This was not a chore to sit through.
Though I was initially disappointed that New Line had opted to go the press conference route in lieu of roundtable interviews for the Semi-Pro press day, this forty-five minute free-for-all with Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson and director Kent Alterman is probably a better read than five fifteen-minute Q and As. In this format, Ferrell and Arnett get to warm up a bit, while the others get to sit back and chip in whenever there’s a lull in the lunacy. Not a bad way to promote a comedy.
And, my, has New Line promoted the short-shorts off of their tribute to the gloriously tacky American Basketball Association: between ubiquitous billboards and television spots, they’ve supersaturated the country with all things Semi-Pro. In case you’ve somehow avoided the studios carpet bombing, Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, the player-manager of the struggling Flint Tropics who offsets his team’s ineptitude with a variety of inventively wrongheaded PR stunts. But when the National Basketball Association decides to absorb only the four best teams from the cash-strapped league, Moon and his team of has-beens and never-gonna-bes are forced to focus on actually winning for once.
Alterman’s film (written by Old School‘s Scot Armstrong) is an unabashed blending of Slap Shot, Major League, Bull Durham and Anchorman (hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best), which suggests it’ll be a hit based on brand recognition alone. If you’re looking for insight into the making of this peaen to competition… there might be one or two straight-faced answers below (Alterman’s Dave Cowens story better be true). Mostly, though, this is just a group of funny guys treating the usual array of softball questions with the seriousness they deserve.
Q: We have seen you ice-skating in Blades of Glory and driving racecars in Talladega Nights. How hard was it to shape that beautiful body of yours into a basketball physique for this film?
Will Ferrell: Well I pretty much stereotypically have a basketball physique to begin with. So, it didn’t take that much sculpting. I hear some laughter over here, I don’t know why.
Andre Benjamin: No, I’m laughing at him because he didn’t think you had a body.
Ferrell: But, y’know, Jackie Moon is a… he’s a player from a different era when players were a little more voluptuous. He’s a voluptuous player. Curvy.
Kent Alterman: Y’know, he put sexy back in basketball. Not that it ever left.
Q: Since this movie takes place in Flint, Michigan, what kind of response do you expect from Michael Moore?
Ferrell: Um, I heard he is going to protest the movie actually.
Will Arnett: Really?
Ferrell: I heard he’s actually picketing it already.
Arnett: It’s important.
Ferrell: He doesn’t feel like we have a proper depiction of Flint.
Q: For each of you, could you say who your favorite professional basketball team and how do you like your chances this year?
Andre: To be honest, it sounds crazy, but I’m not a big basketball fan. I’m more of a football fan. So, I don’t know anything about who is good right now. I’m from Atlanta. But the Hawks are playing pretty good right now…
Ferrell: Are the Hawks pretty good this year?
Andre: They are pretty good. They need new uniforms, but they’re alright.
Ferrell: I am a Laker fan. Born and raised in Southern California, right here. And we just made the deal of the season, so…
Q: What is the deal of the season?
Ferrell: Uh, we just got Paul Gasol from the Memphis Grizzles.
Arnett: My favorite basketball team is the New Jersey Nets, but…
Ferrell: But he’s more of a hockey fan first.
Arnett: I’m more of a hockey fan to be honest.
Ferrell: Will’s Canadian.
Alterman: I’m a Spurs fan.
Q: This is primarily for the two Wills. I was curious how does your improv background work into a film like this? And also I’d like to hear from Andre what it’s like to be around these guys when they are going off on the improv.
Ferrell: Wow. I was not expecting that question. (Laughs.)
Arnett: No answer for it.
Ferrell: Will and Andy got to sit at the scorers’ table and just…
Arnett: Andy Daly and I… Andy Daly plays Dick Pepperfield very well. He’s an awesome improviser and has a long history with the Upright Citizens Brigade and we were kind of in the cheap seats. And we had the benefit of being just bored a lot and just kind of throwing remarks in, so that’s how…
Ferrell: So they were kind of in a contained situation where you could just roll the camera and they could come up with 8,000 things that we’d cherry pick as to what worked for the scene. I mean, this was kind of the typical pattern where we’d start filming the scenes written and then slowly throw some zingers in there. I really try to change it up whenever I can in my personal life.
