Part 1 - Breaking in and Shrek
We continue our talk with screenwriter Josh Klausner.
I understand that Date Night was a case where director Shawn Levy came up with the premise and then handpicked you to execute it. Did you have a working history with him?
Nope. We’d met a few times, and his company was trying to the script I mentioned before called (Saint) Peter. He loved the script and wanted to find something for us to work on together. There was another project we started throwing around that didn’t end up working out, then Shawn suggested this.
How did Date Night evolve? Did Shawn just have a one or two-line pitch and ask you to run wild in finding the story, or is he one of those directors who sat down and talked you through every major action beat that he’d like to see?
A little bit of both on that one. We discussed the premise, and then I went off and came up with some ideas for it that I pitched to him. We then sat down for a day and brainstormed off of that. I then took our brainstorming and transformed it a bunch as it turned into a script.
What do you find most rewarding about working on assignment like this?
Well, I’ll tell ya, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Shawn Levy in your corner when you’re writing something for Fox. I really like Shawn and the people at 21 Laps, so working with them was a great experience. Also, just how quickly the project all came together was pretty fantastic. I handed in my revision off the first set of studio notes, and 24 hours later we were out to Tina and Steve.
I perceived a definite Hitchcock influence on the film – was that more your or Shawn’s vision there?
I’m obsessed with Hitchcock. If you see my film, The 4th Floor, there’s certainly a homage to Rear Window in it (although what I tried to do is make you realize halfway through the movie that we weren’t seeing the story unfold from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective – WE were the building where the murder was going to take place) What I love most about North by Northwest is how a large, expansive and dangerous adventure starts from a simple and innocent case of mistaken identity – it’s not like our heroes are drug dealers or have any nefarious connections… they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As an audience member, I immediately connect more to the adventure because it really feels like it could happen to me.
What was the first thing you guys really cracked on this script? Was it the structure, the character arcs or the set-pieces?
Definitely the character arcs. We knew the story we wanted to tell was all about this couple and their relationship. How they aren’t out of love – they still love each other very much – but life has gotten in the way. They’ve stopped communicating. And it’s only through the high stakes they get thrown into that all the small things that add up finally come out and they’re honest with each other. And in that honesty, they fall in love all over again. The worst night of their life is the best Date they’ve ever had.
Whose idea was the car chase gag?
That was a great example of collaborating with Shawn. We had reached a point in the story where Shawn really felt the urge for more action. He wanted there to be a car chase with the cops. I objected because a car chase just felt generic to me – what could force our relatable characters into an extended car chase that wouldn’t feel like every other “nervous normal people in a car chase” scene that we’d seen before. I didn’t want to do it unless we could find some way to make it different. It’s then that Shawn recounted how the day he got his driver’s license, he tried parking his car and smashed into the car in front of him and the bumpers got stuck together. I thought it was amazing and the conjoined car chase was born! I then got the idea that Phil and Claire could end up in the different cars during the chase, trying to work together to drive, so it became in many ways about their communication in their relationship (with, of course, a marriage counselor of a taxi driver along for the ride as well) It was really fun to write.
I really like how there was a strong effort at giving the couple a real arc rather than just putting them in these extreme situations and watching them react. It’s something that seems to be less common in today’s films unfortunately. Were you making a conscious effort to bring that back?
You hit it on the head. It’s what I’m proudest about with the film, I think. Unlike so many of these comedies coming out that feel like someone came up with a bunch of funny gags or concepts and situations and then had to think of character arcs to string them together and make them work, I really feel like the comedy comes out of the relationship journey that Phil and Claire go through. In our movie, their relationship was our “concept.”
I rail a lot at bad spec scripts that throw in gratuitous scenes in a strip club, or find really thin reasons to get their female characters mostly naked. Yet I like the way that even though Tina Fey has to get disguised as a stripper, you guys found a way to play that beat so that it really addressed something in their marriage. Did it take some effort to get that in there so seamlessly?
Well, one of the things we wanted to play with (and were also criticized for in many reviews) was what would happen if an everyday couple that we established with real, relatable problems was thrown into a crazy 80’s adventure movie, with car chases and gangsters and strip clubs. How would they react, and how would the journey affect the real issues in their relationship. We thought it was a fun idea to play with. Along those lines, another thing to play with as well is the roles that men and women play in these movies, and switch them up too. It’s Claire who goes to see Holbrooke, making Phil jealous. Claire who breaks into the real estate office. And Phil who in the end has to work the pole to woo the DA. I think when Phil is chosen by the DA and Claire turns with a smile and says the whole, “You’re the father of our children” line back at him, it’s a fun moment where we realize how deeply ingrained these gender roles have become… certainly in movies.
Were there any unique challenges to writing Date Night?
I would just say the juxtaposition of grounding the real and relatable world and relationship of the couple with the heightened and sometimes absurd movie reality of the adventure they get thrown into. And balancing a bunch of tones – feeling their real fear and jeopardy while remaining a comedy, and the finessing level of discord in their relationship so we feel they have serious problems, but not so seriously that we love with each other. It was a fine line to walk the threat to their relationship without ever having it seem like they’d break up.
In later rewrites, when you knew you were writing for two brilliant comedians and improvisers, did you have to watch yourself to make sure you don’t get lazy and figure, “Eh, Steve will have a funnier line on set?”
No. But he inevitably did think up funnier lines, as did she. Those two were amazing, and we were very lucky to get them. It’s hard now to believe the original script wasn’t written with them in mind. They just fell so naturally into the parts.
Is it easier to accept rewrite notes on assignment work like this because the script is less “your baby?” Or do you find yourself getting attached as the script evolves, just as you would with an original spec?
It’s definitely easier. This was always Shawn Levy’s baby, and while I was of course emotionally invested, I felt lucky to be asked to be a creative part of this project. The script that made Shawn want to work with me, (Saint) Peter, is a screenplay that I feel very precious about. And there have been others where the changes have upset me more. I actually think it’s good to have a balance of the two kinds of work as a screenwriter – projects that are your babies and the ones that you care about but don’t get too emotionally involved in. It’s an interesting process a lot of the time with studio notes, because I find I learn a lot and push myself as a writer by stepping outside of my comfort zone and finding ways to satisfy the problems their having without feeling like I’m compromising myself.
It’s interesting that your resume includes an animated comedy, action-comedy, and a slow-burn thriller, three genres that are somewhat different from each other. Is there a particular genre you prefer to write in or do you enjoy changing it up? Would you like to write another horror film?
And I was primarily a dramatic playwright in school. It’s essential to me that I keep doing different things. I try to mix it all up as much as I can – it keeps the stories interesting for me. I like many different genres of films for different reasons, so I don’t want to limit myself on the type of stories I want to tell. I just finished a live action version of Thomas the Tank engine set in England during World War 2, I’m working on a very emotional and sweet movie for Amy Adams and Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps called The 10 Best Days of My Life, and on a kind of action adventure film involving Houdini’s magic legacy for Mark Waters and Walden Media. Then, hopefully, I’m going to take some time to write for myself… something I haven’t had the chance to do in a few years.
Thanks again to Josh for all his time in doing this interview. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcklaus.