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The Other Guys - Adam McKay interview

Adam McKay directs The Other Guys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Adam McKay talks about some of the fun of bringing buddy movie turned action comedy The Other Guys to the big screen and discovering Mark Wahlberg’s comedy potential.

He also discusses his working relationship with long-time collaborator Will Ferrell and why the idea of a sequel suddenly seems quite a challenging prospect…

Q. How much fun was The Other Guys to put together?
Adam McKay: We had a blast on this one. It was probably of all the movies we’ve done the most high falluting, legit Hollywood movie. It has special effects and big car crashes and big stars, so it was really fun to get to do one of those kinds of movies, obviously filtered through our style. And the cherry on top was shooting in New York City, which is always a great experience. It was a beast to put together – it was a longer, more condensed editorial process than we’ve had in the past.

Q. Did you first get the idea of teaming Will Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg at the 2007 Oscars?
Adam McKay: That was the initial germ came out of that but it wasn’t until a year later that we had dinner with Mark, and after that dinner I walked away and said [to Will]: “You’ve got to do a movie together; the two of you together is just weird, it’s interesting…” I wasn’t thinking I was going to direct it, but then I had this idea… I sort of did it as a ‘for instance’. So, I wrote it out and a producer we work with, named Kevin Messick, wrote me back and said: “That’s the idea.” The next hurdle was that it’s a buddy cop film, which is kind of almost a dead genre… it’s a tough genre to go into. But I thought that because crime has changed, and you have these massive billion dollar frauds going on, not to mention trillion dollar banking frauds, so maybe there’s some life left in the buddy cop thing if you change what the crime is. So, that sort of made me interested as well and we were off to the races.

Q. Given that you are quite political, was it part of the fun to include some of the politics of now as well as a commentary on the current economic situation?
Adam McKay: Yeah, I mean it’s a pretty populist point of view… it almost defies politics. I think everyone agrees we all just got taken to the cleaners. But it certainly had stakes to it and it was fun to make little jabs in the movie and to talk about the FCC and to talk about the Federal Reserve, but to have the movie be silly enough that you could have those jabs and comments. It’s stuff that every-day, average people should know about but in the United States most people don’t. So, it was fun to present it in that way. To me, it was almost apolitical in a way because it is so common and everyone’s so pissed off about it, and that’s what allowed it to match with comedy.

Q. How much fun was it to have a director of photography like Oliver Wood, who has worked on all the Bourne films, to help with your action sequences?
Adam McKay: Oh my God, he’s the best and he’s fantastic. What I love about Oliver is that he’s not following any kind of formula. He loves to try new stuff. So, for instance, we did the scene in the movie where it’s the frozen bar and it’s their night of drinking. That was something we’d seen on the Internet about a year before… they’d done it for Phillips. It was frozen cops versus clowns and it was an amazing piece. So, we were kind of talking about doing photos in the bar of them drinking, but felt it was kind of boring. So, then Oliver said to us: “Let’s try the Phillips shots!” And we were: “Let’s do it!” But he just dove in head first and we had no idea what we were doing. But he has a great spirit like that.

Q. Did you feel you had to raise your game in terms of the type of action you were delivering to match the comedy?
Adam McKay: Oh God yes. But I’m also just a big fan of movies, too, in general, so I don’t ever look at it like… even though we’re doing comedies I like to play around and try stuff. I’ve never done anything like this before, so for me shooting a John Woo style slow motion shoot-out in a glass conference room was thrilling. And then Oliver’s actually worked with John Woo, so it’s this great kind of meshing that happens.

Q. Did you pick his brain about some of the other directors he’s worked with?
Adam McKay: Oh yeah, but the funny thing is that it’s never what you think… he would say something like: “John Woo didn’t talk to me much.” Or: “John Woo was kind of mean to me…” But I’d be like: “Yeah, but he did Face/Off, wasn’t that like…?”

Q. This is your fourth feature film with Will Ferrell but you’ve done so much together – including Broadway and TV shows – since Saturday Night Live. So, when did you know you wanted to form this great partnership? Was it love at first sight?
Adam McKay: It was not. We liked each other, certainly, when we met each other. Will’s a great guy. When I first met him, I thought he was like the straight man on the show because he comes off very unassuming and normal when you meet him. It wasn’t until the first read through that he started doing these insane characters and then, from hanging out with him, for the next four or five months and just joking around with him while having beers, that’s when we started to click.

