Adam McKay discusses 'The Other Guys' and what makes him laugh
They should set up a special scientific team to study Adam McKay's brain, because there is something gloriously, wildly wrong with it.
The last time I spoke to McKay was for "Anchorman," and since then, it's been interesting to watch his voice getting more and more clear with each film. It was only after seeing "The Other Guys," though, that it all snapped into focus for me, and I was finally able to articulate to him during this interview exactly what it is that I think distinguishes his work from anyone else making movies right now.
Drew McWeeny: Hey, how are you?
Adam McKay: Good, how are you?
Drew: Good. Good to see you again.
Adam: How are you, man? You have one of the great names by the way.
Drew: Oh, thank you.
Adam: McWeeny, man.
Drew: I've found that people don’t forget it.
Adam: Yeah. Movie star, fashion designer, spy. That is a great name, yeah. Great shirt, too.
Drew: I loved the movie, and it finally helped me crystallize what it is I like about your comedy in particular. I don’t know any other movies that are about how people think. And your movies seem to be about the crazy, insane ways people really think but almost never give voice to. Like I always refer to the dinner table scene in "Talladega" where they debate the baby Jesus and this movie feels like a ton of that. That’s my favorite kind of character comedy.
Adam: Interesting. Interesting. I never thought of that before either. I certainly do like that. Now that you say it, if you told me someone else did that I’d be like, "Oh, I want to see that movie." It’s definitely our taste. That’s interesting. Yeah, you actually say the logic of the way people think in a conversational tone and then you see how ridiculous it is.
Drew: And it is. It’s like every other movie, characters either say the things they have to say for the plot...
Drew: ... or they react. But your characters take the time to think and to just let that be what defines them.
Adam: That’s funny, man. I like that. Yeah. I’ll tell you one thing... no doubt about it, my favorite kind of comedy is talking head comedy. I mean, if it were up to me, I’d do a whole entire movie that was just around a dinner table. Like my favorite scenes are dinner table scenes, talking and driving, sitting on a curb... like, anytime you can just... like the "Anchorman" scene where they’re eating lunch and just chatting. We shot that scene forever, so, yeah, yeah, I think you’re probably right.
Drew: And I think this movie has some of my favorite... and, again, it’s because each of your characters is so radically different. Like I don’t think you can compare Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy or the character in this film at all because I think they all have such different inner lives to give voice to.
Adam: That’s true. That’s true. Yeah, this one was really fun because it’s the first time, for us anyway in the stuff we’ve done, Will and I, that you get to see Will do something we all know he does which is be funny in a very real way. Like Will is freaking hilarious being normal. Will’s a great straight man which people don’t know. He makes me laugh almost as hard straight-manning as anything. So it was so much fun to see him sort of be like... we say he’s almost like Keith Olbermann with a gun. Kind of pushy, nerdy, opinionated and he even looks like him a little bit in the movie. That was really exciting to get to see him, but I think you’re right. We kind of... I guess we fairly consciously try to do that in sense that the worst thing for us would be to be shooting a movie and be bored. We just don’t ever want that to happen. And if you keep doing different characters, different worlds, different places then you know that there’s some challenge, there’s some new thing to crack. It is the reason we haven’t done sequels. I think it is the reason that we keep doing completely... yeah, because you’re right. I mean, Ricky Bobby compared to Allen Gamble or you know Brennan... what’s his name... Huff? No, no. It’s Dale Doback and Brennan Huff from "Step Brothers," and that's completely different than "Anchorman" and Ron Burgundy. Yeah, yeah.
Drew: And I like that Brennan is maybe this polar end of despair and things not going well in your life, not being where you wanted to be, while Ricky Bobby and Ron could arguably be seen as the other polar end.
Drew: I like that this character is kind of...
Adam: Alan Gamble, yeah, yeah.
Drew: ... in this movie is right in the middle where he’s suppressing a lot of things, but at the same time he’s got a pretty great life and he’s got some great things going on in it.
Adam: Absolutely. Which I think is the fun of it. It’s also the time when you make these movies, too. I mean, the fun of "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," that was like the fucking reality. "We are the best in the world." I mean, America was off its rocker during that point. I mean, Bush had a 95% approval rating. We were out of our minds.
Drew: I think "Talladega" will be looked back at as a great movie about America at that moment.
Adam: That would be really nice. I mean, that’s certainly where it came from. I mean that we were off our rockers, us included, too, to some degree, and so that was the fun of that. I think now... I mean, with that collapse in 2008, people have woken up in a little way. Like I’m hearing it just with my mom and her husband, who live down in like Orange County, and they’re big Republicans. Just in the way they talk, I’m starting to hear a little bit of a change going on. There’s some awareness. There’s still denial. They’re doing pretty good and that seems to kind of be a little bit... we’re getting a little more realistic of late. So a guy like Alan Gamble felt kind of right.
Drew: I really love the casting in the film, too. Eva, like I really thought in "All About the Benjamins," she was very, very funny right out of the gate.
Adam: Yeah, I agree.
Drew: But I don’t think anybody saw the movie. It’s one of those things where she’s gotten known for other kinds of work, and she’s great in stuff like "Bad Lieutenant," but she cuts loose in this. She is insane.
Adam: She’s funny as shit.
Adam: Yeah. That scene... she doesn’t get it because everyone’s insecure, so she’s a little insecure and she’s like, "Yeah, but they’re laughing because I’m..." I was like, "No, no, Eva, that 'Pimps Don’t Cry' scene is one of the most unhinged scenes we have ever shot."
