It’s Friday and Murder Mystery has just dropped around the world on Netflix. 190 countries will see James Vanderbilt’s new comedy Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Anniston.
Vanderbilt grew up with a love for movies. His first movie-going experience was watching The Empire Strikes Back. His screenwriting work includes Zodiac, White House Down and The Amazing Spiderman. Listen to Vanderbilt talk about the films that influenced him and you’ll see why he’s able to go from grisly dark Fincher to comic book to his latest comedy/Agatha Christie inspired work.
I caught up with Vanderbilt to talk about the journey to Murder Mystery and how Adam Sandler helped accelerate the film’s production. Vanderbilt also talks about the homage he wanted to pay to the Murder Mystery genre and why he made a film that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.
What were some of your early influences and films that you loved growing up?
My parents were very much into film. We went to the movies all the time. I think the first movie I saw was The Empire Strikes Back. I completely remember going. We got there late and the giant AT-ATs were walking and it scared the living hell out of me. I think my first experience with cinema was utter terror and amazement at the same time. I was totally hooked.
I grew up with these great popcorn movies. I grew up with Aliens and James Cameron films. I saw how you could tell a great story in the middle of an action movie. All you needed was an amazing actress and a fantastic character. Also, the comedies of the 80s – Midnight Run and Beverly Hills Cops. My parents also made sure we had a VCR as soon as they came out. I watched The Godfather. We owned The Right Stuff on VHS. I think I liked all the expected stuff. There was some unexpected stuff. In terms of this movie, one of my favorite movies was Murder By Death. It has been lost to the sands of time. It was a Neil Simon movie that my brother and I watched all the time.
It’s crazy. It’s the most insane cast. Peter Falk, David Niven, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, James Coco and Truman Capote were all in it. They were playing the greatest detectives all coming together to solve this murder and Capote is the villain. It’s this incredibly weird movie and probably now a terribly offensive movie because Sellers plays Charlie Chan in it.
I grew up in that 70s and 80s blender of movies where you could watch them at home and it opened up my whole world.
You wrote Zodiac and we love Fincher at Awards Daily and Zodiac. What made you want to go the comedic route for Murder Mystery?
I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and have always loved mysteries. I loved the idea of this blue-collared American couple crashing into the idea of an Agatha Christie story. That idea tickled me. I loved the genre. I wanted to figure out how to make a movie where you could live inside the genre but also comment on it at the same time.
Scream and Galaxy Quest deconstruct the tropes of the genre and I wanted to do something like that where you deconstruct, but you also get to enjoy the tropes of the thing. I loved that idea. I loved the idea of being able to lovingly make fun of it. I felt that was also a little bit of a trojan horse of being able to make one of these. And these movies are frankly hard to be made now.
You also pay homage to that genre through the locations from Lake Como to the Monaco Grand Prix. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that race outside of the F1 itself.
We were the first movie to ever be allowed to shoot there and to shoot during the race. The race has always been in other movies, but it had to be staged or faked. I think it was in an Iron Man movie. We had Luis Mendez who plays Juan Carlos down in the pits in one of the cars. It was so crazy.
I grew up with the James Bond movies and in the 60s, it felt like they function as both stories and this travelogue where you don’t have to go to Europe because you’re going to see the Bahamas, Paris and the Alps. Again, I feel that doesn’t get done as much anymore. I loved the idea of building a movie where you could see the world through the eyes of these blue-collared Americans.
Was the Ferarri chase inspired by Goldeneye?
[laughs] No, but it came out of some of the characters who had skills in that area. I loved the idea of doing that. What was insane was we got to do it for real in Lake Como. They brought in the guy who does the car chases for Bond Movies. So, that guy was the guy who did our car chase. It was this dream come true. I was on set pinching myself the whole time.
That’s your baby.
It was also real. It wasn’t computers. They do insane stunts, and they did it in camera for real and we got to see it. It was such a pleasure to see that.
You built the perfect cast. How did that all come together?
It started with Adam. The script had been knocking about for a bit, and one of those things happened where you get an incoming call from a movie star as opposed to you trying to get them. He raised his hand after reading it and said he really liked it. The script had been knocking about for a bit, and one of those things happened where you get an incoming call from a movie star as opposed to you trying to get them. He gave it to Jen, and she was in. Suddenly this movie, that wasn’t happening and hard to get done, was suddenly happening overnight. Kyle came in and the first time we met, we realized we shared a brain in terms of how it was made. One of the things he said was, “I want to cast this movie so it feels like Adam and Jennifer walked into the wrong movie.” So, he cast the film as in a who would be in a Murder On The Orient Express? Gemma, Luke and John. You can absolutely see in a Poirot murder mystery type film.
The other cool thing was I met David Wallaims. TERENCE STAMP IS IN THE MOVIE! TERENCE STAMP! So, David who is incredible, said, “I’ve done these. I’ve been in Poirot.” I told him, “I know. I’m a nerd and I’ve seen you.” None of it was stunt casting. We had Danny Boone who is one of France’s most comedic people playing the French guy. The other part that was important was that we wanted to build an international cast.
Growing up, you watch Death On The Nile; you see these actors from different backgrounds and walks of life, and we loved the idea of actually building a cast and bringing them together.
In terms of writing the story, how long did it take to write?
The first draft happened relatively quickly. I had a drinks meeting with one of the producers on the film and Jason Reed who was an executive at Disney. We were talking about how you can’t make movies like these. We love movies like these.
The way my brain works is that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m like we should absolutely try to do that. The first draft didn’t take that long. I fell in love with this idea of the married couple. Writing Nick and Audrey was easy because I’m married, I’ve been married a long time. I very much love my wife. I loved the idea of writing a movie that is romantic. 90% of romantic comedies involve two people meeting for the first time. I feel you never get to really see a couple that have been together for a good amount of time and are better off working together than working apart. That was exciting to me. So, it took a few months.
The process to get it made took many years because it’s not based on a book or a comic book. That becomes tougher to get done, and we had that working against us. The script didn’t change that much, and it’s always been what it is.
I absolutely loved what you did with Nick and Audrey because it’s how they’re still in love and doing this. Romantic comedies are always about as you say, how they meet and fall in love and there’s always some drama. This was so different and I loved that. They’re a team.
I love romantic comedies. Notting Hill was one of my favorite films. In movies, there’s always that initial spark and that’s great. I feel what real commitment and what true love is, is when that’s gone, is how much you care for the other person and how much you need them. That stuff doesn’t always get shown. That was the thing Sandler responded too. He loved that they had been married for fifteen years.
What is it like to know that this will be screened in 190 countries?
It’s mind-blowing. It dropped at midnight and is playing everywhere. I love that. I like writing things to get seen. This is the first film I’ve done for Netflix. I love that people will have access to it.
We didn’t get art films when I was growing up outside of New York. I love the whole idea of access for everybody. I think it’s such a wonderful thing.