Writer-director Adam McKay seems like a man forged of comedy. With roots in several improv groups (Second City, iO, and a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade), a stint doing shorts for "Saturday Night Live," and a co-founder (along with his constant comedy partner Will Ferrell) of the Funny or Die website, McKay lives and breathes the funny. Not to mention, in just 10 short years, he has directed and co-written a handful of the most quotable films in recent memory, including ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY, STEP BROTHERS, THE OTHER GUYS, and out this week, ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES.
It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the connective tissue in all of these films is Will Ferrell (and in most cases, John C. Reilly as well) as both lead actor and writing partner, and it's almost tough to believe that Paramount (or any studio for that matter) would just throw money at McKay and Ferrell to make whatever they want, but there was a time when ANCHORMAN 2 wasn't getting made due to budgetary restraints, a situation McKay now believes was a good thing and forced him not to go completely over the top in every scene in the new film.
If the accounts are true, McKay is often the most vocal during his films' now-famous improv moments. Like most comedy directors of late, he shoots a scene as scripted and then does additional takes to let the actors cut loose, with McKay off camera hurling random outrageous lines to riff on and build upon. The results are always featured on the DVD extras of his films, and make them well worth owning. But many of the outtake jokes end up in the trailers and commercials for the films as well. And in the case of ANCHORMAN 2, an entirely different cut of the film exists (to be featured on the DVD release) with all of the jokes swapped out for alternate takes, which I talk to McKay about.
In fact, enough with the prologue. I cover a fair amount of ground with McKay, so let's get to it. It's not surprising that he's just about one of the easiest people to talk to and joke around with, but he's also good at dissecting his work and figuring out what needed to happen to make his first sequel different and better than the first. Please enjoy by talk with Adam McKay…
Capone: The first thing I remember thinking when I saw ANCHORMAN ten years ago was that how impressive it was that everyone was allowed a chance to be funny. At the time, that was definitely not happening in the bigger comedies. They all seemed to be centered around "the star," and then there were lots of supporting players, which each got a couple of moments. But to see everyone get equal time, more or less, that was a little shocking.
Adam McKay: That was actually, specifically how we approached the movie, as a reaction to that. Will and I were talking about how we missed the movies like STRIPES, CADDYSHACK, BLUES BROTHERS.
Capone: ANIMAL HOUSE, all the early Landis stuff.
AM: Landis was a master of it, and no one was making those. Part of it was you had this once-in-a-generation comic, Jim Carrey, who could really carry a city on his back. And so he became the model, and then every other movie was based on what he was doing, but we felt the same way. We felt like you get better comedy when you don't know where it’s coming from at all times; comedy is always built on surprise. So we very pointedly wrote it that way.
In fact, God bless Ferrell, we were even talking about the fact that Brick Tamland is probably the funniest character. Ferrell and I wrote that character, and with many stars it would be like, “I’m not writing the funniest character for someone else.” And Ferrell was totally game for it, so, you’re absolutely right, that was the whole idea behind the movie: let’s do an ensemble comedy and let’s have Fred Willard be funny and let’s have [Christina] Applegate be funny and let’s have Vince Vaughn be funny. You don't know where it’s going to come from.
Capone: You and Will both came out of that improv background, and he obviously did a great deal of sketch comedy. Do you think that way of thinking came from that, where it really always was a shared experience among the members?
AM: Absolutely, yeah. The group I was at "Saturday Night Live" with was really collaborative. There’s been years there where it’s dog-eat-dog and it’s everyone fighting to get to the top. In fact, Lorne [Michaels] and some of the other producers would always joke about it. “Where did we get all these theater people this time?” Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, they were all just really collaborative people. I started doing stand-up comedy in Philadelphia when I was in college, and then I came to Chicago to do improv and right away took to it more. I love the collaborative larger group, and they just do a lot more. And that’s Ferrell’s experience as well. He always has played well with other people, and I think it’s huge. The foundation for everything we do is based on that.
Capone: And now it’s become the norm.
AM: Yeah, now it’s commonplace. Judd [Apatow] started to do it as well, and Seth [Rogen] and his gang that splintered off of Judd did it with THIS IS THE END, which is a total ensemble comedy. And by the way, I thought a large part of the reason that movie worked was that it was an ensemble comedy.
Capone: I had been told a while ago by one of your four primary cast members that the original ANCHORMAN script was literally unfilmable. There were orangoutangs with Chinese throwing stars on a deserted island?
