Intrigo: Death of an Author
This film tells us that the gulf between what we want to know and what we can know may never be illuminated.
Will Ferrell is not a superstar without Adam McKay. From his time as a head writer on "Saturday Night Live" through the films "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers," and "The Others Guys," and into internet domination with Funny or Die, the two have formed one of the most successful comedy relationships of the current era. They're back for more with the long-anticipated "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." When I was introduced to Mr. McKay, he mentioned that he was just talking about Roger Ebert.
You were talking about Roger?
How much we miss him. He wrote the worst review of anything I've ever done. (Laughs.) And it was so GREAT. We don't care. When you do comedy, you get impervious to good and bad reviews. It was "Step Brothers" and he claimed that it was "the sign of the end of Western civilization." It literally read like Richard Jenkins' character from the movie wrote the review.
Comedy can be SO subjective.
Yeah, we don't care.
Well, let's start there then. What I like about your brand of humor is the complete lack of desperation to please that you see from other comedy. It's more what you find funny than what you hope others will find funny. Is that your motivation? How do you decide if something works for an audience or is it just what makes YOU laugh?
Well, you kind of start with the premise of "it makes us laugh" and there's a little bit of checking in with the crowd. Will and I write our sense of humor. We've been doing it for a long time so there is some adjustment going on that we're not even conscious of. There's some awareness that there's an audience that's going to see it. You're not completely out there. You put it up and, much like horror…in horror and comedy, the audience really has to go with you. So we don't mind losing 'em for stretches. We don't mind throwing something at 'em that they outright don't like but you want them to be with some of the movie. You have a hand on the crowd while you're doing your thing – "Are you with me? Are you with me?" It's a mixture. You pick your moments to go, "Screw the audience" and you pick your moments where you need the audience. And I think we've gotten crafty enough where even when you're trying to bring them back, you're not doing something too hacky. You're trying to do something that's still something that makes us laugh for this part where we need the audience. It's the game. You just put your finger exactly on it – that's the game of comedy.
Your comedy, in particular, has some risk to it. There's a bit in this film in which Ron nurses a shark named Doby like a household pet that goes on so long that it could lose people. There's the dinner scene in which he makes racist comment after racist comment.
The Doby one is a BIG one. Some audiences don't [go with it].
I heard some people mumbling in our audience. And some were loving it.
Exactly! We actually said before the movie tested…You know, with sequels you often see these inflated test scores. I said, "I don't ever want this movie to get over a 90." I want 10% of the crowd NOT to like this movie. You want the majority to be into it but that was literally our mission. Let's not get too lovable with this. Let's make sure we sing a love song to a shark. Let's make sure we touch on some racial stuff. A lot of people wanted us to cut the shark. (Laughs.) We open our movie with a shark attack. It's not standard storytelling.
Who else did that? In your opinion, which filmmakers pushed against that comedic concept of standard storytelling? I think of Mel Brooks when I see your work, particularly here in terms of pushing racial issues and having a singular sense of "I don't care if you like this or not".
He's the inspiration for sure. "Blazing Saddles" is one of the funniest movies ever made. It's the one specifically of his that I love. And I think "Blazing Saddles" is the father of "Airplane!" The father of "Blazing Saddles" is the Marx Brothers. That sort of scattershot, ensemble comedy in which it's all different kinds of comedy – it's absurd, it's edgy, it's dry… That's my favorite kind of stuff. "Airplane!" was the one for me. I was in sixth grade and I remember going to see that movie like seven times and just tears in my eyes I was laughing so hard. And I've specifically pointed to one joke from "Airplane!" and I've talked with other comedy writers who remember the joke too…
Is it "George Zip is in the hospital…"?
(Laughs.) No, that's a GOOD one though. It's "Boy Trapped in Refrigerator Eats Own Foot." I've had conversations with numerous people who say that joke was a turning point in their life. You're in the theater and you're like, "Holy shit, anything can happen."
From there to "Anchorman 2". I think the first question most people will have is "What took so long"?
That was really Will and I just really didn't want to do a sequel. After the first year, no one was really asking. You did a good job, you get to make another movie. Great! So we made "Talladega Nights." That did really well. It did better than "Anchorman," actually. But during the junket of "Talladega Nights" we started hearing, "What's up with Anchorman? Are you going to do a sequel?" And we started hearing people quoting it. And then on Halloween I see people dressed up like Ron Burgundy. And I thought, "This is weird."
Is that when you knew it was an industry? I just read a piece in the lobby about a Ron Burgundy-branded scotch.
It's insane. The t-shirts. Every third episode of ESPN Sportscenter. It's crazy. So then we kept getting hammered. "Why aren't you making a second Anchorman?!?!" It got louder. And louder. For five years, we were like, "No, we're not making a second Anchorman." Why would we? Sequels are desperate. We're cooler than that. We kind of thought, "Wait a minute. If we do a sequel, we'll have enough cred from the first movie that we could do crazy-ass shit. We won't have to establish new character and story and just jump right into what we want to do." The second part was, "Can we make a good sequel?" There are a lot of flat comedy sequels and you always want some challenge with what you're doing. The idea of that challenge – Can we make a sequel that doesn't suck?
