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Given that he's been the co-writer and director for now four of Will Ferrell's funniest movies, and worked with the comedian since his earliest days at Saturday Night Live, Adam McKay probably knows what tickles Ferrell better than just about anyone. The duo produced Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, a gaggle of Funny or Die shorts, and now The Other Guys, and their partnership only seems to get richer with age. In their latest collaboration, Ferrell plays a desk-bound police auditor, and McKay turned the character into a caged lion trying to keep his darkest – and most hilarious – impulses in check.
Cinematical sat down with McKay at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, where he, Ferrell and the rest of the cast were promoting The Other Guys. In addition to talking about the evolution of their longtime partnership, McKay revealed his and Ferrell's approach to creating characters and comedy in general, offered a few thought about potential follow-ups for their most famous films, and reflected on the past, present and future of their careers.
Cinematical: First of all, I saw the movie a week ago and I thought it was freaking great.
Adam McKay: I've got to say, it's one of my favorite ones that we've done. I really dig it. It really kind of turned out to be exactly what we were going for.
Cinematical: When you started this film, did you want to deconstruct action clichés and satirize them, or did you want to make a legitimate action movie and infuse it with comedy?
McKay: There's certain kinds of genres like the Western and buddy cops and there's a couple of them out there – I would even say romantic comedies – that they're so sort of well-traveled and kind of abused and overplayed that by virtue of even doing them, it's a parody. And I like that. Like, my favorite sketches when I wrote for SNL [were] I love job interview sketches because they're the most common thing there is, so when you do screwed-up stuff, it pops more. It's like there's a context and you don't have a confusing premise behind it, so we liked that about the cop-buddy thing. Although it did scare us a little bit because we thought, wow this might be a dead genre; this might literally [not] work any more. So that was why we kind of felt it important to make the action actually swing a little bit. It feels like cop-buddy movies, there's usually a car chase and a shootout, and we were like, well, let's actually have some sh*t blow up and have some kind of crazy stuff, so that kind of became essential for it. But yeah – it's a world we've never been in. We always try to do something different with every world, and the idea of shooting in New York, we had Wahlberg, we had Sam Jackson, we had Dwayne, so we had this whole kind of big action world. So we approached it like, let's do the absolute best job that we can, and sort of somewhat trusted that we would fail, and that was kind of it. But the fun of it was that yeah, we tried to treat it like a real action film.
Cinematical: One of the things I really think that works great about the movie is that Will's character is equal to Mark's – he doesn't back down. Was that something that Will kind of came up with and brought to you during shooting, or was that in the script?
McKay: We actually worked on that quite a bit. The two trickiest things were the financial jeopardy plot and then Will's character. Because we started with Will's character just being a paper-pusher guy, and it was just boring. We kept getting stuck 20 pages in, going "I'm not interested," and then we sort of talked about him. We talked about all of the sort of brilliant, nerdy guys that we know, and the ways in which we're nerdy – and it's never clean-cut. It's never like there's a retreating kind of nerd; I mean, there are sometimes, but one guy I know who might be the nerdiest guy I've ever met used to be in the Chicago improv scene, had 180 IQ, was a city planner, and was super socially-awkward but very pushy and kind of cocky. We started talking about how those are kind of more what those guys are. So that's where it came out of – it was pretty conscious going into it, and then we improvised around the idea. There was originally another written chunk for the lion and the tuna run in the beginning, but then we improvised that – so it was all around that idea. Because he was wearing glasses and liked paperwork, we didn't need to work that hard for him to be a nerd. But I agree with you, though – I think that's totally what makes the movie work. What takes it out of cliché is that dudes like that are more nuanced than you think.
Cinematical: Is that indicative of your process, or was that unusual in terms of the way you guys normally develop a character?
McKay: No, we always do that. Always you start with your idea about the character and then you pretty quickly realize – this one was trickier, but you always pretty quickly realize that it can't just be that. Like with Ricky Bobby, you quickly realize that the guy has like a gaping hole in his heart; he's a really sad guy because his dad ditched him. And with Anchorman, just his insecurity kept coming out. So you're always finding that extra thing, and that's usually what gives it the breath to push through the movie. Without it, you just kind of have the clichés and stuff. But this one was tricky because it was much more "real guy" and we just kept seeing him like he's like Keith Olbermann with a gun (laughs). And Olbermann doesn't play around! He'll give you a tongue-lashing, and yet he's kind of a nerd, so yeah.
Cinematical: What was sort of the chicken or egg process for "Pimps Don't Cry?" Was that something that was improvised and then developed by Jon Brion and Cee-lo, or vice versa?
McKay: Have you heard it?
Cinematical: The version at the end of the movie is amazing.
McKay: It's insane.
Cinematical: There's nothing I want to see more at next year's Oscars than Eva Mendes, Cee-lo and Jon Brion performing it live.
