By now you may have seen my name on the newspaper ads for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It’s in tiny print just underneath the very huge letters that say ‘The Funniest Movie of the Year!’ And I stand by that – I’m not some Earl Dittman type who will give quotes for just any shitty movie so I can see my name in print.
A lot of the people who love this movie will be talking about the cast and how funny they are, but in my opinion they should be talking a lot about Adam McKay and what a genius he’s turning out to be. A founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade and a former Saturday Night Live writer during one of too-rare ‘funny phases,’ McKay first really got my attention with Anchorman. It was on that DVD that I realized McKay wasn’t just the director hired to make sure Will Ferrell and his buddies got the film done – he was a key component of the whole thing. McKay and Ferrell co-write these films, and together they’re unstoppable. For proof, just look at everything Ferrell did without McKay in the last year (although I understand now that he wrote an early FUNNY draft of Bewitched that was murdered by the director. I wish I knew this for the interview!).
McKay’s also political – he wrote for Michael Moore’s TV Nation – something that informs the deceptive smarts of his movies. I didn’t talk to him about politics in this interview because we had discussed it earlier in the roundtable – I usually won’t run both a roundtable and a one on one, but it turns out that of all the people we spoke with that day, McKay was the best in the roundtable format. Check back over the weekend for that transcript.
By the way, a lot of this interview is in the form of two people bullshitting. At one point we discuss the recent history of comedy movies, and because it was just two people bullshitting it’s very possible that we left out your favorite movie – don’t hold it against McKay, who had spent the whole day doing interviews and whose brain must have been slowly beginning to shut down. Any omissions or errors are my fault.
Q: Were you surprised that Anchorman ended up hitting as deeply as it did?
McKay: We made it in a weird kind of way to be that kind of film. We made it to be the kind of movie that if were 17 we would want to see 12 times. Were we surprised that it did that well? Well, yes. But we made it to be the kind of movie we would love and see over and over again. So yes and no.
When we were making the movie we watched it over and over again and laughed like idiots every time we saw it. We weren’t shocked, but we were happy about it.
I don’t know what kind of answer that is. OK, yes we were! The first time I walked down the street and saw someone in a ‘I’m sort of a big deal’ t-shirt I was surprised.
Q: It’s becoming the kind of movie that’s a cultural touchstone.
McKay: When I was 18 or 19 we watched Blues Brothers, Stripes, those kinds of movies, so it was cool that it became that sort of movie for a certain kind of people. We’re more delighted than anything. We’re just tickled. You never know with movies – sometimes they stick and sometimes they don’t.
Q: Is there a weird pressure with this film because of that success? Are you saying, ‘Where’s our “Smells like bigfoot dick” line in this one’?
McKay: We kind of knew with this one that it wouldn’t be like Anchorman in that sense. We purposely with this one tried to give it more of a spine and trusted that if we did what we thought was funny there would be some moments like that, but there’s no way this movie is like Anchorman in that every line is crazy. I think if you look at Anchorman literally every line they say is crazy or a joke. This movie isn’t like that, this has more actual moments that are story beats. Like when he shows up at his mom’s door and says, ‘Mom, we have nowhere to go,’ there are no crazy lines there. If this had been Anchorman we would have definitely have come up with a crazy line for that moment.
So yeah, it’s not going to be the line-generating machine Anchorman was, but there are definitely some moments. Like when Cal says ‘Shake and Bake!’ [to rival driver Jean Girard] and [Will] says, ‘That just happened!’ –
[Devin cracks up]
-there’s still twenty good lines in the movie. It’s not quite the Anchorman level, but I don’t think this is as much of a cult film as Anchorman.
Q: It definitely doesn’t feel like a cult film. It has the coherent story… there’s even a big CGI shot that isn’t just a joke.
McKay: I think the fact that it’s a race car sports movie… it’s hard to make a sports movie that’s a crazy cult movie. What’s there been, one? Slap Shot? Is that it?
Q: I think Slap Shot might be it.
McKay: Rollerball isn’t a comedy. That’s it. That’s the only one I can think of…Well, Caddyshack…
Q: But that’s not really a sports movie. There’s so little golfing in that.
McKay: Yeah, there’s no golf. But I told my wife at one point, ‘Did we make this movie crazy enough?’ and she said, ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me? Look what you have in this movie,’ and she named like eight things: Sascha Baron Cohen breaks [Will’s] arm because he won’t say ‘I love crepes’? They have a song on the bar jukebox for profiling purposes? So yeah, I think we did a pretty good job of taking a step forward without losing too much of what we do. I think the ultimate test is that the movie still makes us laugh really hard.
Q: I’m fascinated by how the editing works on a film like, where you have so much improv and so many takes. How much time do you need to edit a movie like this, and do you need to get some serious distance between yourself and the jokes to figure out which ones need to be in the movie?
