Interview: The Other Guys Director Adam McKay

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys
(Image credit: Sony)

When word gets out that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are working on a new project it’s hard to be anything less than excited. The long time collaborators, who, in addition to their films have put on a Broadway show, created Funny or Die and worked on Saturday Night Live, have put out some of the funniest movies of the last decade. Their newest, The Other Guys, certainly doesn’t break that cycle.

A new realm for McKay, the film contains a lot of action that hasn’t been scene in his previous films. He was kind enough to talk with me about it, as well as the dynamic between him and Ferrell, what it’s like working with Mark Wahlberg and the best way to squeeze out a great comedic performance.

You’ve worked with Will on so many movies, SNL, the Broadway show, Funny or Die, how do you come up with the projects that you do together and what is the creative process that goes on behind the making of a film?

It’s a little different on each one. Anchorman came out of just a random idea that stumbled upon us. Talladega came out of us writing down 20 ideas, so did Step Brothers, both of those we said, like, “let’s write down a lot of ideas.” John C. Reilly was involved in picking Step Brothers too, it was the three of us sort of collaborating. This one we came upon by accident, in a way, because it came out of Mark Wahlberg and it came out of us having dinner and kind of meeting through this Oscar song and it was this sort of this weird thing. And we sat down with him and we hit it off with him and we really liked him. And we were driving home and I was like, “You have to work with that guy, man. There’s something right.” And we just kind of kept kicking it around like, “Oh is there a project for the two of them,” and it sort of bandied about, and nothing kind of happened. So I wrote an email to one of our producers, Kevin Messick, and I wasn’t even thinking I would write or direct something, I thought why don’t I just produce something that they’re in. So I wrote and email, “We need an idea like if there’s two star cops in a town, who are the guys in the desk next to them?” And Messick just wrote me back, “You just thought of the movie” and I was like, “Oh!” And I wasn’t going to write or direct, and I was like, “No, it’s cool. Why don’t we get someone to do it?” and very quickly it’s like no, no, no, I have to do it. And then I kind of got excited about it because then I thought you can talk about the financial fraud, because you can’t do old fashion crimes. That was sort or the evolution of that idea. So it’s one of two ways, either we stumble upon it or sometimes we sit down and write 20 ideas.

So the idea’s genesis came from the fact that Wahlberg wanted to be in a movie with you guys?

Not even that simple. It even came off how excited I got seeing the two of them together. There has to be something there. The other thing was action comedy is not that common anymore. You think of movies like Midnight Run and 48 Hours, those are great movies, especially Midnight Run. So, yeah, a combination of things and what do we feel like doing next. It’s about four or five elements, the main one being dinner with Mark Wahlberg.

Your directing background is almost exclusively in comedy, so what was it like getting to film action scenes?

It was a blast. Just a full-on geek blast. What I loved about it was that we had second unit shoot a lot of the big stuff, but then we also got to shoot a lot of the big scenes which was really fun. I loved it. I had done enough of it on Talladega Nights that it wasn’t too daunting. I knew at the same time that was a couple years back and it constantly changes and evolves, so I watched a lot of movies and just tried to kind of catch up and I’m lucky enough to have one of the best [directors of photography] working out there right now, Oliver Wood, who did all of the Bourne movies, and we had Pat Crowly come on as producer, who’s an amazing producer who has done big action, so I felt pretty confident that we were at least going to be solid with it. The trick is, and we kept talking about it, we gotta make sure we have some original ideas behind some of this because you can’t just do what everyone’s done and hopefully we’ll find a little inspiration when we shoot it and we get the right music, but it was a blast, absolutely.

One of the aspects that’s kind of cool about this film is that your cast is a great mix of both action and comedy stars, with Mark Wahlberg, of course, being at the center of it. From a comedic standpoint, do you think that Wahlberg was able to hold his own?

