Jay Roach directing Will Ferrell in The Campaign

The Campaign is much edgier than director Jay Roach‘s previous comedies. While many of them features titans going head-to-head – Mike Myers vs. Mike Myers, Stiller vs. De Niro, and Rudd vs. Carrell – he’s never taken it to this extent. From how Roach describes it, that darker side derives from the film’s R-rating, which Roach, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, & Co. fully embrace.

There’s an inherent meanness to the lengths Ferrell and Galifianakis’ characters go. When The Campaign takes a slightly sentimental turn towards the end, it works in part because of their, as Roach describes it, undeniable likability. To make their face-off work, Jay Roach went through his fair share of neurosis, a character trait part of all the comedies he’s made.

Here’s what director Jay Roach had to say about mean-spirited humor, the importance of the film’s R rating, and the highs & lows of comedy filmmaking:

How are you feeling two days before the release?

You know, I’m trying to think about other stuff. I always get so caught up in it [Laughs]. I’m actually leaving town tomorrow, so I’m going to head out of town, try not to think about it. It’s out of my hands now; it’s up to the marketers and the audience. You never know. I’m always surprised. Some things I thought may have worked didn’t, and some things I thought wouldn’t work did. It’s cool when it sneaks up on you [Laughs]. There’s so many films out, the Olympics are here, and there’s so many elements. I really like the film. I think Will and Zach have great chemistry, and I love seeing them on a poster and in the trailers. Maybe someone will want to come see it! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Like you said, you never know, and it could always hit the zeitgeist a few years later like Austin Powers did.

Yeah, exactly. People didn’t exactly figure that out until the second one and on video.

At the time, since that movie was so different, it must have been even harder trying to predict the reaction that film would get.

I remember on that film I did the same thing…sometimes I’ll drive around to theaters, to see how it’s playing. On the first Austin Powers, I went out of town and was having dinner with some friends in Santa Barbara. Their kids said they were going to see a movie, and when I asked what movie they were going to see, they went, “Oh, this weird movie called Austin Powers.” [Laughs] I thought we’ll do alright.

Looking at The Campaign and Dinner for Schmucks: They’re both films which have a sentimental side, but are also material that could easily be mean-spirited. For you, at what point does a film become mean-spirited, and if it does, do you consider that a negative?

I like films that push it to the edge a little bit. I rely on the audience. We test screen these films a lot, to get a sense if we lost too many people. I mean, you can’t make a comedy that fits every person, that means it’s probably too watered down. With Zach and Will, there’s something with how likable they are and, even off camera, how much you enjoy seeing them do their trash talking. They tease each other in such a funny way that I thought we’d get away with it, if it was going pretty far in terms of how tough they are. They’re both so different with their comedy, but they bring something out of each other and the audience. They earn it, I think.

Do you constantly consider that tonal balance or is that something you find through editing and going through test-screenings?

Tone is everything in comedy. Comedy doesn’t want to be polite; it has to have an edge. If you cross a line that doesn’t care about what an audience thinks, then, well, you just don’t care. Audiences can tell when they’re being made fun of or talked down to, and that’s all about tone. We talk about it in the script phase, shooting, and editing. Like, there’s the joke where Will gets so caught up in himself, he ends up taking a swing at Zach, and, on accident, hits a baby…that’s a pretty dark idea, and yet because it’s all set up within the conflict and the plausibility of the “win at all costs” politics, audiences somehow really like that joke.

One director who always seems to get away with that balance is Adam McKay. 

He’s got an interesting ability which I think has been honed over the years on SNL and through all his films. You know, this was Adam’s idea, and he and Will worked closely. It was fun to collaborate with someone who has that edge. It’s different than some things I’ve done, but this was definitely the first time in a while I’ve directed an R-rated comedy. The subject matter seemed to ask for the R-rating, since politicians are profane behind the scenes. Through all our research we certainly learned John McCain had a foul mouth. They certainly also get caught in sex scandals. To do it as a PG-13 movie seemed watered-down.

Is it more freeing having that R-rating or do you have to be more careful of more adult safety jokes, like just saying “fuck” a lot for the sake of it?

Yeah, just to say it. For us, it seemed like the right rating. We never put stuff in there just for the rating; we just let the guys go. Will’s got some really funny rants that we always knew would pretty be far off. I mean, he leaves that voice message that’s completely R-rated, and a lot of politicians will stumble into doing something obscene on accident, like tweeting a photo of their private parts. Cam Brady leads an R-rated life, so you want to see what that’s like.

While Marty Higgins’s life is very PG.

Yeah, Zach doesn’t swear at all in the film. Whenever he even talks about it sex, it’s in some off-center euphemism he comes up with [Laughs]. One of my favorite lines is: “When you do say it like that, I get a careless whisper in my body.” Of course, at one time, he told me never does R-rated jokes, since then he’d have to come into the ADR station and work on the television version during post-production. He gets one less trip to the valley that way [Laughs].

