Having worked with his long-time friend and collaborator Will Ferrell for nearly 15 years dating back to their days on “Saturday Night Live,” director Adam McKay has clearly perfected the art of making Will Ferrell funny whether it was when he was playing Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights or one of the Step Brothers opposite John C. Reilly.
With The Other Guys, their fourth movie together, they’re putting their own spin on the buddy cop comedy, partnering Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg as Alan Gamble and Terry Hoitz, two deskbound detectives, the latter more interested in seeking out action than the former. When the city’s top cops, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, are no longer available, Gamble and Hoitz are given the opportunity to solve a white collar crime involving billions of dollars that have gone missing due to a weasely executive, played by Steve Coogan.
For a director who has spent much of his career around Will Ferrell when he’s at his craziest, McKay is pretty well grounded, knowing full well what works in comedy and approaching everything with a shrewdness that has allowed the duo to have a huge amount of success, whether it’s in the movies they make together, the projects they produce under their Gary Sanchez Productions umbrella or the hilarious viral videos that appear on their comedy site Funny or Die.
We visited the set of The Other Guys when they were filming at 30 Rock last year–you can read our report here–so we already knew quite a lot about the project, but we wanted a quick follow-up with McKay and we were able to get on the phone with him just as he was leaving New York, where they had the premiere a few days prior. Besides talking about the movie, we talked a little about what he hopes to be his next project, a movie based on the Garth Ennis comic The Boys, and his hopes to do a sequel to Step Brothers in the future.
ComingSoon.net: Having talked to you before about this movie, I know this came about not out of wanting to do a buddy cop movie, but wanting to work with Mark Wahlberg and trying to explore the idea of the officers in the background of other police movies. Obviously, working in this genre, there are probably certain beats you need to hit, but did you go out of your way to avoid those?
Adam McKay: You know, we kinda had it where we started doing it, and we knew we were in that buddy cop genre and we knew that the cop genre has kinda really been dead for about 10, 15 years. But it was funny. Once we got into it, we knew we had to kinda hit certain beats as far as the partnership went and our goal was to kind of mess around with it just to make sure that whatever those beats were, we made them original or surprising. In a weird way, because it was such a well-known genre, it was kinda fun to work in it. It gave us a kind of a freedom, since everyone knew the beats that were coming, we could kind of do whatever we wanted to.
CS: I know you had Chris Henchy working with you on the script for this one, so did it feel very different from the other movies you’d written with Will? What did Chris bring to the mix?
McKay: Yeah, I had written with Chris a bunch of other times before even though we hadn’t been credited, so it was very easy and fun and obviously, he writes great comedy, but he was also kind of amazing when it came to cracking the financial story. The two of us worked really hard on that because we knew we really didn’t want a standard drug smuggler kind of story. At the same time, I knew we didn’t want the jeopardy plot to overshadow the comedy. He was kind of amazing with that. Chris is just a great collaborator, so it was fun the whole way through working with him.
CS: I’m kind of surprised you got so political at the end of the movie with the whole “Inconvenient Truth” end credits. I think people watching the movie didn’t have any idea what to make of it. People were watching it thinking, “Oh, this is going to be something funny.” Then it’s like, “No, wait, this is serious.” It was pretty confusing, even to New Yorkers who’ve been living with this stuff for years. Whose idea was it to go that way with the end credits?
McKay: We talked about the end credits and what we wanted to do with them, and we sorta felt like, yeah, this is a fun, kinda poppy way to put in those stats and those numbers and our credit company, Picture Mill, which does all of our credits and has done everything for us on every movie, came up with this idea of the living graphs, and yeah, we sort of went with it. We really kinda liked it. We thought it was fun, yet at the same time it was sort of jaw-dropping, some of those numbers. At the same time, we got to play “Pimps Don’t Cry,” so it was enough of a balance that no one was thrown too much out of their entertainment comfort zone.
CS: The reactions to it were priceless with some people going, “Should I stop and watch? Should I laugh? I’m not sure if I should laugh at this.”
CS: Obviously, you and Will have worked together so long at this point. In this movie, he definitely seems to be playing a bit more of the straight man role and allows others to get the laughs. Was that something very deliberate you guys wanted to do, to try to do something different?