McKay: The editor does a rough edit of all the scenes, and you look at this three hour twenty minute version of the movie. You go in and you cut down to a two hour twenty minute film and you feel like you’re in the ballpark. Then you show it to friends and family, and that’s when you get the smell of what the movie is. At that point you’re putting in what you think is funny, and some of what you think is funny starts falling out. When you’re doing friends and family, you’ve got a pretty hip room. You’ve got like Jake Kasdan showing up, you’ve got Jeff Garlin, you’ve got all these different comics showing up, like Garry Shandling. If those guys aren’t laughing at certain things you know the hip joke is going out. That knocks you down from 2:25 to 2:05, 2:10. Then you take it to your official preview audiences and that knocks it down. You whittle it down to 1:50 and that’s still too long. You wish it would work at 1:50 because you want to keep everything, but from 1:50 to 1:40 is the battle; you’re tweaking stuff. Once you get your locked picture – and I think this one is 1:40 – then you go back and put five or six things back in. The kids yelling ‘Anarchy!’ and the little kid yelling, ‘I don’t even know what that means, but I love it!” – I’m putting that in. Too bad. Little moments like that. It’s a balance, and you’re putting things in just because you love them.
And there are constant discoveries. The knife in the leg is a bit that in no way serves the story, but we thought it was funny. So we tried a small version of it and we got a big laugh. Oh wait a minute, let’s add more of that. It got more laughs. Let’s add way more of that. We used the sequence with the second knife – it’s out of focus, you can tell it looks awful, but we said, ‘Screw it, we’re putting it in anyway!’ Suddenly it’s the funniest set piece in the movie. We have this other set piece that killed in the readthrough, these dogs attacking Will and Sascha, but it got nothing, so we had to cut that out. You’re always playing with it and with the timing. Your first three previews the timing’s off and nothing is quite right. You don’t really get your timing right until your last preview. That’s when it starts clicking and firing. Comedies, more than any other kind of film doesn’t work until the last previews.
Q: Why are there so many funny movies now? I feel like for a long time there weren’t any great film comedies, there were all these bloated comedies. But now we’re in this period with a number of great comedies and these comedy mafias that have formed, groups of great comics who keep working together.
McKay: That’s true, isn’t it? What was that dry spell about? The dry spell was 88 to like 96?
Q: There were these big funny movies that weren’t actually funny.
McKay: I can’t think of any funny movies from that period. There are none.
Q: For a while I had this feeling that really good comedies – the kind I grew up on – were done. And now I feel like a lot of that stuff is coming back.
McKay: And even when funny comedies came out they would get ignored. Office Space came out in that period –
Q: I sort of look at that as the beginning of this new period we’re in.
McKay: That was the new beginning, and it totally got ignored. Then Stiller started chipping away a little bit, and then you have the Wilson brothers, and then Vaughn, and then Will… Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. I don’t know what happened.
When we started making movies it was like, ‘Why aren’t more people doing movies like Stripes and Caddyshack?’ For us it was about doing ensemble comedies. I know Old School was the same thing – let’s do ensemble comedies, let’s bring it back. It all hearkens back to Stripes. For us, Stripes was the movie. Seven funny people in the movie, with two leads.
Q: Have you seen the new cut?
McKay: I haven’t. Is it amazing?
Q: It’s interesting, but the original cut is better.
McKay: That happens. Like Apocalypse Now Redux – I didn’t need any of the extra scenes. They were right to cut every scene.
Q: Like that long plantation scene.
McKay: We had a joke – there was a scene where Sascha tries to pick up John C Reilly and I call it our French Family Dinner. The scene that did not need to be shot, it was terrible, it’s perfect for the DVD.
But yeah, isn’t that weird? I don’t know. What were they making? What were the movies?
Q: They were making star vehicles. It was late era shitty Eddie Murphy and Schwarzenegger movies.
McKay: That was it. Jim Carrey was the one guy who made it through that period. I think maybe Steve Martin was still doing stuff –
Q: I don’t think Steve Martin was funny anymore by then.
McKay: I think you’re right.
Q: To me Bowfinger was his last really funny movie, and even that now looks like an oasis in a desert of not funny.
McKay: You might be right. I think it became the single star movies, and these guys now like to pair up with two or three of them. I think that’s what changed it, the ensemble stuff.
Q: Is that a generational thing?
McKay: I think so. And I think a lot of these people reacted to that gross, single star thing. I think people like Will Ferrell and – even though Molly Shannon didn’t become a huge star – I remember the two of them at SNL making fun of that, and talking about how gross that was. That Will Ferrell era at SNL, the joke among that cast was how disgusting that was. None of them cared about being the future star, and they would always make fun of that.
And Stiller was always good at finding talent. He latched onto those Wilson brothers from Bottle Rocket early on. He put Owen Wilson in Cable Guy, and Jack Black – right away when we saw Jack Black in Bob Roberts and we were like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ We got Tenacious D on Saturday Night Live, we just wanted to work with these people.
And here’s a big reason – I think the improv thing became big in filmmaking, and that’s all based on ensemble and people playing with each other.
Q: Improv is big now in a general sense – I know people in New York who aren’t big comedy people, but they go to UCB, they go see ASSSCAT. It’s a really social thing to do now.
