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Hot Tub Time Machine Writer Josh Heald Recalls Origin of Gonzo Franchise, Teases Third Movie

"It's just a fun, immersive movie that makes you want to go skiing with your friends and get drunk in a hot tub."

By Josh Weiss
Nick Webber (Craig Robinson), Lou Dorchen (Rob Corddry), and Adam (John Cusack) cheers beers while sitting in a hot tub in Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).

When Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale first cooked up the idea for a little movie called Back to the Future (the entire trilogy is available to own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment), they wanted to send young Marty McFly to 1955 in a refrigerator that could only be activated by a nuclear detonation.

Thankfully, the screenwriting duo eventually came to their senses and devised the iconic DeLorean we know and love. Zemeckis and Gale's bonkers spirit didn't die, though. It simply floated back into the creative ether, biding its time for several decades until Josh Heald arrived in Hollywood and gave us the raunchy romp known as Hot Tub Time Machine (now streaming on Peacock). The gonzo project first began as a desire to hearken back to the strange "plethora" of ski comedies produced throughout the 1980s like Better Off Dead and Hot Dog: The Movie.

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Hot Tub Time Machine Writers Recall Origin of the Crazy Sci-Fi Movie

"I [wanted] to just lean into all of the tropes and craziness of what those movies embraced, which was just silly, exploitative," Heald recalls during a Zoom call with SYFY WIRE. "It was the era of, ‘Oh, you're making a comedy? There should be nudity in it!’ At that time, we were still in the resurgence of R-rated comedy, but the ‘80s were just unbelievable in that regard. So, we [Heald and producer Matt Moore] were banging around things, and it felt like we weren't going to get there. I said, ‘It would just be great to write a contemporary take on an ‘80s ski movie. I’d like to have characters from now be able to acknowledge how ridiculous this world is.’"

He continues: "We got on the subject of time travel and were talking about the movie Hot Dog ... and I heard [Moore] say ‘Hot Tub.’ I said, ‘There’s a movie called Hot Tub? How do I not know about this?!’ We started joking about that and the expression ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ was born. The idea that people from now could go back in time and go to an ‘80s ski resort: How do they get there? The Hot Tub Time Machine! It was just a silly, stupid idea that would never be anything. It was an expression that made us laugh."

No one was laughing once MGM decided to buy the loony pitch about three lifelong friends — Adam Yates (John Cusack), Lou Dorchen (Rob Corddry), and Nick Webber (Craig Robinson) — who get a chance to relive a fateful weekend from their youth, circa 1986. The period backdrop would be compounded through an emphasis on fashion, music, late-stage Cold War paranoia, and, most importantly, the silver screen icons of the Reagan years. Aside from Cusack (Say Anything), the film also features appearances from Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), William Zabka (The Karate Kid), and Chevy Chase (Fletch).

Sex Drive's Sean Anders and John Morris were initially tapped to direct, and while Steve Pink (Accepted) ended up helming the movie, the duo did make a credited pass at the existing screenplay. "John and I came in and pitched the idea that, rather than a straight time travel story, our guys were reliving an actual weekend that had defined their lives negatively and were getting a second chance to turn it around," Anders tells us over email.

For context, the original script had the characters observing their younger selves from a distance (à la Marty sneaking around the high school dance in Back to the Future Part II). Anders and Morris's rewrite simplified that concept by having the characters return to their teenage bodies, which "opened up so many scenes and possibilities in terms of what the flow was from there," Heald says.

Released into theaters on March 26, 2010, Hot Tub Time Machine charmed both audiences and critics alike, netting just over $64 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $36 million. Heald says that in spite of the film's "silly title," it does have something important to say about regret. "If you're entering this movie as somebody in their middle age or approaching your middle age, you’re bound to think about the life you've led and the mistakes you've made; the choices you didn't make, any opportunities you passed up and think, ‘What if I had done that a little differently? What if I had been bolder?’ It's a movie that explores all of that within the context of a time travel ski movie."

And even if you're not a middle-aged person filled with a longing to rectify past mistakes, you can still enjoy Hot Tub Time Machine for the wild ride it delivers: "It's just a fun, immersive movie that makes you want to go skiing with your friends and get drunk in a hot tub."

Did Hot Tub Time Machine Influence the Creation of Cobra Kai?

Cobra Kai Season 5

Years later, Heald would get to play in the sandbox of a genuine '80s-era franchise — The Karate Kid — when he developed the acclaimed Cobra Kai TV series alongside Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. While Hot Tub Time Machine gave the screenwriter an excuse to be as crazy as he wanted with the retro backdrop, the task of continuing a legacy IP required a little more finesse.

"With Hot Tub, we weren't beholden to anything in a, ‘Let's be real careful with this legacy because people are watching,' [way]" Heald explains. "It was very much like, ‘We have the world's stupidest title and that's going to (hopefully) work to our advantage, or it's going to be hilarious that it doesn’t.’ With The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai, it was, ‘Wow! They let us take this thing out of the case at the museum. If I get a scratch on this, a lot of people are going to be upset with me.’ We treated one with complete a irreverence, anything goes ... whereas with The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai, it was about, ‘Let's be true to this and let's show a lot more restraint."

The goal with Cobra Kai, which continues the legendary martial arts rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in a contemporary setting, was to play "the long game," Heald adds. "[We] wanted to ease the audience back into these waters; let them know that we have the utmost reverence and share their love and respect and care for this franchise."

Without Hot Tub Time Machine, however, Heald might never have met Zabka, whose cameo was added during reshoots. "That's where we got to know each other and started talking about the very, very early days of, 'Is there something to do with The Karate Kid?’"

Will We Ever Get a Hot Tub Time Machine 3?

Considering it's been almost a decade since the release of Hot Tub Time Machine 2, something tells us Hollywood isn't exactly chomping at the bit to put a third movie into production. Not too shocking, given that the sophomore installment only grossed $13 million globally against a budget of $14 million.

"That movie ended up getting released in the dead of winter during a snowstorm," Heald remembers of HTTM 2, which saw the crew (sans Cusack) traveling into the future. "It crashed and burned at the box office. And yet ... it just continues to play on streaming everywhere. I heard there was an algorithm named after it at one of the streaming services for a product that completely over-performs its expectations. But if there was an opportunity to actually do a proper third movie, the way it was intended, I think that's the only way that the guys and I would come back and do it. Because I think we learned a lot of lessons in terms of, 'You can bend it ‘till it breaks,’ and the second movie broke a couple times."

When we ask what the trilogy capper might entail, the writer teases answers for a number of unresolved "hanging chads," including the mystery of what went down in Cincinnati (if you know, you know).

"The third movie is a bigger movie," he promises. "It would have to return to a budget closer to the first movie, which was not, insane, but it was considerable. Because the third movie has a lot of… we've already been to the past, we've already been to the future. If you look at Back to the Future III, there’s an interesting combo platters to play in terms of going forward and backwards and multiverse in one movie to kind of bring the whole thing home. So, I hope someday we get a chance to do it. It might not be time yet, but the timing is everything. The universe usually presents the opportunity when it's meant to happen."

"I think those crazy raunchy comedies are starting to be missed by a lot of people as the world gets more and more PC," Anders concludes. "It kinda feels like a breath of fresh air to spend a little time in the past when people weren’t outraged 24-7."

Take the plunge for yourself — Hot Tub Time Machine is now streaming on Peacock.

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