Game Night directors add suspense to their latest comedy

(From left) Actor Jason Bateman on the set of Game Night, which is directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. With them is a crew member.
(From left) Actor Jason Bateman on the set of Game Night, which is directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. With them is a crew member.

Game Night, about a murder-mystery party that goes awry, let directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein add suspense to a comedy

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are two of the most successful comedy scribes working right now: Their Horrible Bosses films (2011 and 2014) and the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) have cumulatively earned more than US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) at the global box office.

These movies also confounded genre expectations - Horrible Bosses showed that filmgoers had a healthy appetite for some very dark humour, while Spider-Man confirmed the current enthusiasm for funny superhero tales.

The pair chatted exclusively with The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently about their latest offering, the comedy Game Night, which the two directed but did not write.

Opening in Singapore today and starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, this story of a murder-mystery party - which goes awry when the host is kidnapped for real - was a chance for Daley and Goldstein to expand their repertoire once again.

Goldstein, 49, says: "We saw in it the opportunity to do a movie that wasn't just a comedy, but had thriller and suspenseful moments and surprises and twists. It's a relatively rare bird, that mix.

"We always challenge ourselves to be versatile in the movies we choose," adds Daley, 32. "Which is why we did Spider-Man and a kids' movie, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 (2013). We don't really want to be pigeonholed in any one genre."

Game Night has the same action-caper elements as Horrible Bosses, where Bateman and Charlie Day played men who decide to kill the employers they hate.

We saw in it the opportunity to do a movie that wasn't just a comedy, but had thriller and suspenseful moments and surprises and twists. It's a relatively rare bird, that mix.

CO-DIRECTOR JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN on making Game Night

That film was a sleeper hit, but when it was greenlit, experimenting with darker hues of comedy was considered a gamble.

Luckily, New Line - the same studio behind Game Night - "are good when it comes to testing things out", Daley says.

"And this was something we were really expecting pushback on as we were compiling our composer and production designer, because both are not typically known for doing comedy and it really went in line with our intention to straddle these two genres."

Goldstein says a lot of studios would have been "very nervous... seeing some of the stuff we did (in Game Night)", too - "for example, when we introduce Jesse Plemons' character (as Bateman and Adams' creepy neighbour)".

"Those (scenes) move very slowly - there's not much happening, there's no music to take the awkwardness off it. But they got it and saw why it was funny, different and weird."

It has not been all smooth-sailing for the duo, though: Their last joint directorial effort - the 2015 slapstick comedy Vacation, a sequel to the 1983 Chevy Chase hit National Lampoon's Vacation - was one of the biggest critical and commercial flops that year.

Their lesson from this fiasco was that when rebooting a beloved franchise, you are saddled with a lot of expectations.

Daley says: "We learnt that any time you're going to take a film that has a fanbase and is regarded as beloved and a classic, you're going to have a lot of cynical people before they even see it."

Goldstein agrees. "They go in wanting to hate it because you're messing with something beloved."

Yet the pair may be disregarding this caveat with their next project, which will be the biggest of their careers to date: They will direct the 2020 superhero film Flashpoint, adapted from the popular DC Comics' character The Flash, with Ezra Miller in the title role.

Going by Miller's scene-stealing comedic turn as The Flash in last year's ensemble adventure Justice League, the standalone Flash film will feature yet another wisecracking superhero - a trend that began with Marvel's 2008 Iron Man film and continues with recent box-office smashes such as last year's Thor: Ragnarok and the Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise (2014 to 2017), also from Marvel.

The pendulum seems to have swung away from the dark, dramatic tone established in the DC screen universe by The Dark Knight Batman films (2005 to 2012) as well as more recent DC offerings such as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016).

Daley says: "You can definitely undercut the genre itself because there isn't anything wholly original about any of these superhero origin stories - they've existed for decades."

"And for them to work and appeal to a broader audience than fanboys, I think it has to be about character," Goldstein adds.

"You have to approach it like any movie and be a good solid story you can relate to. That's how we approached Spider-Man: Homecoming," Goldstein says, with Daley noting that that movie was "as much a teen dramedy as a superhero film".

The duo - who are both married to writers, Daley to screenwriter Corinne Kingsbury and Goldstein to novelist Adena Halpern - say it is too soon to divulge any details about Flashpoint, but it is likely they will take a similarly light-hearted approach there.

But they also confess a desire to tackle more serious themes, especially in the wake of last year's Wonder Woman movie and the new Black Panther, which both have more of a social conscience than the typical superhero flick.

Daley says: "Now more than ever, pop culture kind of has to react to a lot of the craziness that's going on in the world.

"And so it would only be turning a blind eye if you didn't acknowledge what's happening, without being necessarily preachy or overly specific."

•Game Night opens in Singapore today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Game for twists and thrills'. Print Edition | Subscribe