Andre: I wasn’t too intimidated.
Andre: No, no, because when I had to audition for the film, I had to walk into a room and audition with Will. So I guess once I got over that it wasn’t too bad. And then with music you freestyle a lot and you kinda just throw ideas out and, y’know, when you read the script and want to make your character as real as possible, sometimes you just go off on a tangent and you keep going. And you’ve got film… why not? So keep recording it.
Q: I was wondering about short shorts vs. long shorts, and were there any problems on set with the short shorts?
Arnett: Be careful.
Ferrell: As soon as… oh, great.
(A freshly showered Woody Harrelson ambles into the room.)
Ferrell: We started about an hour ago. (Laughter.) And it’s a lack of respect for journalism, for fellow cast members, for your director…
Woody Harrelson: I do apologize. Slow getting up this morning.
Alterman: Woody looks great everybody, doesn’t he?
Ferrell: What was the question? I think Andre and I had the shortest shorts, which a lot of our fellow teammates refused to wear.
Andre: And they kept pulling them down. Actually we had to do two weeks of basketball training, so I went ahead and got it over with, and I wore my shorts during the two weeks of practicing.
Ferrell: That’s how dedicated Andre was.
Andre: So I wouldn’t feel self conscious the day we were shooting. So I wouldn’t feel funny. Because Clarence didn’t care about the shorts, so why should I?
Ferrell: But, I did have to wear a special pair of underwear, because when I went into a defensive stance… there was a potential for things to happen. Woody care to comment on the shorts? Yours weren’t that short.
Woody: Nobody doubts your leading man status.
Q: Most of you guys are too young to remember the actual ABA, but did you watch tapes of these teams back in the day and what surprised you most? Also I have to ask you, what was at the very end of the credits that they cut off right at the end. I think Will was saying something at the very end I was just curious…
Alterman: After all the credits? Oh, he said, “Precious? Where are you?”
Ferrell: (To the journalist) You’re pretend writing right now. I can tell. (Laughter.)
Q: And what about looking at old 70s footage and stuff like that?
Alterman: We did look at a lot of stuff. HBO did a fantastic documentary a while back called Longshots, and that was very inspiring to us. It had a lot of historical footage. Will, do you want to make that funny?
Ferrell: Uh, let’s see… (turns to Arnett) Did you look at any footage?
Arnett: No, I didn’t look at any footage.
Alterman: But I personally grew up in that time. I was in San Antonio when the Spurs became the Spurs. They were the Dallas Chaparrals in the old ABA, and my family and I went to all the games.
Ferrell: Kent was known as “The Kid”. He was this guy who was famous for his heckling. No kidding. Didn’t Dave Cowens try to charge you one time?
Alterman: He did.
Ferrell: He wanted to kill him. Good story.
Alterman: That was after the ABA days, after the merger. He was known as a hotheaded, fierce competitor, so I went for it. And he came a few seats into the stands and threatened me, which was terrifying. I was a teenager, and I said not another word the rest of the game. And when Bill Walton came to set [of Semi-Pro] to do a piece for ESPN, we were talking and he said, “I remember San Antonio was a crazy place.” There was this group in San Antonio called the “Baseline Bums” and Walton said, “Yeah, Dave Cowens went after one of the baseline bums one time.” And I said, “That wasn’t a baseline bum, that was me!” He said, “No way!” And then I did the math in my head and said, “You weren’t on the Celtics then, why do you know that story?” And he said, “Are you kidding? In that day and age? That was a sacred line no one crossed. That story was famous around the NBA.” (Laughter) I’m not proud of it, by the way.
