Adam McKay is almost as much of a star as John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell at this point, thanks to his frequent appearance in videos on his FunnyorDie.com. And he’s entirely behind the camera for Step Brothers, but those are a lot of his jokes and ideas you see coming out of the mouths of those arrested adolescents that Reilly and Ferrell play in the film. McKay sat down with a bunch of journalists to talk about working with his buddies on films over and over again, and how to buckle down and actually get to work when you’re goofing around on the set. The answer? Well, you don’t, actually. Not a bad job, right?
What makes you, Will and John such a good trio that you want to all work together? What does each person bring to the table?
I think Reilly is so collaborative. He really blew us away on Talladega. Will is obviously one of the best collaborators around. All three of us are big ensemble guys. We love it when Reilly didn’t mind—and Will does this too—we bring other funny people in. There’s not a sense of , ‘Wait a minute! Where’s my screen time.’ They want other people to be doing interesting stuff. Reilly is the kind of guy who will show up on an off-day, if he’s not shooting. He’ll throw lines out for other actors. I think that’s kind of what makes it work.
Who’s idea was it to use a bicycle as a weapon in the first fight scene?
I will take credit for that. We literally were on the front lawn, we were with the prop guy, and we were like ‘What is something you would never hit someone with?’ We had a leaf blower at one point. I think at one point we even talked about could you pick up the dog and swing the dog around?
Where did you find the quote by George Bush at the beginning of the movie? [The exact quote is ‘Families is where our nation finds hope, where dreams take wing.’]
I wanted to find a demented family quote. And then I was like, ‘You know who has a demented quote about every single subject there is…’ That one we kept coming back to. I didn’t even believe that he said it. We actually went and found an audio recording of him saying it. He says it with a lot of confidence too.
Have you put your acting shoes on recently?
I was one of the job interview guys on this, and I cut myself. I’m in the TV spot. It’s funny, too, because we shot literally a million and a half feet on this, and I didn’t remember the joke they used in the TV spot. I’ll be on the extended version though.
Are you looking to do acting again?
I like doing a little role in whatever we do. I like to remind myself how hard acting is. I do parts in friends’ stuff.
How about your daughter Pearl? Is she still acting?
She’s not. We retired her. She was starting to become conscious of what she was doing, and we were like, ‘Oh no, we don’t want a child star.’ The worst thing you can do to a kid.
Has she been recognized?
For a while she was kind of getting mobbed. We would go to this Thai restaurant down the street, and the Thai restaurant would come out and go ‘Pearl, Pearl!’ Now, because she was so young, she’s just grown—she doesn’t look the same at all. So we’re happy.
Do you see an evolution in your directing from the other films to this one?
We really liked this idea because it was so simple and reduced. My favorite stuff has always been talking head scenes. I just love characters at dinner tables, seated, walk-and-talk. We tried to think of an idea that was the least restrictive idea possible. And what did we do? Of course, right away, we put five giant fights in it. I think it’s the most enjoyable of the three that we’ve done. Every single day was just so rich and loaded with good stuff.
How is working with an R-rating compared to PG-13?
It’s heaven. It takes you down a different road. I think this idea had to be R, though. If you do this as PG-13 it’s a Disney movie. The entire joke was conceived that these guys were going to act like kids but talk like adults. We didn’t do it for gratuitous reasons. That said, we certainly used it in a gratuitous way. We had a cut where there were like 70 ‘fucks’ in the movie. It was getting like David Mamet.
What’s the different kind of freedom you have with a bigger budget on this movie?
You kind of build the film to the number. It doesn’t feel any more free or decadent. It felt like a normal shoot. It felt like Anchorman. Talladega was the one where production value was the most in my mind. There was so much huge stuff. This was a breeze. A lot of living rooms, front lawns, cars.
Can you talk about your other upcoming stuff? Will mentioned Anchorman 2, and I know you’ve talked about doing Channel 3 Billion.
It’s kind of a Brazil type comedy that I’m kicking around right now. Honestly I went and saw Wall-E, and I was bummed out. I was like, ‘Aw, shit. That’s really good.’, with the boat and everyone in the chairs and in the screens. I still might do it. I might modify it, and try and get it to work. I might do one in that Sin City/300 [style]. I love that style, half-practical, half-animated. I just think the possibilities for that are endless. I wanted to try and do not film noir, not action, kind of explosive science fiction.
What about working with Will and John like a Hope-Crosby team?
I want to see them do like 8 films together. I love watching these guys together. For some reason, people with comedy, any time they can detect a pattern, it kind of freaks them out. Those guys are always together! Yeah, they’re a comedy team. Anything they can recognize as a pattern they think is a hole. I like the idea of these guys chain smoking and drinking and doing like 8 films together and ending up in Vegas. That’s the career arc I want for them.
Have you told them that’s the biopic you’re making?
I haven’t. I haven’t told them that’s the end of it, they’re beat up old guys doing standup overseas for the armed forces. The fun of this movie to me is that it was such an old-fashioned framework. The simplest kind of idea. I think these guys are able to do that better than anyone.
How much of what we see onscreen is improvised?
About 30% of the final cut is improvised. It’s either improv, or me yelling it from off-camera, or us talking about us on the spot. We cut it pretty tight, but the original version, that I really kind of like, was an hour 50. And all of that time was improv moments. The DVD is insane amounts of material.
Can you talk about the scene with the balls? Are you on the Apatow full-frontal nudity train now?
You know what sucks? I had no idea he was flashing so much dick in Forgetting Sarh Marshall. In a weird way, it’s kind of good. It kind of took the novelty or shock away. If it’s possible to say this about a nutsack joke, I think it plays on its own merits. I just realized it’s not possible to say that. No, I didn’t know there was a train. I guess we are on it.
And how about the development of the prosthetic?
That’s a super-expensive, handmade nutsack. Some guy for like 3 weeks sat with a little brush and tweezers, blew off his kids’ Little League games, and made that prosthetic. It showed up in a special delivery box. Dry ice smoke came out of it when you opened it.
That’s the kind of gag prop you can use forever. Who has it now?
Will has it. We were joking, it’s going to tour the country like the Freedom Train. I think the day after we shot it, we contacted the Smithsonian. ‘Just so you’re aware, we can loan this to you.’
When you’re working with people you’re so close to, is it hard to buckle down and make the movie?
I don’t think we do buckle down. That’s the trick. That’s kind of the goal of it, to not get so hung up about where an extra is doing his cross in the background that you lose sight of the fact that it’s a comedy. We always try to keep that fuck-around sense going on. If we have a day when we’re not laughing, that’s a problem. Talladega we shot some scenes that were, like, racecar scenes. That’s when we came up with this, like, I don’t want to ever do this again. So boring.
Do you have a notebook where you keep ideas?
Oh yeah, tons of them. That’s why we haven’t done any sequels. We just have so many ideas that we want to do.
What’s it like having Jeremy Piven as a brother-in-law?
Yeah, he’s great. He has a reputation as Mr. Player in Hollywood, but he’s the sweetest uncle to my daughters. They love him. He takes them to the carousel. We just produced a movie with him, actually, called The Goods. It’s crazy funny. There’s like 20 comics in it. I’ve never seen any movie we’ve been involved with play that hard—wall-to-wall laughs from beginning to end.
You’re doing a lot of stuff beyond films. How do you decide what you want to do more of. What’s happening with the website?
The website’s just constant. The way my old group, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, are opening these theaters as playgrounds for their friends—that’s what we wanted to do with Funny or Die. That’s every day. It’s just pure fun. It’s all just a way to hire friends and keep doing more of your stuff.