Sixteen years ago, John Hamburg co-wrote “Meet the Parents.” He loosely revisits the idea of a woman’s new guy meeting his potential future in-laws with “Why Him?” This time, Hamburg reverses the plot: It’s the parents (played by Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally) who visit the new guy (James Franco). Cranston’s Ned is none-too-pleased to discover his daughter (Zoey Deutch) is in love with Franco’s Laird, a nouveau riche Silicon Valley god, who’s heavily tattooed, very randy and something of a sweet idiot.
Hamburg, who also made “Along Came Polly” and “I Love You Man,” talks to us about seizing upon cultural moments, the scarcity of comedy in 2016 and how Franco can go from being serious to goofy.
Both “I Love You Man” and “Why Him?” are comedies that seize upon cultural moments at the time — with “bromances” back in 2009 and this idea of young millionaires creating industries that make traditional ones obsolete.
What interests me is the world around me, what I observe. Sometimes it’s little details, like seeing smart toilets and thinking it would be funny to do a scene about a smart toilet. But also bigger cultural moments. With this, I was thinking about the parent-child dynamic and how that has changed over the last 10, 15 years. And you’d see all these young billionaires, like the kid who founded Snapchat or Shawn Parker. There's those billionaires, and then there’s the people you don’t really hear about but they’re making a hundred million dollars starting some incredible biotech company. All these people who had traditional jobs and came up through corporations felt like they were just becoming a thing of the past.
Do you feel like that yourself, being someone who’s been in Hollywood for the last 15 or so years?
I think the movie is about my fears as well. I look at people making content for YouTube, and I just don’t know that world. I came up in a fairly traditional way, where you write a movie, you try to make it, it’s released, then you write the next one. I toured this big facility, Buzzfeed Movies, where they release content online. I didn’t even know that world existed. I was blown away. That’s what young people are getting into, as opposed to what I did. That’s partly why I felt I could make this movie. I felt like I was in the middle. I’m not Ned’s age, and I’m not Laird. I feel like I can see both sides. And both sides scare the s— out of me. [Laughs]
Comedies are another thing that have become, if not obsolete, then rare.
When I made “I Love You Man,” which wasn’t that long ago, studios were making a lot of these mid-range comedies. I started to see, as I was working on other projects, that fewer and fewer of the types of movies I make were being made. Once in a while one would sneak out, but it was very rare. Viewing habits have changed, as everyone knows. It was pretty great for me and for our cast that we were able to have this huge studio, Fox, support our movie. I think they were like, “OK, guess we’re going to make an original comedy!” [Laughs]
It’s crazy! It helps to get actors like Cranston and Franco and the rest of the supporting cast involved. But our movie was an outlier. If you look at the release schedule, there are very few that aren’t based on pre-existing material. Or if you get a comedy, a lot of the times it’s now an action-comedy, like “Central Intelligence.” That was very funny, but it’s an action-comedy, with an action star and a comedy star combined. I was looking at all these movies released at Christmas; there’s “Rogue One,” there’s “Passengers.” Our movie takes place in a house. [Laughs]
James Franco does so many things: He writes books and paints and adapts difficult Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels into art movies. I was wondering what it’s like to wrangle him over to a comedy.
A lot of my favorite actors to work with can do both drama and comedy. We try to approach these comedies like the characters thinking they’re in a drama. I’ve been lucky to work with actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was in “Along Came Polly.” He hadn’t done much comedy but he just played the character as real and he was brilliantly funny. Franco certainly has both sides. He’s a savant. He likes to sit close to set reading a book, very focused and doing his thing. You’re like, ‘Is he listening? Is he present?’ But that’s just his way, to show up and focus and be quiet and not schmoozing with the other actors all the time. Apparently he’s been like that his entire career. But once you get him in front of the camera, between “action” and “cut” he is just on fire. He knows every line, is brilliant at improv, is able to make adjustments, is very present with the other actors. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.
This is Bryan Cranston’s first big comedy since “Breaking Bad” changed his life. I’m imagining he was really excited to try something lighter.
I think “Why Him?” came at the right time for Bryan. He’s this great character actor who worked on every TV series known to man, then broke through with “Malcolm in the Middle” playing a true goofball. Then obviously he became an icon with Walter White. I think all that darkness for six years, while a defining moment of his life, also took a toll on him. I think he was looking for something lighter, to use all those comedy chops he’d developed on “Malcolm in the Middle” but hadn’t been put to use for a while. He’s another genius. He comes to play, and he’s a consistent source of ideas and suggestions. He’s a very twisted man. No matter what you think, of the more edgy moments in the movie, I’d say a handful were his pitches.