An argument could be made for 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy as the wellspring of 21st-century comedy—for its who’s-who ensemble of comedic talent, its rigorous use of off-the-wall improvisation, and its Simpsons-esque abundance of quotable lines and memes. And it makes sense that writer-director Adam McKay would be at the center of it. Between his stints at Chicago’s Second City and Saturday Night Live, where he served as head writer for three seasons, McKay has collaborated with nearly all of his generation’s comedy stars, many of whom have subsequently appeared in the Anchorman movies. McKay’s longtime partnership with Will Ferrell brought them both to Hollywood’s upper echelon, starting with Anchorman and continuing with 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, 2008’s Step Brothers, and 2010’s The Other Guys, as well as a host of projects they’ve produced together, like Eastbound & Down and The Campaign. They also launched the popular comedy video site Funny Or Die in 2007.
McKay and Ferrell held off nearly a decade on making a sequel to Anchorman, but the new Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues naturally ties the Ron Burgundy myth to the birth of something even more inane than local TV news: 24/7 cable networks. After losing his shot a network anchor desk and splitting with his co-anchor/wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), Burgundy (Ferrell) gets recruited, along with a phalanx of other local TV news crews, to help launch GNN, the world’s first 24/7 network. Bringing the old team back together—Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell)—Burgundy works on innovating the empty news-related entertainment we know today.
The Dissolve: Anchorman doesn’t seem like a natural for a sequel. It tells a complete story, and it’s about a specific time and place. How did you hit upon the idea to continue this story?
Adam McKay: We weren’t going to do a sequel to this. For five or six years, we said no anytime anybody would ask us. We’d be like, “No. Go enjoy the movie. That’s it.” And it just never stopped. Every junket we would do, I would do something, Ferrell would do something, and [journalists] would just keep asking about Anchorman 2, and it just kept coming and coming and coming. We expected it to fade off, and it just never did. Finally one day, Ferrell and I were like, “Well, what would we do if we did a sequel?” And really, the whole reason we did it was the idea of 24-hour news. Once we had that idea, and once I looked it up and realized, “Oh my God, that was 1980”… that’s actually close to when the first one was, which we always thought was like ’75, ’76. That was it. Twenty-four-hour news was the whole reason we were able to do a sequel. It’s one of the biggest media moments in history.
The Dissolve: It’s also a natural transition from one inane form of news to another.
McKay: Exactly! Then we started reading about CNN, and they actually did go recruit guys out of local news stations. Lou Dobbs came out of, I think, Seattle. Lou Dobbs, to me, has always been kind of a Ron Burgundy-type guy. There were a bunch of weird local anchors that they recruited to CNN. It was like, “They probably would’ve gotten Ron Burgundy.” It made perfect sense. That was the only reason we could do the sequel. All of our other ideas were thin, lame.
The Dissolve: How does a script like this develop?
McKay: Well, it’s always about that one idea. As soon as you have that backbone, that weight-bearing idea, you build everything around that. As soon as we had the 24-hour news, we knew, “That’s what it’s all going to be about.” Then we just write a 25-page document that’s all just shit we want to see in a movie. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with story. It can be as random as a love song to a shark, or it can be anything. The first one, Ferrell just goes, “I think he should play jazz flute.” We’re like, “Good. He’s playing jazz flute.” You get these massive candy bags of ideas together, and then when you’re done, you go and try to stick them on the weight-bearing backbone of the idea. You see what sticks and what doesn’t. Sometimes you go, “Screw it. We’re gonna cram it in anyway.” And sometimes you go, “Well, there’s just no way to make this work.” Off of that, you do your outline, and then you do your first draft, which is usually 160 pages long and a mess. Then you cobble that down and end up with your 120-pager. We never stop rewriting. Once you have that first draft, you’re still rewriting. Then you’re doing your table read and you’re rewriting. Then you do another table read, basically up until shooting, you’re constantly rewriting it. The idea is to have a really strong script that then allows you to improvise, because you know you’ve got the good script. Then, with the improv, it takes all the pressure off it. You’re not relying on it.
The Dissolve: At what point do you open up the process to people like David Koechner, Steve Carell, and Paul Rudd? Are their contributions on the set?
