This is a story about a normal family—they go into an abnormal world, but it is a world rooted in reality.
From co-writer/director John Hamburg, the comic force behind beloved comedies including I Love You, Man, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Zoolander and Along Came Polly, Why Him? puts a hilariously fresh spin on the anxiety-inducing tradition of introducing one’s significant other to the family.
Over the holidays, loving but overprotective dad Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) travels to California to visit his daughter at Stanford—where he meets his biggest nightmare: her well-meaning but socially awkward billionaire boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco).Laird is a heavily tattooed, wildly inappropriate Silicon Valley tech magnate whose culture is completely foreign to him. Everything about Laird’s world—his wacky, unfiltered nature, his sprawling “smart home,” his disturbingly paperless existence—conflicts with Ned’s pragmatic meat-and-potatoes perspective. Ned thinks Laird, who has absolutely no filter, is a wildly inappropriate match for the apple of his eye. Ned’s panic level escalates when the straight-laced Midwesterner, who finds himself increasingly out of step in Laird’s glamorous high-tech world, learns that Laird is about to pop the question.
Why Him? was an idea hatched in a basement in Atlanta when producers Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill were in production on the 2012 alien invasion comedy The Watch.
“We were all standing there in the dark on this wet, claustrophobic stage saying how great it would be to do a movie in Hawaii,” recalls Levy. “Shawn and Ben and Jonah came up with this idea called Aloha… We loved the idea and gave it to John Hamburg, who did an amazing rewrite and reconceived the whole idea. He really made it his own.”
Working with co-screenwriter Ian Helfer (The Oranges), director John Hamburg crafted a hilarious, heart-felt script that perfectly captures the challenging transition parents face as they witness their kids creating lives and relationships of their own.
Hamburg and Helfer were excited by the chance to put a fresh spin on the classic story of a concerned father clashing with his daughter’s new boyfriend, but in crafting the script, they also made certain that both Ned and Laird are likeable and well intentioned to insure the audience is laughing with the characters, not at them. “Laird’s character, he’s wealthy, successful, in some ways he has it all, but all he really wants is a family,” Hamburg says. “Ned thinks Laird is trying to show him up, but in truth, Laird is in awe of Ned because of the life he’s built for himself.”
Why Him? is firmly rooted in Ned’s perspective, however, with Cranston’s traditional, small-town father forced to accept that his daughter is an adult capable of making her own decisions. But coming to terms with her love for Laird also means navigating a Silicon Valley culture entirely foreign to his more conventional sensibilities.
Says Cranston: “Ned is a straight-laced, Midwestern guy. He’s an analog man in a digital world and gets completely lost in the conversation. He’s not up on the jargon and isn’t really sure where something’s going or what it means. In my time, I’ve seen the milkman come and go and now records are a novelty.”
Adds Hamburg: “He gets out to Palo Alto, to Silicon Valley, and it’s almost like a Wizard of Oz kind of thing. He hasn’t really been exposed to this world, and it just feels like this surreal nightmare to him.”
While Ned is fighting to keep his small independent printing press alive, Laird is making millions in the digital realm and living in an eco-friendly house that is entrirely free of paper. “While there is very much a war going on between these two men, the conflict also originates in a conflict we see going on all around us between the old and the new, the increasingly obsolete and the emergent,” Levy says.
Finding the right actors to genuinely embody each of the generational perspectives was paramount. Cranston and Franco had precisely the right chemistry. For Cranston, the project offered the opportunity to return to comedy after several years steeped in heavy dramas that included his masterful portrayal of chemistry-teacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White on the hit series Breaking Bad, as well as his recent turn as Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach’s 2015 biopic about the screenwriter, for which he garnered an Academy Award® nomination. “I love doing dramatic roles, but you don’t have as much fun as you do on a comedy,” the actor says. “When the objective of your job is to go to work to find different approaches to making people laugh, that’s a good gig.”
Cranston’s undeniable timing, nuance and personal insight proved to be comedic gold. “Bryan is such a magnificent actor,” Levy says. “The guy doesn’t hit false notes. He is able to play Ned so honestly and you feel this father’s inner freak-out, but it is expressed in ways that are often misguided and as a result really comedic. He’s pitch-perfect in this part.”
With an established reputation in the comedy realm as a result of his extensive work with frequent collaborator Seth Rogen, Franco, who earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his turn as hiker Aron Ralston in 2010’s 127 Hours, was interested in exploring the genre further with a different dynamic under Hamburg’s direction. “When I got into comedy, I was introduced to the importance of grounded characters who provide a real emotional through-line and not just a series of jokes,” Franco says. “John really subscribes to that idea and creates the kind of comedies that I gravitate toward because it doesn’t feel like fluff. You’re actually having something of an experience while you’re laughing.”
