‘Good Boys’ Director Gene Stupnitsky On Comedy’s Box Office Curse And Explaining Sex Toy Jokes To Child Actors

Getty Image

There’s an overwhelming and inescapable sense of malaise surrounding the movie business these days. Theater attendance has been declining for a few years and every new project announcement that drives the news cycle for a few hours — a new Matrix movie, Sony and Marvel fighting over Spider-man — seems like both transparent IP maintenance (ie, trying to make money on existing and recognizable intellectual property) and/or slightly desperate attempts to get the ole band back together. Where we could once be movie fans, more and more it feels like we’re expected to be armchair industry analysts.

The biggest loser in this current studio environment of big brands and long-term plans seems to be comedies. Which makes sense. Comedy relies on spontaneity, and spontaneity is antithetical to the current paradigm. There hasn’t been a comedy in the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year since Ted, in 2012. Industry watchers have taken note. “Whither the big screen comedy,” asked the Washington Post. “The genre can’t seem to escape a big-screen slump,” wrote the LA Times.

All of which makes the success of Universal’s Good Boys, which won its opening weekend this past week with a $21 million domestic gross, beating out Hobbs & Shaw (a movie with 12 and a half times its budget, not even including marketing), that much more impressive. Good Boys is only the third original (non-sequel, not-based-on-an-existing-property) film to top the weekend box office this year (along with Us and The Curse Of La Llorona), and the first comedy.

The movie itself even feels like the throwback to happier times. In the sense that it’s solidly funny in a refreshingly low-stakes, non-niche kind of way. That it stars 11 and 12-year-olds swearing and doing sex jokes is its chief hook, but it doesn’t feel especially gimmicky, just winningly naughty. It’s uniquely non-culture war-y in the current environment — you don’t get the sense that it’s your civic duty to laugh at it because it will make the wingnuts or the libtards super mad, you can just sit back and laugh at Jacob Tremblay from Room describe tampons as something “girls put in their butt to keep babies from coming out.”

Getting a comedy movie made nowadays, let alone having it be successful, comes with an incredibly high degree of difficulty. For Gene Stupnitsky, who directed Good Boys with his long-time writing partner Lee Eisenberg (Stupnitsky says the DGA wouldn’t give them dual credit), it’s not exactly a breakout success. The pair started writing for The Office and later created Hello Ladies with Stephen Merchant for HBO. Their film credits include the much-panned flop Year One, the successful but middlingly-reviewed Bad Teacher, and countless unproduced drafts of Ghostbusters 3, which they’d been hired to write but could never get Bill Murray to actually read.

In that sense, the successful and well-reviewed Good Boys is kind of a culmination, a triumph of hard work and an example of the way clever writing can still, occasionally, defy prevailing trends. I spoke to Stupnitsky this week about how it feels.

So yeah, I can’t think of a higher degree of difficulty for a directing debut than a cast made up entirely of kids. Were you just trying to torture yourself on that one?

I mean, kids, and then just their parents in a room off to the side, watching as you ask them to say a word they’ve never heard before. Yeah, I don’t know. I think next time we’ll just probably work with animals. But there’s also upsides to working with kids, because you can actually give them line readings. You can actually say, “Say it exactly like this.” And then they’ll just do it, and they won’t say, “What’s my motivation?” So that’s cool. You can’t do that with Sean Penn. The biggest obstacle was having shorter shooting days.

I’ve heard other people complain about how hard it is to find child actors who can do comedy. What was the casting process like?

Well, Jacob [Tremblay] we got first, before we even really started the casting process, because, I mean, he was literally the only 11-year-old actor any of us had ever heard of. So we’re like, “Oh, this is going to be easy.” And then nine months later, we found Keith [L. Williams] and Brady [Noon]. We maybe saw a thousand kids over nine months. We birthed them, basically, that’s how long it took.

I mean, there are lots of great actors, but to have that comic timing at that age, it’s really hard to find. We didn’t hire Brad, who plays Thor, until the day of the table read.

Even beyond the casting, the characters in this are at such a specific age, it seems like if it had stayed in development for the normal amount of time movies stay in development, you’d have to recast the entire thing.

Oh, absolutely. I mean, when we sold it, it was with the idea that if they were going to buy it, we were going to make it. That was part of the deal. But yeah, we would have had to constantly be recasting otherwise. In fact, we had a few days of reshoots, which is very common in studio movies. And the kids were already starting to change, their voices were starting to drop a little bit. And that was only five months later when we came back for that.

