An uproarious comedy with heart that offered an uncensored perspective on adulthood, aging and sexuality
For screenwriter John M. Phillips, the storyline for Dirty Grandpa came after an eye-opening night on the town with his father where he witnessed his dad’s surprisingly stellar skills with the ladies.
“We began talking to some women and my dad was charming, funny and just crushed it, I couldn’t believe it. He made a passing joke that he would get back out there pretty quickly should my mother pass away and I was shocked to see that side of him. That experience mixed with some ideas I held on to from my Upright Citizens Brigade days spawned this story and some of the characters,” he explains.
The resulting script was an uproarious comedy with heart that offered an uncensored perspective on adulthood, aging and sexuality, all within a story that ultimately celebrates our need to break free occasionally and live life to the fullest. The script eventually made its way to the desk of producer Barry Josephson, who immediately recognized the universal appeal of the story and its comedic brilliance.
“I read Dirty Grandpa as a spec script and couldn’t stop laughing,” recalls Josephson. “What struck me was John Phillips’ original comedy voice. This writer is a massive talent. He’s not afraid to really go there, and then allow the characters to recover from going there! But on second read I realized that the story really was about an emotional journey, and that the relationship between Dick and Jason felt unique. I especially related to skipping a generation, where perhaps your grandparent has more influence, and more pure love, than that of a parent.”
In Dirty Grandpa, Jason Kelly [Zac Efron] is one week away from marrying his boss’s uber-controlling daughter, putting him on the fast track for a partnership at the law firm. However, when the straight-laced Jason is tricked into driving his foul-mouthed grandfather, Dick [Robert De Niro], to Daytona for spring break, his pending nuptials are suddenly in jeopardy. Between riotous frat parties, bar fights and an epic night of karaoke, Dick is on a quest to live his life to the fullest and bring Jason along for the ride. Ultimately, on the wildest journey of their lives, “dirty” grandpa and his uptight grandson discover they can learn from one another and form the bond they never had.
As Dick and Jason embark on their seemingly innocent overnight trip to Florida, Jason begins to notice that Grandpa isn’t quite himself. Expecting to accompany a grieving widower for a brief trip of reflection and inter-generational male bonding, Jason discovers a foul-mouthed, scotch-drinking horndog with only one objective: sex, and lots of it. Dick had been a faithful, loving and doting husband to his wife for over forty years, but after losing her, he can only live life forward – Dick’s ready to get busy. This is his moment to live it up and throw it down, but he needs a wingman.
During the writing process, Phillips had only one actor in mind for the role of Dick Kelly: the incomparable Robert De Niro, whom Phillips never in a million years imagined would be willing to take on the provocative role. “It’s crazy because when I wrote the script I was living in New York and always only had Robert De Niro in mind, who has that perfect blend of comedic timing and imperiousness that the character needed. He also had to be slightly terrifying and really smart, and De Niro certainly embodies all of those qualities,” explains Phillips.
For the role of Jason, Dick’s conservative and uptight grandson tricked into serving as co-pilot to Dick’s last effort at youth-grabbing wish fulfillment, the script was sent to actor Zac Efron, whose recent foray into the comedy realm with Neighbors proved to be a huge success. Efron found the script shocking, smart, and hilarious and was all-in, particularly when presented with the possibility of working with the incomparable Robert De Niro.
With the two leads actors in place, it was paramount to find a director who had an innate sense of what goes into making great comedy.
The script ended up in the hands of Dan Mazer, a seasoned creative force who wrote and produced the ground-breaking comedies Borat and Bruno with long-time collaborator Sacha Baron Cohen. Though not typically open to directing material he didn’t write himself, Mazer was blown away by the script and agreed to meet with the producers and writer John M. Phillips. “It’s pretty rare that you get a script that outrageously funny with a great story that comes alive on the page, and we seemed to have a shared vision for the film. When I heard who was attached, I thought it was incredible and was immediately in,” recalls Mazer.
Mazer saw plenty of comedy in the story of Dick, a loose cannon, and Jason, an uptight guy, enduring a series of misadventures, but he was also taken by the road to enlightenment Dick’s grandson Jason takes.
Dan Mazer and John M. Phillips created such a great collaborative environment and encouraged everyone to take swings,” says Pally.
“For me, the script is always the starting point,” explains the director. “What I love and find exciting about making comedies is going in on the day and finding new laughs. Every day it’s been a challenge to get through the takes without laughing. From day one Adam Pally came in and set the tone and made everybody laugh. I think he took it as a personal challenge to make Bob break, and he did.”
Witnessing his outrageous screenplay come to life was a thrill for John M. Phillips, an experience he will not soon forget. “Hopefully audiences will appreciate seeing Robert De Niro and Zac Efron in roles you’ve never seen them play before. The fact that Robert De Niro has said these ridiculously crass things I’ve written has been a great accomplishment for me, one in which I will lord over my friends and enemies for the rest of my life,” jokes Phillips.
For Dan Mazer, the experience of working on a film based on a hilarious script with the caliber of participating talent was a thrill. “Every day I rang home to my wife and told her about the unbelievable things I asked Robert De Niro to do on a daily basis. Entering a dialogue with the greatest actor of my generation about how his character might do offensive things – is a moment that will never leave me.” Adds Mazer, “My life just might have peaked at that point.”
Zac Efron notes that as packed with laughs as it is, the undercurrent of family bonding and self-expression in Dirty Grandpa gives the comedy a richer texture. “At the end of the day, the movie is about family coming back together, and about being set free,” says Efron. “It’s a story of growth and happiness. It’s just that the road there is ridiculously funny and chaotic.”
Guaranteed to be a boundless, wild ride, Dirty Grandpa is sure to not disappoint, either as a raucous laugh-getter or a compelling, inspiring story of two men seeking different types of fulfillment.
Says Mazer, “Audiences can look forward to seeing a film that is more outrageous and extreme than they can possibly imagine given that it stars Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, but underneath all the debauchery is a real heart and real soulfulness that feels hand-in-hand with this kind of edgy humor.
” All road trips lead somewhere. But in this case, it’s a destination of understanding, growth and bonding that points the way forward for both Dick and Jason, who come to realize how much they had to learn from each other. There may not be many dignified moments on their journey, but the ultimate indignity is tolerating a life you don’t want, and that’s where Jason grows the most from hanging out with his one-of-a-kind Dirty Grandpa.