If you’re making a film about the state of modern politics, things are bound to get a little weird.
Case in point, the New Orleans production soundstage of Warner Bros.’ The Campaign where, earlier this year, ComingSoon.net was one of a handful of visiting journalists gathered around a monitor watching a live feed of Will Ferrell’s North Carolina Congressional Representative incumbent Cam Brady attempt to seduce the wife of his opponent (Zach Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins), awkwardly filming the experience on his iPhone for use in a future campaign ad.
Landing somewhere between the silliness of his Austin Powers trilogy and the staid drama of his recent HBO telefilm Game Change, director Jay Roach says that his plans for the August 10th release are less about parodying specific politicians and more about mocking the way that political campaigns are run in the first place.
GALLERY: View new photos from the comedy!
“Were not a very preachy movie,” he explains, “but were definitely going after those kinds of candidates where the race is all about smear-your-opponent-before-he-smears-you and then, if he does smear you, smear-him-back-as-hard-as-you-can.”
“Theres no standing on a box and screaming about one political party or the other,” adds writer Chris Henchy, “so its entirely [about being] aware of the political processes as opposed to the issues.”
Leading man Galifianakis says that one of the initial inspirations for the project was D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ 1993 documentary The War Room, which took a serious, in-depth look at Clinton campaign from the previous year. One of the challenges for The Campaign was in maintaining a fiction that could be seen as being crazier than reality.
“If you read the script,” says Galifianakis, “its like, ‘God, this is a little bit over-the-top.’ But then you read the news, and you go, ‘God, its really not that over-the-top.’
Brady’s seduction of Huggins’ wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker), comes in response to an attack ad on the part of Huggins wherein Marty takes Cam’s 15-year-old son to the fair and shows him the best day of his life just so he can use the footage to make his opponent look like a bad father, a direct attack on Brady’s all-American family man image.
“Brady’s kind of trying to put on all appearances that they have Camelot, you know?” says Ferrell. “He’s like a poor man’s Kennedy. He wants everything to look really [perfect] and, behind the scenes, I have a really tough, aggressive, ladder-climbing wife who’s pushing. She wants it as bad–if not more–than I do. My kids, kind of, are dismissive and hate me.”
Brady, who has held office for years, has formed a well-worn groove for his political position.
“He’s the lazy incumbent,” Ferrell continues. “He’s the guy who just thought he’d roll into a fifth consecutive term. He usually runs unopposed… He’s been mentioned as a possible VP candidate, which is at the height of his aspirations. He doesn’t want to be president. It’s too much work.”
When Huggins steps in, however, Brady becomes a bit more determined to win at any cost.
“He comes from a political family,” says Galifianakis of his character, “but he is the black sheep of the family. He only gets plucked out of obscurity because of his family name. Hes kind of been ostracized from the family. And then they decide to take him in again, simply because the powers that be–the puppeteers–decide that the family name will help the political cause of that particular political establishment… It was more about the plucking out of the obscurity – the Sarah Palin and how your ego can kind of run you over. When someone plucks you out of obscurity, you kind of start believing the hype… I think, to a certain extent, some of these politicians that are plucked out of obscurity do start believing the hype. And thats kind of part of the problem.”
Marty’s family life couldn’t more different than Cam’s. He has a wife and two children, but he’s far more interested in his two pet pugs.
“We kind of made it like Marty is nonsexual,” says the actor. “There are some jokes at [Mitzi's] expense, because hes not into her. Or into guys. Hes just not into that kind of thing. So, I think thats funny that two characters have to interact that way. She wants it, but he just doesnt want to touch her.”
“Like Morrissey?” asks a reporter.
“He’s like Morrissey, exactly!” laughs Galifianakis. “And we all know how funny Morrissey is!”
Although Brady and Huggins are both Republican candidates, Roach promises that gags borrow from both sides of the political table and one of the reasons that the action is set in North Carolina is because he views it as a “purple state.”
“Its kind of right down the middle,” Roach explains. “It could go either way… It feels like what happens in some of these districts where it can reverberate nationally… Once you control the district, how does that influence the state? We see in all these other elections the way it comes down to one state sometimes.”
Roach explains that one gag that crosses party lines is that of Cam Brady’s hair, which he describes as equal parts John Edwards and Rick Perry.