McKay: Yeah, that was kinda one of the cool things we thought about this movie. We all know that Will’s really funny as a straight man and Will’s really funny when he sorta plays himself and can joke around in his normal voice. Yeah, we were very excited about the fact that it was like, “Oh, it’s just Will kind of responding.” It was very close to kind of his own voice. Yeah, in the movies I’ve done with him, I’ve never had that chance to sort of see him play as kind of close to himself.
CS: I’m sure a lot of people ask you about the improv and we saw a little bit of that on the set and how that works, so do you have any idea at this point how much of this movie ended up being completely improvised?
McKay: Well, there’s always a lot. There’s always 15, 20 percent ends up being… you know, the whole opening monologue that Will does, and there’s constantly lines and beats we come up with like Michael Keaton saying his knee hurts and then putting his hand on Will’s face, so it’s sort of sprinkled throughout. I think every single scene has like a little bit of improv in it.
CS: The line about the homeless people having an orgy in the car that seems like something that might have been improvised. Do you have improvised lines like that where you have to change the script to keep the jokes going?
McKay: (laughs) Well, you’re exactly right, yeah, that’s what it came out of. We had it written as a line when we first were riffing on the abandoned car, then off of that, someone had the joke of, “Oh, they left a thank you note.” Then we thought, “Well, they gotta show up,” so it was improvised in front of the camera, but behind the scenes, we just kept laughing at that joke. A great example is when Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. grab the girl from the classroom and take her with them. That was completely improvised. Then, later we’re like, “Okay, we need the girl,” ’cause we have to shoot them in the car, so we actually had her come back. If you look closely after the final shoot-out stand-off, she’s there as well.
CS: Oh, I didn’t notice that.
McKay: Yeah, yeah, and that was just purely an extra (joke that) suddenly became a part in the movie.
CS: Mark has this strange mix of personalities where he plays these tough guys but then in something like this, he’ll poke fun of that and play a softer character, so which is the real Mark Wahlberg?
McKay: (laughs) You know, the real Mark Wahlberg is an incredibly smart guy and he gets it and he can go into a movie like “The Departed” when he’s with DiCaprio and Damon in that movie. He’s definitely making himself laugh with how he shreds those guys and some of those beats are improvised. You look at “I Heart Huckabees,” I mean, he knows what he’s doing. So, we kinda knew that coming into it and yeah, he’s able to play kind of aggressive, yet at the same time he’s got vulnerability. He definitely understands what he’s doing, and we were really impressed with him as far as how nimble he was with the improv and kinda getting out funny beats.
CS: Keaton is just amazing. I don’t know who came up with the idea of having him play their Captain, but he’s like the Richard Jenkins of the movie where he’s just so amazing, he really takes over the movie a lot of the time.
McKay: Yeah, it’s funny when you say that. That’s exactly how we felt about him. The same thing as Richard Jenkins where we kinda couldn’t shut up about him once we got him in the movie. He was so great, and it was such a pleasure working with him. Just like Jenkins, we were all kinda raving about him constantly. Yeah, he’s incredible. He hasn’t lost anything. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he just improvises like a maniac and making us laugh constantly on set and off camera. That was an absolute treat.
CS: With Keaton or Mark Wahlberg, did either of them get to a point where someone threw out an idea and they just didn’t want to do it because they thought it went too far?
McKay: (laughs) No, no, they will do anything. Obviously, in the movie, Wahlberg is dancing ballet, so you know pretty much anything was open for him.
CS: Did you have any problem getting a PG-13 on this one? There isn’t any nudity or blood, but you’re really pushing the envelope with some of the racier humor at times.
McKay: Yeah, when we came into it, it didn’t feel like a movie that at all needed to be R. The Mom was the one time where it felt like, “Oh, it’d be nice to go a little further with this.” Other than that, no, it really wasn’t a problem. We’ll always push it as far as we can, but because it was so action-based and because it was so character-based, it never felt like a movie that needed to be R.
CS: I noticed that you had to bleep a few of the rap songs that used the F-word a couple times.
McKay: Yeah, that had a little bleep on it, but once again, for a sequence like that we didn’t really care. We didn’t feel like it needed to be dirty and it just didn’t feel like it was worth the trade-off.
CS: You’ve obviously lived and worked in New York City for so long so how was it doing stunts here? You did action in “Talladega Nights” but for that you were in a closed racetrack environment, so how was it doing these big action set pieces in New York?
