Keeping up with the Joneses
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, Greg Mottola, Maribeth Monroe
Director: Greg Mottola
Running Time: 105 minutes
Synopsis: A suburban couple becomes embroiled in an international espionage plot when they discover that their seemingly perfect new neighbors are government spies.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Release Date: October 20th, 2016
About The Production
For the first time in 11 years, Jeff and Karen Gaffney find themselves facing a challenge that all parents eventually face: the empty next. With their kids away for the first time at summer camp, the Gaffneys hope to spend some quality alone-time and reignite the romantic fire that has started to flicker. This proves easier said than done when Karen's imagination is distracted by the sudden arrival of new neighbours on the cul-de-sac: The Joneses, whose stunning looks are only matched by the worldly sophistication of their lives. Tim Jones is an accomplished travel writer whose hobbies include blowing his own glass sculptures, and his wife Natalie is social media consultant, cooking blogger, and heroine to the plight of Sri Lankan orphans. As Karen asks, 'Why would people this attractive and accomplished ever want to live here?"
Despite Karen's initial misgivings, Jeff sees in Tim the coolest best friend he could only dream of having – while Karen, too, is soon seduced in Natalie's glamorous and sexy approach to suburban life. But as soon as the friendship seems to be cemented, The Gaffneys find themselves in the center of a storm of international espionage that will give them a breathtaking glimpse of life 'outside the cul de sac" - and will show both couples what 'being a good neighbour" really means.
The Cul-De-Sac Calls
Screenwriter Michael LeSieur found inspiration from some friends' idyllic lives in a suburban cul-de-sac"a street closed at one end. 'It was similar to the one in Keeping Up With The Joneses, and my friends could not have been happier living there," says Michael LeSieur. 'It was like they had discovered paradise. It's so endearing and funny that people could find that much happiness in something that simple."
Michael LeSieur was also intrigued by husband-and-wife super-spies, such as those depicted in films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith"and by a married duo he envisioned living across the street from such a stealthy couple.
'I kept wondering, what this average husband-and-wife would think about all the craziness going on in the spies' house. There's a whole other movie going on from the neighbors' perspective. I started thinking about that and combining it with some aspects of the lives of my friends living on their beloved cul-de-sac."
Director Greg Mottola, whose previous films include the hit comedy Superbad and the critically-hailed Adventureland, also sparked to that juxtaposition, while noting that Michael LeSieur's screenplay brought to mind Billy Wilder's classic 1960 comedy The Apartment and the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter from David Lean. As Greg Mottola explains, 'Billy Wilder co-wrote The Apartment after seeing Brief Encounter, which depicts a love affair between a married woman and a married man, and whose liaisons take place in a friend's apartment. Billy Wilder saw that movie and wondered about the guy who lends his apartment to people having illicit affairs. I thought that was a fun way to tell a story."
Greg Mottola credits Michael LeSieur's style and approach as another major draw. 'I like Mike's writing a lot. He tends not to create just jokes and one-liners; Michael LeSieur writes real characters and has a dry and sometimes absurd sense of humour. Keeping Up With The Joneses has its own distinctive character. It felt like a comedy/character movie disguised as a high-concept idea, and that's the kind of story I love most."
Even before Greg Mottola came aboard the project, Michael LeSieur had successfully pitched it to producers Laurie Macdonald and Walter F. Parkes, whose many credits include Gladiator, Minority Report and the Men in Black films. 'I think Walter Parker responded to the contrast between the suburban couple, living this boring life, and this fantastic, sophisticated, well-travelled couple that is moving into a neighbourhood to which they don't seem to belong," says the screenwriter. 'The wife is suspicious of the new neighbours, but the husband is thrilled to have these exciting people living nearby. It's a rich premise."
Walter Parkes and Laurie Macdonald add that they also sparked to the idea of a suburban couple who, says Walter Parkes, 'desperately wants to be friends with their neighbors. This connection provides a recognisable and emotional foundation for a high-concept comedy"that the film wasn't just about playing the gag."
While comedy gold is mined from the chasm separating the two couples' lifestyles, demeanor and professions, there is indeed an important commonality between the two pairings: the Gaffneys eventually learn that the picture-perfect Joneses share the same kinds of problems endemic to their union"and to virtually all marriages.
Meet The Gaffneys
Jeff Gaffney is one of those guys, says Zach Galifiankis, who 'puts a positive face on everyone and everything, so it's fun to watch him lose it when faced with real danger. I loved playing a character that starts coming unravelled, thanks to the spies he's becoming friends with."
