Growing up in the shadow of Atlanta, Six Flags Over Georgia was a frequent vacation spot, but on this day in early November 2014, it’s no longer Six Flags, it’s Walley World for New Line Cinema’s Vacation. Ed Helms stands with Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins in line for a roller coaster that for my whole life has been “The Ninja” but has been upgraded today to “The Velociraptor.” The Griswolds have arrived.
“Don’t forget to scream your faces off,” Helms reminds his “kids” during a take.
This new iteration of the Griswolds eagerly wait in line for their turn, and when the chain comes up they’re stopped. Ron Livingston of “Office Space” fame puts his hand out, holding the Walley World equivalent of a fast pass, and ushers his perfect, khaki pant-clad family in front of our heroes. They are in essence the anti-Griswolds, perfectly creased shirts and bright suburban smiles. After they walk through, co-writer and co-director John Francis Daley emerges in his cameo as a Walley World employee and puts the chain back up. “Last ride tonight,” he tells the distraught Rusty and company.
“There are a few ways in which Griswold DNA bubbles up in Rusty for sure,” Helms told us earlier, and it shows, as Helms takes the chain off and approaches Livingston for a confrontation. Like his old family vacation, Rusty won’t be satisfied without getting what they came all this way for.
“I think it’s always been a balance of homage, respect for the original,” Daley’s partner in crime Jonathan Goldstein said. “But making it our own and making it something that will work for this generation and those who haven’t seen the original. They’re out there.”
In fact it’s that respect for the original film that almost kept Ed Helms from signing on to appear in this sequel/reboot from the start.
“Before I read the script there was trepidation and preciousness on my part, to the point of saying ‘I don’t even want to read this thing.’ I was then admonished by my agent who was like ‘Be an adult and make an informed decision and read the thing,’ I did, and after page 5, once I realized it was Rusty’s story and not just another Clark story, but that Clark was also in it, I was over the moon. It just felt like all of the fun and really not any of the baggage and the pressure.”
Helms marks the fifth person to play Rusty in one of the “Vacation” movies (and we’re assured there will be a visual gag about the rotating cast of children) but he is the first to explore the character as an adult, he would also tell us that he felt more pressure from taking on that challenge than trying to live up to the high bar of the franchise.
“That’s on me,” Helms said. “He’s good or bad just on my shoulders and not like the weight of this franchise.”
In the film, Rusty is happily married to Christina Applegate’s Debbie and though she wouldn’t reveal too much about her character, she did say that she’s not all she appears to be.
“She married him for stability and kindness and goodness and all the things to save her from a whole other life,” Applegate tells us between takes. “As written she’s kind of a ‘movie mom’ and she’s there, but I’m a modern mom in 2014 so I pulled a lot from all the moms that I’m around all the time in attitude, behavior, outlook on life, and a myriad of other things. So she’s a bit tougher than most movie moms.”
Helms goes on to tell us that they’re a couple with a deep love for each other, but a disconnect is present in their relationship, so when the film begins they find themselves on different pages.
“They’ve been married a long time, probably twenty years or so,” he says. “And like a lot of marriages there are some issues they’re just starting to face as a couple. The last thing I’ll say is Debbie is a little more aware of those issues than Rusty.”
The pair have two children, a departure from the franchise’s past as they’re both boys. Their names? Kevin and James, which when said together will make bystanders turn their head expecting to see Paul Blart himself. There is also a flipped trope at the core of their dynamic where the younger, Steele Stebbins’ Kevin, is the torturing bully of the older sibling, Skyler Gisondo’s James.
“James is a very thoughtful, introverted, bookish, innocent guy, who takes off of Rusty’s characteristics,” John Francis Daley tells us. “Whereas Kevin, the younger brother, is a total bully. And we’ve seen the whole older brother bullying the younger brother dynamic a lot in movies, but we haven’t seen a lot where it’s the younger brother terrorizing the older brother, and that’s kind of what we’re doing in this.”
“And we’ve found the most angelic, sweet little boy who when he spouts these vile things, it’s really terrifying,” Jonathan Goldstein adds.
“He says the F word more naturally than I ever did,” Daley says with a laugh.