Q: First off, Will I have to say, you look amazing in the 70s for some reason from Anchorman to this. I wanted to know this from all of you, what was your favorite scene to shoot?
Ferrell: Luckily, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to pick one. If I had to pick one right now, it would probably be the Russian roulette poker scene, just because that was insane. We had a good time. That was fun.
Woody: Were those real bullets?
Ferrell: No. Not until the last take. The prop man thought it would be funny to sneak in a real bullet. (Laughter.)
Arnett: Turns out he wasn’t a prop guy.
Ferrell: Yeah, turns out he wasn’t a real prop guy. He was just on the stage that day. And it turns out he had done it before.
Woody: He’s done it a lot.
Ferrell: He’s known for it.
Woody: Probably Russian. (Puzzled laughter from Ferrell and Arnett.)
Q: Woody, congratulations for No Country for Old Men. Do you think it’s going to win two weeks from today for best picture? And is it easier being a killer or a lover?
Alterman: You mean in real life?
Woody: Well, I have no idea whether it’s going to win; I’m just glad people seem to like it. And I’d say it’s probably easier being a lover. Because I’ve never been the other honestly in life.
Q: But you played one very well in No Country.
Woody: Thank you. I didn’t get to kill anybody in it. You’re kind of rubbing it in aren’t you?
Q: We have the Oscars coming up pretty soon. Do you guys have any predictions for any of the categories?
Alterman: We actually know who won, but we’re not allowed to say, right guys?
Ferrell: (Picking up a sheet of paper:) Yeah, this list doesn’t look too familiar to me. I’ve never really heard of any of these actors.
Arnett: You’ve never heard of George Clooney?
Arnett: He’s a pretty big movie star.
Ferrell: I mostly follow Japanese cinema. (Laughter.)
Arnett: What are some of your favorite Japanese films?
Ferrell: Oh, ah… the list goes on and on.
Arnett: One would be great. (Laughter.)
Ferrell: Hikiro Ashiri. Twenty-two. Strikingly handsome. (Breaks into laughter.)
Q: Andre, you’ve done about everything: clothing designer, actor, and musician. How do you balance all those different careers? And what motivates so much artistic divergence?
Andre: Um, it’s really what ever is really going on at the time and check which way the wind is blowing. And I guess what drives it is just creativity. I just like to make stuff. And if at the end of the day I can have something in my head and actually see it be produced, y’know, come to an end point, that’s the joy of it. It’s all creativity-based. As long as I can be creating something or do something that can be cool, I’m good.
Q: When you saw yourself in the costume and hair and makeup, what did you think?
Ferrell: I felt completely at home. No, in looking at a lot of the reference photos of the league and the period it obviously looks funny, but it’s not that far from the truth. So I love the fact that it really is sort of historically accurate and humorous looking all at the same time.
Q: Would you be caught dead in anything you wore in the movie?
Ferrell: Y’know what? I might start wearing neckerchiefs now in my personal life. I think that’s a nice piece of accoutrement.
Arnett: It’s beautiful.
Woody: And it covers the neck.
Ferrell: It does. So, if you have any unsightly blemishes or a weird Adam apple…
Arnett: … a hickey.
Q: I can just tell you had so much fun filming this, so this is directed to the director. Were there times where you had to say, “OK guys, cut it, cut it!”?
Alterman: It was a very weird and uncomfortable position for me to be in, to try and be the mature one.
Woody: Has that ever happened to you before?
Alterman: I don’t think so. Well, we did have a lot of fun but we were also doing a production, so there were times when we had to find that delicate balance point between having too much fun and getting irresponsible, but I think we did it pretty well.
Ferrell: Yeah, Kent had the kind of unenviable task of herding all of us. You’ve got 10 guys on a basketball court and about 1800 extras and every time he yelled cut we’d want to just start shooting the ball around and running around and doing bits at the scorers table. So, yeah, it was tough.
Arnett: And then it’s Kent just telling you to quit it.