Jeff Gaffney even puts a positive spin on his mid-management job in human resources, arguably one of the least respected professions in our corporate culture. 'It's clear Jeff Gaffney is good at what he does in what many people would describe as a less-than-desirable position," says Zach Galifiankis. 'But he approaches it like it's the job he was chosen for."
Jeff Gaffney even has a deeply patronizing 'HR face""a representation of him thinking, processing and doing what HR managers do. 'And it works for him!" says Zach Galifiankis. 'He does a great job of getting people to share and open up.
'I created the HR face," he continues, describing it as 'a mix of boredom and intense understanding of the issue that has brought the employee to HR. Jeff Gaffney is trying so hard to listen to whoever is complaining to him and make them believe he cares."
Zach Galifiankis then enacts the HR face, a perfect blend of laser-like concentration and I'm-drifting-off ennui, concluding, 'It's this"how Jeff Gaffney listens to people when he's trying to act intelligent."
Michael LeSieur gave Jeff Gaffney that job because it not only added another comedic and relatable dimension to the character, it had a familial connection to the screenwriter. 'I really admire people who have a job that no one else wants, yet they've found a way to love it and do it to the best of their ability. Then, of course, we juxtapose that with Tim Jones, who works as a spy, which you think people would love, but he has all kinds of issues with it."
Michael LeSieur then relates that his grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project"in Human Resources. 'He literally had no idea they were making an atomic bomb. He just went to work and did his HR stuff. When I asked him about knowing almost nothing about the project that was employing him, my grandfather answered, -we knew only that it was top secret and that we were happy to have a good job, and we didn't ask.' That story always fascinated me."
Greg Mottola holds a little more caustic view of Jeff and his profession. 'The people who have to show up in his office are often in a foul mood." But he loves the job, anyway, right? 'Jeff Gaffney is an eternally optimistic guy, so, yes, he's tried take pride in being in HR. But I think Jeff Gaffney isn't fully aware of how much his life sucks until the Joneses come along and point that out to him."
The mild-mannered and well-meaning Jeff Gaffney is a different kind of character for Zach Galifianakis, who, says Laurie Macdonald, 'tends to be a very extreme comic presence in his movies. We thought, wouldn't it be great to give Zach Galifianakis the opportunity to be the real comic lead?"
The actor, Laurie Macdonald continues, took full advantage of the opportunity. 'Zach Galifianakis approached the film and the role very much as an actor. This isn't a comedian who's acting; this is an actor who's bringing tremendous comic gifts to a role. He's the emotional heart and soul of the film."
Jeff Gaffney's troubles really begin at home, with his wife Karen. He certainly loves his family and wants to re-charge his marriage. But, says Greg Mottola, 'Things have to get a little worse for the Gaffneys before they can improve." One of the things getting in the couple's way is Karen's obsession with the Joneses; she's convinced there's something …off…about them. Why would people who look, act and dress like they do move to their neighbourhood, she wonders. 'It's a way for Karen to avoid looking at herself or the marriage, or consider what she and Jeff could be doing to make things better now that the kids are away," Greg Mottola adds.
It turns out that Karen is right…about the Joneses. Ultimately, she and Jeff become a happier and more fulfilled couple, thanks to their misadventures with the covert duo. Isla Fisher explains: 'The Gaffneys need to get in touch with one another, romantically and emotionally. They eventually get there, but in the craziest kind of ways." The actress further notes that she embraced the story's premise because 'there's so much comedy inherent in a suburban couple with their noses pressed to the glass, envying their neighbours' glamorous lives."
Once Karen is done snooping on her neighbours, she learns she actually has an unexpected affinity for espionage. 'Karen is a designer but until she met the Joneses, she hadn't really figured out her true calling," says Michael LeSieur. 'She's been searching for it and then discovers she's pretty skilful at this espionage stuff. In another life, Karen might have been a good secret agent."
Keeping Up With…
When Tim and Natalie Jones move to the cul-de-sac, the neighbours, including Jeff and Karen, understandably view the newbies as exotic outsiders. But we soon learn that even well-travelled, well-heeled and well-versed (in everything!) people like the Joneses have problems of their own. 'No matter how perfect people look on the outside, everyone has their issues," notes Greg Mottola.
On the surface, Tim Jones embodies everything the movies have taught us about spies. He's handsome, suave, and a master of weaponry and the martial arts. But it was the way the character defies expectations that really drew Jon Hamm to the role. 'The interesting thing about Tim is that he's a reluctant spy," says the actor. 'He's very good at it, but he doesn't necessarily still like it. He'd like to be more like Jeff"a normal suburban guy."
