How ‘Vacation Friends’ Director Went From ’90s Math Rock to Breaking Hulu Records

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Clay Tarver’s career in filmmaking can be traced back to the mid-80s when he met his Harvard University roommate and future collaborator, Donal Logue. Eventually, Tarver moved to New York with musical and filmmaking ambitions in tow as he started ’90s math rock band, Chavez, and got a job at MTV. From there, he directed Jimmy the Cab Driver spots for the network, starring Logue in the eponymous role. And when Logue went on to play “Video Photographer #1” in Sharon Stone’s 1996 remake of Diabolique, Tarver’s life was forever changed by an introduction to “Video Photographer #2,” played by Jeffrey “J.J.” Abrams.

[Donal Logue] called me up and was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy, who’s a character with me, we’re the comic relief in it, and he is this amazing screenwriter. He’s totally cool and he loves Jimmy the Cab Driver. So fly out and maybe he can help us and teach you a thing or two,’” Tarver tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But I had no money, so my girlfriend, who worked at a travel agency, got me a cheap flight out to Pittsburgh. So I flew out there to meet him and that guy was J.J. Abrams.”

Tarver and Abrams would later co-write the script that became 2001’s Joy Ride, starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker and Leelee Sobieski.

“I owe everything to [Abrams]. He lived in New York at the time, and he showed me how to write a script over a year, year and a half,” Tarver says. “And at the end of it, he was like, ‘I have this idea for a scary movie. Two guys are in a car with a CB [radio],’ and so on. And he asked me if I’d do it. So that’s the origin story.”

In 2014, Tarver wrote for HBO’s Silicon Valley, and in 2017, he became co-showrunner for the remaining three seasons. He also directed the season four episode “Customer Service,” which seemed to reignite his interest in directing. Shortly thereafter, former 20th Century Studios executive Jeremy Kramer recommended him to direct Vacation Friends, which has now broken the opening weekend viewership record for a Hulu original. It’s even launched a sequel entitled Honeymoon Friends with Tarver set to write and direct.

“Over the summer, I sort of got an idea that [a sequel] might be in the works just because they were so happy with [Vacation Friends],” Tarver shares. “And when it did so well, they just really wanted to tell everyone about it then. So it was a cool double-positive announcement to make, which I was really happy about.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Tarver also discusses the comedy genre and its outlook in terms of theatrical and streaming distribution. He then explains how his time in Chavez prepared him for the job of director.

First off, congratulations on setting Hulu’s opening weekend record and landing a sequel.

Thank you. It’s very cool.

When you first came on board, did you pitch future installments like Honeymoon Friends if all went well?

Absolutely not. It was the last thing I thought would happen. (Laughs.) For some reason, I just didn’t anticipate that being a possibility, so it’s kind of a pretty funny thing that actually looks like it’s happening.

It seems like a premise that could go on forever, if you were so inclined. Timeshare Friends, Cruise Friends, Ski Trip Friends, and so on and so forth.

Retirement Home Friends. Oh my God, the possibilities are endless. I can honestly say that was never the intention, but here we are.

So how did they deliver the news to you?

Over the summer, I sort of got an idea that [a sequel] might be in the works just because they were so happy with [Vacation Friends]. And when it did so well, they just really wanted to tell everyone about it then. So it was a cool double-positive announcement to make, which I was really happy about.

How far along are you on Honeymoon Friends?

I’m just getting going. I’m at the early stages, but I’m making some progress. I’d been thinking about it ever since I first had the inkling. So the last couple of months, I’ve really been starting to play around with stuff, but now is the time to really get to work. Thank you for reminding me.

VACATION FRIENDS

While comedies are doing really well on streaming these days, the number of comedies being released in theaters has gone down in recent years. Their box office returns just aren’t at the level that they used to be, and that was first evident to me in 2019 when Booksmart and Long Shot failed to do great business despite great reviews. Have you noticed this trend as well?

Well, if you were going to shoot me full of sodium pentothal, my favorite movies would be movies like Slap Shot, The Bad News Bears or Breaking Away. I also really love Meet the Parents, Tootsie and Election. These were movies that lived on earth and were about real characters, even if the situations were kind of pushed. I also loved Caddyshack, which I saw when I was a kid. So I just love these sneaky smart comedies and I miss them. But I’ve noticed it, too, that there’s this lack of mid-sized, unpretentious, fun comedies where everyone is invited to come and everyone gets it. There’s downside to not having a theatrical release, but it seems like this is a promising moment for comedies like [Vacation Friends] on streaming. I’ll say that the people on the inside that we played it for just seemed really relieved and happy that this kind of comedy got made and that they got to watch it. As a filmmaker guy, that was palpable; I felt that. I felt some relief to it because it wasn’t super high concept.

