Adam McKay on Anchorman 2, alternate takes, George Bush, improv

With Anchorman 2 out in the UK this week, we interview director and co-writer Adam McKay to talk about improv, George Bush and more...

“They’re nightmare people to work with,” director Adam McKay says of the characters in Anchorman and this year’s Anchorman 2. “They can’t deal with change. They’re sexist, they’re classist, they’re racist, they’re ignorant, and they’re supremely confident…”

It’s all true. And yet, somehow, pompous news anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his utterly inept news team, as played by Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner, remain among the most memorable comic creations of the past 10 years, with their deep and often dreadful flaws masking an underlying sweetness and childlike view of the world.

With Adam McKay in the UK to promote this week’s Anchorman 2, we relished the chance to talk about what makes Burgundy and the rest of the films’ characters so appealing, the process of writing and improvising, and a possible alternate version of the movie, with all new jokes and takes.

I feel like I’ve been waiting a long time for Anchorman 2, and I’m sure you have as well.

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Yeah. I mean, for the first five or six years, we actually weren’t thinking about making a sequel. We kept hearing about it, and rather than getting quieter, it actually got louder. That’s when we stopped and said, “Hmm, maybe we will do a sequel.” And it was at that point that it took another three years to get there – that was the part that started to feel long.

What was the tipping point for the studio? Where did they say, “Yep, okay. Let’s go”?

It’s always the same, you know? Every time you’re dealing with a studio, it’s always about getting that budget in the right place – they have to spend a certain amount, they can’t go past a certain amount, we thought we needed a certain amount. It just went back and forth.

At first, they weren’t budging – they had a very low budget, and for us to do the movie, we’d have literally done it for free. So we were going to go and do Step Brothers 2. And everyone I told we were going to do Step Brothers 2 said the same thing, which was, “Oh, you couldn’t make Anchorman 2“.

I said to Will [Ferrell], “Oh, that’s a bummer. [Laughs] I don’t care what people think that much, but if every reaction is like, ‘why aren’t you doing Anchorman 2‘, maybe we should try one more time with Paramount.”

Will wanted to do it. He said, “Yeah, sure, give it a go.” And we got lucky. They had a movie that had fallen out, and they could come up some on the budget – not a spectacular amount, but a little bit. And we took sizeable pay cuts, but at least we got a little bit of money up front, and enough money to make the movie.

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So it was a last second kind of thing. We got lucky.

Was it difficult to get back into the mindset of the Anchorman characters after so long?

It was actually really easy. We got so excited, we did a teaser trailer before we’d even written the script. You probably saw it – it’s the four of them walking towards the camera. That was when I knew we’d be in good shape, because all four of these guys got into their outfits, and were immediately in character.

We knew the voices. The trick was to make sure we continued the story, that we didn’t just repeat the first movie. So that was really the trickiest game – we wanted to do a lot of new stuff, but there were some things we knew would be nice to see again, like Baxter battling an animal.

There were three or four things we decided to call back, but our whole thing was, why don’t sequels work? And the ones that don’t seem to be very enjoyable are the ones that just repeat the first movie beat for beat, so we tried to stay away from that. The key to the whole thing really was the whole 24-hour news idea. Once we had that idea, we were good to go. Because it was such a monumental thing that happened in 1979-80, and for these guys, especially, something that new.

The second discovery was, “Oh, that time when news started to go downhill a little bit – what if it was all Ron Burgundy’s fault?” [Laughs] Then we fully had a movie at that point.

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It’s interesting, because I thought this film and also The Other Guys have an underlying thing in it. I wouldn’t call it a message, but a certain concern, like ‘too big to fail’ banks or rolling news, which you explore through comedy. Is there a certain anger in your filmmaking?

Yeah, I think with all the movies we do, there’s a bit of that in there. I feel there has to be a real idea behind it, even though we’re doing these silly comedies. If it’s not about anything, you can kind of feel and smell that in these movies.

So with The Other Guys, we were very conscious of the fact that they couldn’t be just chasing drug dealers. Because drug dealers aren’t the reason the world’s economy is falling apart. So – this was crazy – we actually met with an economist and tried to condense the whole global collapse into a simple little parable. And I talked to Paul Krugman, I talked to a couple of other economists. And we sort of did the same thing here [on Anchorman 2].

We looked at, from doing research – we had a great researcher on the movie, this guy Jason George – all this information about 24-hour news, how it started, how it was financed, where they got their talent, and the progression of it. And when those first trashy stories started to pop up – it turns out they changed a lot of laws in America. They changed the fairness doctrine, and they stopped enforcing anti-monopoly laws.

So we were able to really pinpoint it. But the trick at that point is, it’s still got to be funny. You never want it to be didactic or preachy, so you’ve got to bury it in there a little bit. But yeah, you do see it pop out of the movie a couple of times, but it’s always being done with a bright, colourful playfulness. Ideally. 

That carries over into the characters as well – there are certain things in comedy that work and some that don’t. And it strikes me that what makes Anchorman work is that you love the characters, even though they do and say awful things.

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Well, they’re bad guys. They’re not good guys. I was trying to explain that to someone in an interview I did in the past week or whatever, and they were arguing with me. I was saying, “No, no. If you worked with these guys, you would not like them. They’re nightmare people to work with. They can’t deal with change. They’re sexist, they’re classist, they’re racist, they’re ignorant, and they’re supremely confident. It’s a nightmare mixture.”

But I think, because we’re the viewers, we see that there is an innocence at the root of it. I always say the classier cousin of Anchorman is Mad Men, because when you really look at it, why do people really love Don Draper in Mad Men? He’s just a terrible guy. But we know why he’s terrible, and I think that’s really key to why you can be sympathetic to a character.