'As a covert operative, you're constantly lying and deceiving other people, and that's starting to gnaw at Tim," adds Mottola. 'He's not going to start brewing his own beer, like Jeff does, but Tim wouldn't mind having more of a life, and this is something he and Natalie don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on."
In addition to Tim's surprising complexities, Hamm was drawn to the film's combination of comedy and action, neither of which were featured much in the acclaimed series Mad Men, in which the actor starred. Hamm also was pleased at the chance to reunite with Zach Galifianakis, with whom he had worked on some digital comedy shorts. 'Zach Galifianakis has such a unique comedic mind, and it's always fun just to catch up with his energy," Jon Hamm explains. Zach Galifianakis returns the compliment: 'I knew Jon Hamm before he was -suave Jon'," he jokes. 'He is actually really funny. To be that handsome, too, is kind of unfair, isn't it?" 'There aren't that many people who look like Jon Hamm, who are also funny," Greg Mottola confirms. 'He has this Cary Grant-like thing, where Jon can be incredibly light on his feet and very dry and funny. And he and Zach Galifianakis have great chemistry."
That chemistry is on full display as their two characters bond over a meal of exotic snakes and an afternoon of indoor skydiving. But where does that leave Tim's gorgeous wife, Natalie? 'Well, they aren't particularly good at talking to each other, and it's through Tim's friendship with the guileless Jeff that he realises things aren't perfect in his life and in his marriage," says Greg Mottola.
Gal Gadot, who recently starred as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman, and who reprises the role in the upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League, portrays Natalie, an ex-Mossad agent who now works for the Agency, and is partnered with her husband. Unlike Tim, she loves being a spy; second-guessing her life's work just isn't in Natalie's nature. Still, 'When we meet them, Natalie and Tim have a good relationship, except that he doesn't share a lot with her," says Gal Gadot. 'Tim may even be a little intimidated by Natalie. After all, she's quite dominant and is always in control. Natalie wants things to happen when she wants them to happen."
Moreover, the fetching but tough-as-nails Natalie absolutely will not tolerate disrespect, which some of her neighbours learn the hard way during an annual cul-de-sac celebration known as Junetoberfest. Jealous of Natalie's, well, everything, the women turn on her immediately, while the men drip of condescension when she joins them in a soon-to-be-not-so-friendly game of darts. 'That duality is something Gal Gadot really hooked into"that there's a person there with feelings underneath all that beauty and ability," says Michael LeSieur.
Like her on-screen hubby, Gal Gadot relished the chance to do comedy. 'I was thrilled on how easy the laughs came for me when I was reading the script," she says, pointing to one scene where Natalie suddenly steps out of a department store dressing room"wearing nothing but a thong and low-cut bra"to confront Karen, who had been following her mysterious new neighbour. Here, again, the film's mix of laughs and unexpected moments of emotion and vulnerability are showcased. There's a real sense of comedic intimidation, as Natalie easily gets control of the situation and of Karen, until Natalie suddenly lets her guard down and opens up to her.
Gal Gadot's ability to intimidate, even in humorous circumstances, impressed many on set, including her director. 'Gal Gadot has this great intensity," Greg Mottola notes. 'She can be very serious and intense, and then she breaks into a smile and, on a dime, turns into the warmest, most earthy woman who's just so sweet."
The Scorpion (Yes, He Actually Calls Himself That)
A movie about super-spies, even one with a blithe sense of humor, warrants a mega bad guy, right? Not so much with Keeping Up With The Jones, which delivers a villain of uncommon ordinariness"and fun. That's not surprising, given that actor-comedian-Twitterer extraordinaire Patton Oswalt takes on the role of the nefarious Scorpion ('Wait, he actually calls himself the Scorpion? That's lame," observes one of the characters).
Moreover, the Scorpion is every bit as nerdy as Jeff, with whom he has a surprising and unhappy connection. 'We liked the idea of our villain being an angry, bitter former engineer who had a petty gripe about a parking space with the company from which he is stealing secrets," says Greg Mottola.
'We've developed a lot of movies that depend on a kind of super-villain, and they're the toughest thing to make fresh," says Macdonald. 'For Keeping Up With The Joneses, we've come up with a villain is, like so many people, driven from insecurity. That's a surprising take on that kind of character."
The filmmakers note they were lucky to get Patton Oswalt, who, says Michael LeSieur, was a perfect choice to embody the character's 'weird energy of an engineer who went rogue and started selling military secrets." That actor-character synergy and surprise was evident in early screenings. As Michael LeSieur recalls, 'When Patton Oswalt as Scorpion first appears, you can feel the audience collectively learning forward. Like, -ooh, this is going to get interesting.'"
