Interview: Adam McKay, director/writer of Anchorman 2

anchorman2-poster-smallRon Burgundy and the rest of San Diego’s legendary news team will be returning to the big screen this Wednesday. In a roundtable interview, writer/director Adam McKay discusses his long time comedic partnership with Will Ferrell, what it takes to keep a sequel fresh, and some interesting casting choices for the film that might have been.

Caution: minor spoilers ahead, so if you want to go into the movie fresh, come back after you see it!

Cinedelphia: What was the process of making a sequel?

Adam McKay: The first film was like the three core garage band. The Shags. This one we learned a couple extra moves on the guitar. A little bit more skill.

C: I noticed that you took the slow motion scene from The Other Guys, that was fun.

AM: That was something that we discovered in The Other Guys. What are different ways that you can get laughs? The trick with The Other Guys was that I wasn’t gonna leave it in the movie unless it got laughs. I didn’t want to do it just because it looked cool. Then I saw that you could do something that technical and make it funny. With this movie, I thought what else can we do like that? Little did we know that Gravity was being made by people who could do it a thousand times better. We handled it respectfully I think.

C: It was interesting to see the scorpion and the bowling ball in that scene. Did you pick things out of a hat? Where’d you come up with that?

AM: You’re not far off. Will [Ferrell] and I just said, “What are the worst things you could be in a car accident with?” We tried like 6 different combinations. First, it was throwing stars and weasels. Then it was straight razors and jarts. Finally we decided that the worst things you could be in a car wreck with are bowling balls and scorpions.

C: And hot grease?

AM: That’s the worst of all of them. It doesn’t get a huge laugh, but we loved the line, “Best thing I ever did was put a deep fryer in the Winnebago,” (laughs). It was as wrong as could possibly be. Hot grease, that makes me laugh the hardest.

C: What do you think is the key to your collaboration with Will Ferrell? Did you guys hit it off right away? How has your relationship as a co-writer evolved over the years?

AM: The key to the collaboration is that Ferrell is the opposite of a drama queen. Neither of us are looking to have drama or to be miserable. We chose this profession because we enjoy it. We would always laugh when we were doing comedy with other people. We both share that philosophy that we should be enjoying this. If you’re making comedies, you should be laughing on set. I always say, “This isn’t Apocalypse Now.” The way it has evolved is just the shorthand has gotten shorter and shorter to the point where the level of trust is so huge. He doesn’t check in on things. I don’t check in on things. We know we have certain things covered. We have a similar sense of humor. We’re the same age and grew up on the same comedy like Letterman and The Simpsons. Maybe that’s the biggest thing of all. We both love pranks and when movies get out of control and you don’t know what’s going to happen. We want that feeling that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s what we did here.

C: Is that the same mindset you had with the big showdown at the end between the other news stations?

AM: We had a lengthy discussion about what we wanted to bring back from the first one. We didn’t want to bring back too much. We knew the pitfall of sequels was when you repeated the first movie too much. You all know that feeling. We wanted to make sure that the story progressed and that new things happened. We did repeat 2 or 3 things from the first one. We repeat the cologne cabinet, but with condoms. The gang fight we kept coming back to. We wanted it to surprise people. The reason it worked the first time was because you had no idea it was going to happen. That’s why we put it where we put it. Since we have become better filmmakers we wanted to do some crazier shit.

C: Like Minotaurs or Stonewall Jackson? How did you get all of those people? Were they fans of the original?

AM: Mostly yeah. John C. Reilly, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jim Carrey, Kanye West, and Kirsten Dunst were all fans of the original.

C: Who did you want to have as a cameo that you couldn’t get?

Anchorman2-postAM: We actually got our wish list. The big ones for us were Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and Liam Neeson. Marion Cotillard was a great weird one. We legitimately tried Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Barrack Obama. Bill Clinton was an immediate no. Oprah Winfrey’s agent said she might do this, but said no the next day. The craziest one was Barrack Obama. For like a month, our connection in the White House said that he might do this. If he did do it then there’s something really wrong with that White House (laughs).

C: Did you have dialog for him [Barack Obama]?

AM: We were gonna have him be the host of C-SPAN. We’d have him come out and say “C-SPAN is the leader in all of news. Then the Syria gas thing happened, and he got yanked away to handle that. By the way, thank God that he didn’t do this.

C: You’ve augmented your core group of comedic actors with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Two guys you don’t normally think of as being chucklefests. Did you have some kind of epiphany to have those guys?

AM: Harrison Ford came out of making the character of Mack Tannen. We need someone with gravitas. We needed someone like Paulie (Paul Sorvino) from Goodfellas. When we’re writing we always do impressions of the people that we’re doing. Liam Neeson is pure awesomeness. Turns out he was the greatest guy ever. He actually is funny and has a sense of humor. As for the core ensemble we knew Dylan Baker was funny from a few years back. The James Marsden audition was crazy funny. The Meagan Good audition was awesome. It brought a new cadence and vibe to it.