In the past, in the 60s and 70s, genres were much more segmented. You had action guys who were deadly serious about it and I think you had comics that were comics. Nowadays, the truth is, I think a lot of the newer generation of action stars usually are pretty self-deprecating and cool. I mean Dwayne Johnson is a great example. He’s a legitimately funny guy who’s totally sincere and has a healthy ego and Wahlberg’s the same way. Wahlberg’s a legitimately funny guy who gets the big picture. The people we had I made sure to meet with and at least talk to and there was just no raging egos, there was no one who was just too muscular to look like an idiot for a moment or to play something against type. So that mixture, to me, was really interesting. I was most excited about getting those two things blended together and you had to be very careful with the comedy side and the action side to make sure that they kind of travel with each other and I think that’s why Will ended up being a completely real person. You can’t really do a big character in an action film, you’re already suspending your disbelief in the action then to suspend your disbelief in the character is too much.

Will isn’t credited as a writer on this film, but how much input did he have during the writing process?

I always say the big secret is that Will is a tremendous writer, he’s really, really good and he had a lot of input. When Chris [Henchy] and I were writing the script he was calling in with ideas, sending us emails, some of the cooler ideas in the script came from him. Then once Chris and I wrote it, did a rewrite, he then came in and he and I did a pass, and then Chris came in and all three of us did a pass. Will was involved the whole way through. It was tricky, he was shooting a movie or there was some reason…it was weird how it happened somehow that he didn’t end up doing it. Like he was doing another movie and he had to start so he couldn’t be there from the get go. And Will doesn’t care about credits so as long as he got to have input he was happy.

When it comes to improvisation and changing lines, do you prefer to let the camera roll do you do multiple takes of different scenes?

It depends how elaborate the chunk is that you’re messing with. If it’s lines or moments or turns I’ll let it roll, I’ll let it roll out – and we’ve done that plenty of times. If it’s a monologue or a big moment we’ll chip away take by take. An example I give is Richard Jenkins at the end of Step Brothers has this monologue about “don’t lose your inner dinosaur.” That was completely improvised on the spot and I said something to him like, “Tell them how you used to impersonate a dinosaur,” he sort of did a take, and then we’re like, “What if you added this?” and then we kind of played with it and built it in three takes. The first thing when I saw Jenkins was, “You didn’t use that dinosaur monologue did you?” and I was like, “Oh yeah!” And the tuna one, the tuna and the lion in this one was one that kind of came out of improv. I yelled out, “Tell him what it would be like if a tuna and a lion fought!” And he’d play with it and we’d cut and I said, “Well, maybe talk about where would that happen. Be very specific, 800 pound tuna.” Then Will added, “We’d form a beachhead” and we sort of went back and forth with each other. So that’s one where you kind of build it a little bit, where as the lines you can just rattle them off, think of them, Will throws one out, I throw one out, whatever it is.

What would you say was your favorite moment from the film, your favorite scene to shoot and your most memorable moment from on set?

Favorite moment in the film would be, I’m not saying it’s the best moment in the movie, but my favorite moment in the movie is them just talking about the coffee mug gift that Will gave him. I could watch that for 45 minutes, I just love small stuff like that and so funny just the little exchanges and him throwing it out, and Will reacting, that’s my favorite kind of comedy. Most fun scene to shoot was probably the conference room shootout just because I had never gotten to do anything like that before and it was really a blast. Although I have to say that the scene with Eva, and Mark and Will at dinner was really fun too. Favorite moment from on set was probably…God, we did a lot of bits on that set. We had a very funny [assistant director], we had this guy, Bill Connor, who really made us laugh. One day I looked up at the monitor and, you know you use stand-ins when you’re setting the shot, so we had our two stand-ins set, they were the nicest guys in the world, and they were there. And you could just see them on the monitor kind of talk to each other and laugh a little bit, and I just said to Bill, “What the hell? Why are the stand-ins laughing? This is bullshit!” And immediately Bill just storms over there and we see him on the monitor. And he later told us that, as he approached them, he said “I’m doing a bit, this isn’t real” and yelling at the stand-ins like, “YOU DON’T LAUGH!” Oh my God, we were crying. It was so many bits that we did. We shot a crazy scene, the motorcycle fight on the rooftop, it was sleeting, freezing cold rain when we shot that. It doesn’t look like it, you can see one shot with some rain in it, but that was a nasty day. But when it gets that nasty you just get punchy, you’re just laughing all day long. We had a blast shooting this. New York City, honest to God, I think I put on twenty pounds. We had pizza, and latkas everyday, and soup and egg salad sandwiches. It was such great food. I came back my wife was like “What the hell happened to you?” I’ve lost some of it but I’ve still got to get back to scratch.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.