AM: Well, I would of course argue that it was not un-filmable [laughs].
Capone: Not today with special effects, but back then maybe?
AM: Even at that time, we could have done it. [pauses] Here’s what it really was: Un-sellable. That’s what it really was. We got no’s from like 26 different studios, financeers, smaller studios--all in one day. Twenty-six no’s! It was crazy. We were working on something else, and all day long we kept getting no, no, no. Until by the end, only DreamWorks, Mike De Luca at DreamWorks, God bless him. He was like, “I see something here. This isn’t going to be it, but I see something here.” So we developed it with him, and it turned into more what it was, and even after we developed it with him, they still let it go, and we had to go do ELF. And during ELF, OLD SCHOOL hit, and that’s how we eventually got to do ANCHORMAN.
Capone: So going into ANCHORMAN 2, what was the mission statement? What were the things that you wanted to do differently and what were the things that you were willing to keep the same?
AM: That’s the central question: What’s the alchemy behind The Sequel? And we really looked at that long and hard and were like, "Where do sequels go wrong? Where do they go right?" And the answer is pretty simple. The ones that go right are the ones that continue the story, that do something new, that take the characters and push them forward. The one’s that stumble are the ones that repeat the same beats and the same story, and you get bored halfway though watching it. So our goal was to continue the story, to have these guys evolve, as much as they can evolve. They are the guys who are impervious to evolving.
Capone: They might have peaked in terms of personal growth, sure.
AM: Exactly, to evolve just a little bit. And we also knew that we couldn’t be too strict about it, too orthodox about it. That there are some things that you want to see again. So, we just tried really hard to get the right balance. We felt the gang fight was something we could do bigger and better and different. Or with the cologne cabinet, we didn’t want to repeat that, but if we did something different with it that was okay. And then we felt like we had to give Baxter a little heroic moment, so those were the three beats we repeated. Then obviously, the characters repeat, the style of comedy repeats. But by the end, we were like, hopefully we picked the right amount because you don't wanna keep that predictable feeling going. That was it. That was the central thing: don't repeat yourself too much. Create a new story and go forward.
Capone: You almost have your own little short film about Brick’s love life scattered throughout here, which is pretty bold. You take the funniest character, as you said, and give him this little side story; you weren't even bold enough to do that in the original. What was the thinking there?
AM: Well, with the whole movie, one of the reasons we, after five or six years of saying no to sequels, asking "Why would we do a sequel when we could do original movies?", one of the things we realized was because the first movie found this audience, we had a lot more room to screw around. They were going to give us a break. Whereas the first one, we were coming in throwing rocks trying to get away with what we were doing. In this one now, suddenly we got more rope, so the idea was that we could do this. That was basically it.
We probably would have done it with the first one if we had been allowed to and we would have had way more tangents and side stories. Now, you've got an audience educated in our style, whereas the first one, the first 10 minutes never really played that great whenever we would test it. Everyone was like, “Wait, what's going on? What’s the tone of this?” And then they would catch it, and then we were fine. But with this one, right away they were with it, and it’s an amazing difference, so that was it. Basically the reason we did that love story is because we could. [laughs]
Capone: Truth be told, you did have plenty of side stories in the first one, because you made a whole second movie out of side stories.
AM: Yeah, that’s true.
Capone: I know it might be driving you a little crazy to be asked questions about extra material when the movie hasn’t come out yet, but I’m hearing about this whole alternate cut. That’s a real thing?
AM: That’s a real thing. Yeah, just this morning, I was sending notes to our editor Brent White about “Put this in, put this in.” And the idea is--and I think we’ve come really close--to replace every single joke in the entire movie with a new joke, an alt joke. I think there’s like five lines that had to repeat just because the line we put in the first one was already an improv alt that breached two moments. I think there’s like five or six moments that repeat, but besides that, every single joke. And there are storylines that obviously you don’t need to replace because they are straight lines, but yeah every funny moment. Plus, there are new scenes, plus there are whole improv runs.
Capone: What about the musical number?
AM: A huge musical number is the one big thing that we cut, so that will be in this cut. And there’s a lot of new stuff. I think there is 15-20 minutes of extra material as well as everything being replaced. It’s fun though, man. We watched it, and it’s actually a blast.
Capone: Do you think something like that would get a theatrical run? Could you put that in theaters?
AM: We tried.
Capone: I’d love to see that with an audience.