Ferrell: Yeah, “Come on, Kent! Knock it off!”
Q: Who herded the bear?
Ferrell: Who herded the bear? Uh, y’know, we did something unusual that’s never been done before: we went “wild”. There was no bear trainer. We captured a bear. That’s why this was a nine-month shoot. Six of those months we had to trap a bear up in the Sierra Nevadas.
Woody: Big bear.
Ferrell: Well, the first one wasn’t big enough. We didn’t like it, so we released it… I think in Burbank somewhere. And then we finally found our hero bear, and that day we just rolled film and just let it do it’s thing… (audio noise blasts from the speakers) Robots! Robots are attacking! They are finally attacking!
Arnett: You predicted this.
Ferrell: I did. I predicted this.
Woody: I thought you were crazy when you kept bringing up the robot thing.
Arnett: I know.
Q: My question is the soundtrack for this movie is absolutely fabulous? Can you all tell me what your favorite party song is and, Andre, can I get one that’s not yours?
Andre: Um. Favorite party song. This may sound really corny, but Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. (Laughs.) It’s a great pop song! I mean, I don’t dance around singing it, but the production is, like, the best.
Alterman: Really crazy coincidence. I talked to all these guys, and everyone has the same answer. Don’t you love it, too?
Woody: That’s my favorite.
Ferrell: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, by Cyndi Lauper. I also love “Hava Nagila”. Anytime I hear it…
Q: Guys, I understand that some of you did a basketball camp for this. Who was really the best player?
Ferrell: Wait, what!?!?
Woody: If he says it.
Ferrell: I heard you were saying you started out “excellent” and got better.
Andre: Yeah, I heard it.
Woody: I only said that once. We were all pretty evenly matched. (Laughs.)
Q: Will, you’re known for making these movies with sports themes. Knowing your USC connections, will you tackle college football at all?
Ferrell: Well, unfortunately the college football movie I’m doing is actually a drama taking an in-depth look at the problem we have with steroid use.
Arnett: That sounds like a real bummer.
Ferrell: Yeah, it’s not a fun movie at all.
Woody: You could get a few laughs in there.
Ferrell: But this is actually just coincidence that these movies lined up the way they did. I love combining sports and comedy together, but only one of those was my idea, that was the NASCAR movie. Otherwise, I was asked to be a part of these. So, that having been said, it’s a great framework to kind of do comedy in. You can parody the sport, in this movie you can parody the era. And at the same time, you have a built in arc that’s fun for the audience to watch this team of losers try to attain the lofty goal of fourth place.
Q: Just wondering, since you did play a bunch of basketball, were there any sports injuries during the shoot?
Ferrell: There was a full time training staff. It was pretty intense. We were always getting worked on and stuff.
Woody: Didn’t you fake a groin injury?
Ferrell: I faked several. I actually faked an appendectomy at one point to get out of filming.
Arnett: That was a real scar?
Ferrell: That was real movie makeup.
Alterman: Wow. That’s commitment. Will is very committed to the work.
Q: Will, if I could just ask about Land of the Lost. I know you are going to change the tone of it, but are you going to keep the kitschy look of the creatures?
Ferrell: Everything is going to be kind of ramped up a little bit. The kitsch of the physical production of the TV show was kind of thrown out the window. The dinosaurs and everything are going to look very realistic, or as realistic as we think dinosaurs should look. But even the Sleestaks and things like that, they are all going to be real creatures as opposed to in the show, where you saw a guy with a costume and a zipper running up his back.
Woody: So, you will have the zipper or you won’t have the zipper?
Ferrell: You will not be able to see the zipper.
Woody: CGI it?
Ferrell: CGI it out. You think that’s a good decision?
Woody: I think that’s smart.
Q: You may want to CG the zipper in.
Ferrell: We might do that later in post if the audience misses the zipper.
Q: What are your Valentine’s Day plans?
Woody: When is it?
Andre: I don’t have any plans.
