As their world keeps evolving, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his news team remain the same guys we met 10 years ago in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. They’re stuck in their adolescent and ignorant mindsets, which Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues challenges. For a man like Burgundy, real drama is having to accept a black woman as his boss. Heavy stuff.
The old Channel 4 news team may not have changed, but their sequel has. Co-writer/director Adam McKay and his characters were barely bound by structural rules, giving Anchorman 2 some wild directions to go in. To no surprise, McKay took full advantage of those opportunities, and 60% of the time it worked every time.
I spoke with McKay, who explained his improv method for the film in depth, described his minor battles with the MPAA and revealed the cameos he wanted but couldn’t get.
A lot of people didn’t appreciate Anchorman until after a few viewings. Since those people are coming into the sequel knowing the tone, do you think they’ll be more prepared for it?
I think so. I think one of the reasons why we were excited to do the sequel was because they’d be able to get into the tone of the movie more easily. On the first movie it took 10 minutes for people to click with what we were doing. We knew for the sequel we could go a little faster and a little bit stranger.
Did the first movie almost fall through because of that tone?
Yes, that was exactly it. People would read it and not get at all what we were going for. They thought we were doing another Broadcast News. When they would read the script, they’d say, “Well, this Brick Tamlin character doesn’t do anything in the story! He doesn’t serve a purpose!” They didn’t get it, because, I mean, that’s the whole idea. The second your explaining it like that, you are dead when it comes to comedy.
Since it’s taken a while to get the sequel made, how did the story develop or change over time?
Well, for the first five or six years we didn’t try to make it at all. We were just off doing other movies. The chorus of people saying “make a sequel” got louder and louder, which usually doesn’t happen, because it usually gets quieter and quieter. Around six years after the first Will asked, “Wait a second. Could we actually do this?” We took six months of doing other stuff and kicking around ideas, and it was 24 hour news that cracked the whole thing. We thought, “Oh my God. That’s probably the biggest change in broadcast news history.”
From that point on, it took another three years of going to the studio, trying to find a budget, having to get the schedule for the cast, and then, finally, we got to make it.
Maybe this was only a rumor, but weren’t you considering making it a musical?
That’s 100% true. Our whole idea came after the George Bush one-man show that I directed for Will on Broadway. This was before Book of Mormon, so we were saying, “This is crazy people don’t do more aggressive comedies on Broadway. They do comedy, but not like that. The crowd is clearly hungry for that.” It was kind of inspired by the Marx Brothers, who used to take their movies on the road as live shows. They’d perform them and get all the timing and jokes exactly right, and then they’d film them. We thought we could do that.
We liked the idea of it being a musical, so we were going to do a stripped down production of it for six months. When that was over with, we were going to go film the movie. Paramount really liked the idea, so that wasn’t what threw them off. What threw them off was the budget. That’s what took a couple of years to negotiate.
Was any music written?
No, we didn’t write anything. We just knew it was going to be 24 hour news. We thought of calling it “The Dawn of the New Media,” showing computers, the first fax machine, the first cell phone, and this whole new world scaring the hell out of these guys. Once we dumped the musical, we just streamlined it to just 24 hour news. No songs were written, but we did have one in mind, which we did do for the movie. It got cut out, but it was called: “It’s a Big, Big World.” I guess you could say we had one song.
What scene was it for?
It was for when they first show up 24 hour news station and they plug in their big board of monitors from all around the world, showing their feeds. You see these guys from San Diego looking at people from Pakistan, China, and Madagascar, and it’s the first time they realize it’s a big, big world. It turns into this giant musical number. We’re putting that on the DVD. I don’t know if you know this, but we’re putting out an entirely alternative version of the movie, where we we replace every single joke.
Right. The two and a half hour version. Do you have cuts that long for all your films?
Every one, yeah. There’s always a three or three and a half hour cut, which has all of the improv and story beats thrown in. It doesn’t exactly play like a cut, though. I mean, we had a four and a half hour version of this when we first came in, but it wasn’t really a cut. It starts feeling like a movie at three hours. If you were crazy, you could release that version.
Didn’t you have a four and a half hour cut of Step Brothers?
I believe you are correct. The first draft of the script was 220 pages long, which I know sounds crazy [Laughs]. We never turned that in. It was only for us. We got it down to 135 before we turned it in.
Because you shoot so much footage, is there usually room made in the budget and schedule so you can have that extra time on set?
Maybe a little bit. What our line producer and executive producer, David Householter, says to me with the AD at the beginning is: “Are there any scenes you anticipate heavy improv on?” I’ll usually circle three or four scenes, saying we’re going to dig deep on those scenes. They’ll chuck us an extra quarter day, so there is an extra day thrown in for improv.
What we’ve learned is how to move really, really fast. It helps that you have these great actors that can do what’s written in three takes. Plus, I know not to shoot it in wide and to shoot it on the single and straight up twos, because that’s where you get all your improv. You can just use the wide shots as a connector, if you need to bridge two things.
Over the years we’ve gotten a lot more economical. We don’t waste a lot of time with jokes that are really far off field. We’ve learned to somewhat keep it in the key of the movie, so we don’t wander as much as we used to.
When bringing in new actors you haven’t worked with before, do you brace them for your way of working?
You have to. It’s essential they know. I won’t have anyone come on the set without having a conversation with them saying, “You know how we work. Here’s what I’m going to do. I know this sounds crazy, but you’re going to have fun. Are you okay with this?” Everyone, of course, says yes. You never want to be on set and have someone say, “Wait a minute. What’s going on?” You know, having a guy on a microphone yelling lines at you is counter to a lot of acting techniques [Laughs]. Actors stop in the middle of the scene to ask, “Hey, what if we go with this?” I don’t think there’s ever been an exception. Everyone loves it when they do it.
Harrison Ford seemed thrown through a loop because he hadn’t seen the first film, but he said he enjoyed the experience.
I told him when I talked to him on the phone how we do it. I think he was unfamiliar with the first movie and us, although he kind of knew Will. You could explain that process to someone, but until you’re there…I think when a lot of actors hear improv, they think of throwing a line in or doing a slightly different take. I don’t think they get the degree to which we do it. That’s exactly what happened with Harrison Ford. He stepped on set and looked a little bit shocked, but within a minute, he had a smile on his face. He just loved it.
Yelling all those lines out, how many takes do you usually end up with?
Well, this was interesting, because it was the first time we ever shot on digital. Hands down film looks better, but there are a lot of advantages to digital. Those longer takes were really, really nice. The first take is almost like a rehearsal on tape, which is just as written. The second take is where we polish it up. The third take is where we begin to mix it up a little. After that third take, we’re off and running. That’s the point where I start throwing ideas out and the actors start generating their own stuff. The most takes I’ll ever do is eight or nine, but on digital I’d just let it roll all through the 22 minute card. The actors loved it, because they’re up to speed and in it.
The one trick, which no one ever told me, is the boom operator’s arms get tired. I would occasionally do a full 22 minute take and the sound department wouldn’t get mad at me, but they would say, “Hey…I don’t know if I can do that for 22 minutes.” I started saying they could lower their arms, but the guy wouldn’t want to, because the cardinal rule for a boom operator is to never lower your arms. He figured out ways to hold the mic in different ways. If you ever shoot in digital and do those long takes, be aware of the poor boom operator.
[Laughs] Of course. For the past few months people have been spoiling the film’s cameos, even in headlines. When you made the first movie, were people that spoiler hungry or was the movie too far off the radar for that?