When I first met with the studio about making the movie, it was such a simple premise, and I was really attracted to that because it was the kind of premise that could’ve been made in the ’40s. They also made movies with this kind of premise in the ’70s all the time. It’s just one of those evergreen premises. Meet the Parents is kind of like that, too. [Vacation Friends] was such a simple, relatable concept, and it was filled with really fresh faces at the time and really fresh, smart comedy. When I first read the script, there’s this one scene that takes place at a rehearsal dinner, and it’s the big farce scene where all the truth comes out about everything. And I thought, “Man, I just haven’t seen a scene like that in so long and I love scenes like that.” It was sort of like the end of Tootsie, when the truth comes out. Tootsie is a masterpiece so I don’t want to claim that. But I remarked to myself, even out loud, “Wow, they just don’t do scenes like that very often anymore.” So what you’re talking about is what attracted me to the project.

Even performers like Sandler and Ferrell are mostly working at streamers these days despite proven track records at the box office. But removing the pressure of that opening weekend gross is certainly attractive.

Mm-hmm, and this one was always planned to be on Hulu. The project had a history where it was going to be a bigger theatrical thing several years ago, but the fact that it was always going straight to Hulu — and not because of Covid — was really an opportunity for me because it took some of the potential box office pressure off. So it had the room to be what it was supposed to be.

It’s just a bit disconcerting that this current generation doesn’t have theatrical comedies like Animal House, Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About or even The Hangover. I suppose their version of that is Deadpool.

Yeah, but maybe a window will open where fresh-seeming comedies at that mid-level, that are smarter than usual, can be made on streamers for people to flock to.

So what made this the right time to direct your first feature?

Well, for starters, they asked me to. (Laughs.) I’d always wanted to direct a movie, and I’ve gotten really close a couple of times before. I started as a director on little spots for MTV called Jimmy the Cab Driver, which I did with my friends Donal Logue and Jesse Peretz. Donal was my roommate in college [Harvard University], so that was my initiation to doing any of this stuff, and I loved it. Then I volunteered to write the script because MTV wanted to turn it into a movie, so I thought, “Hey, I might as well learn how to do that.” (Laughs.) And somehow, that became the root to a profession, more so than directing. I had all but given up on directing when Jeremy Kramer at 20th Century came to me and said, “I always thought you’d make a good director. Why don’t you give this a stab?” So I said yes.

Where do the dissonant riffs of Chavez fit into your filmmaking origin story?

When I moved to New York to start Chavez, I knew, down the line, that I wanted to maybe do something film-related. So I got a job at MTV because I knew it would take us a year to get our act together, but I didn’t expect much. I just didn’t want to have a day job that was wasting time. I loved playing in Chavez, and I still do on occasion when we’re lucky enough to do it. And weirdly, I still identify as a musician; I don’t know why. I don’t know if I can really get away with that, but I try to in my own brain. It’s just something that’s super important to me. I think being a musician helped me as a writer, for sure. And being on tour, you’re stuck in a van where everything can go wrong, but you still somehow make it to the show. That’s sort of like when you’re on set and everything is going wrong. You just realize, “Oh, we’ll get through it somehow.” And being a musician, I think you just learn basic collaboration. It teaches you to play well with others, or you’re not going to last too long.

You Must Be Stopped” is still a heck of a song.

Oh, thank you. That’s a very, very good one. Matt Sweeney wrote that riff, and at first, it didn’t make any sense to me. But then it became one of my favorites to play. It’s really a fun one. But I play the lead on it. Make sure you put that in print. (Laughs.)

Did any of the guitars in Vacation Friends‘ pawnshop scene belong to you?

No, but I did slide a Chavez song [“Unreal Is Here”] in during the Waffle House scene. And to date, no one’s called me on how unrealistic it would be to have Chavez playing in a Waffle House in Atlanta.

You could say it’s unreal.

(Laughs.) It’s here!

Speaking of Waffle House, shortly after I finished the movie, I noticed that Waffle House was trending on Twitter due to a brawl that took place at an Atlanta location. This led me to a series of similar videos involving their customers and employees over the years.

I did not hear about that. It’s weird because I think of Waffle House as being the happiest place on earth. No respect to Disney. Don’t you feel like the customers might deserve it?

If the last 18 months have proven anything, it’s that the customer isn’t always right.

Waffle House is a beautiful thing.

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Vacation Friends
Jessica Miglio/Hulu

Vacation Friends was shut down in March 2020 like the rest of the industry. Did the pandemic change the movie at all? Did you have to scrap anything or re-write at all?

