Interview with “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” Screenwriters John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
By Kyle Anderson on March 14, 2013
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have both been in the TV game for a number of years. Daley began as Sam Weir on the short-lived though mega-influential Freaks and Geeks and is now a series regular on Bones. Goldstein wrote for a number of television sitcoms including The PJs and The New Adventures of Old Christine. When they decided to join forces to become a writing duo, they began gaining a huge amount of acclaim in the world of feature films, penning the 2011 hit Horrible Bosses. Now, John and Jonathan are back with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. We spoke to the comedy-writing powerhouse about their process, what Vegas magicians are like offstage, and about their future trip to Wally World.
NERDIST: How did you meet and when did you decide to start writing together?
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: We both worked on a lesser-known sitcom, The Geena Davis Show, back in the early-2000s; Jonathan was a writer on it and I was an actor on it, I played Geena’s stepson. While we were working together we found that we both shared the same sense of humor and liked all the same comedies, and decided a couple years later to try our hand at writing together. We wrote a pilot together that I was going to act in; that didn’t go anywhere, but it did give us the confidence that we could work well together without tearing each others’ hair out. Some years after that, we had this idea for a movie, which we wrote, called The $40,000 Man, he was the guy they built before they had the money for The Six Million Dollar Man. New Line wound up buying that and it sort of gave us our foot in the door for feature writing.
N: What did you write next? Was it Horrible Bosses or that episode of Bones?
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I think Bosses was first.
JFD: Yeah. Bones was just, because I’m an actor on the show, the creator of the show asked if we’d be interested in writing an episode and we figured it’d be a cool thing to try.
JG: And I’d spent like 10 years writing sitcoms and hadn’t done any drama writing, so it was interesting to do an hour-long, especially in that world of Bones – that sort of criminal procedural stuff was pretty fun.
N: How did you become involved with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?
JFD: In it was, I think, 2008, New Line approached us again–
JG: We both had our magic geek periods as kids where we had magic kits and obsessively watched Doug Henning and David Copperfield specials on TV and all that, and we’d always felt that this world of Vegas magic is so rich and hasn’t really been exploited into a film comedy so we jumped at the chance.
N: Did you go see a whole bunch of Vegas stage magicians as research?
JFD: We saw about a lifetime’s worth of Vegas magic. There was one moment where we were literally racing down the—
JFD: Running down the Vegas Strip to get the next–
JG: Going from a comedy magic show to a big cat magic show at 3 in the afternoon.
JFD: We were drenched in sweat, huffing and puffing, during the first couple acts of the second magic show.
JG: We did; we spent two visits in Vegas and there and here we met with and talked to everyone from Copperfield to Penn Jillette to Criss Angel to Lance Burton and a whole array of magicians. Not so much to ask, “How do you do your tricks?” but more, “What is your life like? How did you get to this place? What was your childhood like?” And we tried to sort of tap into that as much as we could to put into the movie.
JFD: What’s interesting is, some of the guys we talked to would give us genuine, real answers that were different from their stage persona of being these confident cocky guys. Some of these guys are- I wouldn’t say insecure, but they definitely have what a lot of performers have, which is that need for acceptance and to be liked, and it was interesting to see the contrast of their stage persona where everything seems to come really easily to them and they’re very confident and then to see them backstage and get a bit of an idea of what they were like when they were kids. And some of them would be very much their stage persona offstage, sort of keeping the illusion alive. One guy was telling us about one of his tricks that he would do every night being the most dangerous thing and how if he did it wrong he could die. And we have to assume that’s bullshit.
N: Do the characters in the film fall into that latter category, where they’re in their stage personas all the time?
JG: Yes and no. The Jim Carrey character [Steve Gray] is pretty much what you see is what you get, and actually he’s even more devious in person in some ways than his onstage persona.
JFD: When we wrote the character, we kind of imagined a gentle, low-key, calm guy who would never lose his temper, but obviously, Jim embodies the role and took it to a whole other level.
JG: He’s sort of a messianic figure now.
N: He seems to be based on the Criss Angel breed of magician; did you have any particular magicians in mind when creating Burt Wonderstone?
JG: There’s no one guy who was the inspiration for either of them. They’re kind of an amalgam of a lot of different characteristics that these guys seem to have, but also an exaggeration. There is no one quite like Burt Wonderstone and there’s no one quite like Steve Gray. But, we were interested in that change in magic. I don’t know if it’s an evolution or just a temporary sort of stage, that these street magicians are in some ways a threat to the more traditional stage magic and that was the conflict that was at the center of the movie.
JFD: We talked to one magician who, when we asked if they were competitive or had resentment toward each other, said “No, no, I think we all want each other to succeed.” And then when he started talking about specific magicians, he was talking total shit about them and contradicted everything he had said. It was very clear that they are competitive a lot of the time because there are only a few top spots to fill and they all want it.
N: What do you suppose it is about Vegas that draws so many magicians? Is it just the glitziness or is there something else?
JG: Well, there’s not that many places that would build a thousand-seat theater for a magician and fill the seats most nights. It’s a rare environment. Criss Angel has this huge, very dramatic theater; he has, I think, like a $12 million, seven-year contract, so whatever it is, these guys can do very well there. There’s a handful of places where you can make a good living at this if you make it to the top.
JFD: And the world of Vegas in itself is very surreal and heightened and I think that is exactly what magic is. On top of that, there’s a lot of drunk people in Vegas and watching a magic show drunk is a lot more fun.
JG: Other than New York, there aren’t really that many places where you have a constantly rotating crop of tourists. They come to spend some money, see a show, gamble, whatever it is, and so a guy like Copperfield could do three shows a night and it’s always different people.
N: I wanted to ask about your writing process: how do you write as a pair? Do you write everything together, do you split up the script?
JFD: We almost always write in the same room. If we can’t, we do it online with Skype or something, but we’re always looking at the same page when we’re writing together. It’s a way for us to bounce ideas off of each other, see what works, see what doesn’t. And a lot of times with our dialogue, we say out loud to each other conversationally to see if it sounds right.
N: That sounds a lot like the way a TV writers’ room works. Jonathan, coming from a sitcom background, do you find that that works the best for the way you write?
JG: Yeah. The reason I wanted a partner when I switched to feature writing is, unlike television writing, which is pretty quick, we write it and then they produce it, with film it can be years. It’s more like a marathon, so it’s nice to have another person there to go through the process with and bounce stuff off of. It’s kind of like a writers’ room; if it makes both of us laugh, chances are it’ll make other people laugh. If it only makes one of us laugh, then we try to find something we both like.
N: You are co-writing and co-directing the upcoming Vacation movie; what can you tell us about that?
JG: It follows grown-up Rusty Griswold, played by Ed Helms, and he’s decided that what his family needs is a trip to Wally World. Just like he remembers the trip he took as a kid that brought his family close together, he thinks this’ll do the same. He sort of selectively remembered or forgot the good and the bad of that trip and just decided it was the greatest time.
N: Was it a passion project for you both, continuing the original Vacation film?
JG: I mean, I think as comedy writers, everyone puts Vacation on their list of favorite comedy movies. A lot of that had to do with the relatability of the concept, but also how brilliant Chevy was in portraying the everyman dad that I could definitely see resemblances to my dad in Chevy’s character. We hope Rusty is an entirely different character but still carries a lot of the Griswold traits. We’re hoping to have another, sort of, relatable father figure that people can identify with. And also we think that there hasn’t been a really great family road trip movie in a long time and we want this to stand on its own as well.