But the truth is, the whole writing staff loved Will. He was the guy… every read through you’d do 40 sketches and he’d be in 35 of them. So, it wasn’t like some singular relationship… I mean every writer was writing for Will. It kind of turned, though, when we started writing sketches together and he had a movie that he was supposed to write for Paramount and he asked me if I wanted to write it with him. So, that’s when it clicked. When we wrote that script together, we kind of said: “This is really good.” Our sensibilities were more in line that we even thought and the process was so much fun. There was literally not one argument and we just laughed and laughed and laughed. So, that first script was where it solidified.

The Other Guys

Q. And how has that relationship evolved?
Adam McKay: Each movie we do we say: “OK, let’s do something a little different. OK, we just did this, so let’s now do this…” Or: “I’ve always wanted to do this…” So, both of us aren’t interested in just doing sequels or repeating things over and over again. We want to try new stuff. So, in that sense it’s evolved in that every film we’ve done – even though they’re all comedies – we’ve done something a little different, it’s had a little bit of a different tone, but the process has stayed the same. And the process is still the two of us getting in a room together for two or three months and writing a script and laughing like jackasses. The other way it’s evolved is that now we’re producing things and we have a company together and the website []. So, it’s really just kind of got bigger around us. But the centre of it is still the same, which is if we don’t think it’s funny or interesting we generally stay away from it because that’s what we don’t trust.

Q. Does success bring any more pressures?
Adam McKay: There’s kind of like an arc to anyone’s career, whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer or whatever you do. You know, it’s like your arc begins with starting off and trying to prove yourself, then getting accepted and having your hot streak and then going: “Oh, what else is life about?” So, in my case I got married and had kids, and so did Will, and other things start coming into your life. So, we’re kind of in this comfortable place where if the whole thing fell apart tomorrow, well it’s been a great run and no regrets.

So, you can’t say there’s no pressure because of course there is… there’s pressure filled moments and things that, just in day to day life, might make you a little anxious, or there’s things that I’m not crazy about or Will’s not crazy about that we have to do. But overall no, it isn’t that pressure filled. We really just have fun doing it and figure that, eventually one’s not going to do well. We know it’s going to happen and eventually it’s going to run out of gas and we’ll turn 70. I mean, there’s no comedy teams that do it when they’re 70 – well, Woody Allen’s the one guy. But I doubt if we’re going to have that kind of career, so ultimately were just going to try and enjoy it while we’re doing it.

The good news is we didn’t get lame. We’re still pretty f**ked up. There’s always that fear when you settle down and you get a little bit of money and have kids that you’re going to jump on the treadmill and be part of the rat-race, but that hasn’t happened. So, we’re really fortunate. This collaboration has been one of those life treasures, without getting too sappy, that just keeps gibing and giving. We’re great friends and will’s just such an easy, breezy kind of guy that there’s not a lot of pressure on even the relationship. We can go two months without hanging out – it’s not a big deal – but then slip right back into it.

Q. And your daughter is obviously a fan because she keeps beating him up on the Internet [in Good Cop, Bad Baby or The Landlord]? Does he ever tire of that?
Adam McKay: Exactly… exactly [laughs]. It gets a little tiring but now Pearl’s beating me up, so she’s moved on!

Q. One of the things you do really well is take an established dramatic actor – like John C Reilly, Richard Jenkins or Mark Wahlberg – and show mainstream audiences a different side to them. Is that something you enjoy doing as part of your process, and do you look for something in particular in them?
Adam McKay: Yeah. Well, part of the game when we make movies is that the joke is we’re even getting to make movies. The joke is that we are being given money and that we have a DP like Oliver Wood and we have really fancy cameras. I mean, two idiots like Will and I even have that, so it makes it even funnier when you have a super legitimate actor saying this stuff. But that having been said, it’s still pretty tricky. You have to make sure that the dramatic actor you’re casting is truly skilled. Because there’s some actors that just their personalities suggest they have a bit of an ego and won’t do certain things.

So, really the people we look for are the actor’s actor – the person who the other actors know are really good. John C Reilly qualifies as that and Richard Jenkins is the perfect example of that. I mean, I love that guy. He’s a guy who can play high status and who can do the crazies shit imaginable. He’s just very free. But Mark Wahlberg’s like that… we discovered that secret that ‘holy shit, Mark Wahlberg’s really funny’! He does impressions of everyone and he’s a great story-teller and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a great, easy going guy and once we saw that we knew he’d be perfect for this.