So in terms of your movies that you’ve written, you had Year One, which was sort of a flop, and then had bad reviews, and then Bad Teacher was pretty successful and it had medium reviews, and then now this one is successful and has good reviews. Does it feel a lot different?

Yeah, I mean, yes, this is by far the best feeling. You feel amazing for a day and a half. And then you’re like, “Okay, well now what are you going to do?” But yes, it… I guess… You don’t feel shitty? So that’s good, that’s important. Also, you get a lot more incoming calls from people, saying, “Hey, you want to look at this? We have this project.” Which is nice. It’s great to have people being like, “Hey, we have a script. Would you like to direct it?” Because the idea of not having to write something, just having something already existing is great. It’s like ordering room service. You’re like yeah, I’ll take this, and it’s just there.

Why do you think it’s so hard for comedies right now, and why do you think that you guys were able to break that trend?

There are just fewer comedies being made, so there’s a lot pressure on each one to be the one that works. I mean, there are comedies that have worked, they just haven’t really gotten the right release. Every major studio film is now a special effects spectacle, and it’s hard to compete against that.

But there’s also a lot of really good comedy on television. I think people are getting their comedy fix there. But as far as our movie working, I have to say part of it is Universal putting it in mid-August, which is just the perfect place for it. And I think people were really hungering for that type of communal laughter experience that you get with — I’m not comparing our movie to Bridesmaids, or The Hangover obviously, but that kind of feeling you get when everyone in the theater is laughing the whole time. I think people still want that the way they want it with horror films.

It seems like most of the other comedies that have come out recently seem like they’re more star vehicles. And this one wasn’t. Do you think that played against trend at all in your favor?

Yeah, I think so. I think I said to Universal, “Gene Stupnitsky is the star of this movie.” No. But I mean, the movie was $16 million. We were a rounding error on Universal’s budget. This was a very low-stakes, low-pressure movie for them, and I think that played into our favor. It was an underdog of a movie. And I mean, the flip side of movie stars is that they bring baggage. This movie didn’t really have baggage. It had its own issues with a lot of pearl-clutching, but it didn’t have the baggage of like, a Mel Gibson movie.

Via wp-image-402094728

Did you have to fight for an R rating at all?

No. I mean, the whole reason to make this movie is that it’s an R-rated movie. That’s what makes this different from Diary of a Wimpy Kid or whatever. You want people to be like, “Oh, my God, that’s offensive.” You want some of that, because if you don’t have it, you’re not really doing your job, I think, comedically.

Did the actors get most of the jokes? Were there jokes in there that you think were going over their heads?

Early on, they would ask us questions. So we gave them virtually no context. We would say, “Say this. Now say that.” And they would ask us, and often times, Lee [Eisenberg] and I would just be like, “Go ask your mom.” So we kept saying that lot, and eventually, they just stopped asking. But I really do feel bad for the parents who had to answer some of those questions. We never even swore on set. It’d be like, “Okay, when you say the F-word here…” So, we really kept it contained. Although there was one time, the scene where Stephen Merchant is trying to buy the doll, they were putting the doll into position, and the sex doll’s dress went up. And the kids saw something, and they’re like, “Why does she have private parts?”

And Lee and I are just standing there completely frozen. And Stephen Merchant, to his credit, said, “This is what doctors use in medical school to practice on.”

And the kids thought about it, and it made sense to them. They’re like, “Yeah, okay.” They bought it.

Okay, so there’s that scene, where the joke is that the Real Doll’s ass cheeks keep jiggling. Was there a prop master for that? Like were they bringing in different butt jiggles, and you’re like, “No, not enough jiggle to that one.”

No, I think we didn’t know the doll was going to land that way. I mean, the point is he was going to notice that it was a doll, but we didn’t know it was going to fall like that. We didn’t know the butt jiggles like that, because we were not very experienced with sex dolls. It was a happy accident.

Did you ever imagine that a movie that you made would get caught up in the Jeffrey Epstein murder conspiracy?

I mean, that was idea. It was always the goal, and the plan worked perfectly.

But you did see that with the Photoshop, right?

I did. Actually, I don’t totally understand what the conspiracy is. What are they saying happened?

Well, I don’t exactly know what they’re saying, but Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyer sent in that picture of her at In-N-Out to the New York Post. And then people started breaking it down and noticing that the backgrounds were different and certain things had been Photoshopped. And one of the things that they Photoshopped in there was the Good Boys poster in the background. And presumably, they did that to make it seem like they took the picture last week, instead of whenever they actually took the picture. And so, I guess, part of that was her lawyer trying to suggest that she was in L.A. when maybe she was in a different place, so that… I don’t know, I guess so that she wouldn’t get served with other papers, or chased by people? After that, it gets murky.