Have you had to do that a lot on your past films?

Even on PG-13 films, you have to contribute alternative lines. It’s always a slightly awkward thing, trying to patch in “frickin’” for the F-word. Zach doesn’t have to do that [Laughs].

[Laughs] Has it ever gotten to the point where you feel like a film gets really weakened by that process?

You never know. I will say, you wonder how it’ll play. I always hope the audience will recognize what they’re seeing, if they happen to be watching network TV or the airport version. I almost wanted to not have things fit quite so right in their mouths, so people will respond, “I can’t wait to get the DVD! I better check out what I’m missing.” If it’s too slick, then you might accidentally convince people it was the watered down version.

It’s funny, you mention the R-rating, but to me the funniest bit in the movie is when you see Marty’s check has a pug on it. How does a detail like that come about?

That’s so funny. I totally forgot that was in there. That kind of detail comes from a really smart prop guy who just knows the character. Even in Marty’s house, we have pugs on the valances above the curtains. A lot of times great crew members will find ways to sneak in fantastic little details. In the Rainbowland debate, when the guy jumps up and says, “I’m an American and I don’t want to live in Rainbowland!” he’s wearing a button — which you can’t quite make out — with a caricature picture of the baby being punched, and the caption is “never forget.” [Laughs] It’s a weird, funny thing of how to express layers through little details.

There’s this quote of your’s about how you can fall out of love with a film when you’re making it. When that happens, how do you go forward?

I would say, in post-production, it’s very tough to know if you’re just sick of something, and that’s why it’s not funny anymore — and if you should trust your original instinct. Then you may think your original instinct was incorrect, and you’re sick of it because it’s not playing. This is where I love to trust the audience. I’ll find myself laughing in a big audience at something I hated a week before, because I couldn’t see it anymore. I couldn’t see it from anyone else’s point-of-view. Now, I see what they’re saying and it’s hilarious again. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, so you have to be careful not to overreact. There are times I’m so sure something is so hilarious, and then I’ll see it from someone else’s point-of-view, seeing from an empathetic view, it’s a terrible joke. You’ll say, “Oh, whose idea was this?” Then you’ll say, “Oh, it was my idea, ya jerk.” [Laughs]

It’s amazing how fickle you can be about certain things. There’s other things audiences will never get, but I’ll still keep them in, because I just can’t stand taking it out. I’ll like it too much or it makes me laugh every time. You can’t get away with that for the whole movie, but you can do it a moment here and there, because you don’t care if it gets a laugh [Laughs].

One of your films I enjoyed, but divided audiences is Mystery, Alaska. When a movie gets a response like that, do you see it as the fault of the audience, your own, or it being a case of the wrong time?

You know, something happened with that one. I really love that film, and not just because I made it or have to back it up because I put so much time into it. I really love those characters. It had an amazing cast. There was this weird phenomenon — and I don’t know if this is me trying to rationalize it — but Disney moved our release date a solid year back, because Oprah Winfrey‘s movie, Beloved, took our slot. Our film was getting good buzz, but when we got moved people thought it was somehow flawed. I don’t think the movie ever would’ve been a big hit and it was a small movie, but it had a very specific integrity to it. It was very close to my own experience to playing football in a small town, with how a town can become cohesive around this team sport.

I appreciate you saying that. I’ll bump into a few people every once in a while who say they love it, and that’s very gratifying. Then you go on IMDB and just see how poorly received it was, and then you scratch your head. I was happy with how that one came out and maybe over time it’ll find a bigger world.

Since you rely on the audience to tell you if something’s funny or is working, how does that apply to when you’re working on Recount or Game Change? Is it still the same, neurotic process?

That’s a whole different thing. Those I hardly previewed, because those were just good stories that started with pretty locked scripts. Danny Strong wrote both scripts, which the cast and I really liked. We changed things in rehearsal every once in a while, but once we started shooting, we just did the film. I trusted those stories so much. They were telling to me in a way that was very personal. I do care a lot about politics and our political system. When you’re making comedies, it’s pure neurosis. You’re never sure about anything, you get paranoid, and you get distrustful of your own instincts. Something about those two films I was just much more solid about what I was doing. I never got insecure there. With every single comedy I’ve done, it’s just perpetual, 24 hour insecurity with not a lot of sleep [Laughs].

[Laughs] What do you personally get out of that experience, then? Seeing those laughs?

I think so. You get addicted to the laughs. You’re laughing on the set too. All these guys I’ve worked with — Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro — were so funny. You get through it on a day-by-day basis laughing. Post-production is fun. One of my favorite quotes is Alexander Payne on post-production: “Everyday it sucks a little less.” [Laughs] Then you do get that thing when you’re sitting in a theater, where you forget the pain and see people lose track of themselves. I’ve learned something with these two dramas, that there’s another kind of fulfillment. Thank goodness, because I’d hate to be just that neurotic, insecure person for the rest of my life.

The Campaign is now in theaters


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