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Much has been written about the way Adam McKay and Will Ferrell work together, and I recently put up a piece about spending time on the Sea World set where they shot an early sequence for the film. In that article, I described the way that they build scenes, the way their ad-libs flow on a set, the way McKay and Ferrell seem to share two halves of one brain.
The one down side, if you can call it that, to the way their process works is that they end up with miles of film to choose from when building each and every scene in the movie. That's no exaggeration, either. While the process is digital now, they shot the equivalent of 1.25 million feet of film, and when they did the first assembly cut of the movie, where they put in every scene just to see it all together, the film came in at four and a half hours.
That is crazy, but it's one of the reasons McKay's films end up feeling so dense with jokes. "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers," and "The Other Guys" are movies that have a pretty high re-watch value because they rarely go for the easiest version of a joke. They are rich in character and they are weird. I would imagine few of the absolute weirdest beats in the films they make started out quite that weird on the page, but there is something about the almost experimental sense of play on set that brings out the strangest side of all of their collaborators. Just think of that scene where Mark Wahlberg meets Eva Mendes over dinner for the first time in "The Other Guys." You can see just how hard they're all pushing each other in that scene, and they all play along, willing to go wherever the scene takes them.
Sitting down to chat with Brent White and Adam McKay in the editing room where they were finishing work on "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," we talked about the various cuts of the film that they showed to audiences. There was a 2 1/2 hour cut they screened that went better than McKay expected. They were able to start screening fairly early in the process because White was cutting the film as they shot. Watching the way White works, I was blown away. The organizational skills required to even begin to make sense of all the footage they shoot on these films are next-level, and he uses a personally-modified version of the scripting tool in AVID to build out a visual representation of every scene, every take, every joke. He'll put together as many as five different versions of each scene to show to McKay, and he can do that on the fly.
As a result, when they did start testing the film, they were able to screen alternate cuts of the film in the same theater on different screens, testing version A and version B just to see how audiences would respond. Frequently, they'd have the working release version of the film and then a version where they would try some of the edgier or stranger material, and when something really landed with an audience, they could then move that into the release version. It sounds like the best version of testing, where the filmmaker is the one benefitting from the process at every step of the way. They did a friends and family screening at one point where Seth Rogen was present, and they always record the screenings so they can play them back later to hear what made people laugh. McKay said Rogen was pretty much all you could hear for the full 2 1/2 hours. They played us a little bit, and sure enough, that distinctive guffaw of Rogen's was front and center, and we suggested they should put it out on DVD that way. McKay said the only problem is that Rogen has such a crazy sense of humor that they don't always know if him laughing means anyone else will get the joke as well.
If you bought some of the special editions of "Anchorman" on DVD, you've probably seen "Wake Up, Ron Burgundy," a sort of semi-movie that was built from outtakes from the first film. It doesn't really work as a stand-alone movie. It's funny, but it barely holds together. This time around, because of the process they went through, White approached McKay at one point to show him that they could put together a film that tells the same story as "Anchorman 2," with all the same narrative beats, but with every single joke swapped out. Now Paramount's talking about what they might be able to do with that other cut. Is it a midnights-only release? Is it something they hold for video? It sounds like they could actually try something innovative mid-theatrical-run, and I'm eager to see it happen.
Even so, there's stuff that won't make the movie. In the international cut of the latest trailer, there's an entire run of jokes about "Brian Fantana's jimmy cabinet," most of which would push the film to an R-rating. We probably won't see that scene in the final release, and we also won't see an extended sequence where Ron and Brian discuss all the things that are being used in breast implants these days, including taco meat and nickels.
We saw two sequences. First up was something you glimpse in the trailer, where the newly-reassembled news team ends up in a Winnebego driving to New York, only to end up flipping it in a massive car accident. They packed the Winnebego with hazards like a working deep-fryer, a tank full of scorpions, and an oddly large assortment of bowling balls, resulting in a fantastic visual gag that took about twenty minutes to write in the middle of the night and three full days to shoot. It's very funny, and that surreality is what I like about the world of "Anchorman." We're talking about a grown-up version of a Looney Tunes reality, where you can flip the Winnebego 50 times and still have the characters get up and walk away.