Have you seen Die Hard so many times that it’s lost its ability to thrill? Are you sick of sobbing through It’s A Wonderful Life? Are you appropriately horrified by Jim Carrey’s horrendous Grinch? If you answered “yes” to any or all of these holiday movie questions: Have you tried Just Friends? The comedy was released with little fanfare in 2005, just as its leads Ryan Reynolds and Anna Faris were on the verge of stardom. Reynolds plays Chris Brander, a former teenaged dweeb who was in love with his best friend and fellow cheerleader Jamie Palladino (Amy Smart) throughout high school. When she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, Chris takes off and becomes a big-shot music exec in L.A. But one Christmas years later, he finds himself stranded in his New Jersey hometown and becomes determined to win Jamie over for good. Unfortunately, he’s also there with pop star Samantha James (Faris), who’s like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton all rolled up into one.
On paper, it sounds pretty basic. It’s difficult to explain the wondrous alchemy that makes Just Friends what it is. One is the movie’s wise decision just to let Ryan Reynolds be Ryan Reynolds, and to let Faris get absolutely unhinged as Samantha. When Chris is reunited with his younger brother (Chris Marquette), instead of a heartwarming reunion, the two immediately regress and spend most of their time slapping each other. Julie Hagerty plays their delightfully daffy mom. Stephen Root shows up as a music exec big shot in hideous leather pants; Chris Klein is a a fellow former dweeb who has also has overcome past obstacles that could separate him from Jamie. At some point, for some reason everyone just heads off to see The Notebook. Naturally, the movie finds its typical rom-com ending, but not before everything erupts in a fiery decorations explosion that sets Santa and all his reindeer on fire. Maybe the true beauty of Just Friends is as a point of comparison: No matter how imperfect your own holidays may be (and in 2020, we’re guessing everyone’s holidays are imperfect), Chris Brander’s Christmas is worse.
In honor of Just Friends’ 15th anniversary, director Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions, The Sweetest Thing, Suits) and writer Adam “Tex” Davis (Brain Games, Brainchild) talked to The A.V. Club about what Kumble calls the “the best collaborative experience I’ve ever had”—despite the fact that they were filming in Saskatchewan in 40-below weather, the unpleasant realization that the Canadian Reynolds couldn’t ice skate, and the single shot that took up the majority of the film’s budget.
AVC: How did Just Friends come about in the first place?
Adam “Tex” Davis: I was in a two-year “just friends” relationship with a girl in college. I really thought I had a shot, you know, but she was dating this other guy who was much older. And I’m like, “She’s going to get tired of this guy. He might be the president now, but I’m the vice president. When he gets assassinated or impeached, I’m going to take office and it’s going to be great.” And it just never happened. Two years wasted in this relationship.
Then I remember I needed something to write. And I started thinking, I can’t be the only guy that went through this. I wrote the initial draft of the script and I sent it to my manager, Chris Bender, who read it and called me up. He said, “Is this about me? Because I loved this girl.” And I was like, first of all, I’m not writing scripts about my manager. And second of all, no, this is about me. And then he shared it with a guy at New Line, Richard Brenner. And he was like, “Is this about me?” And I said, “Okay, you know what I think? I think I’ve tapped into something here.” The universal feeling of unrequited love. And that became the basis of the movie.
AVC: What compelled you to set it around the holidays? Was that a good excuse to have the characters have to go home?
AD: Yeah, it became a hook to get them home, but it was also like, like let’s maximize this. Everybody’s full of cheer, everybody’s happy, but this guy is going to be going through hell.
So there’s a great dichotomy there. [Jamie’s] house is the brightest place on earth. And this guy couldn’t be in a darker place. And then Roger jumped all over it and was like, “Oh, I know what to do with this.” So clearly, it was great.
AVC: Was Ryan Reynolds your first pick for the role of Chris? He’s so perfect for it.
Roger Kumble: You remember talking about anybody else? I don’t.
AD: You know, I sold the script like four years before it got made. So I went to lunch with a guy, you might have heard of him, his name is Jimmy Fallon? They thought about him. There was even a crazy moment when they were like, “What do you think of Adam Sandler and Julia Roberts?” And I was like, “Yeah, okay, sure, I’ve heard of them.” Bradley Cooper, I think was mentioned because Wedding Crashers did big and he was just a minor character in that. And they were like, “Oh, I think this guy is going to blow up.” Those are the names that I know that got kicked around.
And then Roger came on and then once once you came on, I can’t recall anybody else really being in the conversation.
RK: I’m sure we had it like an initial casting list. You know, Ryan was somebody I had had my eye on for years. He was in this indie film, Coming Soon, and he was on Two Girls And A Guy. And then, he kind of popped on Van Wilder, but still wasn’t like a name name.
