News Team Re-Assemble: Adam McKay Talks ANCHORMAN 2

Devin chats with one of the best comedy directors in the world about sequels, journalism and the cult of ANCHORMAN. 

Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. Nichols and May. Ferrell and McKay. While those other great comedy teams performed together, the team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay split their duties -- they write together and McKay directs Ferrell in movies where he creates some of the most indelible comic characters of our time.

Together they created Funny Or Die, the online comedy juggernaut. And their list of films is incredible: Talladega Nights. Step Brothers. The Other Guys. And, of course, Anchorman. In 2004 no one saw Ron Burgundy becoming the cultural touchstone he now is; Anchorman has reached Monty Python and Simpsons-levels of quotability. Yet somehow the movie hasn’t been run into the ground -- it’s just that good.

Now the News Team from Anchorman has reassembled, this time in the 1980s during the ascendance of 24-hour cable TV news. We’ve all been excited about the return of Ron and Champ Kind and Brick Tamland and Brian Fontana, but at the same time it’s hard to not be aware of the crummy history of comedy sequels. When I had a chance to talk to Adam McKay about Anchorman 2, I knew I had to jump right in the deep end and find out why this film would succeed where Caddyshack 2, Beverly Hills Cop III and Home Alone 4 had failed.

Comedy sequels almost always suck. Historically, it’s a terrible track record.

I think that’s true. Believe me, we talked about it before we went into it. It’s a slaughterhouse when you try going down that road. There’s very few successes. We pegged it as Austin Powers 2 and you know, a downplayed one is actually Wayne's World 2, that’s actually pretty good.

I would agree with that.

Yeah, I’m not saying it’s spectacular, but it’s pretty damn good for a sequel. Those are really the two I can think of…I’m sure I’m forgetting one.

Well, why do you think that is? Why do you think that comedy sequels have such a terrible track record? What is it that makes them so bad?

Well, that was part of the reason we were excited to do this. Because [Will] Ferrell and I always want to do something new and different with everything we do. New world, new character, whatever it is. You know, obviously our sensibilities are the same. So we were excited about the challenge of a sequel and we really looked at it, and we looked at the sequels that worked, which, you know, there are the famous ones like Godfather 2 and Empire Strikes Back, and what we found was that it was really the ones that failed didn’t continue the story. They kind of repeated the story, and that seemed to be the hang-up that was killing them -- that they’d do their first movie, and all their beats, it would be really successful, and they’d do the second movie and go ‘Well, let’s do that same story structure again.’ And that’s how it had this retread feeling to it, whenever you see those sequels that don’t work. And this applies to dramas and action films as well. So that was the big thing we noticed, was don’t just repeat the same story beats. And then it was kind of a game of you do want to repeat some stuff, there’s some stuff you do want to see again. So what’s the right ratio of that versus new stuff? And we kind of decided to err on the side of new stuff, new jokes, new takes on these characters, that’s the way to go. And then there were a couple of kind of obvious things that we knew we wanted to bring back. That was our theory on it. Whether we’re right or not we’ll see, but that’s kind of how we dove into it.

So you’re not just doing that thing where everybody’s spouting off their catchphrases again? You’ve actually tried to blaze some new ground this time.

Well, we’re trying. I mean, he doesn’t say ‘Stay classy’ in this one. That’s probably his most famous line and we got rid of it. I’m trying to think, are there any lines that come back? You know, Champ obviously has that “Whammy” thing that he just pounds into the ground. Part of the joke is that it’s tired, so we do that, but yeah, otherwise we tried to do new stuff. Like I said, there are a couple things that are kind of variations on some jokes that you saw in the first one. There’s three things that we bring back a little bit in the second one where we thought, ‘Well, that’s too much fun. We’ve got to do that.’ I’m hoping it’s not too much. You know, if someone doesn’t want to like the movie they’re going to point those out, but I feel like we did a pretty good blend.

It’s funny because Anchorman has become one of those movies where it’s hit Monty Python and Simpsons levels of quotability. When did you begin to see that happening, the movie taking on a whole new life? It was successful when it came out, but it’s really taken on a much larger life in the nine years since.

It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, because it was a really demographic, grassroots response to the movie. It had nothing to do with a big opening weekend or marketing, it was just the movie came out, the movie did really well, we got pretty good reviews, made some decent money, okay, we get to go to square two. We get to make another movie. And we were happy, we loved the movie, so we felt good about it. And then it was like a year later, I had left my Google Alert for the movie on, and I kept getting hits. And it kept being quoted in sports articles, or articles about the news. And it was really that Halloween about a year after it came out when I saw three or four different people dressed as Ron Burgundy that I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I remember Bill Simmons, the sports writer, wrote a whole article about Anchorman, he was one of the first people to really jump on it, saying ‘Hey, you should look at this movie again, there is really good stuff here,’ and it was Empire Magazine in the U.K. Those were the two that were out in front of it, and kept saying, ‘I’m telling you, this movie is awesome. I keep watching it, I can’t stop watching it.’ So that was it, it was really that Halloween where I saw three or four people dressed as Ron Burgundy that I said, ‘Wait, something is going on here.’

You have the crew in this one moving on to cable news, which feels very of the moment, actually, as our own cable news landscape has become so terribly fucked. With The Other Guys, you worked in some political commentary -- how political is Anchorman 2 going to be?