We even did the same thing with George Bush when we did the George Bush show. We started researching George Bush – and I already knew a fair amount about him – but what we really discovered was, he was a bit of a hapless… I can’t say victim, because he did too many horrible things, but he was a bit of a hapless character in the whole story of his eight years.

It was really Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that steered the whole show, and they got this lout with a famous last name, and who could sometimes, occasionally, be charming. Will and I found ourselves feeling slightly bad for this man in a strange way. But not too much! [Laughs]

It’s a similar thing here. I think these types of characters, if you tell anyone’s story, you get to the root innocence of it.

I think what summed up the innocence best was the scene where they’re all gathered around reading a Garfield comic.

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Yeah! [Laughs raucously]

I just adored that moment.

That’s one of my favourite moments in the movie, actually.

Is it really?

That, and [spoiler redacted] are my two favourite moments in the movie, yeah. 

Was that scripted, the Garfield moment?

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It was, it was, yeah.

It seemed so spontaneous somehow.

Well, what’s not scripted is how they perform it. So you put it in the script, and you think something’s there, but believe me, if on the day it hadn’t worked, I would have switched it or done something else. But they all just [snaps fingers] took to it right away. Paul [Rudd] just kills me in that moment – stamping his feet. And yeah, I just love that scene.

And that’s it. It’s that stupid energy driving it. I think we all somewhat wish we could laugh at a Garfield comic that hard without getting a lobotomy.

Absolutely! You’ve obviously grown and changed as a director a lot. Anchorman was your first feature. The Other Guys had a lot of action in it, so did that set you up for the more technical scenes in Anchorman 2, like the slow-motion scene with the RV?

That was a fun discovery. That came from The Other Guys, when we did the still shot in the bar. Because now everyone does that, that still shot, but back then it was still kind of new. And the challenge for us was, can you do something visually that’s different like that, and still have it be funny? Don’t just rely on the fact that it’s new and different, but actually get laughs off it. And when we succeeded with that on The Other Guys, and actually got laughs off it, that frozen bar scene, it really excited me.

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So on this movie, too, we were talking about what’s a different kind of laugh we can find. There was a video that a band had done about three years ago, which was a slow-motion car wreck, where you were inside the car wreck. I sort of remembered it, and that’s how we came to do this. But yeah, that’s a new thing I’ve been playing around with, which is, what new things can you do visually to get laughs. And Ferrell is such a willing partner in that – he gets so excited by it, he encourages it.

There’s also a lot of improvisation in your films. So with something like Anchorman 2, is it a case of leaving gaps in the script? So, “Here it’s okay to improvise, but you can’t here, because this scene’s too technical, we just have to get that shot”?

Uh, no. The script is extremely tight by the time we get to shooting. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: the tighter and more precise the script is, the more secure the actors feel in improvising. So the ideal situation you want is, you do a last table read before you go to shoot, which is usually a couple of days before principle photography, and you want that table read to go so well, all the actors walk away thinking, “Why do we even have to improvise? The script is fantastic.” And that’s when we can improvise.

If we did a read through, and the script was so-so, it would put too much pressure on the improvisation. You have to be able to fail with the improv. You have to not care. It has to be just a bonus, and that’s when you get the good stuff.

So the script is really, really tight by the time we film. We’d already written it about 12 or 14 times. And that allows us, on the day, to go “Let’s try some stuff!” Because what do you have to lose? And that spirit seems to help the actors a lot. Although, between you and me, there are a couple of times in the script where I think, “This is okay, but I think we’re going to get more on the day.” I’m certainly thinking that, but I’m never saying it out loud. 

So when writing, how do you divide writing duties between you and Will Ferrell?

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Usually, the way we do it is, we’re in the room the entire time, and we’ll come up with a list of all the things we want to see in the movie – just a grab-bag, fun list of things, regardless of story. Then we’ll do an outline, and stick those things to the outline and see how they fit in there. And then we start writing. Usually, Will types. I crash back on the couch and talk the scene out, and we just go back and forth together. We write this big, messy draft which is, like, 150, 160 pages, and we usually want it to be 110 by the time we start shooting, so it’s way long. And then, off of that, we’ll do a really aggressive rewrite on it, and get it down to 125 pages, then we do one more rewrite to get it where we want it. Then you do a table read, get everybody in the room, get the cast to read it.

Then that, really, tells you where you’re at. Then another aggressive rewrite. And from that point on, it’s just constant rewriting. By that time, Will’s probably getting ready to play the character, so I’ll be doing the rewrites from that point on.

In the first Anchorman, you had a lot of material left over, obviously, because we had Wake Up, Ron Burgundy on DVD. Was it a similar case with the sequel, or was it much tighter?

This one was funny. We did actually end up using all the storylines, even though it has a lot of them. It has a big, epic feeling to it. But what we’re going to do is a second version of the movie where we replace every single joke. So you’ll watch the exact same physical movie, and it’ll still start with Ron going in and doing the vocal warm-ups, but every joke will be replaced by a new improvised alt.

I just watched it before we left to come over here, and it’s really good – it’s fun. I actually cut some stuff from the movie that works really well, just because we discovered that the fun of it is, you want to see all new stuff. So it’s about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical version. It’s really enjoyable. A lot of cut scenes, a lot of riffs, runs, alt jokes, I think maybe five jokes we had to repeat just to bind stuff together, where we didn’t have anywhere else to go. It’s maybe 400 new jokes. [Laughs]

We were going to do a musical, and we did have a big musical number at the beginning of the movie that we cut out, just because it dragged everything out a little bit – even though it did actually work. It got big laughs and looked really great, but it just made the front of the film too slow, so we took that out. That’ll be in the alternate cut, and it’s really fun.

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Adam McKay, thank you very much.

Anchorman 2 is out in UK cinemas on the 18th December.

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