Interview: James Vanderbilt Discusses Essential Movies, Writing About the Zodiac Killer, and Courting Adam Sandler for ‘Murder Mystery’

Writer and producer James Vanderbilt calls his new movie "Murder Mystery" a love letter to funny mysteries like "Clue" and "Murder on the Orient Express."

James Vanderbilt received his start in screenwriting in the early 2000s with a trio of films ranging from horror to action/comedy. In 2007, he teamed up with David Fincher for “Zodiac,” a critically acclaimed crime drama about the 1970s investigation of the Zodiac Killer.

In the years since, Vanderbilt wrote both “Amazing Spider-Man” films, the sequel “Independence Day: Resurgence,” and has worked as a “script doctor” on several other projects as well.

His latest movie is the Netflix Original, “Murder Mystery,” an ode to Hercule Poirot and the old whodunnit stories that once regularly graced the silver screen. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple from Brooklyn who take their long-delayed European honeymoon and inadvertently walk into a murder mystery. Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, and Terence Stamp also star as some of the characters they encounter along the way.

I had the opportunity to speak with James Vanderbilt the other day about growing up with the movies, “Zodiac,” and the long road to producing “Murder Mystery.”

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I am so excited to talk to you.

James Vanderbilt: Well, thanks!

KP: You have such an interesting filmography. It’s kind of spread out a little bit. You’ve done a lot of different things and I love it.

JV: Thank you! It’s been interesting.

KP: We’ll talk about “Murder Mystery” in a minute, but in general, what is it about writing for film that excites you?

JV: I always wanted to be a writer, since I was 5 years old. My dad was – and is – an amazing storyteller. From the moment I figured out that it was okay to grow up to be that, like that was a thing you could grow up to do and it was okay, I was like, “That’s what I wanna do!” And I think just being a child of the ’80s, film was sort of the coin of the realm, in terms of storytelling. We were a big movie family. We went to the movies almost every week. As soon as I could go to the movies on my own with my friends, we would do that. So movies were just always a really big part of my life and I think a lot of peoples’ lives. When I got to college and really decided I was going to try and professionally write, movies were sort of a logical extension of what I wanted to do.

KP: What’s the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?

JV: I remember the first movie I ever saw in the theater because it was “Empire Strikes Back” and I was probably too little to see it. I was like 5 years old and we came in late, when the AT-ATs were walking. Apparently I screamed at the top of my lungs. They scared the ever living hell out of me. So I was immediately, I think, both terrified and entranced by it. That is literally the first movie I ever remember seeing.

KP: That’s amazing. It’s the first movie I remember seeing too. It’s crazy to have that experience, isn’t it?

JV: Absolutely!

KP: What were some of the movies that inspired you early in your career?

JV: All different kinds of stuff. “Jaws” left a huge imprint on me – when my parents finally let me see it. I think I was like 10 years old and I grew up in Connecticut, so we got to watch on Channel 11. And even as the 5:00 movie with all the commercial breaks, it was still like, “Oh my god, this is incredible.”

I saw “Aliens” the same way, edited for television on CBS. That movie completely blew my mind. “Top Gun,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard,” all those sort of big popcorn movies. But then I also remember my parents sitting me down to show me “The Godfather” for the first time, which is my favorite movie. I just sort of went, Oh, you can do this? It’s okay to tell a story this way? You can take your time to tell the story?” You can make a movie that’s this serious, where the hero turns out not to be the hero at the end? But it’s also funny at points? And then the funniest character gets machine-gunned at a toll booth and dies an incredibly grisly death?

I think it’s just a kind of blend of all different kinds. And just the great 80s comedies like “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Midnight Run” and all of that thrown into a blender was kind of my cinematic educational background. All of them left an impression on me in different ways. I always loved how different types of movies could make you feel very different things at different times. Great movies could make you laugh and then cry and then be terrified. When you feel like you’re in the hands of a master, I just kind of went, How do you do that?

I loved magic when I was a kid and I was sort of like, How did you do that trick? How did it make me feel this way? And so what I would do is, we had a video camera and I would rent movies from the mom and pop movie store and I would tape them onto the video camera. I figured out how to hook up the cables to the back of the VCR, and I’d watch the time code. And I started to go, Okay, in “Die Hard,” the first time we see Hans Gruber is 16 minutes into the movie. So the bad guy comes in in minute 16. I sort of started to deconstruct structure that way without even realizing I was doing it. That’s a long winded answer, basically, but that’s how movies started to leave their mark on me.

KP: Speaking of mastery, one of your first film credits was “Zodiac.” I think it’s one of the best films of the 21st century, honestly.

JV: Oh, man! Thank you so much!

KP: It’s probably my favorite David Fincher film, and one of the big reasons is because of the script. How did working on “Zodiac” shape what you’ve done in the years since?

JV: That film was just an incredible learning experience for me. I think I was 29 when it came out. It was a book that I had read when I was 16 years old and I always thought, Man, this would be a great movie. Ended up getting the rights many years later, met the author and I wrote the script, and we sent it to David with the express intention of him passing. We just sort of, and his agent too said, “Look, he made ‘Seven.’ He’s never going to make a serial killer movie, guys. What are you thinking?” And we sent it to him as like once David passes, we’ll figure out who will direct this thing. And he engaged and he said, “I grew up in the Bay Area during this.” He was one of those kids on those school buses that were being followed by helicopters. So the story itself was a big part of his childhood, which I didn’t know at all. He was incredible and just said, “Okay. I really like the script, but what I want to do is put the script away.”

