Q&A: 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues' director/co-writer Adam McKay

'Anchorman 2' director Adam McKay at the Langham Hotel

'Anchorman 2' director Adam McKay at the Langham Hotel (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune / December 11, 2013)

During his time at Chicago's iO Theater in the early `90s, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" director/co-writer Adam McKay learned the value of avoiding the first joke that comes to mind, and doing even stupid characters creatively. That philosophy has so informed the filmmaker's career ("The Other Guys," "Step Brothers") that he constantly shouts out improvised and tweaked lines while shooting, to the point that both "Anchorman" films have entire movies worth of alternate jokes.

Rest assured, "Anchorman 2" is quite good -- hilariously picking up with Ron Burgundy's (Will Ferrell) increasingly outrageous shenanigans as he gets fired, loses Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and later rounds up his old news team (Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Steve Carell) to help launch the first 24-hour news network.

At the Langham Hotel, McKay, 45, who co-founded Funny or Die with Ferrell and says his movies feature guys who aren't necessarily idiots, but boast unearned confidence, talked about one-liners that bombed, directing Harrison Ford and Kanye West (who have small parts in "A2") and the onscreen pairing he sees as "the ultimate comic challenge."

How do you compare writing with and without Will?
With Will, there’s obviously a crazy level of comfort. We’re so used to each other; we trust each other implicitly, but I have written scripts without him. Chris Henchy and I wrote “The Other Guys.” But you know Chris Henchy’s really fun to write with too. These are friends of mine, so it’s just really easy. We both know what we like. I think with Ferrell the one thing you get is that his character tends to be really dialed in by the time you’re done with the script. When I wrote with Henchy, we had to then go and do another pass on the script to dial him in more and actually have Will come in. So there’s a real convenience to it--if you’re writing a script with Will, you know he’s comfortable with it.

Can you remember something on “The Other Guys” that was tweaked because of that?
Yes. I think originally we wrote him more as a weak geeky guy and when we read it, it just wasn’t that interesting. And I think we talked with Will and we all agreed he should be one of those geeky guys who’s also kind of a badass. You know those super-confidence guys who are still nerdy but don’t give a [bleep]? “Napoleon Dynamite” was sort of like that; he really didn’t give a [bleep] what anyone thought. So that was a big rewrite on that character, and I thought that’s when that character got interesting was the fact that he was confident within his own skin.

Was he already a pimp, or that’s when the pimp stuff got added?
That’s when the pimp stuff started coming out. Then we started playing with the whole idea that this guy could be a secret badass. I think that’s when the character comes to life. And when he tells Wahlberg off in the beginning about the lions and the tunas, that moment is when the character got interesting. “Guess what? He’s not going to take it sitting down.”

Some of what people love most about your movies is the sense of randomness, that anything can happen or be said. How do you explain what happens to your mind in that setting? It’s hard to imagine where a line like “I get to work 30 minutes early to sexually assault a starfish” comes from.
[Laughs] Well, I think you just said it in the question, which is surprise. It should always have an element of surprise. You’re always looking for the surprising line that seems like it’s out of nowhere but is oddly appropriate. So it’s this weird mixture of, “It fits, but yet you don’t see it coming.” That’s the sweet spot you’re always looking for. It’s surprising yet doesn’t feel false. For some reason, “I get here to work 30 minutes early to sexually assault a starfish” felt right in that moment.

Because you assume most people don’t do that?
I guess … well you know you’re at Sea World. You know he wants to say something bad to the boss. I’m going to assume he’s not actually sexually assaulting a starfish. I don’t think you could do that. He’s probably washing his hands in the starfish tank. That’s probably really what he’s doing, and he made it a little worse for the boss when he walked away. I think he did, however, feed a chicken gyro to the seals or the sea lions, whatever the boss said. He definitely did do that.

I was surprised we don’t see Champ Kind in the background at Sea World with his pants off.
I know, how about it? That’s immediately what I thought of when we were there. That’s the image we needed. We should have just snuck him in the background for people to catch. That would have been a good call.

