Adam McKay interview: The Other Guys, action comedy, Michael Moore and Will Ferrell

As Adam McKay’s action-comedy, The Other Guys, hits the big screen, we caught up with the director to chat about the making of the film...

The Other Guys, the action comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as second-string detectives in the NYPD, starts off as a pleasant, gag-laden farce, spoofing the genre with over-the-top stunts and a cheeky undermining of old-school heroics. The two leads, as we meet them, are desk-bound losers who handle the mountains of paperwork generated by the city’s law enforcement superstars, portrayed in stand-out cameos by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson with eye-brows fully cocked.

That’s at first. For once the protagonists stumble on their big case – a multi-billion dollar financial coup – the references to the Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs and Wall Street start flying, and it’s obvious that there is something else at play.

The end credits blow open this subtext, unfurling the film’s themes with bold animated infographics of corporate greed.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack, so when we sat down with director/co-writer Adam McKay (a friendly, fast-talking gentleman who, after being head writer on Saturday Night Live, also collaborated with Will Ferrell on Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers), we were sure to ask not only about the film’s genesis and his approach to action film direction, but to get his insight on these two issues central to The Other Guys.

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Has irony destroyed action entertainment? And, likewise, what place does economic discourse have in a Will Ferrell movie? Let’s find out..

How did the film come about? Did the genre spoof concept come first, and was Will Ferrell definitely involved?

There’s always just some little small purchase point you have. In the case of Anchorman, it was Will saw an interview with a 70s anchorman, talking about how sexist they were. And it was that tone of voice he loved. With Talladega Nights, it was the NASCAR, Bush, Red States of America. With this one, it was really a dinner with Mark Wahlberg.

We went out with him, and Will and Mark sat next to each other, and Mark made us laugh all night long. He’s a great guy, really funny. And I just walked away, going ‘you guys have to make a movie, that is one of the most interesting, odd chemistries I’ve ever seen, and clearly he knows how to play.’

That was the genesis of it, and just from looking at them, and based on Mark’s background, I thought, well, it should probably be an action comedy. We haven’t done that yet, either, and that’s always exciting.

And then I had that idea of the other guys – who are the guys in the desks next to the superstars. And quite honestly, it wasn’t about until halfway through the whole thing that I realised that we were making a cop buddy film. It hadn’t even occurred to us, because, let’s face it, it’s almost a kind of almost a dead genre, in a way.

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Really, the only good cop buddy movie in the last 10 years is Hot Fuzz, I would say. I can’t think of any others. So all of a sudden, we were like, “Oh, my god. We’re making a copy buddy film,” and we actually tried as hard as we could not to have it be a spoof. But, just by virtue of it being a cop buddy film, it is a spoof. It’s like doing a comedy that’s a Western.

Immediately, it’s a spoof, even though you’re doing everything different, or trying to change things. You know you have to hit certain beats, and it’s just the way it goes. So we kind of knew that. We said,”All right. It’s going to be a cop buddy film. Let’s do our darnedest to make it as original and funny as we can. Probably we’ll fail in some cases, and then it’ll be a spoof.” That’s how we got into it.

It seems that comedy directors sometimes like the idea of doing action comedy films, because it gives them a chance to indulge in a different kind of direction. That seems to be the case with the likes of Hot Fuzz and Tropic Thunder. Was that a draw for you as well?Absolutely, yeah! With each movie we do, I want there to be something different that I get to try. Or a different location, or a different style. So I was excited about a couple things with this.

I was excited to see Will play pretty real, because I know he’s so funny when he’s doing the straight man, and so funny just being himself. So I loved that.

Clearly, I loved the chance to work with Mark Wahlberg. I hadn’t worked with him before. And then, yes, the action was really exciting for me. And to get my feet a little wet with that was a blast.

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There are some amazing sequences, like the opening car chase, which turns into a bus chase. It seems like you were indulging in a bit of geekery there. Were you bringing in any nods to or influences from other films in the genre that you love?

Absolutely, yeah. And that’s a good way of putting it. It was just pure fun film geekery for me, to get to shoot that kind of stuff.

You obviously shoot some of that stuff with a second unit, they did some of that car chase stuff, and we storyboarded it. But some of the stuff I got to shoot with my crew. One of the funnest was the slow motion shootout in the conference room. That was pure John Woo, and I loved doing that with a little stolen camera movement from Zack Snyder, the push-in camera that we used.

And there was a fight on a rooftop with the motorcycle guys, and that was pure The Bourne Identity. The way we shot it – fast, and with the cuts. That’s just a blast, to get to do that stuff.

And just, as a film fan, I try to make it so it doesn’t suck. Even though it’s a comedy, you want that stuff to play well. And same with the racing in Talladega Nights, we did the best we could, as far as shooting them.

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I find it interesting that, speaking generically, you say that doing a buddy cop movie now, you’re almost inherently making a spoof. If you think of the current slate of genre movies, it seems hard to do a non-ironic, non-tongue-in-cheek action film.

Films like Machete, MacGruber, Black Dynamite… and The Expendables, even though it’s a straight-faced action flick, people are approaching it like it’s in some way an OTT spoof of that type of movie…

I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s very hard to sincerely do those kind of movies. Really, the only way to sincerely do them is to elevate the technical aspect of it so much. I mean, if you look at Avatar, could you imagine if you did Avatar for 50 million dollars? It would be ridiculous! You would almost be getting laughs from the audience, unless you got a real indie director to do something incredibly stylised.