Drew: Oh, they’re both crazy.
Adam: Out of its mind. And it makes me giddy every time I see it on a big screen because I’m like, "We’re doing something almost illegal, what we’re doing with that." And she plays it so straight, man, and when she gets mad at him... "Get out!" Like there are like three actresses in the world that could pull that off the way she did it and are hip enough to get that’s the way to play it, you know? I’m 100% with you, man. She is a gem. Way underused for that kind of stuff.
Drew: Then the same thing is true of Mark. I think "Boogie Nights" is frequently hilarious, but I love him in "I Heart Huckabees."
Adam: That’s the one that...
Drew: There’s a scene where he goes to the fire to put it out and he’s waiting for everybody and he’s dancing...
Adam: That’s exactly the scene I think of.
Drew: It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. That year I couldn’t... that image just hung with me.
Adam: I saw... I went to the premiere with my wife because we’re sort of friends with David O. Russell because he was a producer on "Anchorman" and I walked out with my wife and I said, "You know, it’s a shame. First off, no one award-wise ever rewards comedy, which is... whatever. I don’t care about that. But it’s a shame for Wahlberg because I think he should get nominated for that. That should be a best supporting actor nomination."
Drew: Yeah. Because there’s levels to it. It’s certainly not just one note of a joke.
Adam: Great levels, yeah. When he gets hurt because of the friendship and because Schwartzman’s going with the person and he’s the perfect example of that blind-eyed idealism which... I think Russell was depicting a side of himself, you know, and just fantastic in that. And then "The Departed," he’s really funny in that. I saw it with a crowd that was laughing every time he spoke.
Drew: I think so. You can’t help it. He’s great at that. But you tapped exactly what it is I love about comedy Wahlberg here, which is that hurt little-boy thing and it’s perfect bouncing off of Will. And you do let Will straight-man him a lot in the movie.
Adam: Yeah, it’s so much fun to watch. I love it, yeah. When they’re in the car driving across the bridge and Will shows him the lottery thing, and he says, "Oh, my God, it’s got to be drug dealers," and he says, "This isn’t 'Miami Vice.' Grow up." And then Mark just does this hurt take that’s almost genuine, like... yeah, he is fun to work with, man.
Drew: Now, I hear your voice so clearly in the film, so how much room did Mark and Eva have to play? Because I know the process you guys have used in the past, but your voice is still crystal clear in the way things unfold in the movie.
Adam: I think... you know what it is? You write the scripts. You already kind of set your key that you’re working in and your chord progression if you want. So everyone knows that’s what we’re working within, so it already affects the way people are talking and there’s already the effect of that. Then the way we improvise is I’ll throw stuff out from behind the camera, they’ll try stuff, and it’s a lot of back and forth. So it’s a voice that develops out of knowing you’re writing for these actors. Improvising with them, they’ve read the script, so it kind of becomes a collective voice that you find on each of these movies, and it changes a little bit from movie to movie. So the fact that I knew I had Eva Mendes, I knew I had Michael Keaton, I knew I had Mark Wahlberg…
Drew: Keaton’s great. It’s go good to see Keaton.
Adam: Oh, my God. I’ll tell you, that may be my favorite of everything is how... what a pleasure to work with Michael Keaton. He still has his fast-ball. It’s still 98 miles a hour, high in the zone with a tail. That guy is as funny as anyone on the planet, man. He was killing me in the press conference this morning.
Adam: I kept wanting to dwell on things he was saying. When I said that we smoked pot in a van and he was just like, "Yeah, we parked it in a cul de sac." He was killing me, man. He’s a funny dude. I want him doing way more comedy.
Drew: Yeah, it’s been a great summer for him. To see him in "Toy Story 3" and to see you use him. It’s been really nice to have him back in front of us.
[Adam's publicist asked me if I could wrap it up with a final question.]
Drew: Absolutely. I would love to actually try and talk to you later this year. I’m doing a series on the site called "Saturday Night at the Movies."
Adam: Oh, great.
Drew: About the impact of the show on film culture.
Adam: Oh, very cool.
Drew: Like this week, I’m doing a piece about "The Saturday Night Live Movie" script that Conan and Smigel and a bunch of guys wrote.
Adam: I’ve never heard of that. I didn’t even know about that.
Drew: I’d never heard of it until three weeks ago...
Adam: I’m friends with Smigel and I never heard of it.
Drew: I found the script and it’s George Meyer and Conan and Smigel and Franken and Davis...
Adam: You’ve got to be kidding me. Come on.
Drew: It’s an anthology film.
Adam: George Meyer is like my hero.
Drew: It’s crazy.
Adam: And Jack Handy, did you say?
Drew: Not Jack Handy.
Adam: Oh, that’s my other one.
Drew: But it's a crazy list of names on the front of this thing. Including Lorne. Never heard of it before so I’m going to do a piece about that this weekend.
Adam: That’s amazing. Anytime you want to talk, I’d be happy to talk about that, yeah.
Drew: Yeah, I would love to have you sit down and talk about moving from the show to film and how you developed working with Will because...
Adam: That’s how I got into this, yeah, doing short films on SNL.
Drew: ... I really think you guys have created one of my favorite comedy partnerships.
Adam: Wow, thank you man.
Drew: Yeah. No problem.
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