To Laird, telling Stephanie’s mom Barb (Megan Mullally) how fuckable she is, is a purely innocent complement. And he doesn’t see how asking Stephanie’s little brother about his favorite curse word (“double-dicking”, incidentally), is a conversation best held discretely. Then again, aside from ever-present life coach Gutsav (Keegan-Michael Key), Laird has never had anyone around to teach him any better.
But there are deeper forces at play. Most importantly, Laird’s high-tech world fundamentally counters Ned’s old-school analog sensibilities. And it doesn’t help that digital technology is nudging Ned’s limping brick-and-mortar printing factory towards extinction. Naturally, Ned is less than enamored with Laird’s smart house, replete with paperless toilets.
And then there’s the pornographic installation art adorning Laird’s complex. When Laird proudly shows off a giant stuffed moose standing in a tank of its own urine, you just know a yellow tsunami is all but inevitable.
Hamburg spoke with Creative Screenwriting about character motivations and infusing back story into the comedy, plus he reveals one hell of a serendipitous behind-the-scenes anecdote.
What motivates Laird’s character?
We spent a lot of time figuring that character out, which is tricky, because he’s walking a tightrope. He has to be inappropriate and say crazy stuff in order to conflict with Bryan Cranston’s character, but he also has to be a guy who Cranston ultimately wants his daughter to marry, so he can’t be too negatively one-sided.
He was inspired by tech moguls who are highly-developed in one area, while other aspects of being human fall by the wayside. Laird never really had any guidance. He didn’t have parents or an older sibling around to tell him, “It’s not cool to act that way,” and this felt like a natural contrast to this close Midwestern family who’s all about family values. And Laird is ultimately driven by his desire for a family and a father.
To wit, Laird says the funny line: “I’m not that close to my mother. To be frank, she’s kind of a motherfucking bitch,” which implied some serious toxic baggage. Was this your intention?
That was intentional, and it does signal something deeper, without hitting you over the head. I like it when you can get a character’s emotions and back story out to an audience while they’re laughing. I mean, who talks about their parents that way? But he’s so genuine about it, that he gets away with it. He’s a wounded bird, in some ways.
There’s a theory that all great cinematic love affairs begin with two characters clashing before they find each other, and I think this holds true for Laird and Ned. Thoughts?
I think you’re right. So many movies I’m involved with are ultimately about two disparate characters coming together, which really interests me, because so much of life is about miscommunication and awkwardness between people. And when you can finally find common ground with someone, it’s surprising and often delightful.
Ned and Laird are opposites, in a classic storytelling way, but Ian and I ultimately felt like they’re both decent, well-meaning men, who both have Stephanie’s best interest at heart. She’s the impetus for Ned and Laird to wake up and say, “Oh my god, what is wrong with us?”
It’s appealing when people who are dug in, finally realize they may not have been thinking in the most constructive way possible.
Tell me about writing the scene where Bryan Cranston is desperately trying to navigate a paperless bathroom experience.
I had known about these self-cleaning Japanese toilets, and I can’t remember what exactly brought them to my attention, but toilets have fascinated me since the beginning of my filmmaking career. For better or for worse, Along Came Polly and a couple of the Meet the Parents movies have toilet stuff in them, because let’s face it: you’re vulnerable when you’re in a bathroom, so it’s fertile territory as a comedy writer.
Poor Ned, stuck on a smart toilet, is so out of place…At one point in the script, his wife Barb entered the bathroom to help him out, but at the table read it wasn’t as funny as it could have been. So the night before filming, we rewrote the scene to have Keegan-Michael Key’s Gustav character enter the bathroom instead, because having a stranger enter this very sacred ground felt really tense and funny. Once that piece of the puzzle fell into place, the whole scene took off.
On the day of filming, when Bryan was sitting on the toilet and Gustav enters the bathroom and is trying to fix the device, Bryan just couldn’t stop laughing. I kept telling Keegan to get closer and closer to Bryan, but what really killed them was when they had to make eye contact—just inches away from each other.
When your art department is constructing a full-sized moose, submerged in a tank of urine, did you have any governance over the color of the water inside the glass?
A hundred percent! But I’ll tell you something I’ve never shared before. The liquid in the case was never meant to be urine. We had an early screening for a few of our friends, and Aline Brosh McKenna, who’s a big screenwriter, was like, “What if the tank was filled with urine?” (Laughs) So we added an ADR line with Franco saying, “It’s a moose in its own piss!”
It was just a happy accident that the water already looked like urine, because we spent a lot of time picking the right color. I wanted an almost sexy yellowish amber that would look cool in the room. It couldn’t be too gold or too yellow.
Hold up. The water just happened to look like urine, fortuitously?
Yeah, if you can believe it. So if you don’t like that it’s urine, blame Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada.
Finally, James Franco was a student in a graduate filmmaking program you were teaching at NYU. Did you ever envision directing your former pupil?
James was in my class. And when I say “in”, as James will acknowledge, he was never there!
I know that in previous years, he really was attentive in film school, but during my class he was filming 127 Hours. So we talked a bunch of times, and I watched his work.
I ultimately gave him what any working director would give James Franco–a wonderful talent who was never in class — I gave him a “B”. I didn’t want to fail him, because he’s so talented, and I knew I might want to work with him some day! And I didn’t give him an “A” because I didn’t want him to think I was sucking up to him.
The only disappointing thing was that I was looking forward to him being in class, because he was really into being a student. But when Danny Boyle calls and asks you to play a one-armed man, how can you turn that down?
Featured image: James Franco as Laird. Photo Credit: Scott Garfield – © TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.