McKay: It has to happen! That threesome has to happen – I could not agree with you more. It's funny – you make the whole movie, but I may be more excited about that song than anything in the movie. And the chicken and egg question is the perfect question, because it came out of a couple of random lines of dialogue where, I think Will and I write that pimp scene together, and just said, oh, she should sing – we didn't even say she should, we just kind of wrote it. And then a month later, we were like, oh, we should record that. Jon Brion came in and I said, "Jon, what do you think?" He said, "oh, you should definitely write something." But still we weren't really talking about it, and I just sat down for like 20 minutes and wrote these crazy lyrics and sent them to him. He didn't even think anything about it, he just played it for me, we recorded it a version and it was way better than we thought it would be. Then we got Cee-lo, and then we got Eva, and there was like a crazy genesis to that. We're shooting a video on Monday for it and it will be on iTunes for download, the video will be there, and it will be on Funny Or Die. It's insane and Eva sounds kick-ass in it.
Cinematical: In general, what is your development process like? Do you just ask yourselves, what genre have we not explored?
McKay: You know, it's been different, and we've done four so far. With Anchorman, we stumbled upon it; it so happened that Will saw an interview with Mort Crim who worked with Jessica Savitch, he told me about it and I then watched it, and we both were laughing about it in the same way and that led to that. With Talladega, we literally sat down and said what should we do for our next movie? We kept talking about, like, you know, our country's a little nuts right now – Bush has 90 percent approval; what's going on? NASCAR to us seemed like Ground Zero for everything that was going on, so it was like, let's go right into it and see what this is about. So that was very conscious. And then Step Brothers was one of those we kind of stumbled upon; we just were kicking ideas around with [John C.] Reilly and I just thought, "you know, I'd love to see you guys in bunk beds." That was it – that was where the idea came from. We knew we wanted to do our sort of most aggressive, dirty, absurdist movie with that. With this it came out of Mark and Will, the pairing of them. We had dinner with them and I was like, "you guys have to do a movie." We just kind of kept thinking and they looked at other scripts, and one night I just sent an email to Kevin Messick, one of our producers, and said, "what if it's this?" It literally just came out at three in the morning. So yeah, it's usually something like the pairing of the cast, a tone or a world, but it's kind of different for each one.
Cinematical: Do you feel like you're free to make whatever sorts of movies you want? Can your success be limiting in terms of what people want you to make? Or do you have the latitude to make your Stardust Memories or whatever you feel like doing that might not be "expected" from you?
McKay: We've been really lucky in the sense that right from Anchorman on, and even in the script before that that never got made, August Blowout, we've just written what we liked. It's never ever been aiming for this or we'll do this, it's been what interests us and what do we like. And I think just because of where we come from, the fact that we're improv comics and we did Saturday Night Live, you have a sense for the audience, and we like to make audiences laugh. But no, there's never any pressure at all to feel like, oh my God, we've got to hit a commercial number. We definitely wouldn't have made Step Brothers if we had that (laughs). That was just a rated R, insane movie. With this one, it came purely out of the excitement [of the pairing]. I would never do Stardust Memories because I don't particularly like that kind of movie – that would be why I wouldn't do that. But I certainly would do One False Move or there's other kinds of movies that I would like to do. We're actually working on a Lee Atwater project that's, you know, a political script, and I think he's the key historical figure for our country and where we've ended up now. There will be funny parts to it, but it's not a comedy by any means. So whatever's interesting or good. The nice thing of having some success is now I don't have to try sh*t like that; I can go do Lee Atwater for six million dollars or do something like hopefully The Boys. There's a lot of different movies out there that are open to me that maybe wouldn't have been.
Cinematical: Then does that at all extend to sequels? You've talked at length in previous interviews about follow-ups to Anchorman and even Step Brothers, but do you feel a creative interest in doing them or a sense of obligation to the fans to do these when and if the opportunity arises?
McKay: I've got to say, I'm intrigued now. Before, I never was; I felt like, why are we going to do a sequel? We have new ideas. And we have tons of new ideas still. But it's intriguing. I like the idea of 'could we do a good sequel'; enough people are saying do it, and it's sort of like the old stand-up joke, I went to a strip club the other day because, let's face it – there are only so many times you can drive by a giant sign saying "Naked Ladies" without giving it a try. And that's kind of the case here – yeah, maybe we can do it! I'd just be curious to do it once, and we're so fond of each movie that we do that something like Step Brothers 2 to, to us, would be just as enjoyable as Anchorman 2, which is just as enjoyable as Talladega or this. Any of these worlds would be interesting to go back into. But that all having been said, if it doesn't happen, it wouldn't upset me or bother me. I mean, Anchorman 2 was disappointing but I wasn't floored by it. I was like, oh well – wasn't meant to be.