But he was somebody we knew was really funny. We knew that New Line would make the movie with him for a certain price. A lot of it was with the help of Toby Emmerich and Richard Brenner over at New Line. And we were like, let’s try and get him. And he was just so great, you know? You could tell he has that Canadian Jim Carrey brain—more than the rest of us.
AVC: Like he always knows what’s going on in the room. How much of that in the movie is him improvising or ad-libbing or did he just basically stick to your script?
RK: You know, Tex wrote the script and it’s his, but the approach we all had was “best idea wins.” And that went to the directing as well as the writing. We threw out the titles. We just wanted to make a really funny movie. And because we had a certain budget, we went to Saskatchewan in winter because it was really cheap to make a movie that was really cold. It was like negative 40 some days; they couldn’t land planes, literally. So when we were up there, like prepping the movie, there’s nothing to do. We get together. We hang out at Ryan’s and we read the script and, with Tex there, kind of workshop a little. And what was so great was Tex being magnanimous with the script, I’m magnanimous with the directing, you know what I mean? None of us were precious about our titles and it was the best collaborative experience I’ve ever had.
AD: Plus, you’re working with two of the greatest ad-libbers with Ryan and Anna. So much good stuff just on set. It’s like, “We have this scene in the can. Who wants to try something?” Roger would yell out a line or I’d yell out a line or one of the producers might whisper something and it’s like, let’s try it. “Hey, say this. Say that.” Like when Anna says, “I’m busy!” I think Roger you just yelled that, because [Ryan] is like, “I’m busy.” And then you just go, “I’m busy” and Anna says “I’m busy,” you know? And it was like, this is great. A great add.
RK: Sometimes our approach to comedy, I remember, was just the literal. Like if someone says, “I’m T.J.” and [Faris] goes “T.J.” You know the way she is; she could say “blueberry” and it’s funny. She just had the character of what Tex wrote down and built on it. [Samantha] had no awareness of other people.
I met with [Faris] and we grab a coffee and she asks, “What is this character in your mind?” And Tex wrote it, but at the time, it’s Lindsay and Paris and all of them and Britney and throw in some amphetamines and put it in a blender and that’s Samantha James. And she totally got it.
AVC: Another great pairing in the movie is Ryan and Chris Marquette, playing brothers with the constant fighting. It just seems so organic with the two of them.
AD: They were like brothers.
RK: Again, Tex wrote the brothers and all that. I remember Chris Marquette saying, “I think I really idolized my brother.” And I said, “No, you beat the shit out of each other.” Because I have a brother, and I love him. But man, when we were that age, we’d just wail on each other. And people relate to that.
AD: I’m an older brother too and I used to torture my younger brother. Torture. And you know that if given the opportunity later in life where I show up and I’m down, he is going to exact his revenge. [To Kumble.] And I remember you making me this promise at some point. I think we’re sitting in your brother’s house in New York working on the script. But you said, “We’re going to make this the most realistic brother relationship you can see on film. Like none of this brothers, best friends all the time.” But at the same time you found ways to bring the heart, like when they get the cookies from their mom.
RK: And Chris Marquette, he’s so great in the movie. They were slapping each other, I will say that. Some of those things, you know, you needed to see the redness and the pain. So they committed. Committed.
AVC: There are so many funny lines in the movie, but there’s also so much physical comedy, like the slapping. One of the funniest scenes is the ice skating and the injury at the end. Ryan Reynolds is actually a hockey player, right?
AD: In the movie, yeah, not in real life.
AVC: I guess I just assume everybody from Canada can skate.
AD: So did we! You wanna hear a great behind-the-scenes story? We assumed that Ryan, being Canadian, he must have had some ice skating and some hockey. So the stunt coordinator took him and Amy Smart out for a little skate. Ryan fell immediately and dislocated his shoulder. We thought, “Oh, my god, are we going to have to postpone the movie?” Luckily, they popped it back and he took a bottle of Advil and he was fine. He doesn’t skate at all.
AVC: For the climactic set piece: How how many takes was that?
RK: You know, if you’re going to Vegas, you put all your chips in. We put a lot of our budget on that one moment blowing up that house. It was literally like that game Mouse Trap. We had it so that everything kind of dominoed.
AD: But did you do that more than once? I can’t remember.
RK: Oh, no. I think we had like eight cameras, and I was stress eating. We did it once, and then we kind of honed in on certain little jokes. So, we were also doing farce, you know, especially when [Faris] goes “That whore!” and “Not you Wrinkles!” and then the dad goes, “Not Santa!”
AVC: What other stuff do you remember that a total Just Friends geek like me would love to know?
RK: We didn’t have a ton of local talent up there. There’s this one scene when [Chris] goes into the general store and he’s like, “I’m on a date” and the guy goes “During the day?” I think that made it in.