C: Have you ever thought about doing drama?

As far as doing serious stuff, yeah I’m down for anything. I just love movies. I happened to start doing comedies. There’s a Lee Atwater script that I’ve been looking at forever so I’m trying to do that. I’m talking to Will Smith about doing this remake of Uptown Saturday Night. That would be a little bit more action comedy instead of comedy-comedy. I would do anything. I want to do a horror movie some day. I’m just lucky enough to have this great partnership, that making movies with Will [Ferrell] is so much fun and so satisfying. As long as we have interesting ideas that keep us excited, then I’ll keep working with Will [Ferrell].

C: How did you come up with Anchorman to begin with? So much of it is parody, yet so much of it is so true at the same time.

AM: Ferrell had seen a documentary about Jessica Savage, the first female news anchor. Mort Crim, the legendary Philly anchor was sounding so wise, but just being a shit. “We were male chauvinist pigs. We did not treat that little lady very well.” God bless him he was copping to it. He was acknowledging that it wasn’t good behavior. I’m sure he’s a great guy. That contradiction was just so funny to us. We started thinking that no one has done anything in the newsroom in a long time. That world is such an old world aesthetic. There’s such a staid bizarre style to it. We started hearing old stories from news anchors in Pittsburgh where they would go to a friend’s house and get drunk, and swim in their underwear. All these people that you respected as a kid would just get hammered, and be in bras and boxers drinking. It was the combination of all of that. Also, it was the era when there were just three TV channels. The more we looked into it, the more intriguing it got. When Ferrell started doing that voice, we had to do it.

C: Growing up in Malvern, did you think you could eventually make a career out of your love for movies? If not what did you aspire to be?

AM: At that time I would have bet that I would have become a teacher or something. I love to write. I love to read. I loved comedy so I jumped into it without any expectation, which I think is a good way to go into it. I was happy getting to be on stage. I was happy getting paid to teach improv in Chicago. I always knew I would do something like this. Something loosely creative.

C: When it came to casting the core news team of Koechner, Rudd, Carell, and Ferrell, how did you pick those four? What was it about them that meshed so well?

Anchorman2-post2AM: That’s one thing I’m going to brag about with Will and I. We are really good at casting. We auditioned a lot of people and chose correctly in all cases. I knew Carell from Chicago and he was always funny. Every show I saw him in he was a technician, and I knew he would do this well. We knew Koechner from SNL. He is Champ Kind. He’s boisterous. For Rudd, it was when the studios and financiers said no to the movie and it was dead in the water. Rudd called me and said it was the funniest script he had ever read. When we were auditioning for the part, it was between Rudd and Bob Odenkirk. He truly is a great comic and a great writer too. I think we made the right choice with casting Applegate too. It came down to Amy Adams, Maggie Gyllenhall, Leslie Mann, and Christina Applegate. Christina had that 50’s vibe.

C: Who else was up for Steve Carell’s role?

AM: Well we had the project greenlit, and people were coming in to audition. James Spader was a huge fan of the script and wouldn’t read it. He said it was one of the funniest things he’s ever read, but when it came down to it, it was James Spader. It was too creepy (laughs).

C: The catchphrases in this movie are so funny. The quote, “But when you have a butt like the North Star, wise men will follow,” how do you even come up with that?

AM: We did nine or ten alts on that trying to find that fresh line. It’s hard to do a fresh line on an ass joke. We did so many. We kept trying and trying. We began packing the set up and Rudd or Ferrell said the line, and we polished it up and we knew that was the line. We literally went all the way back to get that line. The way to get that stuff is to just keep trying and trying. You just feel it.

C: So it’s all improv?

AM: It’s a lot of improv. It’s right on the fly too. The actors will suggest something and I’ll collaborate, and that’s mostly what it is.

C: How does your background as a performer affect your approach to screenwriting?

AM: Most of my experience as a performer came from improv. That’s mostly what I did in Chicago. That’s the part that’s really invaluable. So when we’re doing the scene, I can feel the scene. I’ll almost play like a fifth member of the scene.

C: As you were growing up, who was your idol that you wanted to work with?

AM: It would have been John Cleese and Monty Python. Nobody had ever done anything like that and we were just in awe of them. I got to meet him on Saturday Night Live, and I was not cool at all.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues opens Wednesday in Philly area theaters.

Author: Kyle Harter

Kyle Harter recently relocated to Philadelphia after receiving his BA in Film from the University of Central Florida. Kyle aspires to a career of filmmaking, writing, and adventure. Kyle has a mild obsession with Quentin Tarantino, coffee, and Corgis. He co-authors the film blog, The Main Squeeze.

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