The new film from Adam McKay, The Other Guys, is just as funny as you might hope for it to be, but buried under all the silliness and comedy is a real anger. The bad guys in the film are corporate types, the sort who turn to the taxpayers to bail them out when their bad business decisions fall flat. The guys who ran banks into the ground and who got us into the economic mess we’re still in. The film even ends with animated infographics over the credits, explaining the roots of the current crisis and how the rich continue getting richer while everybody else suffers.
If that’s surprising to you, you haven’t been following McKay’s Twitter (@ghostpanther), because this is stuff that he thinks about all the time. Which is why when I did a one on one interview with him a couple of weeks back my t-shirt proved to be a great conversation starter. I was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the ‘Obey’ image from John Carpenter’s political sci-fi movie They Live. What followed was a great, thoughtful interview with the greatest working comedy director.
That is one of my all time favorite movies. I met with Sam Raimi when I first came out to Hollywood; Jimmy Miller my manager said ‘Who do you want to meet with? You can meet with anyone.’ I said, ‘I want to meet with Sam Raimi.’ This was before Spider-Man. And Sam Raimi and I talked about They Live for 40 minutes. That was it. That was the whole meeting. The people around us started getting annoyed. They were like, ‘We wanted to talk to Adam about doing a TV show,’ and he was like, ‘No, no, no.’ And we just kept talking about it.
Is anyone remaking it?
It’s been in the air for a couple of years that it might be, but nothing has come of it.
You could. It would be a good remake.
It lends itself to the modern world. Which sort of segues into my first question for you: are you in your political phase?
Ha ha! You know, it’s always whatever needs to happen for the movie. I would argue that Anchorman and Talladega Nights, as silly as they are, there are some axes to grind in those movies. In this case because we were doing it about financial fraud and the banks and all that stuff it had to be more overt. The trick with this always is that you don’t want it to go down like bad medicine. The trick of it is that whenever it’s popping up it feels like it’s part of the story; we don’t ever want to be preachy with it. I just said to [our end credits company] is there a way to do something with all these shocking statistics that is poppy and fun and doesn’t feel like ‘Listen to this!’ If you just go political you lose a lot of other good stuff. It’s always bigger than that.
But yeah, we always talk about that with our movies. There’s always a little of that going on. I think it’s connected to the world. I don’t think politics is separate. We talk about where the country is – believe it or not even with Step Brothers we talked about it. We were like, ‘God our whole country is a bunch of grown up kids.’ Including myself! I play video games. That was sort of part of the idea of that as well. But this one is more overt.
I follow your Twitter, and I feel keyed in to where you stand, politically. Does that color my vision of this film as more political?
I think so. Because I talked to another guy, a writer from the Times, and he had no idea what I was talking about [with the politics in the film]. And that’s a good sign. On Twitter and Facebook I’m completely overt; I actually use it as a way to show articles that people wouldn’t see, and to ask questions. I get feedback when I ask stuff like, ‘Hey Massachusetts, why did you vote for Scott Brown, you seem like a cool state?’ and I’ll get responses. A couple are ‘fuck you’ and some are ‘I know what you’re talking about, it’s terrible.’ It’s almost like an alternate media, Twitter and Facebook. But going back to Second City I’ve tried to be aware of economics and what’s going on in the White House.
With Talladega Nights there’s a fanbase for that movie that might not agree with some of the stuff you’re tweeting. These are people who you might be pissing off – are you ever worried about alienating a segment of the audience?
It’s tricky. I don’t think I ever Twitter anything like ‘You’re an effing idiot if you support Sarah Palin.’ The truth is that I have family from states that vote red. I have family who like Sarah Palin. These people are part of my life. I think there’s something inherently messed up in our culture that politics has become a taboo subject. I think it’s essential that we talk about it, and I just try to spur on these conversations. Like Michael Moore’s last movie came out and people were like ‘He’s full of it,’ and I was wondering why he’s full of it. I couldn’t find one fact he had gotten wrong, and I Twittered that and people were coming after me and I said, ‘Someone name the fact he got wrong.’ But because millions of dollars were spent by the health care companies to disparage him when Sicko was coming out everybody hates him and they don’t know why. Hillary Clinton had the same thing – she had that health care plan and they spent millions in disparaging her. I think people should talk about this stuff more and it shouldn’t be a right/left thing. And I’ll try to do that with Twitter even though I’ll get frustrated sometimes – I just saw that Meg Whitman’s ahead of the polls in California and I Twittered ‘Really?!’
But you’re right, it’s tricky. Some extreme right wing site started targeting me and saying I’m a leftie, and I told the guy – I actually had an exchange with – ‘I’m not a leftie, I just don’t want to be ripped off. I don’t want wars started in my name. How is that leftie?’ But you’re right, ultimate answer is that there are some people who could go ‘Screw you’ but so far it hasn’t happened. That’s the beauty of comedy. Talladega Nights isn’t meanspirited, it’s having fun with that world. That’s the reason you would have people who are extreme right wingers loving that movie and maybe hating that point of view.
