Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley: A Magical Friendship


Arriving in theaters today, the Don Scardino-directed comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Steve Carell as the titular magician and Steve Buscemi as Anton Marvelton, his longtime partner with whom he performs a Las Vegas act called “Burt and Anton: A Magical Friendship.”

It’s behind the scenes, however, that screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who began his career playing Sam Weir on “Freaks and Geeks”) formed their own magical friendship and creative partnership. Teaming for 2011’s Horrible Bosses, the pair are now involved in writing that film’s upcoming sequel, this year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and the National Lampoon sequel Vacation, which will also mark their feature film directing debut.

Speaking with at the Las Vegas junket for Burt Wonderstone, the pair discussed how their own original Las Vegas magician story led to them getting the job and how nervous and excited they are to direct Vacation (set to star Ed Helms as an adult Rusty Griswold). Check out the interview below and, if you missed it, read about’s visit to the set by clicking here.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini.

CS: There’s a lot of comedy in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” that comes from the creative partnership of Burt and Anton. Was any of that inspired by your own pairing as artists?
Jonathan Goldstein:
We’ve known each other for…

John Francis Daley: …a lot of years.

Goldstein: About 12 years now. I guess that we were both Burt and Anton as kids. I mean, we didn’t know each other then, but we both kind of shared that love of magic as a way of escaping our own level of geekiness, or so we thought. It seemed like it would be cool to have people look at us.

Daley: What’s funny is that is just makes us more confirmed geeks.

Goldstein: True. The way that Burt and Anton meet and sort of bond over their geekiness is very relatable to us.

CS: Was it over this that you discovered you both had a childhood interest in magic?
When New Line asked us to write this…

Goldstein: …we were already kicking around our own version of a magician comedy.

Daley: Our version of it was also Vegas magician. Someone from a third world country sees a Vegas magician’s magic show and asks him to come help him with a problem that’s happening in his village. So this magician goes over there. It’s kind of in the same theme as “Galaxy Quest.” What happens is that there’s this evil sorcerer.

Goldstein: Terrorizing the village.

Daley: They think the Vegas guy is a real wizard. They don’t realize it’s an act.

Goldstein: It was a lot like “Galaxy Quest.”

Daley: It was totally “Galaxy Quest.” I think that’s part of the reason we didn’t do it.

Goldstein: But we had been kicking it around for about a year when New Line said, “We’ve got this magician comedy. Are you interested?”

CS: Being in Las Vegas and seeing David Copperfield’s show, it’s very evident that quite a bit of research went into some of the jokes. Where did that process begin for you?
We spent a lot of time. A lot. Probably even more than we would have liked.

Daley: A lot of time in Vegas, watching a lot of shows. Some were really, really amazing. Some of them were not. I think we talked to over a dozen magicians here and in LA.

Goldstein: There were a lot. We talked to Penn Jillette and Criss Angel and David Copperfield.

Daley: We went to the Magic Castle in LA quite a bit.

Goldstein: It wasn’t really about, “How do you do your tricks?” It was more about the specifics of how they spend their lives and how they interact with other magicians. What’s life like on the road? We tried to root our movie as much as we could in their real world. You don’t have to heighten too much with this because it’s already so over the top.

Daley: The thing we kept noticing with all these guys is that they all did come from very humble beginnings. I don’t think that any of the people that we talked to were inheriting the family business of magic. It was a way for all of them to escape and become liked.

CS: Some of the best gags in the film come from Jim Carrey’s dedication to making his magic acts unbearably hard to watch. Was that something that was always a part of the humor or did he just run with it?
We wanted to get the same reaction out of the audience that Steve Carell gets out of watching it. For him, having it be called “magic” is ludicrous. It’s really like watching a car crash.

Goldstein: You’re also starting from a place where these are guys doing some pretty disturbing things in real life, between Criss Angel and David Blaine. Criss Angel had hooks in his back and was lifted up by a helicopter. It’s hard to get grosser than that. So we tried to find a mix of funny and little disturbing. Then Jim [Carrey] wanted to be really real. He brought in his Academy Award-winning makeup guy to do that thing. Even sitting next to him in a director’s chair as he prepared for it made you think, “That’s so gross.”

Daley: Even when he’s sewing it up after the fact.

Goldstein: I think that was his choice.

Daley: We saw the thing up close and could not tell that it was prosthetic.

CS: I noticed that you have a cameo in the film.
I do!

Goldstein: I do, too, but it’s a little more fleeting. I’m a stage manager about ten minutes in. One line.

CS: You guys have had a lot of success so far and have quite a few films in the works. What is a dream project for you these days?
Well, a dream project would be to do a good job of directing “Vacation,” which we were hired to do. We’re in the pre-production stage of that at this point. We’re working on that, casting and finding our crew. Because it is our first feature, there is a certain amount of pressure regarding how it turns out. Whether or not people see it is out of our hands.

