The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

'Horrible Bosses': The next R-rated comedy blockbuster?

August 9, 2010 |  4:38 pm

Jaime_foxx I don't know about you, but if I were going to assemble a batch of great comedy films that we could send into outer space to help a faraway alien civilization understand what really makes America so daffy and wonderfully unique, they'd probably be R-rated comedies. Whether older gems like "Animal House" and "Stripes" or more modern-day classics like "There's Something About Mary," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "The Hangover," nothing really captures the brash irreverence of modern-day pop culture like an outrageous R-rated comedy.

It comes as no surprise to discover that many Hollywood studios have grown to love R-rated comedies as well. Nearly always made for relatively modest budgets, an R-rated comedy, if it hits the jackpot, can be a hugely profitable enterprise. "The Hangover" is the current poster child, since it was made for $35 million yet earned $277.3 million in the U.S. alone. "Wedding Crashers," a huge summer hit in 2005, cost $40 million but raked in $209.2 million in domestic grosses. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which barely cost $18 million, ended up making $128.5 million in the U.S.

It's hard for studios to get a better return on their investment, since these comedies cost a fraction of the $150 million and $200 million that studios spend on many of their special-effects laden summer blockbusters. So why don't studios make more R-rated comedies? It turns out that it's not so easy to find the right script, much less assemble a cast of up 'n' coming talent that can be hired at a price that won't push the film's budget into the stratosphere.

Eager to understand the intricacies of how one of these films is put together, I sat down with New Line president Toby Emmerich and his top lieutenant, Richard Brener, as they walked me through the often agonizing process of pushing their new film, "Horrible Bosses," into production. Now shooting here in Los Angeles, the movie already has emerged as one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of next summer.

And why not? It has an irresistible premise: What would happen if a trio of beleaguered co-workers decided to bump off their awful bosses with a scheme that goes comically awry in oh-so-many disastrous ways? The film, directed by Seth Gordon, features Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey and Colin Farrell as the horrible bosses. Aniston is a sex-crazed dentist, Spacey a dictatorial micro-manager and Farrell a profit-squeezing maniac. Their unfortunate employees are played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, with a featured appearance by Jamie Foxx as a hustler who isn't exactly the one-stop shop hit man he advertises himself to be. (Foxx's character goes by a profane nickname that is entirely unprintable in a family newspaper, just one of film's many R-rated touches.)

The bosses are unspeakably nasty, spiteful and mean, which is, somewhat paradoxically, what makes them such delightful comic characters. If our great R-rated comedies have anything in common, it's that they depict behavior that we'd never want to experience in real life -- just think back to the hair gel and zipper gags in "Something About Mary" or virtually any of Sacha Baron Cohen's antics in "Borat" -- yet we take great relish seeing it happen to some hapless victim on screen. At their best, the films cast a comic spell, exorcising our worst fears by allowing us to laugh at them in their most wildly exaggerated form. 

Despite the instantly relatable premise, the project took more than five years to get the green light. What took so long? Keep reading:

Mike Markowitz, a veteran TV writer, wrote "Horrible Bosses" as a spec script, which he sold to New Line in early 2005. "It really came right from my own life," he told me Friday. "I've never written anything quite so fast because the three guys in the film are basically three versions of myself. So I was always thinking, what would I do in this situation?"

According to Markowitz, the script had fans everywhere. "The only people who didn't identify with it, I suspect, are the ones who are actually horrible bosses in real life."

The first director that New Line put on the film was Frank Oz, who had a history of making smart, dark comedies, including the remakes of "Little Shop of Horrors" and "The Stepford Wives." For a time, the studio even pursued the idea of doing the film with Chris Rock and an African American ensemble cast, since New Line had enjoyed considerable success with urban-oriented comedies like the "Friday" and "House Party" franchises. But New Line could never quite figure out the right casting chemistry, so it ultimately abandoned the all African American idea. Oz also left the project. (He went on to direct the 2007 British farce "Death at a Funeral," which was remade earlier this year by director Neil LaBute with a largely African American cast that included Rock.)

Although New Line remained committed to Markowitz's script, it was eager to give the project some fresh momentum. So the studio rented a room at the Four Seasons hotel last summer and brought in a round-table of comedy writers to pitch new ideas. "We basically gave them the script on Friday with a bunch of notes about things to add or fix and had them come in on Monday to pitch ways to improve the movie," explained Brener. "It's a lot like a writers room in the sitcom world."

The writers with the most interesting take turned out to be the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (no relation), who ended up doing a rewrite that helped introduce a number of new wrinkles, including what became Farrell's character, a wildly obnoxious loser who inherits his father's business and makes all of the employees miserable, at least the ones that he doesn't immediately have fired.

With a reworked script in hand, New Line began casting the film earlier this year. As a template, the studio used much of what it had learned making "Valentine's Day," the star-studded ensemble comedy that opened No. 1 at the box office in February.

"We definitely took a chapter out of that playbook," Emmerich said. "Jennifer Aniston was always our first choice for her part, Colin Farrell was looking to do a strong comedy and the minute we'd announced the movie, Jamie Foxx's agent called and said, 'You're coming to him, right? He'd love to do this.' So we knew we had a good chance to get this going, because having that kind of cast involved really helps because of the strong international numbers their movies have."

Emmerich wouldn't divulge the film's budget, but New Line insiders say the film is being made for roughly $35 million. Since the bigger-name stars are only working a limited time each, they all agreed to take reduced salaries. New Line is shooting in Los Angeles, but only because the studio received a tax rebate. "It definitely made a big difference," Emmerich said. "If we hadn't gotten it, we'd be shooting in Michigan or Massachusetts."

To hear the film's producer, Jay Stern, tell it, "Horrible Bosses" is being made in the right place. "New Line has always had a rebellious persona, which started with Bob Shaye and Mike De Luca and has now been inherited by Toby. They just like bold and iconoclastic material."

The film is still a long way from the finish line, but so far, with the dailies looking great, New Line is cautiously optimistic. As Emmerich put it: "I mean, we've all had terrible bosses. So we're hoping that if the story is relatable to us, then it could be relatable to a lot of moviegoers too."  

Photo: Jamie Foxx at the Apollo Theater Spring Benefit Concert earlier this year.  Credit: Jemal Countess / Getty Images