AM: That’s what we said. We said like, if they are doing 3-D re-releases, why wouldn't you save this and release this theatrically? They're smart though. They know what they're doing. I mean, it’s like the marketing ripples when you do your launch and then fades away, and to re-start it to get something else out, I guess is tough to do. But they are being great about it. They're going to put it out as a special Blu-ray/DVD release. Whereas the first movie, when we did the alt movie, they didn’t even put it out. We told them, “Hey, we have another movie,” and they didn’t believe us. It was only once the movie hit like two years later, they put it out.
Capone: Right. Well, I remember for a while you could only get it at Best Buy in a two pack with the original film, which is where I remember getting it. This has been going on for years, but it’s funny, I’ve watched each and every trailer and commercial for this film, and they're just loaded with takes that are not in the final film, including that whole sequence where they are grilling the guy about being gay, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. That’s the funniest thing in that trailer.” Where is that scene?
AM: I love that scene. It’s heartbreaking. Here’s what it was. It was tied to the big musical number, and there’s no way. We tried and tried, and that scene is so funny, and by the way, it’s way longer too. There’s a whole like four other runs in there, and there is no way to get it into the movie unless you buy the whole musical number. The musical number was so long. And by the way, the musical number worked. It got laughs. It played, but you could just feel the story drag because it was such a tangent. So that will be in the alt cut. But that may be the most painful scene [to cut from the theatrical release] because I love that scene.
Capone: But my point was that filmmakers have got this way now of previewing deleted scenes and jokes in their trailers now.
AM: Yeah, in fact I just saw this new TV ad and I was like, "None of those jokes are in the movie." But the funny thing is, people used to complain that all the best jokes are in the trailer or the commercials. We now use jokes that aren't in the movie, and people then complain because they’re not in the movie. So eventually you’re just like, whatever.
Capone: There is this pseudo-serious, underlying message about where the media has gone since beginning of the '80s and the birth of 24-hour news. That seems more overt than anything you tried in the first film.
AM: Part of the impetus for the first one was how ridiculous broadcast news is. Yeah, so that was a little bit of it--the panda watch and things like that--but you’re right, there’s more of it in this one. Well first off, everyone knows it’s true, so it wasn’t like we were going out on a limb. [laughs] But also it just naturally came out of the idea, once we picked 24-hour news and once you start looking at it, you realize, “Oh wait a minute. Once 24-hour news came about, they had to fill more time. Then suddenly there were stories about babies in wells and car chases.”
And then we realized, what if Ron Burgundy did all of this? So it naturally came out of it, but we were concerned that it might play a little dry. That it might play a little Marshall McLuhan or Paddy Chayefsky, but the audience just hooked on it right away. People know it’s true. It gets huge laughs. Like the graphics joke and all the other crappy trashy news, and everyone really gets that joke, so that was a great surprise for us, the way audiences bought that part.
Capone: Well, it’s funny because you’re not only saying that Ron did this; you're saying he invented it?
AM: Yeah, he was literally the guy. No one ever really invents anything; it’s always a result of 70 people's ideas.
Capone: I bet you the guy who put on the first live car chase tells you that he invented it.
AM: By the way, I bet you’re right. [laughs]
Capone: And it was probably somebody in L.A.
AM: Yeah, I think you're probably right. It had to be, right?
Capone: When you and Will were writing this, what was the toughest nut to crack? We talked a little bit about sequelizing things, but in terms of just the story?
AM: I think you may have hit on it actually, the idea of inventing the trash news. How do you not make that dry? How do you make that fun and colorful? And then untangling it in the end, how do you have Ron Burgundy, who is 90 percent clueless, have a moment of awareness without it feeling really false? And then we figured out that Applegate was the key, that Corningstone would have quit her job because of it, would have said everything to him so you would get it. And then through him meeting her, that's what would lead us to, "Alright I think Burgundy could almost get there."
So we were really careful about it. He just says one legitimate line when he walks off. He just says the one about how the news is supposed to watch the powerful so they don’t become corrupt, and we figured out that’s as much as he can say before it starts feeling like Elmer Fudd talking about Nietzsche at that point. So yeah, that was probably the trickiest. And then endings of all movies are tricky, and we kept writing big sort of actiony endings that were crazy. And finally we just said, "You know what? Let's just have it be about the characters. Let’s go back to what the original one was--his son, his wife, the news." That's what this is about, and then we were about to chop the gang fight in, so we got our action too.
Capone: With that gang fight, it seems like you had a list of everybody you could possibly get in there and instead of going “Okay, this guy, this guy, this guy,” you said, “Let’s just put them all in there.”
