Screenwriter Mark Perez coaxes comedy out of calamity in ‘GAME NIGHT’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Everybody loves a good game night, right? The fun! The friends! The booze! It’s a chance to get together, break the ice, recharge and feel good. But the one at the center of screenwriter Mark Perez’s GAME NIGHT will be a far different, zany experience than any of us have ever participated in. For Max (Jason Bateman), Annie (Rachel McAdams) and their gang of friends, theirs will involve murder, mystery, conspiracy and loads of genuinely hilarious, wacky situations. The game is, as they say, afoot!

At the film’s press day, I spoke with the affable screenwriter (whose recently authored book How To Win At Life…By Cheating At Everything is available now) about everything from breaking the comedy rules, to how his time at “Disney School” helped inform this film, to crafting the right rhythm of the ensuing shenanigans.

Balancing the tones of this film must’ve been a challenge because not only is this a dark comedy, it’s a thriller and madcap caper.

Yeah. I remember  seeing GET OUT and I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I’m so jealous I didn’t write this movie.’ By that I mean, it’s different – it’s something different. Now [GAME NIGHT] is different obviously. In writing it, I go, ‘If we’re going to do this premise of a murder-mystery happening and these people having to believe this is real or fake, it’s gotta be grounded. It’s gotta be scary. To have a score that’s spooky. And to have all those things together.

If I had pitched that in 2003, they would’ve been like, ‘That’s a bit of a feathered fish. Maybe you should stick to…’. But now, I think audiences are getting bored. And I love comedy, but you see the trailer and go, ‘He’s going to fall in love with her and he’s not going to get with the bride, he’s gonna get with the girl who set up the wedding.’ Believe me – I’ve written those scripts, so I know. To write something that’s different and interesting it’s been a blessing. It’s been a really fun experiment for me to try and do both in one.

Having two main characters that are very competitive must’ve also been a challenge to modulate when it comes to their likeability. You’d think their friends would hate them, but you skirt that right out of the gate.

Right. That’s really hard to do. My first job, I was 27, and was not making it as a writer. I was putting away files in a bank in Beverly Hills. I wrote a script called, FIND STEVIE, which is about a thirty-year-old who ran away from home and they put his picture on milk cartons. It’s an absurd script, but Disney goes, ‘We love it! We’re gonna hire you for a year to write only Disney movies.’ It was like going to school to learn about likeability. Disney pounds you over the head with the characters have to be likeable. At the time, I was like, ‘Ugh. I wanna write a dick.’ Looking back on it now, it’s helped me as a writer, because now I can go into a movie like this and it’s always existing inside me. People can make mistakes and be flawed if they’re likeable. Likeable doesn’t need to be this [positive] guy. I can be likeable, but I’m a dick.

It’s the dynamic in everyone. We all have colors.

Right. It make you three-dimensional. I think going to Disney school helped me in writing more mainstream comedies like this one.

Speaking to that, I watched THE COUNTRY BEARS for the first time last night.

Did you?! Oh poor you!

No, no, no. I want to ask, “How did this movie get made?!” – and not in a bad way. That movie was so trippy!

I had a year contract and had like four days left on my contract. They go, ‘You need to write THE COUNTRY BEARS before you leave.’ And I go, ‘What?!’ It was the first [movie based on a] ride. Every other ride since then was a giant hit. I wrote it in four days – this is not hyperbole. I turned it in on a Friday. It got greenlit. And, by the way, it went all over town. I didn’t give a shit – it’s edgy and different…

It is!

Right! But I’m saying the script was even worse. It was crazy.

Oh my god. I wanna read it.

I’m celebrating myself, but it was good. And then they hired another writer and they “Disneyfied it” – made it a little bit more…it takes a turn. I was 29 and remember my wife reading the new draft and her crying, ‘Oh my God. They ruined it!’ Now, I’m like, ‘Is it getting made? Great!’ A lot of little kids like it and it played really young. The music is good. Did you see the duet?

Yes! With Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt! It was incredible.

Yeah. Here’s the other mistake they made. If it was CG, it would’ve been a hit.

…The animatronics had a lot of uncanny valley going on.

It was bananas. But again, I look back on it, and it was my first movie. Disney made me. I was so grateful that I got to be involved in it. That’s so great you saw it. You’re one of the nine people.

Jesse Plemons plays “Gary” in GAME NIGHT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

And I found a connection with it to this movie!

How so?

So, here, Gary is pining over his lost love, and one of the characters in COUNTRY BEARS pines over his lost love.

Right!

Did you even realize this through line?

