Adam McKay is being interrogated about Anchorman 2.
He slouches, throws one arm over the back of his chair, squints a little behind his glasses, chews his gum. He looks a kid in the back of the classroom who's just been called on because the teacher expects to trip him up -- but all the other kids expect he'll win the day with a wise-ass comment.
It's the obvious question, about why America had to wait nine years for a second Anchorman movie. The filmmaker takes it in stride. "For years it wasn't even really in our minds," McKay says. "We all were working on our other projects. But it kept coming up, we kept hearing about it. So then it was in our minds, and we decided we wanted to give it a try. But then we had to negotiate everything with the studio. And by everything I mean money."
Reportedly the budget required for the legend of Ron Burgundy to continue was $50 million, just over twice the cost of the first Anchorman film. Which may go to show how important the buffoonish TV news team played by Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Paul Rudd has been for the dollar value of those actors' careers. McKay clearly appreciates the idea that the Anchorman characters are fairly terrible people -- racist, sexist, willfully ignorant -- whose innocence is so absurd that it's also deeply amusing.
McKay adds that the secret to comedy sequels, if there is one, is to just be sure you've got a chapter two. "You can't just repeat the thing that worked before. Of course you can play with it and call back to it, but you've got to go forward too."
In the case of Burgundy and co., the paradigm shift of 24-hour cable news seemed like a natural fit. "A lot of stuff changed in 1980," McKay says ominously. "News is almost entirely generated now for ratings. And the idea that it's all Ron Burgundy's fault, that just made me laugh." In the movie, Ferrell's Burgundy has a fateful flash of insight: "Why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can't we just tell them what they want to hear?"
McKay acknowledges his penchant for silly stories about little people thinking they're big shots. The Second City veteran and former SNL head writer, co-founder with Ferrell of "Funny or Die," also is responsible for other much cherished Ferrell movies including Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys. The slate of upcoming projects includes one movie about the late Republican political consultant Lee Atwater, and a remake of the 1974 action comedy Uptown Saturday Night, with Will Smith and Denzel Washington in the roles originally played by Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. "We're also kicking around a horror movie," he says. "Producing's really fun, actually."
McKay says he and Ferrell never argue, not about creative matters. Maybe sometimes about business matters. But with the fun stuff, they're always on the same page.
When writing, he says, "Ferrell and I sit down together and come up with a whole bunch of stuff we'd like to see. We do an outline and try to see where or if all that stuff could fit. And we make a draft from that. But there's a lot of rewriting. Aggressive rewriting. We really beat up our script. The point is to get it good enough that it'll take the pressure off of improvising." Many Anchorman 2 takes involved trying the script a couple of times and then trying something else entirely. Directing, McKay says, means he's "the guy who has to steer it so we're all not wasting energy in the wrong places." Various alternate versions of the film already exist.
"The main thing about comedy," he says, still leaning confidently back in his chair, "is that it can't be full of shit."