In terms of the stream of consciousness on set, can you think of something you’ve thrown out that totally bombed? Or something that once it was out of your mouth, you wished you had it back?
Oh my god. Hundreds and hundreds of times, yeah. When you’re improvising, your best days you’re shooting 50 percent. And on normal days you’re shooting 35 percent. I usually just look at whatever I’m throwing out as initiation. Like it’s a chance to get it going. I’ll sometimes just say a line and go, “This sucks, but here’s this,” and then it’ll allow the actors to respond. So I’m always the guy that takes the first bullet. I’m always the one who says, “Let’s get it goin’,” so if I say something dumb then it’s good. If I happen to say something good then it’s good.

Can you think of an example of one of those dumb beginnings?
Oh my god, I’m sure. I’m just thinking of the beginning of the movie; I could almost look at any scene and think of a bad one. For Drake complimenting Veronica Corningstone’s ass I’m sure I threw out about five or six bad ones for that. I think I had Ferrell say, “When you’ve got an ass like a Porsche, people are going to want to take it for a spin.” Which is not particularly bad, but it’s just bland. I think I threw that out as a way to get the conversation going. A bunch of bad ones on that. “When you have an ass like a Barcalounger, people are going to want to use the footrest.”

So it’s increasing slowly.
Yeah, yeah. And then by the end, literally the last one we got is the one that’s in the movie: “When you have an ass like the North Star, wise men are going to want to follow it.” We had started packing up the take and then we thought of that and went, “Oh, [bleep], that’s the one.” And we went back and got it. It usually is the last one. You work your way to that decent one. You gotta throw three or four bad ones out there.

What changes would we see if you ran CNN?
Oh, they would not like me. I would do way more hardcore economic indicators. I would have that be a part of the news every time. GDP, income inequality, where are tax rates both real and functional post–loophole. I would have those types of economic--I call ‘em vital signs--be a standard part of all news. So if any politician is saying taxes are too low or too high, always you would have the real numbers there. I would almost have ‘em be part of the graphics. Just you can’t fuck with these numbers. These are the real numbers. What’s real unemployment versus that fake unemployment number? I would just do a heavy statistical emphasis. Let’s quit screwing around with these sort of vagaries and let’s get real answers so we can start moving forward. Now here is the problem with that: If you did that, that right way is going to either go against the right wing or the left wing, which is going to cost you viewers. Which means I get fired.

Well, you had a good run.
Yeah, I had a good run. I had a good six months before they said, “Get this Adam guy out of here.”

Who would win a street fight between Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper?
[Laughs] Oh, I think Lauer, right? For sure.

Why?
He just seems bigger and beefier, right? I don’t know. I bet you Cooper’s got some fight in him, doesn’t he? He’s a tough dude. [pauses] Now I might go Cooper. I bet you Cooper’s really quick, and I bet you he’s got a lot of fight in him. I just think that guy is not quitting on you. I think he’s gouging Lauer’s eye at some point, and that ends the fight. Let’s face it: If you [bleep] with someone’s eye, you’ve won the fight.

Especially a person on TV.
Exactly. So I’m going to say Cooper gouges Lauer’s eye and takes it.

The weirdness of barking orders to Han Solo aside, who is harder to stand up to: Harrison Ford or Kanye West?
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great question. I think Kanye West was a little tougher. Kanye West was great, though. He was definitely game. He’s actually funny. He came up with some funny lines, too. But a couple times I did throw out lines and he’d go, “Nah, I don’t like that.”

Like what?
I can’t remember the line, but one time I said a line and he was like, “Nah, I don’t like that.” I just go, “Well, use a piece of it … we’re just trying stuff.” He was good. He tried everything, but Harrison Ford I think pretty much did anything. He was totally game. But Kanye did twice tell me, “Nah, I don’t like that.” …  I didn’t really know what to say. I can’t say, “You are going to say it”? [Laughs] “’You’re here for free, doing us a favor. [Bleepin’] say the line.’” You can’t really follow it up with that.

I have to compliment you on working with people who don’t have the reputation of being funny. What can we expect in your next film, when you show us how hilarious Daniel Day-Lewis is?
[Laughs] He’d be the ultimate, wouldn’t he? I bet you he’s funny, too. I’ve never met him, but he probably is. You can’t be that good an actor without a sense of humor. Who would be the ultimate one? If I could get Robert Duvall—a funny movie with Robert Duvall. He’d be about the toughest one.

A buddy comedy with him and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Yeah. Or with Orrin Hatch. A buddy comedy with Robert Duval and Orrin Hatch would be the ultimate comic challenge.