No. No. By the way, how many movies are about a lost love [laughs]. It’s funny. A friend of mine brought their kid over and, as a joke, I go, ‘Do you want to see COUNTRY BEARS?’ I put it on and it was a bad sign when, about twenty minutes in, she got up and walked out. They built a whole Country Bears Hall! I look back on it fondly even if the movie didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted, I’m still so grateful to Disney for providing my first script to get greenlit.

There’s a great build to the comedic shenanigans here, like the scene with Max in Gary’s office, or the scene outside the pharmacy between Max and Annie. Most comedies quickly scrub through them. But this one sits the appropriate amount of time where it’s funny, then it’s awkward, then it’s so funny again.

Sure. Right. You sit in the moment. That’s the vibe sometimes of comedy – the joke, it gets boring, they gotta stop it, oh their going back into it, it’s funny again. It takes nerve to keep writing pages, to say, ‘Let’s stick with this joke another page.’ I think it made it weirdly interesting and funny.

You also break the comedy rule of threes – specifically with the coffee table. Was there supposed to be a third?

It never breaks. No, I don’t think so.

And also with the dollar bill bribes sliding across the table. It goes four times.

Right, right. [laughs]

But I loved that it went four times! Usually I’m not okay with that.

I love that those things get pushed a little. Again, it adds to the weirdness of the movie – and I mean weird in a good way. That it’s different. It’s not the formula. That’s what we had in mind when writing the script. That was always the goal.

You use all these different pop culture references, harnessing this sorta meta, understandable language of cinema, as shorthand to communicate your message brilliantly in this film.

I think when these things happen for me, like what you spoke about the meta of it all, I think it just happens organically and I can’t really explain why.

How did you filter these inspirations?

I don’t know. That’s the thing about writing. I just write shitty stuff until I drill down to page seven and then I go, ‘Oh this is good.’ I just do it. Or I’ll know instinctually something needs to happen now. I didn’t get that from a book, or from film school. I just learned it from doing it a bahzillion times. When I think when these happy, magical things happen, like what you just said that’s way too smart for me, I’m psyched. Like, ‘Of course I did that!’ It’s just exciting to hear that somebody like you can find something clever in that. It’s a lucky thing to be involved in.

Did anything ever get too mean when the characters play “Celebrity?” Any celebs you felt you couldn’t use.

That’s always the hard part of comedy writing. It’s what my life is where I go, ‘This is funny. I wanna say it. Would this hurt anybody’s feelings?’ That’s the hard part. As I’ve gotten older and more evolved, I want to hurt less people’s feelings. When I was young, I was like, ‘Is it funny? Do it!’ I think to those jokes, there’s a softness there’s a way to do it where we’re disparaging you – where you’re in on the goof. There’s a way to do it where you’re not being an asshole. We always kept that in mind.

Denzel Washington has so many good lines. Was that hard to find the right one for this?

They came up with that on the set. That’s the other great thing about having these guys that are so quick.

Yes! I was just about to ask. And writers within their own right.

Right! All those people are so brilliant and coming up with stuff on their own. Back in the day, on COUNTRY BEARS, somebody would change a line and I’d be all, ‘I’m so offended.’ Now, I’m like, ‘Is it good? Great! My names on this.’ I’m pumped. There’s no ego in it anymore. It’s so collaborative and such a magical thing. You have to be open to everybody taking a swing at batting a thousand.

Did you actually look up how to remove a bullet from a right-wing website?

[laughs] I did not. That’s what’s funny about this because it’s what we’d all do. Especially what you said before, which was really smart of you, which is you let that scene do its thing. You’re not worried about getting out of there because it’s not a part of the story. You let it go on. You want all the realness of it to what a couple would probably do.

When you write an action scene, like the one in the mansion, what does that look like on the page?

It’s really hard in a screenplay to beat out all that action. The directors get there, and I’m not on the set when that’s happening, and they decide, ‘Okay. What’s the math of this all?’ I’ve written musicals where it’s like, ‘Here’s a good place for a song.’ And then you get the people who are doing it to fill in the blanks. You have the idea of what you’re going to do, and the funniness of them all running around are the directors and actors and stunt people trying to do it.

What’s next for you?

I got into writing books. I wrote How To Win At Life By Cheating At Everything and we’re selling it as a TV show. I just wrote a book called Jews of the Caribbean. We moved around all the time and in every city, my dad would be like, ‘We’re the Jews of the Caribbean. We can make it anywhere.’ I’m writing a movie called LOW-T. Mel Gibson is one of the guys in it. The premise is what if all the old action stars became young again – like COCOON. So we’re going to try and get Bruce Willis and CG them when they’re young like in the Eighties and do their own stunts and then it’s gonna wear off and they’re going to get old.

GAME NIGHT opens on February 23.

Header Photo: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, and Kylie Bunbury in GAME NIGHT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

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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.