Franco and Hamburg’s relationship actually began as professor and student when the actor was attending the graduate filmmaking program at NYU. “Unfortunately, he was my teacher the semester that I was doing 127 Hours, so I wasn’t there a lot,” Franco says. “But we talked a lot and I got to know him on the phone. I liked his movies, I liked his writing and then he told me that he was thinking about Bryan Cranston for the father role. I didn’t know Bryan, but I saw him backstage on the last episode of The Colbert Report, and he said, ‘Hey, I heard you might do this and I might do it. What do you think?’ So we started talking and he’s just the greatest human being ever, so great to work with and such a great guy.”
For Laird, the wealthy tech magnate completely devoid of a filter who prizes free-flowing creativity over any kind of tradition or structure, multi-hyphenate Franco was the ideal choice. He could really embrace Laird’s uninhibited nature, says producer Levine. “James really embodies that character given all the things he does as a painter, author, director, writer and actor—he is able to embrace the artistic sensibility of Laird who’s a real dreamer,” Levine says. “He doesn’t have a filter but he’s all about passion, and James steps into that role so easily.”
Although Laird is unruly and wild, he’s also incredibly winning and likeable, qualities Franco definitely brought to the role. Offers Hamburg: “He manages to get away with stuff that I thought he would never be able to get away with because he’s James Franco and he’s got this smile and this glint in his eye and this playfulness. So he can say some of the most offensive things to this nice Midwestern family, but he’s not doing it to get a rise out of them. It’s just that no one taught this guy how to act. He’s just a guy who has no boundaries.”
“I definitely think that there’s a little bit of James in Laird and there’s a little bit of Laird in James, too,” adds Gluck.
To help develop the character of Laird, Franco Skyped with video game designer Cliff Bleszinski (known as CliffyB) for some real-world inspiration. “He’s sort of like a snowboarder pimp,” Franco says. “That’s sort of like his style. He talked really fast, he throws in a lot of cuss words but is also saying some pretty intelligent things, you know? I thought, oh, there’s something of Laird in there that I can use.”
Underscoring the great divide between the Flemings and Laird even further are the eccentric Silicon Valley characters the family meets while at Laird’s estate. First among them is Gustav, played by Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, Keanu). Sure to be an audience favorite, Gustav acts as a spiritual consigliere of sorts—he’s Laird’s life coach, martial arts trainer, and best friend, and he tirelessly tries to advise Laird on how to behave around Stephanie’s family. “Because of Laird’s dicey upbringing, he doesn’t know how to interact with the world in the best possible way, so Gustav has taken him under his wing and is trying to nurture him into adulthood the best way he can,” Key says.
Key enjoyed the way in which the character’s lengthy list of eccentricities grew as filming progressed. “With each script revision, it’s been interesting to watch things added on to Gustav,” he says. “He knows martial arts but he’s also a chef and speaks six languages or seven or nine. Oh, and it would be funny if he was almost an Olympic swimmer and maybe he served at a Tibetan temple…the world was our oyster in regard to this character.”
Key brought an energy and enthusiasm to the role that went well beyond the initial character description, says Levy. “Keegan brings into every room such a force of positivity and such bold comedic instinct we knew he was going to take a big swing with Gustav,” he says. “For me, Gustav is a descendent of the Hank Azaria character in Along Came Polly and Martin Short in Father of the Bride, a character that is weird and often with an unintelligible accent but warm and with total devotion.”
The production also cast some of the sharpest young comedians working today—including Adam Devine (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), Andrew Rannells (Girls) and Casey Wilson (Gone Girl)—as upstart entrepreneurs Ned encounters at a massive, raucous holiday party Laird throws in honor of the Flemings’ visit. The guest list is a virtual who’s-who of tech world billionaires, people who, for Ned, seem to speak another language entirely. For the filmmakers, those key supporting roles gave them the chance to poke fun at established Silicon Valley stereotypes. “When the supporting cast are comedy aces, you’re in a good spot, and the movie has a plethora of comedic opportunities,” Levy says. “Hamburg’s casting instincts are very deliberate and the strength of the supporting cast adds to the comedic richness.”
Devine plays brash tech mogul Tyson Modell, the 24-year-old creator of the wildly popular Ghostchat app where 30 million people “boo” each other everyday. Modell is the epitome of the enfant terrible image often associated with the young billionaire set. “As far as the billionaire tech stereotypes go, you’re either an egomaniacal sociopath or the kind of chill guy who doesn’t have an office and gets around on a long board,” Devine says. “Tyson is the guy who angrily yells at his driverless car that everyone has to put up with.”