Helms says he was partially anxious about working with child actors, citing mixed experiences in the past, but he offered high praise for both Stebbins and Gisondo.
“I thought this movie kind of lives and dies on the believability of us being a family and right away the four of us, Christina and Skyler and Steele and I started having fun and having a blast right away. They’re nailing these characters, they’re their own thing and they’re unique.”
This new Griswold clan is the focus of the new film certainly, but the film will be checking in with the other members along with way, including Leslie Mann as Rusty’s sister Audrey and Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo in the roles they originated thirty-two years ago, Clark and Ellen Griswold.
“I think this movie could have happened without visiting them,” Helms admits. “I just think it would have felt a little more hollow, and having them in the movie really brings fans of the Griswold world, of which I am one, gives us all something to latch onto. Also as a production, it was just a tremendous validation to have them be excited to be on board.”
We were told the pair appear in a few scenes in the middle of the film, a pit stop destination for the new Griswolds as their journey continues.
“They are in a fairly contained scene, a little episode I should say, it’s a few scenes, but I think it’s going to be one of the most impartial and meaningful scenes, especially to fans of the original,” Helms says. “I had no idea what to expect, and they both came in with such positive energy and eager to be playful and open to some improvisation and collaboration, just pitching jokes to each other. Chevy and Beverly have been friends for so long that their dynamic is incredible. They’re like siblings on and off the set, and she just handles him in the funniest ways. It was a dream. For those guys to walk on our set was like the king and queen arriving.”
The task of not only reviving this beloved franchise could be daunting, but also bringing in the most cherished members of it is a monumental task. Goldstein and Daley say to accomplish it they wrote to the voices of both Chase and D’Angelo with an eye toward their strengths as comedians.
“We gave Chevy some physical comedy to do. It was great, because the two of them, they are like a married couple, Chevy and Beverly,” Goldstein says. “It’s fun to just watch them off-camera, their sort of bickering and what they do. It’s very sweet in a way. They’ve been together for so long. So it’s not a big leap for them to get back into those characters. The moment, I’d say, when we have them on the porch, their house, in the movie and they come out of there — their first appearance on screen — it was very exciting for us to sit there, because it’s like, ‘That’s Clark and Ellen Griswold!'”
“The only difference is now we’ve made them British, and they’ve both got big afros,” Daley adds to a chorus of laughter. “Other than that, we’re really preserving the characters.”
The two also told us about their meeting with Chase about his part, who joined them for drinks the night before shooting, telling them he’d made some changes to their script.
“We were like, “Oh, no…”,’ Goldestien admits. “But they were all small, good tweaks that made it more in the Clark voice. It was nice that he was engaged in it in such a way that he wanted to tweak it. It was kinda fun.”
“They’re very protective of the family that they’ve created,” Daley says. “All of their notes made sense and were awesome.”
The visit with Rusty’s parents will also be a showcase for viewers of the new film to see just how different the character is from his father. John Francis Daley admits that Rusty is “even more wholesome” than Clark and that dynamic difference will play out when the pair get together. Furthermore, their scenes will offer viewers a chance to see how Clark and Ellen react to Rusty’s wife.
“They’re very accepting,” Christina Applegate says of the original Griswolds. “I believe that Debbie and Ellen are very close and have had some wine conversation, but she’s a bit intimidated by Clark and is a little afraid of him. Not because he’s mean or anything, but she just doesn’t know where she fits in in that world…The dynamic just set itself up when we got there, it just felt that way, like Ellen and Debbie were really comrades and really loved each other, and then there is Clark who lives in his own planet and we orbit that.”
Like Ed Helms in the role of Rusty, Leslie Mann will mark the fifth person to play Audrey Griswold on the big screen. As Daley and Goldstein point out, Rusty nor Audrey were ever thoroughly defined as characters in the original four movies which they used as a way to create an amalgamation of all four preceding versions as well as a fresh start for their own writing.
“She’s had a rough road,” Goldstein says of Audrey. “She’s in a complicated marriage with Chris Hemsworth. That’s what we liked about both — Rusty’s a bit of a blank slate, too, in the originals. He’s generally dorky, but that’s about all there is. So we were able to let him evolve into an adult and make him into a character that served our purposes. And Audrey the same, sort of. It was kind of an open thing like, ‘Okay, what would she be now?’ I think we have some fun with that character.”