At The Helm
While the cast uniformly appreciated the screenplay's deft mix of action and comedy, what truly sealed the deal for them all was the man at the helm: director Greg Mottola. And he has a huge fan in Isla Fisher, who when asked about Mottola, immediately rattles off all of his credits and how much she enjoyed each film. 'I've been a huge Greg Mottola fan since I saw his first film The Daytrippers," she says, referring to the director's 1997 comedy-drama. 'Superbad was genius-level comedy, as was Adventureland. I felt so blessed that Greg Mottola gave me this role, as I've always wanted to work with him. He reminds me of Blake Edwards"so talented!"
Zach Galifiankis notes Greg Mottola's skill in bringing 'a sense of real emotion, even to heightened comedic situations," while Gal Gadot appreciated the director's allowing each actor 'to bring our own personality into the characters."
The Chase Is On
Production designer Mark Ricker (The Help) and art director Jeremy Woolsey (Pitch Perfect) make maximum use of Keeping Up With The Joneses' principal locations: the Gaffneys' beloved cul-de-sac, and the dilapidated former Army base across which the film's action centerpiece"a wild car chase"unfolds.
A neighbourhood in northwest Atlanta was home to the cul-de-sac, to which the production added a large centre island to break up the large expanse of road. 'It's a larger than average cul-de-sac, so we added an island made of steel and wood, covered in grass and bushes," says Jeremy Woolsey.
Equal care was given to find the perfect houses for the Gaffneys and Joneses, one of which would ultimately be blown to bits, spewing remnants everywhere. 'It certainly woke up the neighbourhood," says Woolsey in an epic understatement.
Shooting then moved to Sany America, Inc., a tractor factory that doubled as Jeff's place of employment, a fictional military-industrial corporation specializing in defence contracts encompassing satellites, missile technology, radar, telecommunications systems. In other words, it's the perfect setting for espionage and villains looking to steal secret stuff.
Then, production revved into high gear, capturing a propulsive high-speed motorcycles vs. car chase between the Joneses (with the Gaffneys along for the fast and furious ride) and the Scorpion's minions.
Greg Mottola largely eschewed green screen and CGI in favour of what he calls a '-you are there' feel with an old school action vibe to it." He enjoyed creating the scene so much that he notes he 'had to be careful not to spend too much time on it. But I felt that if we were going to do one major action set piece, let's do it right. It was a lot of fun."
The director's skill in directing the high-powered action especially impressed his producers. 'We were thrilled at how Greg Mottola delivered the action," says Parkes. 'In many comedies, action can be a silly add-on, but Greg Mottola was committed to doing it right. Those scenes are very satisfying."
Greg Mottola credits stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Steven Ritzi with staging the action for maximum impact and thrills. But he and the cast give a special shout-out to Jon Hamm, who did much of the driving himself. 'Jon Hamm did some really great donuts [elaborate car maneuvers] in the Mercedes we were all jammed into," says Gal Gadot. Hamm is modest about his contributions to the scene, noting that to prepare for it he 'drove around an empty parking lot for hours to get used to the car and its moves. Having that extra time behind the wheel really helped me improve. The key was to not to just make it fun, but to also make it safe. Steve Ritzi made that happen for all of us."
Isla Fisher, who spends most of her time screaming during that scene"some of which, jokes Greg Mottola, may not have been acting"appreciated Jon Hamm's action hero chops, which extend beyond high-speed chases. 'He can smash something with his elbow while kicking in a door and pulling out a gun," she says.
After a week of enduring deafening gunfire and screeching tires, the cast and crew moved on to the Scorpion's posh hotel penthouse, high atop a Hyatt hotel in downtown Atlanta. The penthouse interior was built on stages in Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood, in a complex of buildings that once housed an ice cream distributor.
The hotel suite's interior, as envisioned by Ricker, had a bar/dining room, living room and bedroom, along with a real marble fireplace and select wallpapers from Germany. 'We wanted to create an elite, textured hotel suite that is as fabulous as it is ridiculous"just like the -Scorpion' himself," says Jeremy Woolsey. Later, the hotel's pool served as a key location, with all four stars jumping into it, as the penthouse erupts in flames.
While the action is a key element of Keeping Up With The Joneses, the film always puts comedy and romance front and centre. During early screenings, Michael LeSieur was gratified by the laughs and by 'moments where you can feel the audience connecting emotionally with the movie. That's as satisfying as getting a big laugh, for sure."
'We didn't design the movie to just machine-gun jokes all the time," concludes Greg Mottola. 'The humor, action and romance are always grounded.
These characters are meant to be recognisable, and I think audiences will really like them."
Keeping up with the Joneses
Release Date: October 20th, 2016