McKay: It was kind of amazing, yeah. There’s a whole kind of game in the way you sort of do New York is that you shoot on weekends and you shoot downtown around Wall Street to sort of get that busy street thing and they clear it for you. Then, in a real pinch, you shoot a little bit up in Albany because you want to have cars going 50 miles per hour down the street and they won’t quite let you do that in New York. People kinda know how to do it when you come in. Our second unit director found out all the limitations and parameters of it. Then, the stuff that we shot, the action we shot like the shootout in the conference room, and the fight on top of the building with the motorcycle guys was all sort of contained and we were in control of it. The biggest problem we had in New York was just when we’d shoot street scenes, people would be yelling at Will and Mark and saying, “Hey,” and waving a camera and you tell them not to and they don’t care. They’re just not impressed with a film shoot at all.
CS: Are you able to play up the humor of that kinda situation in the movie at all? When Tony or Ridley Scott make a movie here, they’re making serious movies so they can’t use that to their advantage, but what about for this movie?
McKay: Yeah, I mean, we definitely aren’t taking it too seriously when it happens. We’re kind of laughing about it, the fact that New York is not at all impressed with a film shoot, but it is a pain in the ass. I mean, if you’re shooting (Will) walking down a street and you’ve got people waving and taking cell phone pictures, it just makes your day longer, but fortunately we only had a couple scenes like that and were able to contain them pretty well.
CS: With all the action in this movie, I know you’ve been talking to Neil Moritz (producer of the “Fast and Furious” movies and others) about doing “The Boys,” so did you try to put together a reel of the action stuff just to show him you could do it?
McKay: Yeah, it’s with Sony as well, so after seeing this action, they were pretty happy, and I think I convinced them I can do this kind of thing. Granted, it’s in a completely different context here, it’s a comedy, but just seeing some of those scenes and, “Okay, he has a bit of a feel for it.” It never occurred to me when we were doing it. “The Boys” didn’t come up till the very end, but it was a nice coincidence.
CS: I talked to Neil last week at Comic-Con about Garth Ennis and his sense of humor. He does a lot of things in comics you could never get away with in movies and the MPAA, because it may even be hard to get an R-rating for some of it. While this may have been easy to get a PG-13, that one might be hard to get an R with some of the stuff in the comics.
McKay: Yeah, you’re right.
CS: Have you been going through the script and figuring out how exactly that’s going to work and do you think that might be your next project?
McKay: It’s looking like it; hopefully it’ll be my next project. They already have a script for it and it was a pretty faithful adaptation. It’s all in sorta how you shoot it as far as the violence goes and the sex and obviously, it’s gotta be an R and it also gotta have that swing and a groove to it. If it gets too gory, it’s a little bit of a tricky thing, but yeah, I look forward to it. A lot of the decisions are going to be about tone and visuals, and yeah, it is a tricky one though, you’re right, because kinda the whole point of the thing is how rough and real it is.
CS: With movies like “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” they were writing the movie before the comics were finished so they went off them quite a bit. Have you figured out what section of the books are going to be covered for the movie and do you expect it to be an all-in-one type deal?
McKay: I think the script they have is the first storyline. It’s the first arc, and it seems to fit pretty nicely in with the illusions to the “X-Men” set-up they have and that seems like the end of the movie. So, yeah, the first storyline contains pretty well whatever it’s going to be, an hour and 50, two hour sort of movie.
CS: Are there any roles you think might be more difficult to cast than others? I know Simon Pegg’s obvious for Hughie, and you’ve mentioned possibly Noomi Rapace from “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” for Female. She’s actually a really nice person and speaks really good English by the way.
McKay: She’d be great in it I think, yeah. The other idea we had was Bjork or the girl from “Dragon Tattoo” and obviously Simon Pegg as Hughie, Russell Crowe would be amazing for The Butcher, maybe Daniel Craig. You know, we’re very early stages at this point, so we’re still searching around for ideas.
CS: As far as producing other projects, when you find something that you find is funny but may be hard to market, how do you decide to move forward with them?