We didn’t. We shot the first two weeks in Puerto Rico, which were going to be the most taxing two weeks on the production and on me, because it was my first two weeks as a director. The second day, we were on the catamaran, and every day we’d been there for scouts, it rained the entire time. So we were just hoping we could get as much as we could out of the eight days we were shooting there. And then the clouds parted. I also didn’t get thrown off the boat by the cast. So somehow, we got through it all, and we were basically high-fiving at the airport in San Juan, saying, “We did it. We got through the toughest part of this production.” And then we got a call, saying, “Everybody, we’re shutting down. Come back to L.A.” So I was sitting on my couch 20 hours later. When we went back in August, I think we were the first production that I knew of that was coming back, so it was pretty stressful. I guess you could say we were making it up as we went along, but to the credit of our line producer and producer, Tim Bourne, and our AD, Mike Topoozian, they managed to put this plan together and everyone got through it pretty safely. So it’s really a credit to them. But in terms of the content of the movie, we didn’t have to change, really, anything. And to my eyes, at least, it doesn’t seem like a movie made during Covid, so I think we’re all pretty proud of that.

Was it fun to recreate the photo-negative look of the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want” video during the drug trip scene?

No, it was hard, actually. I was very psyched that the Beastie Boys gave me the blessing to do that. I did a little research, and they based it on Wolfen, the horror movie. And all I wanted to do was give it some approach, so I researched. I think I saw every drug trip in a comedy over the last twenty years, and it was either they tried to recreate what a trip would actually be like or they turned it into a puppet show or you see it from the sober world where someone is acting really silly. So I just decided to try this lo-fi effect that was based on that video, and it took a strangely long time to get the lo-fi feel right. (Laughs.) But we did, I think.

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Vacation Friends
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

As far as your couples go, you really struck gold with these combinations. I’d seen Meredith Hagner before, but this was the first time I really saw her. Did you do a great deal of chemistry reads, or did you arrive at these pairings relatively quickly?

Well, [Lil] Rel [Howery] signed on first, and then John [Cena] signed on. I had a hell of a time finding the right Kyla [Meredith Hagner], at least for me. There were a bunch of great actresses who came in, but I finally talked to my friend Graham Wagner, who’s a comedy writer. He’s way more plugged into the comedy world than I am. So I described the character and I was like, “Who do you think that is?” And he was like, “Meredith Hagner. Everybody wants to work with Meredith Hagner. She took this role on Search Party, which was almost nothing, but she made it into this really cool thing.” And I hadn’t seen too much of Search Party. I’d only seen some of it. So I went back and watched her, and that was truly one of those moments where I was like, “Oh my God, she is Kyla.” So we had a chemistry read with her and John, and John felt the same way. And I knew she could do it, for sure. I just knew in my gut that she could, but she blew me away like you wouldn’t believe. And that’s totally true of Yvonne [Orji] as well. Yvonne was just amazing to work with, and she just threw out all of this energy and grace to this character that was probably the straightest of the four. That is actually a really hard thing to do as she was the sensible center. But man, she was just fantastic. And Rel and John were just so much better than I even thought they’d be. They blew me away with how committed they were and how much depth they brought to their characters. They were just so goddamn funny.

When Cena started out in this business, he was sold as a serious action star, but it’s his comedic chops that have really come to define him.

He’s unbelievably good. He has an amazing deadpan, and he’s a very good listener. He played off of Meredith so well; it was just a joy. And he really took direction from me when I had a strong idea. He’s just really gifted.

We touched on your origin story in terms of Chavez and Jimmy the Cab Driver, but how did Joy Ride come to be in 2001?

I signed on to write the script for the Jimmy the Cab Driver movie, which never got made. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what the margins were. I just had no idea what I was doing. But Donal was in this remake of Diabolique starring Sharon Stone, and they were shooting in Pittsburgh. And he called me up and was like, “Oh my God, this guy, who’s a character with me, we’re the comic relief in it, and he is this amazing screenwriter. He’s totally cool and he loves Jimmy the Cab Driver. So fly out and maybe he can help us and teach you a thing or two. It might be worth it.” But I had no money, so my girlfriend, who worked at a travel agency, got me a cheap flight out to Pittsburgh. So I flew out there to meet him and that guy was J.J. Abrams.

Who!?

Yes, you’ve never heard of him. You should really hip The Hollywood Reporter to him. I think he’s going to do some big things. But he’s the world’s nicest human and he was incredibly generous to me. I owe everything to him. He lived in New York at the time, and he showed me how to write a script over a year, year and a half. And at the end of it, he was like, “I have this idea for a scary movie. Two guys are in a car with a CB [radio],” and so on. And he asked me if I’d do it. So that’s the origin story.

Well, you’ve managed to make a name for yourself in two industries that are virtually impossible to break into, so I’d like to bottle whatever water you’ve been drinking.

The water I’m drinking is probably stupidity.

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Vacation Friends is now streaming on Hulu.

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