From Real-Life To Screen: Writer Brian Burns Talks DADDY’S HOME

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Left to right: Will Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, Mark Wahlberg plays Dusty Mayron and Linda Cardellini plays Sara in Daddy’s Home from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures Photo credit: Patti Peret © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Left to right: Will Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, Mark Wahlberg plays Dusty Mayron and Linda Cardellini plays Sara in Daddy’s Home from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures Photo credit: Patti Peret © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

DADDY’S HOME tells the story of what happens when a deliriously positive, even-keeled radio executive (Will Ferrell) is forced to compete for the affections of his two cute-as-a-button step kids with his wife’s free-loading, bad-boy ex-husband (Mark Wahlberg). Hijinks and hilarity ensues as the two men battle it out. They becoming more immature than the kids whose approval they seek. It’s the hilarious and pretty much true story of what writer Brian Burns went through on his journey towards becoming a step-parent.

We recently spoke with Burns about everything from the experiences with his own step-kids that inspired this film, to what music was playing during a cut scene from the script, to what his inspirations thought of the final product.

FreshFiction.tv: You were very effective at capturing parental anxieties in this movie.

That’s great because it was born out of my angst about becoming a step-dad.

FreshFiction.tv: That said, when exactly did it hit you that your anxieties could appeal to the masses as this comedy?

Good question. My wife and I, when we got married, I had an awful amount of anxiety of becoming a step-father because I was taking the role very seriously. I really wanted to be the best step-dad I could be. The kids were young – I think, like 9 and 6. What I didn’t account for, in addition to jumping into this relationship of being a father to these two kids, I was thrust into an instant relationship with their real dad. That was the beginning of it. He’s a nice guy but we’re such total polar opposites. At first, it threw me for a loop – I was jarred by it. And then I started to find it really, really hilarious.

I was playing around with this idea. There’s something funny with this dynamic. One night, early on, I was tucking my step-daughter Cameron into bed. She asked me, ‘Now that you and mom are married, who’s going to take me to the daddy-daughter dance?’ It was this sweet, heartbreaking moment. Here’s this little girl trying to figure out this new lay of the land. Selfishly, I was also excited. That was bigger than I had expected. Once that happened, the pennies dropped – like, ‘Oh, that could be the framework!’ The lynchpin is the daddy-daughter dance.

FreshFiction.tv: How those moments play in this are just so sweet.

I also loved that Will got that aspect of my personality. Unfortunately, I’m an easy crier. I think Will and I spent enough time around each other that he keyed in on that early on and made it part of Brad’s character. It embarrasses me to no end.

FreshFiction.tv: Sure. But now it’s fodder for the rest of us.

There were other real moments in there. The whole childhood drawings moment – that also comes from my step-daughter. Cameron used to draw these pictures all the time. I was always clocking them to see when I’m making an appearance yet.

FreshFiction.tv:   Were they as drastic as the ones in the film? Like with homeless man’s poop on your head?

No. But they were equally funny and humiliating. Thankfully she never drew homeless man’s poo. My wife called me once and she said, ‘Cameron drew a picture of the family today and you’re in it!’ I was like, ‘Wow! That’s awesome.’ I got home from work and sought out this drawing. Cameron, my wife Kelly and step-son James are these really big figures in the foreground with lots of color and look terrific. I’m this tiny stick figure all the way in the deep background. It was the first time I made it onto the scene.

FreshFiction.tv: Were you on set as well?

Yeah. It was really surreal seeing Will dress like me at times. It was a bit of a trip.

FreshFiction.tv: You have some very helpful self-help techniques mentioned here. Were these tools you had read or heard about?

When we were getting married, I bought a bunch of those books. I read them and they have what you’d expect they’d have. I always thought that would be a really funny character trait for Brad that anytime any kind of situation comes up, Brad immediately runs to the self-help books to see if there’s a similar scenario in there.

FreshFiction.tv: I’m also in total agreement that all conflicts should be solved with dance battles. How familiar were you with that genre?

[laughs] You know, not that familiar. It came from my step-son James. Those were the kinds of movies he was into. I love Griff’s delivery on ELECTRIC BOOGALOO being the rare case that the sequel is better than the original. Hannibal [Buress] did such a good job. That deadpan delivery is such a home run.

eft to right: Mark Wahlberg plays Dusty Mayron and Will Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker in Daddy’s Home from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures Photo credit: Hilary Brown Gayle © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Left to right: Mark Wahlberg plays Dusty Mayron and Will Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker in Daddy’s Home from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures Photo credit: Hilary Brown Gayle © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

FreshFiction.tv: Were the musical cues – from AC/DC and Metallica – in the script or did you have to wait and see?

Not in specifics. In the script, any time you see Dusty’s character, the music is a stark contrast to the soft-rock world of Brad’s just to hammer home the differences between these two guys. There was a version – in the original script – where Dusty takes over the A/V system in the house and it’s constantly playing Guns N’ Roses on a loop. Brad has to scream over ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ while making breakfast for the kids.

FreshFiction.tv: Could there be a MOMMY’S HOME sequel or are we, as a society, beyond seeing two women pitted against each other?

I love that you asked that question. The mom version is a much more interesting take for me. I would love to write that movie. That’s something we’ve never seen anything like at all. I’m a huge fan of Linda Cardellini’s. She had such a challenging role here and was flawless. Her delivery is fantastic.

FreshFiction.tv: This is PG-13. Was there ever a moment where it might have been hard-R?

Great question. Everyone involved felt like in the end it should be PG-13. The target was always to do a four-quadrant movie – something for everyone. Adam McKay, who’s one of the producers, he gave me really great advice when I went off to write the script. Adam’s advice to me was ‘Just go for broke. Just write this as rough and as hard-R as you want to. Don’t feel like you have to, but if you want to, if it feels like playing that way, just do it. We can always scale it back if that’s where we feel like it should be.’ It was great advice. It freed me up to be extreme with these guys in a way that helped me find the characters and find their voices and set up the intensity of their conflict. If I had been trying for PG or PG-13, I wouldn’t have felt so free or aggressive with them.

The whole blended family thing to me that I was most excited about was I’m looking around and divorced families, blended families are perhaps even more common that traditional families these days. Nobody had tackled that subject matter in a comedy like this. It felt like a very fresh idea. I wanted to write it in a way that celebrated the blended family. This isn’t a cautionary tale about divorce. It was recognizing this is where we’re at and this doesn’t have to be a negative. This things that feels negative going in can turn out to be a really strong positive for everyone.

FreshFiction.tv: Is there a magic to blending humor and heart? I think you do it very well here.

Thank you. It took a long time to find that right balance and find that right tone. I always knew because it was my own personal story, getting to the place where it was a feel-good heartwarming movie, I always knew I wanted that. I knew I didn’t want a “family movie” that is all heart and no fun where it feels preachy. I was bouncing back and forth how crazy to go – on the comedy side and the competition between the dads and, within those moments, to keep it grounded and keep it centered on what’s best for the family. It was a trial and error process.

FreshFiction.tv: Has your kids’ biological dad seen the film and do you have that same sense of closure as your cinematic avatars?

I have not watched it with their real dad, but at the premiere I was able to take everyone. Initially I was like…

FreshFiction.tv: …yeah, worried?

Yeah. Feeling anxiety. I hope they know this is all coming from a good place and it’s extreme. [His step kids] are the two who I was most worried to see what their reaction was. As soon as the movie ended, I went to my step-son and step-daughter to see what their take was. They loved it. I didn’t get any sense they were uncomfortable. It was satisfying.

DADDY’S HOME opens on December 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.