Though he’s dazzled audiences as the god of thunder in the Marvel Studios movies, his turn as Audrey’s husband in the film is new ground for Chris Hemsworth, not traditionally known for comedies.
“We really didn’t know what we were going to get ourselves into, honestly,” Daley admits. “There was a certain amount of trepidation about if he could make us laugh.”
“First thing he requested — we gave him a dialect coach,” Goldstein adds, “Because [his character is from] Texas and he’s Australian. So we were like, ‘Okay, he’s taking it seriously,’ and that was cool, but you still don’t know with a dramatic actor what they’re going to bring. Sometimes you get people who push too hard to try and be funny. He was unbelievable. It was so great, because he just embodied the character. He showed up, he was this big, handsome, Texan guy, and it was so believable.”
“He couldn’t have been funnier, better, in the role,” Daley said. “I really do think he’s going to stand out as one of the more memorable characters in the movie.”
And speaking of memorable characters, Rusty’s confrontation with Ron Livingston will definitely be a highlight of the movie. After being stiff-armed from getting to ride the roller coaster, Helms takes the chain down and approaches Livingston for a showdown, an event in the making since near the beginning of the film. Rusty lays all his cards on the table, that they can’t just cut in front of them, but his rival’s middle-class defiance rears its head as he produces the fast past and reveals they’ve already ridden this ride twelve times that day, that’d be twelve more than the Griswolds. This is a big deal for Rusty’s family, but when he tries to say that Livingston has the most memorable line of the day, “Why don’t you and your family just f**k off.” Did we mention this movie will have a hard R rating?
“It is nice knowing that we’re shooting an R movie,” Helms reveals. “Knowing that we don’t have to worry about it, that we can just feel free to get dark or get weird or gross or whatever. I think that just gave everyone a chance to exhale and be like ‘All right, cool, we can do whatever we want here.’ So I’m thrilled that we wound up as an R movie.”
In fact, the rating for Vacation is what led to it being put on hiatus for a year as the filmmakers and studio couldn’t come to an agreement on the final rating.
“I don’t think we ever really compromised,” Daley admitted. “We also never really thought of it as being one thing or the other. We kind of wrote it deciding what the rating would be later. So when that whole conversation happened, we knew we couldn’t make it a PG-13 or an R and accomplish basically the same thing.”
“Yeah, without fundamentally changing what the script was,” Goldstein adds. “Set pieces went a little further than they had been in the PG-13. Some of them went in a different direction. It liberated us, as the R rating does, in some ways, to go further. But no, I think we both feel like it’s a better movie in this form, probably, than it would have been in the original PG-13. We’re pretty happy with that decision.”
Shocked by Livingston’s F-bomb, Rusty turns and apologizes to his family. There’s a dramatic beat and he shrugs at them before turning around and slugging Livingston. “Rusty!” shouts Applegate, and Steele Stebbins’ Kevin throws out an “All right, Dad!” Livingston on the other hand mutters, “You’re a dead man,” before tackling him into the metal barriers of the ride’s lines, starting a brawl that will be filmed the next day.
“That is a very astute question and I will artfully dodge it,” Helms says when we bring up the fight-to-be they’re filming that day. “What you’re seeing today is a little piece of narrative closure, but what is really Rusty’s arc and the breaking point issues, there’s more to it than this. There’s more going on in the movie than this, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Speaking to the roots of Rusty’s Arc, Jonathan Goldstein says it comes from his learning that the yearly vacation he’s been taking with his family is no longer exciting to them.
“And he’s looking through old photos and he remembers his trip to Walley World, and he goes, ‘You know what, maybe this is something worth pursuing,’” he says. “It’s the Holy Grail.”
“It becomes more of a priority to him to get there though the longer they go on this road and the more difficulties they face, much like with Clark and his trip,” Daley adds. “That said, they never get what they want, the Griswolds. You can rest assured, it’s still a comedy.”
Vacation is set to open in theaters on July 29.