'Anchorman 2': The Chicago roots of Adam McKay

That McKay and Ferrell maintain such a relatively stress-free environment no doubt helped when it came to luring back the "Anchorman" players, including the four guys and Christina Applegate as Burgundy's rival-turned-lover Veronica Corningstone, nine years after the first movie.

"The first one was so much fun to do, I think that's why everyone's doing this one," Carell says back in February, a few weeks before filming begins.

Fast-forward to that rainy day in New York, the last day on the shoot for Carell and several others, and he is sounding a similar tune: "It feels almost selfish because I've had so much fun."

Carell still recognizes McKay's Chicago improv training in his work, saying, "I think it's different than (how) most people direct because there's a sense of freedom. There's that sense of freedom to fail, and there's no judgment at all."

"He encourages you to come up with stuff on your own but is there to catch you if it doesn't work," says Meagan Good, who provides a shock to Ron's system as his African-American female boss and seductress.

The new movie's budget doubles that of the original — $50 million compared to $24 million (which included $4 million spent on reshooting the ending) — but is only half of the $100 million "Other Guys" budget. The stakes felt higher for the first "Anchorman," Apatow says, because if that one had failed, the filmmakers might not have gotten to make another movie. Otherwise Apatow and others find the vibe on "Anchorman 2" similar to that of its predecessor.

"The first one was like the first time you get an electric guitar and plug it into a decent amp, just like, '(Expletive), listen to this!'" McKay says. "We were sloppy, but there's just a lot of energy to it, and we just had a blast every day. This one is like, OK, we've had our amps plugged in for a while, and now we're the kind of heavy metal band getting the orchestra to play behind them. And it's kind of ridiculous, but at the same time it's kind of cool, you know?"

Amid the silliness, though, McKay hasn't lost his desire to be a provocateur. The end credits of "The Other Guys" offered a series of statistics and graphics detailing Wall Street greed and its impact on ordinary workers. "Anchorman 2" takes aim at the moment when news became a 24-hour commodity and producers realized that random car chases and other gimmicks could drive ratings more effectively than what's actually important.

As Ron Burgundy asks on screen: "Why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can't we just tell them what they want to hear?"

"The fun thing is when you come up with an idea where the satire's built into it, where you don't actually have to work or preach too much," McKay says. "I mean, the idea of 24-hour news, if you really step back, is pretty insane. Just even saying '24-hour news' almost has satire laced in it."

In one stunt Ferrell and his news team smoke crack on the air, and the next shot — filmed well after midnight in rainy Midtown — finds them having handcuffs removed outside the building. Among the improvisations that follow, Rudd's Brian whips out a pipe, starts smoking and snaps at the others, "Don't bogart my crack!"

Another shot from earlier that day has Ron dashing out of the building to try to catch a cab before bemoaning, "It's hard for a rich white man to get a taxi in this city!" The following day, which is sunny and warm, McKay and crew are in Brooklyn filming Ron skipping down the sidewalk and, in an improvised bit, plucking an apple off a tree, biting it, throwing it into the air and failing to catch it before ringing Veronica's doorbell and discovering that she's living with a new lover (a pony-tailed Greg Kinnear). The exchange with Veronica spawns more ad-libs, such as Ron trying to patch up their spat by saying, "Look, I was stubborn. You were a little bit whorish. Let's call it a wash."

McKay films so many improvised "runs" that he and Ferrell consider releasing "Anchorman 2" as two movies a la Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill." But in October McKay says over the phone from his Los Angeles office that although they actually test-screened a two-part "Anchorman 2" and the separate movies played well, the single-film version still scored better and was more satisfying.

"If we didn't give a (hoot) and were a little more craven, we probably would have just gone and split it up," McKay says.

Yet even with the final running time at about two hours, making "Anchorman 2" the longest of McKay's and Ferrell's movies, there was so much leftover material that McKay and Ferrell decided to create another cut with every single joke replaced by a different one. This alternate version, which McKay says will be available on home video and possibly in a limited theatrical release, also provided a home for a two-song musical production number that was shot and discarded because it threw off the movie's pacing.

"We put a lot of work into that," McKay sighs, "and it really turned out great too. It's not like it was a failure on any level. It's all (about) that storytelling rhythm."

Perhaps the scene with the injured newscasters' arrival will show up in the alternate cut as well because that didn't make the theatrical version. Nor did "Don't bogart my crack" or much of the improvising at Veronica's doorstep, though Ron's skipping and apple-tossing did. Ron also still is seen running for a cab, but a different punch line has been looped in.

At least McKay no longer has to worry about getting to make another movie. One prospect, he says, is a big-budget remake of the 1974 Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby action comedy "Uptown Saturday Night" that would star Will Smith and Denzel Washington. On a smaller scale, McKay says he's been looking to film a script he commissioned from "In the Loop" co-writer Jesse Armstrong about the late Republican political consultant Lee Atwater.

Leonard says he would love to see McKay make that movie. "To me the next step for Adam is to apply that to the political Adam that shows up on the Huffington Post and to flex that muscle," the Second City executive says.

In the meantime, McKay and Ferrell are producing the directorial debut of McKay's wife, Evanston native Shira Piven ( "Welcome to Me" starring Kristin Wiig), and there's the inevitable talk of a possible "Anchorman 3" or even spinoffs, such as one involving Ron and Veronica's son and their dog.

"Like make a rated-G or PG kids movie about Walter Burgundy and Baxter having an adventure sort of like '(The Adventures of) Milo and Otis,' but you write it kind of absurd with a little bit of our sense of humor," McKay says.

"Anchorman 2" would be the engine for any of that, so Ferrell and McKay have been banging the promotional drum before the movie's Dec. 18 opening, with the director conducting a Q&A last week after a Columbia College Chicago screening.

The students give McKay a standing ovation as he enters the auditorium, and one guy even asks him to sign his chest; McKay obliges. Whether this was a sign of how the movie will play to general audiences...who knows?

"I know we didn't make a sucky sequel," McKay says. "Like for sure we didn't do that. The next step of how much people love it, what their reaction is, I have no idea."

What he knows is he has this to look forward to:

"After the movie's come out, after you've done all the red-carpet junk, after all the reviews, like two weeks later I like to go to some weird out-of-the-way theater like an hour outside LA and just walk in on like a 7:30 screening with people just watching the movie. It feels like everything has cleared, and then people are just watching the movie, and it's the greatest thing."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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