A failing school system is the setting for a day of pranks and a teacher battle in the new comedy “Fist Fight,” which stars Charlie Day and Ice Cube as two high school teachers of opposing ideologies. Day’s English teacher Andy Campbell wants to inspire his students with big speeches on their last day, while Cube’s far more aggressive history teacher Strickland desires to educate or else, even when showing a group of troublesome students a stuffy Ken Burns documentary on a crummy VCR system. After Campbell unintentionally helps Strickland get fired, Strickland challenges Campbell to a fight after school. For the rest of the day, while also juggling his duties as a father and husband, Campbell prepares for the battle with help of Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan) and a scene-stealing guidance counselor played by Jillian Bell. Adding to the cast, Kumail Nanjiani appears as an apathetic security guard, and Christina Hendricks plays a French teacher with her own animosity towards Campbell.
"Fist Fight" is a big moment for both Day and Keen—though Day has been a TV star with his irreverent FX series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and was a key part of the "Horrible Bosses" franchise, this is his first lead comedic role in a feature. As for Keen, the actor-turned-director is making his feature debut after directing TV shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "The Goldbergs" and "Angie Tribeca."
RogerEbert.com spoke with Day and Keen about their new film, how they modeled its title climax event after the big fight in "They Live," Day's response to critics of a recent controversial "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" episode and more.
When making "Fist Fight," were you thinking a lot about your particular presentation of teachers, students and schools within a failing education system?
CHARLIE DAY: I will happily answer that question. Well, the funny thing is, how long did we shoot the movie? Almost two years ago?
RICHIE KEEN: We finished last November, almost a year-and-a-half.
CD: A year-and-a-half ago we filmed it. So that means the writing was prior to that, and any tweaks we did to it were around there. So, we knew that the educational system in our country then could be improved. I’m sure under this current administration it will have its woes, and I’m sure with whoever is next or after that it will have its woes again. So, I think a theme of “We can do better with our school system” is a fairly safe bet in this country, and obviously we don’t answer it with a studio, R-rated comedy filled with penises and fist fights. If it helps have people talk and sympathize with our teachers who are really, I think—the students are victims of a broken school system, but the teachers are often blamed, and I’m the son of two teachers, so I would know—are in a hard place too. And even our evil principal character [Dean Norris], he also is just under the thumb of someone else.
RK: Yeah, I had a lot of empathy for him. You know, I saw this movie as a prison riot movie from the get-go. If you look at the school I picked, and how I shot the movie and where we start the movie in that courtyard. You’ll never see—I’m pretty sure this is true—you’ll never see two students mess with each other, it’s the prison guards vs. the inmates. And I don’t have the answer, so I didn’t in the movie try to answer the question, but I did want to show that Dean Norris is a lot like the vice principal that I had, and I had empathy for that guy. He was tough, the kids hated him, he was mean. But I was like, “This guy’s middle management. He’s just trying to navigate everything. He’s just getting orders from someone else.” I do think it’s a pretty rough look at the public school system. I don’t think we took a political take on it.
CD: No, I don’t have the answer for it, I can’t tell you what one philosophy versus another, whether or not one is going to be more successful or less successful. But I can tell you that the schools that need help and surely need money.
RK: And we definitely decided early on to take it all the way. It was important to me that Charlie’s character and Ice Cube’s characters both be teachers who really care, they just have different philosophies. Charlie’s character wants to be your buddy and lead by inspiring, and Ice Cube says in the movie, “I don’t need to be liked, I need to educate.” But he loves that Civil War documentary. He wants you to learn, he just doesn’t care if you like him. And that was important to me, that they’re not just bumbling idiots. We had a good time surrounding them with taking Jillian all the way, taking Tracy all the way, taking Dean all the way and Kumail [Nanjiani]. But I just thought like, if these guys don’t care, if Charlie starts off, Charlie wrote that speech that he gives to the students. Every time he gives that speech, he cares. He’s trying to inspire you. And so we also wanted to show you that the teachers are trying. Some of them.
It is like an in-your-face idea of what a suffering school would be like, that the funding would be cut, or that Ice Cube would only have a VCR player to show a Ken Burns documentary.
CD: There’s obviously heightened elements of storytelling and that’s for the sake of comedy. But hopefully there should be something really honest that rings true.
What excited both of you the most, and scared you the most, about this project?
CD: For me, the opportunity to get to carry a film and be the guy who you’re following his story is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Here was a chance to do it, and it seemed like the right fit for me, as opposed to some other [movies] that I had that chance with and decided not to do. And what scared me was probably the same thing [laughs]. I didn’t totally feel like I couldn’t do it, just because of the history of our television show, and how many episodes my character carries.
RK: But you arc this thing out beautifully.
CD: But what if we make a bad movie?
RK: He really thought through—you know, we were shooting out of sequence—he really arced out when is he letting the other people be crazy, and when is he finally losing his mind.
CD: I was excited to play a character, certainly in the beginning of the movie, who was a straight man in a sea of crazy people. That I could react to Jillian, react to Tracy, and then to get a chance to unravel and be a bit crazy myself. I start the movie as reactive, and then there’s a moment, I think it’s after the horse-pull, where the character snaps into proactive, and it’s fun to get to do those and play those different gears.
