There may be no greater equalizer in America than the family road trip. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, no matter your class, race, religion or creed, you’ve probably had a highway disaster or two of your own. Has anyone ever had a 100% successful family vacation? This is the question screenwriter brothers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones asked one another just before writing JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION.
“We started off wanting to do a film about family,” explains Earl. “Not just our family, but everyone’s family and the one thing we realized that most families have in common is the family vacation. It seems that every person in America has their own family vacation story, across the board, in all demographics. In fact, we couldn’t even finish pitching our script without someone jumping in and saying ‘That reminds me of this one time we packed up the family dog and . . .’ But that’s what we wanted: a movie that is accessible to all ages and cultures.”
Once the Jones brothers began writing, they decided to put a new twist on the typical vacation scenario: instead of a family breaking apart in the course of a tumultuous trip, the Joneses chose to bring the feuding, fuming Johnsons closer together – in spite of themselves. Comments Todd: “Most family trips start off with everyone getting along and by the end of the trip they’re trying to kill each other. The Johnsons, on the other hand, start off wanting to kill each other but as time goes on, the family comes more and more together. This makes it very different from what you usually see in this kind of comedy. The Johnsons have their quirks but they also reveal that there’s a lot of love underneath the mayhem. And I think the point is that sure, families might be difficult and funny, but they’re still the most important thing in life.”
As patriarch of the Johnson family, the Jones brothers created the riotously obstinate Nate Johnson – the ultimate dad’s dad, a loving, caring, charming man who just happens to be a bit too stubborn to see when he’s driving the family off a cliff, literally! When it came to Nate, the Joneses only ever had one actor in mind: Cedric The Entertainer, who first came to the fore as one of the nation’s leading stand-up comics in KINGS OF COMEDY and then won acclaim as an actor with the critically admired indie hit BARBERSHOP.
Says Todd R. Jones: “Cedric IS Nate. He’s a guy anybody can relate to, a guy that’s just like everybody’s dad. He loves his family, but he also thinks he’s always right, that things always have to be done his way, and that gets him into quite a bit of trouble. He brings a lot of humor, but he also puts some real heart into the movie.”
Adds Earl: “Cedric’s brand of comedy is exactly what we had in mind for this film: smart yet poignant. We had this feeling that if we could get the script to him, he would just dial it right in, and thank God we were fortunate enough to do that.”
To get their completed screenplay to Cedric, the Jones brothers first brought it to producers Paul Hall and Wendy Park, who were immediately enchanted. “We were impressed because this is a story anyone can relate to who is or ever has been part of a family,” says Park. “Even though most families love one another, we all know they also get on each other’s nerves and drive each other crazy. At the end of the day, this film is about how you learn to live with each other anyway, and laugh at the craziness of it all.”
Continues Paul Hall: “I have a family and I have a daughter about Nikki’s age in the film, and I thought the script really captured the true family dynamic. It resonated very strongly for me. The Johnsons might be a bit wacky but they’re a lot like all of us.”
Eric C. Rhone, long-time collaborator with Cedric The Entertainer and producer of several of his comedy projects to date, was equally won over. “This script was a clear winner for Cedric,” he observes. “It very much fits with his unique personality and style: playing the Every Man, the family guy, the funnyman with heart and soul. It embodies all the things that Cedric possesses and cares a lot about,” he says.
Cedric himself saw JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION as the perfect vehicle for his first major starring role in a feature film. “This was that rare script that had my kind of sensibility to it,” he says. “It’s a comedy based in reality, not too crass or over-the-top, but with a really good energy. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a vacation-mishap movie, too, and I loved the concept.”
Sums up Paul Hall: “I see Cedric as a comedy film star in the vein of Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, John Belushi – someone who’s huggable, loveable and talented enough to be at the center of a great adventure like this one.”
When it came to finding a director for JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION, the producers decided to give a newcomer a chance: Christopher Erskin. After interviewing dozens of up-and-coming directors, the producers were impressed with Erskin’s technical savvy and the hip, broad style of his popular music videos and commercials.
Erskin, too, was taken right away with the script. “I saw that it would make a fun, PG-style, family film, the kind that hasn’t really been around for awhile,” he comments. “I also saw it as a love letter written back to America about the great family road trip, and all of the wonderful things that the road trip is about: laughs, bonding and discovery.