How Vacation Friends became the surprise comedy hit of the year

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(L-R): Meredith Hagner as Kyla, Yvonne Orji as Emily, Lil Rel Howery as Marcus and John Cena as Ron in ‘Vacation Friends' (Jessica Miglio)
(L-R): Meredith Hagner as Kyla, Yvonne Orji as Emily, Lil Rel Howery as Marcus and John Cena as Ron in ‘Vacation Friends' (Jessica Miglio)

Vacation Friends is an outrageous, R-rated comedy about a pair of couples who forge a tequila-fuelled friendship at a holiday resort in Mexico. If you think that sounds like the perfect escape from all the current misery, you’re not alone. When the film premiered on Hulu at the tail end of last month, it pulled in the biggest opening weekend audience in the history of the streaming service. Soon afterwards, Hulu announced that it’s already given the green light to a sequel: Honeymoon Friends. And just like that, a franchise is born.

It may be a runaway hit now, but the raucous comedy’s journey to the screen has been far from smooth sailing. Vacation Friends was first announced back in 2014, with then-real-life-couple Chris Pratt and Anna Faris set to star as a pair of hedonists wreaking havoc on another couple’s time in the sun. They’d left the project by 2016 when Clay Tarver, a former writer and showrunner on sitcom Silicon Valley, was brought in to do rewrites on the script while a new cast was assembled. “There was a minute where it was going to be made with Ice Cube and Marky Mark Wahlberg,” recalls Tarver, speaking over video call from his home in Los Angeles. “Then that fell apart, too.”

A couple of years later, having all but forgotten about the film, Tarver was approached again by an executive at 20th Century Studios, who asked whether he’d like to direct the film. “He suggested we could do it with new faces – people you haven’t seen before,” says Tarver. “Or at least a smaller level of superstardom.” The first to join the new cast was comedian Lil Rel Howery, probably best known to British audiences as TSA officer Rod Williams in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. In Vacation Friends, he’s hilarious even as he frequently ends up being the butt of the joke as the relatively buttoned-up Marcus. “He really embraced the humiliation of being on the spot all the time,” says Tarver with a grin. “He really goes deep into that.”

Tarver adds that he and Howery quickly bonded over a deceptively straight-forward shared goal. “We agreed pretty early that we just wanted to make a really funny movie,” he explains. “I think we both loved how contained it was, and how simple the premise was: you meet people on vacation, and then they come back into your life. That premise could have been made in the Forties, and in the Seventies they made movies like that all the time.”

With a central idea that simple, a movie like Vacation Friends lives or dies on the chemistry between the main cast. When former wrestler John Cena, who Tarver calls “a much bigger star than I’d planned on”, signed on to play hedonistic wildman Ron, the director went back to check out his previous work in comedies such as 2018’s underrated prom night caper Blockers. “I loved that movie,” says Tarver, “And I loved John in it. I wanted to get to know a little bit about him, because he’s a very large person, so I called [his Blockers co-star] Ike Barinholtz. Ike just went: ‘John Cena might be the nicest person I’ve ever met. If you get a chance to work with him, you have to. He’s so good.’ It turned out to be totally true. He’s the sweetest guy and just an insane pro. He’s very much a natural at this.”

Next to join the cast was Insecure’s Yvonne Orji, who plays Marcus’s well-to-do fiancée Emily. Orji manages to wring plenty of laughs out of the straightest role of the four, helped immensely by her sharp timing and easy chemistry with Howery. “Rel and Yvonne have known each other for ever, so I never had to say a word,” says Tarver. “They just seemed like a couple.” Tarver adds that the trickiest part to cast was Kyla, the free-spirited partner of Cena’s Ron. In the end the role went to Search Party’s Meredith Hagner – an expert at leading an audience one way and then going another – who steals every scene she’s in. “I think she’s a bit of a killer,” nods Tarver approvingly. “I think she has a big, big future because she does something that no one else is really doing right now.”

With a full cast finally assembled, production on the film was due to start in mid-March 2020 at a resort in Puerto Rico, which doubles for Mexico, until Cena asked for filming to be moved forward by two weeks so that he could meet promotional commitments to blockbuster Fast 9. What seemed like a major headache at the time probably saved the film; they’d already wrapped the logistically difficult location shoot by the time the pandemic shut down production on 13 March. “We realised later that had John not asked for those two weeks, the movie would probably have fallen apart,” points out Tarver. “We would have been shut down the Friday before the Monday we were due to start.”

Clearly the stars were aligned, and even Covid couldn’t stop Vacation Friends finally making it to the screen. Filming resumed in Atlanta in August last year, with Tarver working hard to make sure the finished project doesn’t feel for a second like a film made under pandemic restrictions. He pulled that off from behind a mask and plastic visor, ending up with a comedy that feels like an escape from the doom and gloom of the current moment. That’s exactly what Tarver was hoping it would be. “When I referenced earlier that it’s an evergreen premise, I said that not only to be pretentious but also to make the point that those are the movies most dear to my heart,” says Tarver, before reeling off a list of timeless comedy favourites that includes The Bad News Bears, Meet the Parents, Election and Office Space. “They’re these sort of mid-level movies where everyone’s invited to them, and I love that,” he adds. “I worried a lot that people were just not going to make them much anymore, but I think good, sneaky-smart comedies have a real future in streaming.”

Meredith Hagner and Clay Tarver on location for ‘Vacation Friends' (Hulu)
Meredith Hagner and Clay Tarver on location for ‘Vacation Friends' (Hulu)

While he’s obviously thrilled to have the chance to reassemble his crack team of Howery, Cena, Orji and Hagner for the forthcoming Honeymoon Friends, which he first has to sit down and write, Tarver adds that he hopes the success of Vacation Friends helps prove how much demand there is out there for comedies that allow an audience to forget their troubles for an hour and forty-five minutes. A vacation with friends, if you will. “When I played this film to test audiences, there was this kind of relief that it was just a movie like that,” he says. “To me, that’s a good sign that maybe since this did well, more films like this can be made.”

‘Vacation Friends’ is streaming now on Hulu in the US and on Disney+ in the UK

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