RK: I think the thing I was most excited about was casting. I just wanted to find this motley crew. Rewriting Jillian’s role, which was originally for a guy, rewriting Tracy’s role, which was sort of for a younger white guy, and then getting a guy like Dean Norris to stand next to Tracy, getting someone like Christina Hendricks just to be next to Ice Cube was such an interesting, weird thing—that was the part I was most eager to get going on. And to me, the thing that was the most terrifying was delivering on the promise of the title, and shooting a fight. I said to everyone to everyone from the get-go, “We have to beat in time and brutalness ‘They Live.’’” That was my thing, that was my benchmark. Those are two guys fighting, it gets so silly but I love that fight. I’ve watched that fight so many times. I worked with Keith David, and all I did was ask him about that fight and how much did he do, and how much was the stunt, how long did he film it for …
CD: I would have been intimidated in your position for how to cover a fight, how to shoot it properly, how to make sure it’s both believable and entertaining.
RK: Well, I over-covered it. We spent eight days on the fight. And I over-covered it because I shot from the roof, I shot from within the crowd. And then when I got in the editing room, I just felt like every time I backed up, I got out of the grit of it. There are some shots from within the crowd and there’s a helicopter shot, but I would say for the majority of the fight you’re right in there with those guys.
CD: You mean we didn’t have to shoot for eight days? You son of a bitch!
RK: Probably could have done it in six. But you look at this fight, and these two guys …
RK: They’re fucking fighting!
It’s an interesting tonal balance. You’re watching these men fight, and it’s not jokey fighting.
RK: And we worked really hard to make sure that Charlie’s journey into the fight made it so that by the time you made it to the fight, first of all you might like Ice Cube. I mean, he’s nuts, but you might go, Ahh, he’s got a point. But also, you had to believe that Charlie was going to scrap.
CD: And fight for his life. You want it to be visceral. And you’re right, tonally it is interesting because I’m not the biggest fan of comedies where nothing is real. And Richie and I had a lot of conversations about, you know, the principal can be funny but I want it to be real. Which is why Dean Norris is such great casting. And when a police officer arrests you, he’s not played by …
RK: A wacky, comedy actor.
CD: Yeah, it’s not a surprise guest appearance by Will Ferrell—as much as I love Will Ferrell—you want it to feel like a real cop. Well, Kumail, some of the employees of the school can be heightened. You can have a wacky security guard or a counselor or a gym coach. And beyond that, let’s try to keep them grounded so therefore the fight too, if it just doesn’t feel as though it’s real, or if it doesn’t feel as though it’s violent or a little upsetting ... because fights are actually are upsetting to watch.
It doesn’t lose that disturbing nature. They’re desperate. It’s dark.
CD: Yeah, I just saw a fight the other day. A huge brawl. I was in Australia, and it was Australia Day and these teenagers, probably high school kids, were just fighting in the streets. And one was really bloody, and it was really upsetting. I ran down to try and break it up, but it had already disbanded by the time I got there. I was kind of hoping that someone would recognize me and it would distract them [laughs].
That’s marketing for you.
CD: Yeah, if I got beaten up that would have been a much better story [laughs]. But, it’s actually an upsetting thing to see.
RK: And we found the moments ... I wanted it to feel like the end of a horror movie, where in the final chase you’re going through all of the places you’ve been. There are moments in the movie that we set up that we thought, hopefully someone slipping and falling will be funny, hopefully in the moment. But how funny would it be if you guys are in the middle of a brutal fight and suddenly, just when the audience kind of needs a minute, you guys are slipping and sliding? Or the baseball bat. So we just wanted to make sure. I actually had a longer cut of the fight, and everybody felt like, “It’s too much. It’s too brutal.”
CD: But also I think, look—I’m partial to Campbell’s point of view in the movie, but I think because he is the guy you’re following, the story with his wife and children and you’re following his story, I think that the fight can’t just be glamorous and glorious and cool. Because Strickland’s point-of-view that fighting is the way to solve your problems is not actually the correct point-of-view. And [Campbell's] point-of-view that you can avoid all problems with a joke or a pleasant comment also isn’t a correct point of view. But if the fighting was just too sexy and cool, then that would be doing a main disservice to a character’s point-of-view, that he’s willing to do it and go through it and go down swinging because he does have nothing to lose at this point. But it can’t be glamorous for either of the characters.
RK: I actually think that there are going to be teachers with Ice Cube’s face on their t-shirt. That every kid gets a trophy and fuck a trophy, that actions have consequences, no one’s being held accountable anymore—I really feel that’s a message a lot of teachers will be like, “Yeah! Someone should kick someone’s ass!”
CD: Right. But we can’t swing our axes into the desks, and we can’t be challenging each other to brutal fights.
Richie, you mentioned that you had changed the casting for certain characters, but was Ice Cube’s character always meant to be played by Ice Cube, or another black actor?