McKay: We do a little bit of rehearsal. We don’t do a ton. We do, like, two days of rehearsal where we just get together and talk, read through scenes, any kind of problem points. We did a rehearsal with [Kristen] Wiig and Carell, and they actually—they didn’t say it, I said it—they read the scenes and I said, “There’s got to be more to these scenes.” That’s how we came up with the telling the boss off, June Raphael, and throwing the paper on her all came out of that. Like, “There’s got to be a moment between these two.” We just could feel it in the rehearsals. They chimed in, they had some ideas, we kicked it around, but mostly it’s on the set. The day of shooting, we do the three takes as written, sometimes five, to really get it, and then from that point on, any ideas are welcome. The actor can throw stuff out, I’ll throw stuff out, someone will try something and go, “Oh my God, you know what you guys should do?” And then we’re essentially rewriting the script on the set, and that’s where the best stuff comes out. That’s where the funny line becomes even funnier, or because of the good script, you’re able to take the next step. Anyone can contribute. Literally, a day player can throw a line in. Sometimes my AD will throw me a funny line. If someone keeps missing with the funny lines, eventually I might be like, “All right. You’re zero for five. You’ve got to sit out a day.” [Laughs.] But for the most part, any idea is welcome. With improv, you know half aren’t going to be any good, if not 70 percent. There’s no pressure whatsoever.
The Dissolve: Is it nerve-racking to go into a day like that, where you’re just creating things on the fly?
“You get these massive candy bags of ideas together, and then when you’re done, you go and try to stick them on the weight-bearing backbone of the idea. You see what sticks and what doesn’t.”
McKay: The script is the security blanket. After your last read-through, what you want is for everyone to walk away going, “Oh my God, you could just shoot that! Do we even need to improvise?” Which is what people were saying this time. You want that for your last one. You know that even if you just shot the script, you’ve at least got a B+ comedy. That takes all the pressure off it. And you’re not even [improvising] with every single scene. Sometimes there are story scenes, and there just isn’t a lot to them, or I don’t do them in master [shots]. So it’s not crazy. And it all feels like gravy, that’s the approach to it. Though one time I remember we rehearsed a scene on the first Anchorman, and it was bad. It was like, “Oh, shit. That was not good!” It was the first time where it really just felt flat and wrong. It was about 11:30 a.m., and I was like, “Could we break for lunch early?” [Laughs.] They’re just like, “No!” “All right, let’s break this down.” And we had to build the whole scene on the set, and that was nerve-racking.
The Dissolve: Do you remember the scene?
McKay: I do. It was the pirate hooker: the insults between the two of them. It just didn’t work the way it was written, so everything you see in that scene is all improvised in the moment, built out of us going, “Let’s try this line. Let’s try this line.” I think we were late that day because I was like, “I think I’m going to need extra time on this.” As long as you avoid that, as long as you’re actually coming into a scene that is pretty damn good, you’re always going to be in good shape and avoid any pressure on the improv. Which is exactly what you want to do.
The Dissolve: Does this massive amount of material become an issue in the cutting of the film?
McKay: It’s pretty crazy. A million and a quarter feet of film—it’s digital, but the equivalent. Our editing team has just gotten really really good at processing all this information. My script supervisor is amazing at organizing it. She draws pictures of each of the setups, and everything is catalogued incredibly thoroughly. I have a pretty good memory for it, too, so I know when a scene is not working, I’m able to dial back to it pretty quickly and go, “Hey, try this…We did something with this…Could you cut?” Melissa Bretherton and Brent White were really co-editors on this, and they’re both really, really good. While Brent is cutting with me, Melissa will show me the [alternative] scene, and she’ll bring it in and we’ll look at it. We’re just constantly rotating jokes in and out of scenes and re-cuts. The first scene with Carell and Wiig, we tried—I think there were 15 versions of that scene, and we were just constantly recutting it.
The Dissolve: Does it create issues in terms of continuity? You have this great idea that can become a running joke—like “chicken of the cave,” how is that going to carry? [“Chicken of the cave” is Koechner’s description of bats, which his fried-chicken restaurant serves instead of chicken.]
McKay: We just remember it. We were laughing so hard. “Chicken of the cave” was actually an alt line, but it was a scripted alt line, I think. It just made us laugh so hard. Sometimes the actor will do it. In the case of Koechner trying to hug Ferrell in the first scene, he just kept playing that game when we were doing the movie. So later, he tried to hug Ferrell again, and I think he did it a couple of other times that didn’t make the movie. Koechner on his own carried that joke through. The chicken of the cave, when we were shooting that scene, I can’t remember if he did or I yelled it out. We were like, “Dude, start talking about bats and what they would be like to serve.” You know, once again, it comes back to the fact that we have a pretty good script, so we’re not dying here if we don’t do this. That’s what allows you to be free and loose with it. And, by the way, it’s fun. That’s really the key. For me, it keeps me engaged. I get to actually improvise in the scene with them, which for me is a blast. It’s the funnest part of the way we do movies, I get to act in the scenes with them. Here, I used a microphone for the first time, which actually I had never used before, and it was fantastic.