McKay: We pretty much have a rule when it comes to dealing with Will and Chris and I and the way we sort of look at things is, “Is it something we want to see?” is always the rule. We try not to worry about the money or the commercial side of it. Then the second thing we go to is, “Are the people in charge of it creatively strong? Are they going to have a clear vision and a strong vision that needs to be supported?” We’ve been really lucky in that sense with Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill with “Eastbound and Down,” and “The Virginity Hit” with Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko and “Big Lake” which is coming up with Lew Morton and Chris Gethard and all those people. In every case, we sort of have really strong creative visions behind it, so that makes it fun. It makes it more like we’re fans sorta dipping into this kinda stuff. As long as we adhere to that, it’s never too painful.
CS: “The Virginity Hit” came outta nowhere. I missed the panel at Comic-Con, but I walked past the movie theater and talked to the people in line and had no idea what it was or where it came from. I was really surprised when I saw the trailer. Do you have a lot of indie guys sending you stuff they’ve done to Funny or Die?
McKay: Really, the way it got presented was outta the fact that we were initially gonna try and present it like it was a real movie because the way these guys shoot, and Andrew Gurland was involved in “Frat House” and “Mail Order Wife,” the two of them shot using this amazing photo documentary. I think it was one of the best ones ever shot, so there was some discussion about like “God, why don’t we present this like these kids really shot this movie?” And then at a certain point, we just felt like, “You know, screw it. Let’s just present it as a movie, let people appreciate it.” So, that’s sorta why it came outta nowhere. Everyone was kinda blown away by how great it turned out. It’s a bit of a tricky movie though. It looks initially just like another losing your virginity movie and the truth is it’s really kind of an amazing film. There’s so many different layers to it, so that’ll be the one trick of trying to sell that movie. It’s going to be all about screenings and letting people see how good it is.
CS: Have you been using Funny or Die to cultivate any new talent, just to find new filmmakers or writers?
McKay: Absolutely, yeah. It’s kind of been the number one advantage of that site for us is that we’ve discovered a lot of really talented new directors like, Jake Szymanski and Erica Johnson and Patton Oswald and these are all guys that I guarantee will be directing features in the next five years, as well as cast members. Zack from “The Virginity Hit” came from Funny or Die at an open call and we kind of got to see a lot of other people do really cool stuff on that site. So it’s really kind of been terrific in that sense.
CS: Do you and Will have an idea of what you want to do next together yet, besides producing these other projects? Do you have any other movies you know you want to do together or do you want to do a few things separate first?
McKay: You know, we’re not really locked in. We know we wanna… I’m gonna do “The Boys” hopefully, and then after that we want to go back to doing something. We’re sort of kicking around the idea of doing a sequel just because we’ve never done it. In an odd way, it feels like a fresh, original thing to do even though it’s obviously not. So we’re looking at maybe “Step Brothers 2” just because we love “Step Brothers” so much and that cast was so amazing.
CS: Will and John are just amazing together, and I think people have loved seeing them together since you paired them in “Talladega Nights.”
McKay: Just as a movie fan, I’ve told them both several times like, “You have to do six or seven movies together.” It’s sorta been said, “If you have to do one without me, it’s fine,” and I’d like to direct another one. I completely agree. I think they’re amazing together.
CS: Are you guys gonna do anything more with George Bush in the future or do you think now that he’s out of office, that’s kind of done and over?
McKay: That is done, yeah, yeah. I think “You’re Welcome America” was the last thing. It was the sort of farewell piece. I can’t imagine any call for doing him again. Well, you know what? I say that and then of course we did the “SNL Presidential Reunion” on Funny or Die and he did Bush, so you never know. If they keep unearthing crimes that he committed, you may see him pop up occasionally, but it’s certainly not being planned. In our minds, we’ve sorta moved past it.
Before we wrapped up, we wanted to ask McKay if he had a chance to see James Franco’s documentary Saturday Night, which went behind the scenes of the late night variety show that McKay had been head writer of for many years. He hadn’t seen the movie and in fact knew nothing about it, but he had some nice things to say about Franco once we told him about the movie.
McKay: That’s amazing. I didn’t hear anything about this. How amazing is Franco, man? I feel like he’s doing a lot of really interesting things. I definitely will check it out. I loved what he did on the soap opera and I saw an early, early cut of “Your Highness” and he was crazy funny in that. I think that movie is going to be a stoner classic after it comes out. Yeah, I just like what that guy’s doing. He’s always doing interesting stuff with whatever he’s choosing to do.
The Other Guys is now playing nationwide.