CD: No, you can see in the script that race doesn’t play into the story at all.
RK: We were always colorblind on all of it.
CD: I’m really proud of that. In fact, you’re the first person to even bring it up in all of these interviews—so shame on you! [Laughs]
But I think it should be asked, it’s an interesting component in that you’re a small white guy next to Ice Cube.
RK: Ice Cube kind of transcends … that’s the interesting thing.
CD: But you know, we addressed it once in the script, and we looked at it in the storytelling, and it wound up shining an unnecessary light on it.
RK: You said it, we had it in the cut at one point, and we took it out. I think once you have Tracy and Kumail, it’s just that everyone’s nuts. The teachers of all colors, the kids.
Yeah, your casting for high schoolers in particular made for a lot of interracial friendships, which was more the 2017 that I recognize.
CD: Yeah, that’s the America we’re living in. And I think it’s refreshing that these two men are fighting but it’s not about race. They’re fighting and race has nothing to do with it, and they’re not arguing about race. They both know that has nothing to do with the conflict that they’re having—not that race isn’t a conflict in America, but it’s not in this particular film.
And Charlie, given your recent episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” where the characters are black for a day, as played by other actors, was it a coincidence you were dealing with race there too? That you were trying to bring those ideas or concepts to an audience that would also see “Fist Fight”?
CD: Yeah, well, it’s always with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that we’re trying to shine a light on lot some problems in our society, and we do it through these characters who are blind to their actions. And obviously we’ve done so many episodes that deal with race and race-related issues because it’s an issue that just won’t go away in our society, and we certainly can’t solve that problem. But we don’t shy away from shining a light directly on it. “Sunny” is a different approach, where these are bad people and let’s shine a light on their point-of-view, or oftentimes let’s find the humor in their misunderstanding and their inability—certainly with our musical episode, with them singing about “What Are the Rules?” because it is confusing for people, what are the rules of race relations and how do we fix things.
RK: Until a black kid gets shot.
CD: That’s the only difference that the characters actually find. They say, “You know what, that’s not happening to a large amounts of unarmed white people in this country.” But then tragically, they don’t even learn that lesson at the end, because it’s the characters of “Sunny,” and that’s a little bit more indicative of our nation, which is no matter how often these things keep popping up, we don’t seem to learn our lessons from it. So, hopefully people understand that that’s what we’re trying to do with the show. But you know, if they don’t, I can’t water down our show for someone who might not look at it like that.
But at the same time, are you reading other responses to that episode, think-pieces and reviews that came from that? People were really shocked about it.
CD: I read a few things where people were shocked. Mostly, I read positive reviews, I’d say 90%, and then I read the 10% of people who didn’t have a positive review. And of course, it’s heartbreaking because you say to yourself, Oh no, no, no, no, no, that’s not what we’re saying at all. We’re in fact saying the complete opposite of what you think the joke is. The joke is not black people, the joke’s on what white people don’t understand. But, at the same time, I totally understand people’s sensitivity, which is to say, “Hey, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” but I will not subscribe to this culture of outrage that we’re living in. And, look, if you’re going to be upset about that episode then you have to be upset about all of our other episodes, you know, you should be upset about crippled people and you should be upset about ... yeah, there’s a laundry list of things we’ve covered, and that’s the difficulty with satire, it doesn’t always get picked up right. You live your comedic life close to the edge, you’re gonna cross the line and offend people. I apologize when it does, but you know, for the 90% of people who aren’t offended, who understand, that’s why we make it.
You went for it.
CD: We always do. We’ve done it for 12 years, and the culture keeps changing. You know, it’s really interesting because we made that episode well before this presidential election, and I think the national climate changed by the time it aired. We’re living in dry brush right now, and it takes one match to start a wildfire. But I’m glad that the majority of people, that the 90% of people get the tone of “Sunny.” And I’m glad that, in the case of “Fist Fight,” that people aren’t looking for that this is a movie about race relations, and I’m glad that they’re picking up that it’s a movie about our education system.
Richie, this is your first directed movie. And Charlie, this is your first feature lead comedic role. How do you feel about where you are in your current status?
CD: I’m thrilled with where I am. I realize it’s a gift to just have a job in this business, in this economy, in this modern world. We’ve been going around pitching the movie and I can’t tell you the amount of “Sunny” fans around the country, and the overwhelmingly positive response to this season. So, I put myself in the category of “Lucky Guy,” and my hopes for the future are that I can continue to push the envelope for myself, and creatively and see what’s next.
And with movies, too? Do you see yourself doing more movies?
CD: I think so, yeah. I love both, but I’m not walking away from “Sunny” anytime soon.
RK: My career has been an exercise in pivots: I was a stand-up comic, an actor, an acting teacher, a television director, and now over 20 years. So, I very much fall in the league of “Lucky Guy,” I will follow this guy everywhere, and I just want to keep creating stuff that will make people laugh. As I’ve said many times on this tour, right now I think people want to laugh and they want to punch someone. And this is the perfect movie for them.
Well, that says a lot about America.
CD: Yeah. It’s an interesting time we’re in!