Do you see yourself getting more overtly political in movies? You’re attached to The Boys, which while a funny action story has a point of view. Could you do Will Ferrell and Danny McBride crack US-sanctioned torture?
That’s a great idea. But not to be a pain in the ass, but the word politics just bugs me in general because it’s all part of the same thing – our culture, how we govern. The Boys, to me, if you wanted to get technical about it is a very political movie. It looks at who are our heroes and what are they really, and who are the people we villify, like a crazy French guy and a weird laconic Japanese shut in lady. Who are the real heroes? That, to me, is an exciting question socially, politically, comedically – on all levels it feels like the exact right question to ask right now. I feel like it’d be a shame to just become political. I think Michael Moore does a great job of being funny and playful in his movies while at the same time scoring big points, but because he’s so nakedly issue-oriented it makes him a bigger target. I really root for Michael Moore to go direct a written script, to use storytelling in a more direct way to get his message across.
He did that Canadian invasion movie, Canadian Bacon. Didn’t quite work.
That was a long time ago. I think he’s gotten better as a filmmaker. I think he could do it. In fact we’ve even talked about a movie we had that we felt he’d be great with that had, for lack of a better term, a political side to it. But you’ll see – if this economy keeps going the way it’s been going in about two or three years nobody is going to be calling it politics anymore. They’re going to be saying ‘Give me my fucking money back! You’re taking my home? There are forest fires in the hills, a guy put a gun to my head – is that politics?’
I may be wrong but I feel like Mark Wahlberg is the first lead in one of your movies who really wasn’t an improv guy.
Depends on how you define it. John C. Reilly came out of a really traditional theater background. There are a lot of really funny actors you would classify as dramatic actors, and that’s who we’re always looking for. A guy like Richard Jenkins has obviously done some comedy but oh my God, you’re not going to find a funnier guy. John C. Reilly may be one of the funniest guys you’ve ever met, just hanging out with him. Wahlberg is in the same category – we had dinner and he made us laugh all night long. But let’s say improv guys… John C. Reilly did have some improv background though, that’s true. I used to teach improv back in Chicago in 1992, 93, and because of that I’m pretty good at getting people to get comfortable. I know the basic three or four rules of improv, the things that can get in your way and stop it, so sometimes when I get actors who haven’t done it so much I can give them some steps – not even tell them so much but give them the right environment.
In the press conference Wahlberg told this great story about him dealing with the UCB guys, who would all be coming at him with weird improv. It was fascinating to hear how alien that was to him, and how he had no reference for their world. As a director did you have to deal with him differently as a result?
He was just learning about it as we went along. He certainly wasn’t aware at all about the culture of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, he wasn’t aware that there are thousands of people out there where this is what they do. There a lot of people out there who don’t know that. So it led to some of the funnier moments. Mark was like, ‘Why do they always fuck with me?’ The reason they always fuck with him is what is funnier than fucking with Mark Wahlberg? Everyone knows that going in! He learned some stuff, and he picked it up quick. The only thing that threw him were the [UCB cast] waiters and clerks coming at him every scene, but when he was in scenes with Will he got it, man. He knew where to put his eyes, how to play things small. It was instinctual to him. There are a lot of great improvised laughs that came out of stuff that he thought of. The biggest thing that got him were those UCBers. God bless UCB.
There’s a great recurring joke where a group of homeless guys have sex in Will’s car. Where did Dirty Mike come from?
You gotta see the DVD. We did tons of shit with that. That was a throwaway joke that we wanted all this stuff to happen to [Will’s] car. We did a table rewrite, which we always do and bring in our friends. Andrew Steele at the table rewrite had the joke of the thank you note and I thought that was hilarious and I said, ‘We have to have these guys show up.’ I didn’t think it would make the cut, it was crazy. We added a callback at the end, and all of a sudden it had an arc. I always try to make myself do a cameo just to remind myself how frickin’ hard acting is –
Well, Hitchcock did it.
That’s exactly it. I view myself exactly on par with Hitchcock. Maybe a little better. But the rewrite table took something and heightened and then we heightened it even more [on the set]. You have to see [the deleted scenes] – my wife says it may be the most offensive thing I’ve ever done.
It’s a PG-13 movie, but were you on the set shooting and going ‘Fuck it, we can use something dirty for the DVD?’
Yeah. There’s always a take where I go, ‘Screw it.’ If I sense there’s a dirty joke I won’t steer them away from it because I know there’s a DVD. This is the best extended version we’ve ever had, by the way. Usually when you do an extended version the DVD people tell you people want it, you kind of go ‘I like the theatrical, that’s what I want people to see.’ In Anchorman there is some stuff that never would have made the final cut, Talladega the same thing. This one, though – everything we put in I really liked. I could watch that movie, it really works. That’s one I really endorse.