Oh, but what’s the connection between the pedophile aspect of it?

Well, Ghislaine Maxwell was Jeffrey Epstein’s fixer, basically.

Right, but is it a bigger conspiracy between his… whatever, his pedophilia, and the movie being kids playing with sex toys?

Oh no, I don’t think it went that deep. But I never considered that part of it. I don’t think it was the thematic connection. I just thought it was a handy way to make the picture seem current. Although, maybe. She was holding the book about spies, so maybe they were intending a connection of young kids and sex. I don’t know.

Ah. I both didn’t look into it deeply enough and looked into it too deeply at the same time.

So tell me about how you and Lee started writing together and how you decided to split up duties for this one.

Lee started off as a drama writer. And I was selling jokes to stand-ups, and then we combined forces. Back in 2005, we were roommates and we wrote a pilot for Fox and it didn’t get made, but it got us a meeting with Greg Daniels [producer of The Office], and then they got Harold Ramis to hire us to help him with Year One. Greg Daniels hired us on The Office, and then we were off to the races after that. So I mean, those 30 pages, although they were never made, ended up being the most important 30 pages we ever wrote.

So for this one, you’re directing and he’s producing. What was the process of deciding who was going to do what?

Well, we were both directing and we were both producing. It was just that the DGA doesn’t like directing teams, so they made it very difficult for us to both get credit on the movie. So it’s like on The Office, we directed two episodes of The Office, but we were each credited with one.

You had some solid jokes about kids’ names. Did you any specific research for that, or was that just stuff that you’ve seen on the Internet?

I mean, it’s just probably the thing we probably spent the most time on, sadly. It was so much fun. I think we made up “Brixley.” I don’t know if that’s anyone’s actual name, but yeah — Atticus L. We liked the idea that there were more than one Atticus so that one had to go by his middle initial. Soren, Thor… just weird L.A. private school kids names.

It seemed like when The Office was on, people would be like, “Oh, but have you seen the British one?” And then now, a few years later, it seems even more popular than it ever was. It’s the endless font of gifs and memes. Do you feel like history has validated you guys?

B.J. Novak talks about this. He said that when the show came on, the people that normally would like a show like that would just compare it to the British Office. “It’s not the British Office. It’s a disappointment.” And the people who normally wouldn’t like the show, also didn’t like it, because they’re like, “What the hell is this? Where’s the laugh track, or is this a documentary, or what’s going on?”

We got support from really no one at the beginning. But it’s really nice that people like it. I don’t know if it validates it. I mean, I think when it was airing, we won an Emmy the second season. And so, I feel like there was validation, people liked it. But it’s exploded on Netflix, and the viewership is much younger now than it was when it was airing originally. It always feels good to be relevant.

It feels like you’re getting some of that Shawshank Redemption bump, where it’s available enough that people can keep rediscovering it.

Yeah, that’s right, exactly. It’s the Scranton Redemption.

So you guys were in the Ghostbusters 3 development mix for a while. Are you guys out of the Ghostbusters business now? I think they’re making another one.

Oh, we are so far out. I mean, we spent five years on that. We wrote three different scripts. Bill Murray never read any of them. He did not want to make the movie, and I remember Sony literally offered to fly him to his favorite golf course on the Sony jet, just to read the script. He wouldn’t do it. He was just not… no one could get ahold of him, it was a disaster.

So what was it like watching that movie come out, and then become… a front in the culture war, I guess.

My good friend, Katie, wrote it with Paul Feig, who’s also my friend, so I felt protective of them. It really brought out the worst in the Internet. I mean, people were just incredibly disrespectful to Leslie Jones and the actors. Now, in all honesty, I haven’t seen the movie, just because at that time, it was painful after that whole experience. But regardless, I think people were ready to hate it no matter what. And it’s like a lot of really smart and funny people came together to work on that movie. So whatever you think of it, it wasn’t like anyone was trying to ruin anyone’s childhood.

Now that you’ve had a hit as an original comedy, are you still in a lot of talks to do movies based on big properties, or are you free from that somehow now?

I mean, hopefully we’ll have a chance to do something original, but also, it all depends on how you handle a piece of IP. I mean, look at Phil Lord and Chris Miller. They do it brilliantly, they make it original. Their movies are better than most movies that are “original.” So just because something has a history, or is a remake, or is a toy, doesn’t mean it can’t be original, or special, or interesting, or creative, or entertaining, which is the most important thing. It’s just project by project.

So I think probably we’re going to remake A Star Is Born. I think it’s time.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.