So, yeah, if you don’t have the big, cranking, 250 million dollar budget, you definitely are going to have a spoof element to it. In our case, it was okay, because part of the satire of it was the overblown cop stars, and the overblown shootouts that really don’t do anything when banks are stealing a trillion dollars from our back pockets.

So, I was happy that we wandered into it with that, a little bit. But I think you’re right. I think it’s hard to do that kind of action straight-up.

That white-collar crime aspect is something that gives the film a contemporary, relevant edge. Was that an important element for you, from the scripting stage onwards?

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I didn’t think – in fact, I think we had a little argument early on – I didn’t think you could do the movie if it was about kidnapping or diamond smuggling. I thought then you’d be full-out spoof. I felt the only crime that has any stakes or jeopardy to it now is white-collar crime. That’s where all the damage is being done. So that was my hope, that, okay, the buddy cop genre’s dead, but maybe with this new crime…

And the challenge of the movie was: can we make white-collar crime exciting? I don’t think we fully succeeded. There’s a couple parts where it plays a little dry, and I was like, “Aw, I wish I’d done it a little better.” And the fact that it’s a computer transfer at the end…! But the truth is that, that is kind of what white-collar crime is!

White-collar crime has been marketed – billions of dollars have been put in to have us be bored by it. They don’t want us to be interested in that. They don’t want us to know the economic terms. They don’t want us to know – in America, especially – what the Federal Reserve is.

So, I was excited by that. I thought, “Well, this is a very poppy movie. It’s a comedy, it’s juicy and chunky, it’s the summer. If we can really make a sort of easy, breezy, financial white-collar plot that doesn’t get in the way too much, this could actually be a good chance to expose some of it.” And I think we did an okay job. I wouldn’t say it was a smashing success, that part of it.

Fortunately, that’s only twenty percent of the movie. That’s sort of why I did the credits at the end, where I just said, “Screw it. I’m just gonna say it nakedly!” [laughs] And I thought the graphics were cool, and fun, so I thought it was entertaining enough to do that.

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I suppose it was like you’d stumbled into a Michael Moore documentary, where you’re suddenly hit by all these raw facts, figures, and references. Do you think that the audience that will go and see a Will Ferrell buddy cop comedy will care about that information?

I think I might have forgotten the world at large a little on that, because, from my perspective, when I saw them, I found them really entertaining. I thought, “Oh, these look cool! They look kinda beautiful!”

And there’s a magazine in the US, Harper’s, and they have Harper’s Index, which are the numbers, the stats. I’ve always found that to be entertaining, even though they’re jaw-dropping and startling.

So, when I saw it, and we played the Pimps Don’t Cry song over it, and the Rage Against the Machine, I thought, “Wow, these are really cool!” And then when we started getting the reaction of, “Oh my god, it becomes a Michael Moore film in the credits,” I was really surprised.

I also thought of the financial thing as not really political. We all agree that it happened. But I underestimated the old corporate media in the United States and the right-wing media. So, yeah, we got some complaints on that, but, ultimately, I don’t care. I think they’re cool.

They are. They’re very stylish, informative infographics. Was there any point where you thought it wouldn’t fly with the studio bosses?

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Well, you know, we’re very lucky. This is going to sound like a bit of studio ass-kissing, but it’s absolutely true. Sony is the coolest studio. They are really amazing. I think part of it comes from they’re not an American corporation. They don’t work by quite the same rules. And their studio heads have a lot of autonomy.

And Amy Pascal and Matt Tolmach and Michael Lynton are really friendly to the creatives. They’re legendary for being pretty cool about stuff like that.

I also think that they know me. They knew what my intentions were, which was to do a poppy, cool sort of thing at the end. They were fine with it. They were great, and the movie did well in the end. That always helps.

And it does help that the core of the film isn’t necessarily that aspect. It’s more about the other guys, the triumph of the flawed, normal people on the periphery.

That’s really what it’s about. And part of that is creating new heroes to address these new crimes. That’s what the goal of the movie was. We always pick a highly ambitious goal for the movie, and even if you don’t achieve it, it’s a comedy, and it’s funny. So, that was sort of the goal of it.

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I gotta say, I probably miscalculated a little bit on it. I did not think it was as Michael Moore-ish as it was perceived. A lot of people loved them, but I was a little surprised by that. I, from my own little cocoon world, thought they were just cool and fun.

I can imagine some of the Michael Moore comparisons come from how it is expressing polemical opinions and statistics in a poppy way. And in the landscape of cinema, only Michael Moore does that, especially in a mainstream, studio-backed way.

Well, that may be the best point, which is you don’t just see that very often. And by that virtue, right away, it lends itself to Michael Moore. Also, you don’t really ever see people call out big money in any sort of commercial entertainment way.

And in a naive way, I thought this was a very populist thing. But, you’re right, Michael Moore’s the only guy who does that. If anything, you know what, it’s a compliment to Michael Moore, the whole discussion! [laughs]

And, I suppose, the use of Rage Against the Machine… Michael Moore shot two of their music videos back in the 90s, and has collaborated with them on his soundtracks as well.

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Oh, my god, the Michael Moore similarities are lining up even more!

I have been listening to that Maggie’s Farm cover for, like, four years. It’s one of my favourite covers anywhere. And I thought, “Oh my god. I can finally use it!”

I was originally going to try and do a cover of Pink Floyd’s Money, and get a cool band to do that, and then it was so pricey I couldn’t do it. So, I thought, “All right. it’s time for a little Maggie’s Farm.Mr McKay, thank you for your time!

The Other Guys is released on September 17th.