McKay: Yeah, it’s a big thing now. And Vince Vaughn studied at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago. Ben Stiller knows all about it. You even have actors who didn’t study it that know the rules. Mike Myers is a big Del Close guy. All these people know the rules. Judd Apatow is huge on improv. I did a small part on one of his pilots, and all he did was improv.
Q: What was the pilot?
McKay: North Hollywood. I had like six lines. It wasn’t picked up.
Q: Judd Apatow is the king of cancelled television.
McKay: And he’s kind of proud of it too. They’re always so good. North Hollywood was great – I don’t know why they didn’t pick it up.
Q: If they had picked it up they would have killed it seven episodes in anyway.
Q: Have you ever considered doing TV?
McKay: I have a couple of TV series ideas, but I’m so busy with these movies. And they would cancel them anyway. It would have to be HBO, or Showtime. One of those. Have you seen Lucky Louie?
Q: I have.
McKay: Goddamn, I love it. It’s so good.
Q: Really? I didn’t like the first episode. I’ve been warming up to it, though.
McKay: I loved the first episode. And the third one. The second one I didn’t like.
Q: Which was the third one?
McKay: The third one was where she gets mugged. I loved the first one, too.
Q: It was a little too traditional sitcom with the word ‘fuck’ thrown in.
McKay: I love the fact that they’ve embraced that look…
Q: The whole Honeymooners thing.
McKay: So aggressively. The set looks so shoddy. It looks like 1972, and the bad animation at the beginning. I love the deadpan style, and Laura Kightlinger and Jerry Minor. I’m digging it. And I love that for the first time the live studio audience actually works; you understand why they had studio audiences, and it’s because it’s fun. We’ll see where it goes. If it can maintain…
Q: I think it’s hitting its stride. I like the one last week where he bought the Frankenstein.
McKay: Louis CK has finally found his form.
Q: Does your comedy mafia cross over with over comedy mafias? You’re in that Judd Apatow group – do you cross over with groups like The State?
McKay: Paul Rudd does. He’s so good. Paul Rudd we found through Anchorman – he read the script and he called me up and we went to a bar and had a beer and he was like, ‘I want to be in this. I want to be in this.’ So he auditioned and lo and behold the guy’s frickin’ hilarious, which we had no idea.
I don’t know how much we cross over. We know a lot of people – remember, I was one of the original members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, so I was hanging out with all those guys. They know a lot of people from The State. People know each other from the improv scene. Alison Jones, the casting director, is really in touch with all the different improv groups, so I see a lot of those people through there. Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh know all those guys from the shows they do in LA. You bump into everyone.
Now that Will and I are doing this production thing for Paramount, we’re starting to get submissions of tapes, so I’m more aware of people. And John C Reilly is connected with a bunch of people, so you get tuned in with that as well. It’s crazy – there are a lot of groups. Its’ the thing you were saying, improv has blown up so much. And there are sketch groups everywhere now.
Q: What are you guys looking for at Paramount?
McKay: We’re doing a couple of things. Right now we’re developing a faux documentary – we’re calling it The Unauthorized Biography of George W Bush: The Child of Freedom. I found these two writers in Philadelphia, the Long Brothers, really talented and political writers. We’re going to do a comedy version of his life story. That’s one of our first projects.
We’re working with David Koechner right now – that’s a guy who should get a shot. The whole idea is movies under 15 million. Will and I are consistently baffled by the fact that people spend over 50 million on comedies.
And we’re looking for new talent. Everybody loves John Krasinski, from The Office. They think he’s going to get his shot. We’re looking for people like that. We’re just getting started, we’re just setting up our office, but I want to shake the trees and see what we can find. I want to emphasize character stuff – I want strong characters that can lead comedies and right away give them something that no one else is doing. As opposed to strong situational choices.
And I’m looking for strong political comedies too – you’re seeing it over and over again where a movie like the Al Gore thing does well. What’s better than a comedy that has a political point of view to it?
Q: You’re going to do that personally?
McKay: In some cases I’ll write a script and get someone else to direct it. If there’s a great script maybe I would direct it. I wrote a script with Dennis McNicholas called Channel 3 Billion which we’re really excited about; it’s sort of a sci-fi satire that I would love to direct maybe after the next one we do. Do it as a low budget science fiction thing.
It’s a chance for us to do all of this cool stuff we’ve been kicking around for some time and also to knock out some great comedies. That’s probably what we’re going to do after this is over, focus on it for the next year. As well as write the script for Reilly and Will.
Q: You have any idea what direction you want to bring that?
McKay: We’re going to go out and sell the pitch in a couple of weeks, so I probably shouldn’t tell you the pitch. One thing I can tell is that in reaction to this NASCAR one this is more of a Meet the Parents type of idea. It’ll be a house on a street, no car crashes. It’ll be more of a domestic comedy. And it’s going to be rated R. No more PG-13 stuff. Rated R, domestic comedy, and shoot in LA. We’re going to take it easy after this big one.
Q: Domestic comedy? Are they getting married?
McKay: You’ll see. You’re not too far off!