Goldstein: It was exciting to get to write the new “Vacation” movie. We didn’t write it with the intention of directing it, but New Line asked us if we were interested. We pitched ourselves and were thrilled when they said we were hired. That’s kind of a dream come true. We’ve been directing shorts together. We did a thing for “Funny or Die” with Will Forte about a year and a half ago. Obviously, we’re jumping into a kind of big responsibility. This is such a beloved franchise and we have such respect for the original movie.

Daley: Yeah, we take that responsibility very seriously. It was part of my, probably, top five favorite comedy movies of all time.

CS: And this is definitely a sequel and not a reboot?
It’s a sequel. It’s catching up with the family now and Rusty will be played by Ed Helms. He’s taking his own family on a trip to Walley World because he remembers that trip being so great.

Daley: We feel like remakes are always doomed in a way. We definitely didn’t want to tread the same territory that the first movie tread.

CS: Between “Vacation,” “Horrible Bosses 2” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” what is it like making the move to writing pre-established characters?
In some ways, it’s easier to write for an existing character. We found that writing “Horrible Bosses 2” went really smoothly. We knew the voices of those actors. It’s much easier than creating it fresh from nothing.

Daley: While we were huge fans of the first “Cloudy,” we were a little apprehensive about taking on a sequel because, sometimes, sequels are just so clearly to make more money and just shouldn’t be made. When we heard the world that the studio wanted to set this in, which is with exotic animals, like “Jurassic Park,” we thought it was the perfect continuation of what we had already seen in the first one.

Goldstein: And just so much fun to write. Incredibly liberating because you can do almost anything.

CS: As you make the move towards directing a feature, what’s the biggest change from screenwriting that has surprised you?
It’s funny because, when you’re writing, you don’t give a lot of thought to the practicality of it. You just want to write the funniest scene you can, whatever it is. Then, all of a sudden, you’re faced with the reality. We’ve got a whitewater rafting sequence in “Vacation” and we’re faced with the realities of shooting that. It’s going to involve probably rafting into a location with a sound crew and everything. We’re doing a National Geographic movie all of a sudden.

Daley: Like so many directors, probably, we now resent the writers.

Goldstein: It’s like, what were they thinking?

CS: What have you picked up on from sets like “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” that makes you excited to try out as directors?
The biggest education we’ve had has just been being on set for the movies we’ve made and seeing the directors’ styles. Beyond that, we’ve also been meeting with directors we know. Judd Apatow and Shawn Levy. Ivan Reitman. Just getting as much input from them as we can. What are the tricks? How do you make your days?

Daley: The other thing is that, because I came from an acting background, I have that, which is helpful to me in terms of how to talk to the actors. I think that you don’t ever want them to feel bogged own or a slave to what you want. It’s a real collaboration in a sense. While we have more creative control on this than on anything we’ve ever done as writers, you still have to respect the fact that every member of this team has done this as long as you’ve been writing and way longer than we’ve been directing. You’ve got to respect that.

Goldstein: The key is to not become too precious about your script or your idea. You have to have a firm idea of what you want, but you need to also be open to collaboration.

CS: It was mentioned at the press conference that, when you guys were writing “Burt Wonderstone,” you didn’t know who would end up playing the parts. Does that change now that you have more control and have a much bigger likelihoods of attracting a specific talent?
It’s great. We still don’t know for sure who we’re going to get for “Vacation.” The fact that we got the cast we did for both “Burt” and “Horrible Bosses” was something we couldn’t have asked for.

Goldstein: We’re definitely getting spoiled.

Daley: The fact that we have Ed Helms now is really exciting for both us. We’re huge, huge fans of his.

Goldstein: And he’s exactly who we had in mind for the part.

Daley: He can really be the quintessential everyman dad who’s kind of doofy but who genuinely wants the best for his family. The same way Clark did in the original.

CS: It feels like there’s a sense of camaraderie in Hollywood comedies that’s just about unparalleled in any other genre. Steve Carell is your lead in “Wonderstone” and he’s certainly worked with Helms in the past. Carell and Jim Carrey were talking at the press conference about how much they admired each other’s work.
I think that’s true. It’s a serious love fest.

Goldstein: It feels like they’re really thrilled to work together.

Daley: They revere each other.

Goldstein: They’re very different kinds of actors, but they’re both such great guys.

Daley: It almost choked us up a little, seeing how much respect they had for each other. It was probably the nicest moment I had at this junket seeing their fondness for each other.

CS: You mentioned you met 12 years ago. What was it that made you come together as a screenwriting pair?
I think we just found out that, despite the age difference, we have the same sensibilities. You don’t often find someone who thinks the exact same things are funny. I think that’s the only way a writing partnership can work. You need to be on the same page and really anticipate where you’re both going. One of us will say the joke before the other one. We’re in the same head space and we have been since we met.

Daley: It’s a very brotherly dynamic, too. It was love at first sight.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is in theaters now.

(Photo Credit: FayesVision /