Ferrell: I’m going to do my usual. I dress as cupid and chase my wife around the house with a real, competition level bow and arrow. I literally try to shoot her.
Arnett: That sounds romantic.
Ferrell: It is for me. She hates it. She usually cowers in a broom closet. I just try and wing her. The upper part of the thigh or maybe the calf.
Arnett: I’m going to see a Broadway show. That’s a real answer. With my girlfriend, not my wife. She hates musicals. We’re going to see Young Frankenstein.
Ferrell: That’s romantic.
Arnett: Science fiction makes me warm.
Q: Will, what did you think of your hairdo? And did Andre Benjamin help you with [“Love Me Sexy”]?
Ferrell: I think Jackie would have loved to have had the means to pay for a $500 haircut. There’s no way he could afford it. He probably primped a fair amount. In terms of the song, Andre flatly refused to help me. (Laughter) No, that was the work of Scott Armstrong, a little bit of myself, Kent and Nile Rodgers.
Alterman: The evolution of the song is that Scott had written the chorus in the script and we had a table read, and Will in just an improv-way threw out that tune. We already had hired Nile Rodgers to produce the song. I had this funny feeling that it could be useful to Nile, so I took a clip from the table read and sent it to him. I said, “I don’t know if this is of use. You can use it or disregard it.” And he ended up building the entire song out of that little thing that Will threw out. That was really the basis for the song.
Ferrell: That’s how hits are made.
Q: In the movie, Jackie’s motto is “Everybody Love Everybody”. What’s your personal motto?
Ferrell: My motto is “Just try to get out of bed”.
Ferrell: Yeah. I just lie there and go, “Just get out of bed”.
Arnett: Mine is “Let’s go to Iran!”
Ferrell: Very pointed.
Andre: Mine is “No matter how bad it looks, it’s probably going to be better to tomorrow”.
Woody: Mine is “Never give up hope”.
Ferrell: You stole that from someone.
Woody: It sounded believable.
Q: How did those Pearl videos come about on the Internet? And why did you stop?
Ferrell: That’s Adam McKay’s daughter. We actually needed some content to launch the website, FunnyorDie.com. It was all Adam’s idea. And we took an hour or two one day and shot that and put it on with the launch of the website, and just laughed that so many people saw it. It was completely surprising.
Q: Why did you stop?
Ferrell: She got too outrageous with her demands and attitude. It was messy. Very messy.
Q: Andre, talk about your new album.
Andre: I’ve only written two songs in my head. I haven’t even started recording them. I’ve just been tinkering around. Maybe the release will be this fall. Who knows?
Q: Is there something you can do that could be an Olympic sport?
Woody: The pogo. (Long, laugh-free pause.) Part of me thought, “Just stay quiet.” (Arnett and Ferrell crack up.)
Ferrell: I hate the Olympics. You know, all the countries getting together…
Andre: I’m a big football fan, so…
Ferrell: Olympic football?
Andre: Yeah, why not? Arena football ain’t getting it. I get depressed when football season is over, so maybe we need something.
Ferrell: What I’d love to see in the Olympics is opening up the age group to small children. I’d love to see the events done by small children: power lifting, shot put. Open age class.
Q: Who committed the biggest pranks on set?
Ferrell: Woody, were there any pranks you can remember?
Andre: We did play a prank on Rashid [Byrd]. That was the biggest prank.
Ferrell: There was one member of the Tropics – the tallest one, Rashid – who missed almost an entire day of filming because he didn’t think he was needed even though it was a team locker room scene. When he finally showed up, we wrote a two-page monologue for him to do.
Woody: It was based on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Ferrell: I started crying, I was laughing so hard.
Andre: He had almost no lines throughout the whole movie, and he really studied hard. He was really trying.
Ferrell: Yeah, he was trying. His hand was shaking with [the script] in his hand.
Woody: Also, he was so tall, he could hold [the script] at his waist.
Ferrell: He maintained that he was in on the joke all along because he’s from New York.