Q. Have you ever cast anyone that didn’t measure up, or struggled?
Adam McKay: We’re very careful with it. I always make sure to get on the phone or meet with the people before we cast them and very explicitly tell them: “I’m going to be yelling out extra lines behind camera; we are going to be improvising; you are going to be doing improvised scenes that don’t work and you feel like that was awful. But that is going to happen.” So, because I know that going in, if they then said: “No, no, no…” I’d say: “Well, I told you and there’s no confusion.” So, that’s actually never happened. We had a day player on Talladega Nights who was pretty mean and nasty one time, and didn’t like the way we did it, but that’s the only time it ever happened. But God, the people we’ve had have just been incredible. I mean, Michael Keaton was just phenomenal; Sam Jackson was game. It’s crazy that we haven’t missed yet, but we haven’t missed.

The Other Guys

Q. So, do you now find instead that people are approaching you to be a part of the process and your movies?
Adam McKay: It’s gotten a little bit easier, yes. The Other Guys was the first one where we kind of got everyone we wanted. That’s not to say we ever settled in the past. It just becomes a different kind of search knowing that certain names aren’t on the table. You know, there’s just no way you’re phoning up Matt Damon, or Russell Crowe, or Meryl Streep. The names like that just weren’t there in the past. But now for the first time, on The Other Guys, those names were mentioned. I’m not saying we got them. But the fact that Michael Keaton just showed up just blew us away, or that Dwayne Johnson and Sam Jackson said: “Yeah, we’ll come and die in the first reel of your movie.” That blew us away.

Q. You mentioned earlier about not being interested in sequels, and yet fans are clamouring for an Anchorman follow-up… would you ever consider revisiting Anchorman or The Other Guys?
Adam McKay: A funny thing is happening… we’ve done four original movies and now it’s almost to the point where a sequel is kind of interesting to me. It’s almost become its own original thing. Whereas in the past it would have felt like: “Why are we repeating ourselves? There’s so much else to do…” I’d be curious to see if we could pull it off. So, there’s a challenge to it at this point, whereas in the past it would have felt like a safe move.

I think it’s almost guaranteed that if we do Anchorman 2 it’s not going to be as good as the first one, and I like that challenge! The Other Guys, on the other hand, I feel like we could actually do a sequel that’s even better. I feel like I learned a lot on this one and the balance of it – the action and the comedy – could be done even better next time around. Step Brothers is another one that we just had so much fun shooting and it’s starting to get a real following, kind of like Anchorman did. I hear people quoting it more. Of all the movies we did, it’s kind of the strangest and the one I most fond of because it’s the kind of most broken and deranged.

So, I don’t know, it’ll be interesting to see what comes out in the wash when all’s said and done. I mean, you also can’t tell with a movie until after it’s been out for a year. So, with The Other Guys I’ll really know how it played a year from now, when people watch it on TV. Do people watch it again? Does it get quoted? Does it have a life to it?

Q. Can I ask about the second season of Eastbound and Down [which you produce]? What can we expect?
Adam McKay: Oh, that’s my favourite, I love that. We produced on that so I can openly gush without seeming too conceited. It’s the second season and it’s insane. I watched the first cut of the first episode and in the editorial room I wanted to applaud at the first scene. It’s absolutely deranged – he’s the ultimate ugly American character and it is phenomenal. I can’t talk enough about that show. I love it.

Q. John C Reilly mentioned recently that comedy is often under-rated as a creative medium, when some of the most interesting filmmakers of the moment are working in that genre. Do you share that sense of frustration? Do you feel comedy is under-rated critically?
Adam McKay: I love it. I think it’s great. I think it gives you more creative freedom because you don’t have to feel like you’re proving yourself to critics. You don’t have to feel like you’re chasing awards, you never take yourself too seriously, we know we’re idiots, it’s a great way to start writing and creating stuff – to know you’re an idiot from the get-go. So, I think it’s an advantage that comedies have over the other movies. And the life of comedies are funny… they usually get respected like 30 or 40 years after they come out. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were considered goons when they were out and then 40 years later suddenly they’re revered. So no… I prefer it that way. Please, no one respect comedies!

Read our review of The Other Guys