AM: We were a little more discriminating than that. We did say no to some people.
Capone: I really wish I had a pause button, so I could look at all the faces and see who's in there.
AM: Yeah, there was a lot of people in there. Those were our fan favorites. Those were the people we loved, so it’s like Sacha Baron Cohen, Kanye West, Liam Neeson, Will Smith, John C. Riley, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Jim Carey, Marion Cotiard. These are all people who we just love and are friends with, and the idea was to just create a dream team line up where every single person you’re excited to see. And to go three steps beyond what you should go. So I warned them, "We may have too much here. We may have to cut one of you." But the audience went with it.
Capone: You and Will have written a lot together over the years. Is there a difference between creating something from scratch versus using characters that you’ve used before and then having to introduce new characters? Is writing new characters into a familiar world tougher than creating everything from the ground up?
AM: I think the hardest thing to do is create new characters from whole cloth, that’s the hardest because the audience has to get familiar with them. All the rhythms and patterns, you’re not getting a break on any of those. It’s really the first 20 minutes of the movie you’ve got to really battle though it and go "Please accept these guys, please accept these guys." So this was far easier as far as, you know what these guys do. The only trick was to not repeat yourself too much. This was an easier script. THE OTHER GUYS was a really hard script to write. STEP BROTHERS was not; that was a breeze. TALLADEGA NIGHTS was really hard to write. Those two were really hard, and this was much easier.
Capone: Was TALLADEGA NIGHTS harder just because you had to build it within this very real world.
AM: Well, it’s all about expectations. The sports movie has just been done thousands of times, so the big thing in that was how do you have him win the race without it just being him winning the race? So we finally just came up with the idea that he runs across the finish line after the wreck, so he doesn't really win. Once we cracked that, we knew we weren't going to be too cliche.
Capone: Not to get too far ahead here, but have you at least mentally prepared yourself for the idea that maybe somewhere down the line you might make a third one of these and do a comedy trilogy?
Capone: Maybe set the movie a little deeper into the '80s?
AM: It’s funny, Will and I had like a five-minute conversation about it, and we have like scraps of ideas, and both of us just always say, "You know what, let’s just let this come out. We’ll go do a couple of other movies, and in a year and a half or two years, if people start badgering us again, maybe we’ll start thinking about it." But believe me, the studio wants us to do a third one. Everyone wants us. But this was so great how this happened, that it was called for. How often does that ever happen? And we want to leave it like that. Let it be in the fans' hands.
Capone: I know you shot a lot of this in Atlanta, doubling for New York, even that park looked a lot like Central Park.
AM: It was pretty good, wasn't it?
Capone: Pretty convincing. I’ve always heard that the real tough part about shooting in Atlanta is not the heat, it’s keeping everyone on the cast and crew from eating themselves to death.
AM: That's true. There is some good food down there, man. Oh my god. There was like a pizza place down there--I’m spacing on the name--but it might be the best pizza I’ve ever had, and I can't believe I’m not going to tell you the name of it. If you just type in “best pizza in Atlanta,” all the answers are this place because it’s fantastic. We actually brought a trainer with us who worked out with a bunch of us, and he saved us. That’s how I did not gain a ton of weight. New York was much worse. I put on 25 pounds on THE OTHER GUYS. I was gigantic by the end of it because the food was so freaking good.
Atlanta was nice. It was very user friendly. The weather is scrappy down there though. You get rain blowing in and blowing out. That was actually the toughest thing. But our production designer Clayton Hartley is one of the best in the business, and he did an amazing job like creating layers to the shots. A New York Post truck way in the background that you’re not even conscious of. He helped us get away with it.
Capone: Probably the second-most-asked question you get is, are you contemplating the next Ferrell-Riley re-teaming?
AM: Yeah, I personally really want that. I think those two guys are so amazing together, and I love John C. Riley. So we have two projects that we are developing for those guys. I don’t think we’ll do STEP BROTHERS 2 just because we just did this sequel. It feels a little sweaty to go and do another sequel, but those guys have to do something else.They are a really rare team.
Capone: Not to ruin it, but they have a nice moment in ANCHORMAN 2.
AM: They do, they do. They have a really nice moment. Yes, by all means, we are contemplating that and trying desperately to get something going. As a fan. I just want to watch it.
Capone: Alright, well great. Great to finally meet you, Adam.
AM: Pleasure talking to you, man. Great questions. Thanks.