What is that about?
Let’s really think about it. You gotta make that work. You got Orrin Hatch; you got Robert Duvall. I’m doing a comedy. I’m going to call it “Fourth of July,” and it’s two old retirees on a block who both have battles about how big their flags are for Fourth of July. And it becomes this war of patriotism between these two guys that turns into a civil war on the block with actual missile launchers and guys being fired.

And ultimately someone gets impaled by a flag pole.
That’s the end image. And then off the person being impaled we imprint it, and we pull out and it’s on a piece of currency 100 years from now.

It sounds hilarious.
[Laughs] Call it “Independence Day.” “Independence Day: Not Affiliated with the Will Smith Independence Day.”

How interested are you in doing something that isn’t funny?
We actually have a script that I’ve been looking at. It’s still got somewhat of a sense of humor to it but about Lee Atwater, you know the famous political operative. I’ve been looking at it for a while; I really want to make that movie. I don’t really look at it as funny or not funny. I just love movies. We produced an action movie [“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”] about a year and a half ago. I just love movies. I would love to do a horror movie. I would love to do the Lee Atwater one. I’m game for anything. It so happened I walked into this through comedy, and I love comedy too so I don’t mind doing ‘em. But I’m game for anything. I went around and pitched the Garth Ennis comic book “The Boys” as a movie. I tried to get that made, but it was a little too dark for the studios. That had a little bit of a sense of humor, but otherwise it was pretty straight-ahead, badass action film.

If someone came in here and said, “Make me laugh or I’ll kill you,” how do you respond?
I would have to tell a joke-joke I guess. What would be my joke-joke? I would have to read the person. So let’s say it’s you. All right, so I would give you this joke: two guys are going on a—‘cause other than that, I would have to do an impression. I’m not good enough at those. It would have to be something observational off the fact you’re going to kill me. I’m guessing if you really are thinking of killing me there’s nothing fun off of that, so I would have to go joke-joke.

“What’s the deal with guns …?”
Exactly. That’s not happening. So I would say, “Two guys go hunting for moose. They go around all day; they can’t find any moose. Finally one guy says, ‘Why don’t we split up?’ So they split up. One guy goes low, one guy goes high. After about an hour the other guy sees the friend come out of the bushes with his gun aimed. He’s like, ‘Stop, don’t shoot; I’m not a moose.’ The other guy takes the gun, levels it, boom! Shoots the guy in the chest, runs over. The guy’s there bleeding. ‘What are you doing? I told you I wasn’t a moose.’ The other guy goes, ‘I’m sorry; I thought you said you were a moose.’ [Laughs] It’s a good joke, isn’t it?

I am not going to kill you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Would you rather make a great, funny movie or a good, hilarious one?
When you’re saying hilarious, you mean you’re really [bleeping] laughing, like crazy?

The good movie is funnier, but the great movie is a great movie that is funny.
So let’s say this: The difference between “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers.” “The Producers” is funny, but it’s not gut-bustingly funny. “Blazing Saddles” is gut-bustingly funny. I’ll go with the hilarious movie, the one that really makes you laugh. I think that’s much rarer. I would argue that’s actually the great movie. Not one that’s like “Wag the Dog” or whatever. It’s a really good movie and it is funny, but I still would say “Airplane” is a greater movie in my mind.

People don’t complain about the structure of hilarious movies.
I think it’s the hardest thing to do in the world is to be in a theater and have a movie grab a hold of you and be laughing so hard that you’re making weird sounds. It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s really, really hard. It’s happened to me like six times in my life. Where you’re in a theater really laughing.

Are the ones you mentioned some examples?
“Airplane”’s the biggest. I remember seeing it when I was in sixth, seventh grade and tears coming out of my eyes I was laughing so hard. And “Blazing Saddles” definitely. It’s happened a few others times too, but yeah, that’s the best to me.

Plus:
What he wants to do when back in Chicago: “Get a burrito. I go to Huentitan on North and Pulaski or I go to Lazo’s or La Pasadita. I always say it’s like the hidden food gem of Chicago. No one ever talks about it. The burritos here are unique to Chicago; you can’t get ‘em anywhere else like here. And they’re fantastic. Everyone talks about the Italian beef. I’m like, ‘No, the burrito is better.’” 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.

 

CHICAGO

More