The two comedy stars sit together in a Chicago auto design firm, trying to mend a strain on their friendship. Kevin James is making a heartfelt attempt to re-bond with his strangely secretive buddy Vince Vaughn, offering him eight minutes – later revised into seven minutes and 48 seconds – of his increasingly dwindling free time to talk about whatever's been troubling Vaughn. Vaughn remains tightlipped, but reveals he's yet to make his planned proposal to his girlfriend, which James thinks is unnecessarily self-sabotaging.
And somewhere amid Vaughn's trademark barrage of evasive fast-talk, James notices that Vaughn's face is covered in welts and scrapes – he looks like he's been on the wrong end of a beating. Nothing to worry about, Vaughn insists: "Hives." He suggests they make a pact NOT to ever talk about their personal lives again, even as his double-talk twists and turns to make the easy-breezy notion sound like it was James' idea to begin with.
"Cut!" calls the smiling director Ron Howard, calling an end to the latest variation in a scene from The Dilemma, the dark comedy the A-list team is filming on location in the Windy City, one of Vaughn's favored movie locales. The actors drop their (mostly) straight-faced reactions to each other's latest riff, attempting to breathe more comedic life into each take with fresh, improvised flourishes, allowing themselves a moment to break up at the new one-liners they've thrown at each other before taking a break to blow off steam at the ping-pong table out of sight of the cameras.
Later, they're joined by Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder – playing their seemingly doting loves – for a few runs at another scene, again ending with a surprise "button" referencing Vaughn's beat-down face. The actresses stick largely to the script, but Vaughn and James keep the dialogue curveballs coming, mining every avenue for subtle humor they can find.
Not surprising, considering The Dilemma's logline, which on the surface sounds more like a Hitchcockian psychodrama than the kind of laugh-a-minute comedy the fellas specialize in: when Ronny (Vaughn) spots his longtime pal and business partner Nick's (James) wife (Ryder) on the town with another man, he makes it his mission to sleuth out the truth while keeping his friend in the dark, discovering Nick may be hiding his own secrets and jeopardizing his own relationship with his girlfriend (Connelly). Laughing yet? Vaughn and James, who sat down with us during a break in filming, promise that you will be.
Q: You guys were laughing a little bit to yourselves while trying to get through some of the takes. Does that happen a lot?
James: Yeah. I'm bad at that.
Vaughn: It happens a lot with us, yeah. It does.
James: I don't want to lose it, because it was so funny that's what made me laugh in it and I don't want to lose what we got. I'm always concerned that we have a single of Vince and I can be cut out and save that. And I can maybe laugh some more.
Vaughn: He makes me laugh. Sometimes that happens when you're doing stuff. What I like about Kevin's stuff, Kevin, to me, is such a great actor, in that the reason why audiences always go so well with him is that he's very honest. He's very genuine. You really connect to him, and to me that's very funny. That's always the school of where I came from: that shtick or being cute, okay, but if you really believe from the point of view that it's really happening and you're committed to it, and comedy is a sort of over commitment to the absurd at times, and so the more that you're committed to what your intention is in a real way, then to me that's what makes me laugh. So a lot of times when Kevin is really dialed in and finds a way of really getting the point across, it really makes me laugh.
James: I mean he's the best at what he does. You know that. You see him with [Jon] Favreau. You see him with everybody and he does it. So it was kind of like double-Dutch for me to jump in, for me to go with him. It was seamless, though. It honestly was.
Vaughn: I think with improv – and I say it all the time because it's become such a catch thing that you talk about improv – if the scene is well written you don't need to improv. But that being said, if something strikes you in the moment and, most importantly you know where the scene is supposed to go, it's no different than method acting. It's just listening, so that you can respond appropriately if something happens that you don't expect. But it's important to know where the scene needs to end. If the scene needs to end with me and him no longer friends or upset at each other, it's not about coming up with clever references to say that are just interesting for that's sake. It's really about what's a different way to get to the same end result. Sometimes doing a fresh thing is good, because you can get burnt out on the way we all know it.
Q: What was about it the script that made you want to do this film?
Vaughn: It was more the concept for me. Brian Grazer came to me with the idea originally and said, 'What do you think of this as an idea?' I said, 'That could be a fun idea, and could be interesting in how it's executed.' Ron liked the idea and came aboard, and then as the actors got added – Kevin, who was the person that we all really wanted to play this guy – we thought that it was important to have a person that was funnier than anyone, but also very real and a very good actor. Then you go through the script and everyone gets to contribute ideas, you sort of personalize it. For me that's always been our process on these comedies. We sit and rehearse. Then later Connelly came in with great ideas and then we changed scenes based on that. Everyone sits around and starts to work from that point. Ron is great at keeping his narrative and the story that he wants to tell, but then being able to take good ideas from people and sort of say, 'Well, no. This one I reject. This one I take,' and come up with a story that's taken the input of all the cast.
James: I have to say that this man is a savant at making the script better. From what we had which I loved when I first read it, you add to that how excited I was to work with Vince, which I'd never done and had always been a big fan of his and then Ron Howard, it was a no-brainer for me. Honestly, I probably still would've done it if I didn't love the script, because I love these guys so much. But I did love the script. When we got in there and we started working on it, it was really Vince who spearheaded and just changed it and every day, I remember I'd go to sleep at night and go, 'Man, he made this better again!'
Q: How'd you get the dynamic of these guys being longtime friends with really intertwined lives rolling?
Vaughn: We did something a little different: we decided to shower with each other every morning just to get familiar with each other.
James: You have to do it anyway.
Vaughn: For the first week. Then the second week was, 'Let's clean each other,' and then that way you really break down another wall. And then came the tubs. We take a tub at night. 'Do you want to come over for a tub?
James: A lot of water was involved.