“It seems like you cant actually have really bad hair or be bald and run for President of the United States,” he laughs. “So theres a whole running joke about, ‘Hows my hair?’ ‘Strong.’ Its always, ‘Real strong’ and, ‘Your hair is so strong!’ The look of Will came, I think, from that.”
Ferrell also admits that Brady shares some DNA with his iconic take on President George W. Bush which he began on “Saturday Night Live” and wrapped up in the HBO special “You’re Welcome America.”
“There’re going to be probably cut from the same cloth a little bit,” says Ferrell. “…They’re fumbling politicians. Cam Brady, though, is more the slick John Edwards version. He’s very polished. He can kind of take command of a room and then you leave realizing he literally didn’t say anything that was of any value or with any substance.”
Galifianakis, too, is borrowing somewhat from an older character. Though audiences will recognize Huggins’ personality from that of “Seth Galifianakis” on his webseries “Between Two Ferns,” the comedian says that the character goes back even further.
“I started doing this character when I was high school. Back then, his name was Kenny Ballard and he was an effeminate racist, which I always thought was funny: an effeminate guy, who probably gets made fun of, to also be racist. I dont know, it was a weird mix. I used to do it for my dad. I used to do it for the black kids at school. They would bump me in the hallway because they knew this character would come out. They were laughing because they knew I was doing a joke about the rednecks that were racist… Somebody asked me about it. They said, Do you think people are going to be offended? I find that question to be offensive. So, effeminate people should not be in movies? You know what I mean? I didnt really alter it. The mannerisms are all the same, but the story has been altered, obviously, to fit this.”
Part of the film’s plot involves Huggins getting a personality makeover through his campaign manager, Dylan McDermott’s Tim Wattley.
“Honestly,” says Galifianakis, “he doesnt care about hiding that stuff, but he’s being told to be more masculine… He just catches himself, because he always has this svengali right next to him saying, ‘Dont do that,’ or, ‘Watch your Ss,’ which is something that is told to him a lot.”
“Dylan McDermott puts such an odd chemistry into it,” laughs Roach, “which is exactly what we wanted. Hes just kind of this dark Rasputiny, Timothy Leary-like assassin, who just happens to be a political consultant… Ive gotten to know a lot of spin doctors head guys, especially in ‘Game Change,’ but in ‘Recount’ as well. The political operatives and the political consultants are such a class of people and they have a very specific thing and every one of them is their own kind of samurai warrior self who is defined–you know each have their own–theyre like superheroes. They just travel around and get hired and do different campaigns.”
Brady’s manager, meanwhile, is a bit more laid-back with Jason Sudeikis’ Mitch. Part of his job is the management of Cam’s campaign song, “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman Turner Overdrive.
“There was one scene that we didn’t put in there,” Henchy recalls, “where Sudeikis explains to Will that its not a good campaign song because its basically about hanging out with your buds, getting a secondhand guitar, starting a band and not working and not getting up with the whistle blowing at nine and people pushing through… Its sleeping in and going to a pawn shop. He said, ‘No, it’s the best song ever!’”
So what should fans take away from The Campaign after it hits theaters just in time to lead into the 2012 elections?
“An empty bag of popcorn and no hope for our country,” laughs Galifianakis. “No, like any other of these movies, these comedies, Im all about jokes. I just like jokes. As long as it goes along with the character. As cheesy as it sounds, I think comedy is a really good tool for trying to say something. I think, especially–to be serious for a second–after this last war our country was in, the folk singers – you really didnt hear a lot of people singing about stuff. The comedians started. Because theres a bullsh*t detector with comedians. Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt started questioning things. Jon Stewart to a huge extent, and Stephen Colbert. So I think comedy does have that powerful thing that doesnt seem too preachy, because youre also making people laugh. Its a really good tool for messaging.”
“We’ve just been able to make fun of the fertile ground that is modern day politics,” adds Ferrell, launching into character. “You know, I’ve gotten to speak in the same speech patterns as you hear where, you know, it’s just so fun to like, as a politician to say, thank you so much for that question. I really appreciate you. In fact, I appreciate all of you coming down here today. Because it’s not easy. You guys have busy lives and schedules, and to carve out fifteen minutes of your day to come down here and speak face-to-face means a lot to me and the people that you report to. And you should feel good about that.”
The Campaign hits theaters on August 10th.