Q: What was your favorite day of filming?
Ferrell: That was a fun day that we just talked about. (Laughter) Some of those days when we were actually playing the games and got to play. We had something like fifteen choreographed plays that we had to run and set up because you can’t just roll the basketball out there; you’ve got to concentrate on what the plays are going to be so that you can set up the cameras and everything. Sometimes, we’d run the play and they’d say, “Whatever happens, whether you make a basket or not, we’re going to have free play for the next three minutes and just literally see what happens.” After lunch, I remember I was still digesting a bean burrito or something and went down and we had 1,800 people there. I made a shot, and the crowd went crazy. You felt like a real basketball player.
Andre: Your wife, too. He had a wife. We were on the bus and she was showing her chest to everybody.
Alterman: She got cut out of the movie.
Ferrell: That was a fun day.
Q: What was the best or most hideous promotional thing you did? Leaping the ball girls? Giant sun?
Ferrell: I kinda loved all of them because, if you look at what they were doing in the ABA, that’s how the league survived. They did all these stupid promotions just to get people in. I thought each of them were kind of the funny version of what they did.
Q: What’s your next project?
Woody: Oh, you guys got a lot going on after this? I’m playing a blind piano player in Will Smith’s next movie. It’s called Seven Pounds. [To Andre:] I need to get with you.
Andre: I faked [playing the piano] in Idlewild. I’m not good.
Woody: Oh. I guess that’s what I’ll do.
Q: How about you Andre? You’re in Battle in Seattle?
Andre: Yeah. Battle in Seattle with Charlize Theron and Woody and Michelle Rodriguez. It’s about the riots and protests that took place in 1999 [during the WTO meetings] in Seattle. That’s coming out in April.
Q: Who do you play?
Andre: A protester by the name of Django, who keeps protesting fun. He keeps it lighthearted.
Woody: I get to arrest him.
Andre: Yeah, [Woody plays] a bald-headed cop.
Ferrell: I have Step Brothers coming out in July with John C. Reilly, and then a passion project of mine: The Lee Iacocca Story. Ten years in the making. I get to play one of my heroes, Lee Iacocca.
Q: How was it reuniting with John on Step Brothers?
Ferrell: Not so good.
Q: Will Arnett?
Arnett: I just finished this kids movie with Zach Galifianakis and Bill Nighy for “Mr. Bruckheimer”, as I know him. [It’s called G-Force.] That doesn’t come out for about a year. There’s a lot of post-production. Mainly to remove me from the movie.
Q: You have another comedy coming out?
Arnett: Do I?
(From the back of the room, someone yells out “The Rocker!”)
Arnett: Oh yeah, The Rocker. Thank you. I brought my super-fan today. He’s great. Technically, a “stalker”, I guess.
Q: Is there another era in history that’s ripe for comedy?
Ferrell: I’d love to make fun of the future. Some sort of space travel movie where pogos are the main form of transportation. I’m an amateur futurist.
Q: How did you get funny on the set on days when you weren’t feeling funny?
Ferrell: I usually turn to my acting coach Jim Beam. (Ferrell goes for a high five from Arnett. He shakes his head.)
Arnett: I won’t high five with you because it’s true.
Ferrell: I don’t know.
Alterman: I can answer that. It looks like it’s a lot of fun, but they’re consummate professionals, so a lot of it is that they’re hardworking and committed to what they do.
Ferrell: There are days when you show up and you’re not feeling totally on your game, but that’s where it’s fun to work on comedy because, for the most part, you have a blast every day.
Arnett: Some days you show up and not feeling so great, but you’re surrounded by guys having a good time, and you feed off of it.
Woody: That’s what happened to me today.
Ferrell: Yeah, you were a little bit in the dumps, and then you walked in this room.
Woody: You guys really picked me up. Thank you.
Ferrell: Plus your motto: “Never give up hope”.
And now you’re set to see Semi-Pro this Friday, February 29th. Beware the bear.