The Dissolve: How so?
McKay: I always used to have to yell and be like, “Try this!” Or I’d have to run to the side of the camera, or I would sit behind the side of the camera, and it was awkward. This time, we just set up a nice speaker, a mic, a nice medium volume, and literally it was like I was in the scene with them.
The Dissolve: You should do it from the trailer like Francis Ford Coppola.
McKay: People kept joking with me like, “Your next step is you’re going into the trailer.” And I was like, “I see how you could get to that point.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: One of the things that sets your comedies apart is the attention to craft. The action sequences in films like Talladega Nights and The Other Guys would be credible in a non-comedy. The sequence here where the RV topples over is like that, too. Do you feel craft is important to comedy, that it’s undervalued as a tool?
McKay: It depends on the type of comedy you’re doing. If you’re doing an action-comedy, there’s no reason to do crappy action. Because there are so few times in cinematic history where there’s been an action scene that’s really funny. I don’t know if I’ve seen that many. I don’t know, Kung Fu Hustle maybe had some. The action has to be cool. The only thing you have to go with there is that it has to be cool. That’s always been our approach. When we were doing those car-driving scenes in Talladega, I said, “Quite honestly, I’ve seen race-car movies before. They’re quite boring. I don’t care about cars.” So, our approach was, “How do we make this cool? I’m the audience. How do I give a shit about NASCAR? You’ve got to make this cool for me.” And same with The Other Guys, I’ve seen so many buddy-cop movies. I’ve seen so many action scenes. What do we do that’s different and cool? Our rule is, cut everything out of the movies that’s not funny, cool/original, or doesn’t forward the story. Cut everything out of the movie that doesn’t fit those three. By that standard, you know it’s going to be very hard to make the action funny, so it’s got to be cool and original. That’s where Oliver Wood has been amazing as my DP, and a lot of the people I use are big, legit, action-drama type people. Susan Matheson, our wardrobe person, has done heavy movies like The Town, or Safe House. You want to get people that can bring the real when they need to. You can always screw up and do crappy. That’s always an option. So why ever aim for that?
The Dissolve: In one interview, Judd Apatow talked to me about his level of involvement as a producer varying from project to project. How present is he for these films?
McKay: Judd’s like, “Break glass in case of emergency.” When you have a stumbley moment, that’s when Judd comes in. With Step Brothers, he wasn’t really around much during the shooting, but in the edit process, we had a flat screening, which scared the studio. Judd came in and sat with us and was like, “Try this. Try this.” I always say he’s one of the great set-hangs of all time. He just shows up on set, and we talk about food, politics, psychology, Buddhism, and then, while he’s there, he’ll throw out a joke or two. He’s like a bass player to all this stuff, he gets in sync with what you’re doing and he keeps that beat the whole time. He’s great for pushing you. Right at the moment where you get tired, he’s that guy that goes, “Come on. You can do better than that.” He’s fantastic. We don’t do his style of comedy at all, yet he’s such a fan that he loves what we do. He’s able to dial into it pretty well. Judd’s in and out, but I don’t think there’s any question but he’s the best producer for comedies. Without a doubt. Although I hate to say that, cause [Ferrell and I are] pretty good too. [Laughs.] But he’s one of the best producers in Hollywood.
The Dissolve: Was shooting in Georgia a financial decision, or was there something significant about going back to where 24/7 news started?
“As soon as you have that backbone, that weight-bearing idea, you build everything around that.”
McKay: It was half and half. Maybe if we had done pure financial, we would’ve gone New Orleans, might’ve gone North Carolina. But the fact that CNN was based out of there, we liked that a lot. We liked that some of the culture was down there. So 50/50. And it’s a very user-friendly, neutral palate that land has. It’s very easy to twist and manipulate to get what you want out of it. And they have a good crew base. That’s always a huge part of the decision.
The Dissolve: What were you eager to comment on about 24/7 news?
McKay: Let’s face it: The press has been largely absent from the American process for the past 20 years. They gave the Iraq War a total pass; they gave climate change a pass, not covering that at all; all of the major stories, they pretty much roll over on, either because of their corporate owners, or advertisers, or just ratings. That’s not really a right-wing or left-wing opinion. That’s just the way it is; everyone knows it. It was fun to go into that, and it was fun to peg that on Ron Burgundy. The idea that he caused all of that was fun to do. Take a couple swings at it at the same time, but still keep it funny.