Quality comedy sequels are RARE. "Airplane 2" is not a good movie.
No, it's not. The two we always point to are "Austin Powers 2" and "Wayne's World 2." That actually might be the best comedy sequel ever.
So the delay included a lot of apprehension on your part about quality?
Yeah. Not just a fear that it wouldn't work but we had other movies and other ideas that we loved. "The Other Guys" – I love that movie. And we could do that all day long – come up with ideas for other movies. That's the funnest thing in the world to do.
So when you finally give in, how do you start? How does this story break? You must have had a hundred ideas.
No, no. We had four. (Laughs.) It was basically as if you and I were to sit down and say, "What's the third one going to be about?" We just start to riff ideas. Will and I did that. And then 24-hour news came up. I went to a computer and looked up when CNN started and it was perfect timing. 1980, CNN – only four years away from when our first movie takes place. Then you start reading about it more and learn that they actually went and got local anchors like Lou Dobbs from Seattle. Holy crap, they would have gone after…It lined up crazily well at that point.
Let's talk a little process. We've all seen the "Line-o-Rama" special features [in which alternate, adlibbed takes are used] – When you walk into a scene like the dinner scene, for example, how much of that is scripted and how much is bare-bones for Will to riff in the middle of?
We always do two or three takes, as written. We have a scripted that we've vetted and beefed up and it's the script. We know that we'll have the as-written and that it works. Once we get that down, all bets are off. I'll usually get the ball rolling by throwing out alternate lines. We just jump in. And then I'll tell Ferrell, "Try this" and he'll get going and throw out lines. And then all the actors around the table get it. Suddenly, it gets to be fun and that's when everybody loosens up and sometimes then I'll go back and get a script take again. At that point, you're just kind of pulling and picking. I'm looking for chunks, lines, reactions, moments – most of all, it's fun as hell.
Is Will in on that editing/picking process?
That's usually me and my editing team. We go through it and edit it together. He trusts me when it comes to that. The only thing he'll do is he'll come to the screenings and say three or four things. By the end of the process, I'll make him come in for a day. He has GREAT instincts. His notes are always spot-on. We'll talk through it. At this point, we know each other so well.
Do you worry at all about with increased racial sensitivity, how people are going to respond to some of the things Ron Burgundy says in that dinner scene?
For sure. It was really important that it be that these guys are clueless. They're not hateful. Well, maybe Champ Kind. (Laughs.) Champ Kind is not a good guy. But for Ferrell, Rudd, and Carell, they're just clueless. They're the person who is from Kansas who has never met an African-American before who meets one and says, "Hey, do you play basketball?" It's got to be that. If that same person says, "Hey, did you steal something from my house?," it's not funny. Then it's hateful. Then you start thinking about wrongly jailed minorities. You start thinking about bad, dark, dark shit instead of just dopes not getting it. And that's what these guys are. We had to straddle that line through the whole thing. It's all supposed to be coming from good intentions. They can't connect. They just don't know any better. That was the force of it. I've actually noticed black audiences laugh harder than white ones.
We're in a time when those kind of jokes more scrutinized and criticized than ever.
Yeah. It also depends what part of the country you're in. There's a big difference Chicago, LA, the cities – they get it. They're able to laugh at it.
Yet they also have pockets that might criticize it with more of a magnifying glass.
Absolutely. It's definitely not politically correct. But we're cool with that.
I want to talk a little bit about the future of film delivery since you've done so much online with Funny or Die and now there's this Superticket for "Anchorman 2" [in which audiences could pay $33 to see it early]. How much do you think the film-going experience will be different in ten years?
I think this Superticket thing is going to be a big wave of the future. Think of airlines – their whole profit margin is built around first-class tickets. That's where they make their money. You're going to see that happen with movies. Everything in America is so stratified by class now. We have the 93rd level of income inequality in the world. You're already seeing highway lanes that are for pay and ones that aren't. Everything is going to be defined like this. You're already seeing it with movies. You're going to see big IMAX seats that shake, special surround sound, the screen is going to wrap around, etc. and they're going to sell these tickets for $100, $150, $200 for event movies. You're going to see it more and more. This is just me guessing. And you're going to see the indie film world go to VOD and internet. I guess what I'm saying everyone kind of knows.
And I think people will spend $200 to watch a brand-new movie at home the day it comes out.
By the way, you're 100% correct. That will happen as well. Anywhere there's a profit.
Finally, I have to ask, now that we've done this one, "Talladega Nights" sequel?
I don't think any more sequels for a while. We'll take a break, go do a couple original ones, and maybe five years from now see what people are saying.
That's the next one they're going to bug you about.
They already have.
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