Well, what’s great about this is that it’s so natural to who they are, and the point of view of the first one, which is that the news is kind of entertainment, a cartoon ratings-machine. That was a little bit behind the first one, even. And so when we looked at what the next time stake post was, we realized it was 1980 and that’s when all of this 24-hour news started coming about. It was absolutely perfect. And that’s really when the game started jumping up a notch. That’s when they got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, so people could just do all opinion news, and that’s when they stopped enforcing anti-monopoly laws so suddenly a single corporation could own like five news outlets. So all of this crazy stuff started happening then, and first and foremost, beyond the message of it, we want to make sure that it’s interesting and funny so we realized, ‘Absolutely, that’s funny, when things started to really go down the toilet.’ It was really perfect for us.

This month at the Alamo, we’re showing a bunch of journalism-related movies, and I’m just curious if there are any that are your favorites.

Yeah, there are some really good ones. I would argue one of the ten greatest films ever made is Network. That, to me, is an amazing movie. I would put that on my top ten films of all time list. I tell you what I really love was that movie that just came out last year. It’s kind of not fully journalism, it’s kind of marketing/ journalism/ politics, but I love that movie No. Did you see that? It’s about the Pinochet Referendum, and I really liked that movie a lot. I thought that movie was incredibly smart, funny, I loved the way it was shot using varied video cameras. But I would say the two granddaddies of them all are Network and Broadcast News. Broadcast News I love because all of its commentary is built into the story, so you’re not even really aware what’s going on while they’re firing their news people because the news is becoming entertainment. It’s almost like they’re kind of played to the background while you’ve got these great characters in the foreground. I just rewatched the movie about two years ago, actually when we were getting into this movie, and I couldn’t believe how political it plays now. It’s really the moment where the news, real news, was taken apart. Broadcast News is a perfect movie. So is Network.

Talking about movies that change now in the modern climate, for a younger person coming to Network for the first time, it might not even be clear that it’s satire.

It’s crazy. It plays dry. It actually plays reserved compared to what’s going on now. It’s unbelievable when you watch it now. There’s another movie like that. Bob Roberts is like that. When Bob Roberts came out it was absurd! When you watch it now, you’re like ‘Oh yeah, of course. Very plausible. I feel like we’ve gone past this.’ With Network, you can very quickly get depressed by that fact, but it’s also remarkable, it’s incredible that they were seeing to do that movie back then. It’s amazing.

Well, Paddy Chayefsky was clearly very, very far ahead of the curve. You know, it took nine years to get this movie made. Paramount was really unsure they wanted to do it. Do you think that gap in time is helpful for you guys, actually, or do you wish you’d gotten to it earlier?

In fairness, the first four or five years, that wasn’t Paramount, that was us saying ‘We don’t want to do a sequel.’ And then when we finally decided, it was probably five or six years after the first one, we said, ‘All right, let’s do it. This will be a fun challenge,’ and that’s when Paramount sort of balked a little bit. There was really just a disagreement over the budget. And I do think it was good, because it allowed us to really sit with the idea for a while, and let it go through different permutations and kind of go, ‘Well, what if it’s this? What if it’s this?’ and we had a lot of conversations. And then at one point it really looked like it was gone, it was just completely gone. Which is kind of perfect because that’s really how the first one went. You know every studio said no to the first one, and there was a moment where we both had to go, ‘All right, it’s over. It’s not happening.’ So then what happened with the first one was even sweeter, and we had kind of the same thing with this where we were going to go do Step Brothers 2 and we had just one last chance with Paramount and they said, ‘All right. We’ll do it now.’ So it’s kind of perfect in a way. And of course once you jump in the movie Paramount’s been fantastic, nothing but supportive and behind it and excited about it, so it’s all ended really, really well.

So do you see a possibility for an Anchorman trilogy? Could Ron Burgundy get into blogging eventually?

[laughs] I like the way the second one happened, which is that the fans of the movie asked for it, so I would not want to shove an Anchorman 3 down people’s throats. If we do the second one, and it goes really well, and it’s a year or two afterwards and people are starting to say, ‘Where’s the third one?’, we would be open to it, I would say that. But we definitely don’t want to railroad a third one right off the second. Something about that just feels kind of wrong, because the whole movie’s developed from fans. So we shall see. We shall see.

Well, speaking of fans, there was an announcement last week that was really interesting, that got a lot of fans excited, the idea that there might be a second version, sort of a 2.5 version of this movie with all different jokes getting a limited release. Film nerds like myself decry the end of celluloid, but digital distribution offers really interesting opportunities for stuff like that, doesn’t it?

I, no exaggeration, just had this exact conversation with Rob Moore from Paramount about five minutes ago. We talked about the fact that now you can do all these different cuts. The MPAA in America is so conservative, compared to Europe, so now it’s possible to do the more conservative cut for America, and do the less repressed, puritanical version for Europe. Then also there’s non-legacy countries that really haven’t seen the first one; we can do a different cut for them where we’re laying it out a little bit more and it’s a little bit shorter. It’s really insane, so absolutely we are doing this version that has all new jokes in it, 250 new jokes. In fact, we’re screening it today, we’re going to look at it to see how it all holds together and give notes on it, and we’ll see. We’ll see if it gets theatrical. For sure it’s going to be put out, whether it’s VOD or DVD, but there is a chance it could get theatrical which would be fun because I don’t think it’s ever been done before, which is always exciting.

That is exciting. I think the Alamo Drafthouse would be an ideal place to play a movie like that.

Ideal place. We’d love to do our premiere there if we do it.

This was originally published in the December issue of Birth.Movies.Death., "Extra! Extra! The Alamo Drafthouse Delivers The News." See Anchorman 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse starting tonight!