Ned also meets siblings Blaine and Missy Pederman, the creators of an online invitation company called StampFree Invites, the internet business most directly threatening the fortunes of his midsized printing press. “Ned is in the printing business and here we are representing the future, which is paperless,” Rannells says. “We are the digital version of Ned’s small mom-and-pop shop, so Ned looks at us as the end of days,” Wilson adds.
With such a rich landscape of characters, Hamburg set out to create an atmosphere that would unleash the formidable strengths and instincts of his talented cast. Improvisation was not suggested, but rather required—something the actors found thrilling. Franco appreciated Hamburg’s total commitment to keeping the creative space open. “It’s important to feel like someone behind the camera can support you,” he says. “If you’re riffing, you hope the director can build on it and guide you. John leaves a lot of room for improvisation—you start with the script and then roll from there to see what you find.”
“The permissiveness…we were like children,” Cranston adds. “We’d do the scene as written and were not only allowed to but were encouraged to go crazy and add whatever was appropriate to the character.”
Confirms sketch-comedy veteran Key: “I have never been involved in a production where I’ve had a director turn the cameras back around on something already shot to capture the other side of what was improvised. It made my eyes sparkle. From an actor’s point of view, this has been a dream because you get to really feel it out. There will be moments in the film that will have been created completely organically. That is what John was really looking for.”
Hamburg says the best comedy begins with a strong script, but maintaining an environment on set where unexpected ideas can thrive always yields exciting surprises. “Throughout the day, you just discover certain veins of comedy that you didn’t know were going to be there in the morning,” he says. “To me, it’s a free-for-all. It’s a very collaborative, open process where the actors yell things out, I’ll yell out ideas during the take. They’ll jump on it, they’ll pitch ideas back to me. It’s one of my favorite things to find something that didn’t exist in the morning and by two o’clock, it’s almost become a running joke on set. It just makes it, I think, fresh and funny and alive.”
The process resulted in extraordinarily long takes, something rare given the breakneck pressures of film production schedules. While shooting one particularly uncomfortable scenario for Ned—in which Gustav must come to his aid while he sits on a high-tech Japanese toilet that’s malfunctioned—Hamburg let the cameras roll for 46 minutes as Cranston and Key dissolved into laughter over and over again.
“It’s fun to watch an actor of Bryan’s caliber not be able to keep it together time after time,” Hamburg says. “And then Keegan, who’s used to being in these kind of comedies a little more, he couldn’t keep it together. I kept saying, ‘Guys, do you want me to cut?’ And they kept saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ It was mayhem but beautiful to watch two men make each other laugh that hard.”
Adds Key: “Every time we would reset, Bryan would say ‘I got it, I got it,’ and I would move into frame really slowly as close to his face as possible and he would break every single time. He must have apologized 56 times. It was a 46-minute take and there are probably two useable minutes.”
Relishing his return to comedy after so many years in dark, compelling drama, Cranston’s enthusiasm was palpable. Key comments, “This is a triumphant return to comedy for Bryan. He is in the pocket, in his element and he’s been so much fun. Anyone who knows Bryan knows that he relishes and celebrates every moment he’s on set and if they could catch on camera half the stuff he does off-screen…he has left people in tears on set.”
Laughs Franco: “You wouldn’t expect Bryan to be the one to push the envelope, but he’s the one who most often makes the suggestion that’s gone too far, for both the scene and for the actors. I love that the crudest one in the room is often Bryan.”
Adds producer Shawn Levy, the comedic powerhouse behind the blockbuster Night at the Museum franchise: “I think John is as great a filmmaker as we have in terms of grounded, character-driven comedy. Why Him? is funny as hell but very much anchored in authentic, relatable human relationships. I love that we’re getting comedy out of circumstances that sometimes gets extreme but is always tethered back to character and to relatable human experiences.”
But it’s not just the film’s outrageous stunts or wild physical comedy that’s likely to stick with moviegoers. Cranston, for one believes the truly relatable story of a devoted father finding a way to embrace the unconventional tech billionaire his daughter loves that’s at the center of WHY HIM? will resonate with viewers this holiday season. It’s a funny family comedy about acceptance and connection.
“A lot of comedy is derived from the differences between us and is best when born in a sense of reality,” Cranston says. “If an audience leaves a theater and had a lot of laughs, that is a value in itself. If an audience laughed and actually felt something, that’s the rich experience we hope to achieve.”