He had two conditions to make the movie. The first was we had to use everybody’s real name, which was basically unheard of. The movie almost accuses somebody of being the Zodiac Killer, we can’t use his real name. And David was like, “If you don’t use his real name, I’m not making the movie.” And then the second thing he said was, “I want to talk to every living person who was ever involved with this case.” So we spent a year and a half literally going up to San Francisco and talking. We talked to every detective who worked the case, we talked to the two surviving victims. I sourced the script like a journalist, so every scene in the movie I had to have double confirmation that it occurred. Not just the word of one person, but either a police document sourcing it or two different people who were at the scene who confirmed what had happened. That’s why the only murder scenes in the movie are scenes where someone escaped or survived.

It was an incredible process, working with him. I think he is probably the best director of his generation. Everybody talks about how meticulous he is, and nobody talks about how funny he is. And he is an incredibly sweet, funny human being.

KP: What an amazing experience.

JV: It was great.

KP: So it’s kind of funny to draw a line from “Zodiac” to “Murder Mystery,” but I don’t know another way to transition.

JV: No, that’s good!

Murder Mystery | Aniston, Sandler, Evans

KP: “Murder Mystery” does have similar components that you utilized in “Zodiac,” though, in the way some things unfold, even though it’s a much different movie. Where did the story come from?

JV: It actually came out of a conversation I had many years ago with Tripp Vinson, another producer on the film, and a guy named Jason Reed, who at the time was an executive at Disney. We were sort of talking – it was actually right after “Zodiac” had come out, like a year or two later. We were talking about all the movies that we loved as kids and the mysteries we loved as kids. I grew up on “Columbo,” watching “Columbo” with my mother and father. One of the things we talked about was you can’t do that anymore. You can’t make a movie where the detective calls all the suspects together in a room and lays out who did it. My brain works in a weird way where as soon as I’m told I can’t do something, I’m like, Well we got to figure out a way to do that! So it was this idea of how do you make one of those great old movies, but that’s fun and modern.

Also one of my favorite movies growing up was “Clue,” and that idea of a really fast, funny mystery movie was really exciting to me. The way I finally figured out how to get in was the idea of what if this blue collar couple from Brooklyn crashed into an Agatha Christie story? Just found themselves in the middle of one of these. And I loved the idea that he was a cop and she was hairdresser who loved mysteries, so one of them had real world experience and one of them knew all the tropes of the genre.

KP: It’s such a fun and clever movie. It did remind me a lot of watching “Clue,” or “Murder on the Orient Express.” The story is different, but the tone very much like those.

JV: That’s great to hear. I mean, we all wanted it to be sort of a love letter to those types of stories and those types of movies.

KP: Are there some hidden Easter eggs that maybe people won’t catch the first time they watch? There were a few I thought I noticed.

JV: There are some that I don’t want to point them out, but yeah, definitely there are a lot. There’s a big nod to Agatha Christie at the end, a big one which I always sort of loved, but the movie’s about Nick and Audrey. I always loved “The Thin Man,” which is about Nick and Nora. That’s why I picked the names Nick and Audrey, because I always loved the idea of a bickering and bantering married couple who solves crimes and have cocktails. There’s stuff like that sort of sprinkled throughout. But I will leave it to eagle-eyed viewers like yourself to find them. That’s half the fun, hopefully.

KP: It is, definitely. At what point did Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston join the project?

JV: The script had been around for a little bit and Allen Covert, who was Adam’s partner read it and sent it to Adam, and god bless him, Adam immediately responded to it and loved the idea. We were having a little bit of trouble finding Nick because he’s a cop who can’t really shoot straight and has failed his detective exam. Those aren’t your classic matinee idol hero kind of things, and I think Sandler ran toward that and loved that idea. So he really championed it. We were trying to get it done at a studio and it didn’t come together, and then he went over to Netflix a couple years later and basically the phone rang and he said, “I want to make this at Netflix now.” And he sent it to Aniston and she read it and said, “I’d love to do it.”

It was one of those things where we tried for years and years and years to figure out the right way to do it and then almost overnight the thing came together with Adam and Jen. It was perfect because they’re such a quintessentially American couple, which is always what the movie needed because it is the blue collar Americans finding themselves in the middle of Europe in this sort of BBC production of an Agatha Christie story. And they were just so perfect for it. So I feel like it took a long time to come together, but the reason it did was because it had to come together the right way.

KP: And at the right time.

JV: Yeah!

KP: I think we need movies like this right now. Things are so serious out in the world that it’s nice to have something you can cozy up to and just enjoy.

JV: I hope so. I agree. We really worked hard to make this a fun, pleasant time. It’s 95 minutes, it’s not a 3 hour, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s hopefully just a lovely, quick meal.

Awards Circuit would like to thank James Vanderbilt for his time.

“Murder Mystery” is now streaming on Netflix.