AVC: It’s in the deleted scenes. Chris is in the convenience store to get mouthwash because he throws up after eating all that sugar.
RK: Oh right. But the guy wasn’t really an actor. So, you leave the camera rolling. It’s like an acting exercise. I’m like, “Try it again,” and he’d just say it the same exact way. “During the day?” “During the day?” We were like, “Do it with a German accent!”
AD: “Do it like your whole family was killed!”
Roger played a classic prank on me and one of the producers in that scene with the body shake. Unfortunately, that actually happened to me when I was with my “just friend.” I think we had some drinks and I thought, it seems like I might be able to make a move tonight. And I leaned in to kiss her and I could tell right away, “Oh, no, no, she’s not trying to kiss me.” And she put her arm up. So I thought she wanted to just hug. And as I went to hug her, I realized she was offering her hand for a handshake. And I was already too committed to the hug. So I just kind of grabbed her shoulders and, like, shook her entire body and then walked off in abject shame.
So we’re filming the the body shake scene, and I was saying, “Oh, that’s not quite right. That’s not quite right.” So Roger calls me and grabs the other producer, and he made us do it like a hundred times—you know, “Just one more time.” And we’re hugging each other and shaking each other. And then I realized they got it the first time we did it. But they filmed us doing it like 20 times.
RK: It was for our home movies.
AD: Like full crew, full cast. You probably wasted like $10,000 doing that. It took at least an hour—in the cold negative 40 or 45 degrees shaking each other. And then I realize that they’re all laughing at us.
RK: Speaking of the cold, the day Ryan is walking Anna to the car, to [take] her to the mall, it was so cold they had to keep the car warm. I mean, because Ryan is from Canada, he’s used to it. But Amy Smart hated the cold. So we’d always have her, like, run out of the shot, like during the Christmas explosion I let her just run out the side. I don’t blame her; I mean, we were all in parkas. We looked like the cast of those Roland Emmerich films in Antarctica.
AVC: And Ryan Reynolds is just walking around in a sweater.
RK: We would have conversations about the upcoming scenes in his trailer. He would [be eating these things] called Tri-O-Plex bars. I don’t even know if they make them any more; they’re like 2,000 calories a bar. And he’d be eating one and being a gentleman, he’d hand one to me. And we’d talk and I’d eat it. And he had six-pack abs like three weeks later. And I can’t fit in my pants.
AVC: Those are like the bars they give to Regina George in Mean Girls.
RK: Exactly, maybe he was trying to get rid of me.
AVC: Chris Klein is also so great as the villain. How did that come about?
RK: We we had loved him in Election and American Pie.
AD: And Chris Bender produced American Pie. So he had a relationship with him.
RK: The first thing he shot was Dusty in high school. You could see the wounds. You know, it’s interesting, if you look at it, we’re all carrying trauma from high school and how it changes people. And it just turns Dusty into a dick. Or was he always a dick? But that’s a better question for Tex. Like Dusty, in the beginning, he has long hair and really bad acne and is writing songs for [Jamie]. Then both of these guys buff out.
AD: Yeah, we say it’s kind of like Batman and the Joker, like Dusty and Chris. They’re kind of the same, you know, started out wounded from some high school love with the same girl. And they both go about it different ways. But Chris can still win; he can still become human again. And Dusty isn’t capable of that. I think that’s one of Chris Klein’s best performances; he is so funny in that movie.
AD: I couldn’t believe we got Julie Hagerty. As a kid I grew up watching Airplane!
RK: Now I’ve had more people come up to me with so many memes or GIFs whatever they call it. And “Hello, Joyce” is like a big one.
Everything is really taken from Tex’s life and probably this was too. But I remember trying to call girls in eighth grade, and I’d be so scared and all of a sudden it would be [Makes sounds like rotary phone]. It would be my mother picking up the phone and dialing and going “Hello? Hello?” when I was on the phone.
AD: And then I brought in “Hello, Joyce?” because Joyce is my mom’s best friend.
RK: It was the perfect name.
AD: “What are you doing at Joyce’s house?”
RK: “No, Mom, I’m 10 feet away from you.” Oh god.
AVC: So this movie had a slow burn: I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but it wasn’t in 2005; it took me a couple of years. But now it seems like that more people are discovering Just Friends as another great thing they can watch at Christmas.
AD: Yeah, when it came out it did okay, fair.
RK: It kind of just disappeared. And then little by little, Tex and I and the producers, a couple times a year one of us would get a nice note about Just Friends. And around seven years ago, it started making the rounds, like this is the underrated Christmas movie you should see. And then when it hit streaming, just a ton of people started seeing it. For me, it’s a great experience when people discover something unique you made years ago. And we truly had a great time making it.
AD: The only sad thing is that Ryan Reynolds’ career went nowhere.
RK: I know. I don’t know what he does now.