On a sunny May morning in northwest Atlanta, Will Ferrell ambles into the warehouse at 2282 Defoor Hills Road – a windowless, 31,000-square-foot behemoth that has been transformed, thanks to low rents and generous Georgia tax incentives, into a makeshift movie soundstage. The warehouse is typically home to moving companies, but today the tenant has a much higher profile: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a.k.a. the most hotly anticipated comedy of the year, and the most buzzed-about sequel in comedy history. Ferrell is starting his workday as the film's hero, Ron Burgundy, a blowhard San Diego newsman with a weakness for scotch, blondes and mahogany furnishings; a habit of issuing bogus facts in authoritative tones (for instance, "San Diego" is German for "a whale's vagina"); and what you might charitably call unenlightened attitudes regarding race, gender and sexuality. "He's kind of horrible," says Ferrell, smiling. And yet we love him all the same.
Ron typically wears snazzy white loafers and wide-lapel suits that, to quote the original Anchorman, make "Sinatra look like a hobo." But in the scene shooting today, he's on the mend after suffering an injury, so Ferrell's dressed in a shabby turtleneck, house slippers and a blanket. If Ron's golden-brown croissant of a mustache has a little less luster than usual, however, Ferrell himself looks good. For one thing, he's got a personal trainer on set with him, who works him out and fixes him breakfast smoothies. For another, Ron Burgundy is his all-time favorite role, and he's pumped about revisiting it. "It really feels like the last one, where we couldn't believe they'd given us money to do these ridiculous things," he says. "This one, it's all about making everything even more ridiculous."
By 10:22 a.m., the three other leads have gathered, ready to portray the members of Ron's news crew: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, porny-looking lady-killer and investigative reporter; Steve Carell as Brick Tamland, brain-dead weatherman; David Koechner as Champ Kind, fervent right-winger, repressed homosexual and sports recapper. "I like your bolo tie," Rudd tells Koechner. Rudd's done up in a denim suit augmented by a gold BRIAN belt buckle and an unbuttoned shirt; Carell's in a three-piece suit. The actors exchange small talk as they walk to the set, a lighthouse interior constructed on the warehouse floor. From this side, it resembles a massive plywood cocoon but within lies a kitchen, a living-room area and various nautical-themed accents, including a bottle of Captain Morgan. Ron comes to this lighthouse as part of his recovery, and in today's scene – number 106 – the team pays him a visit. "This is Ron's special place," Ferrell says.
The first Anchorman, which came out in 2004, had a rich premise: The all-male news team at a local television station in the mid-Seventies must deal with the arrival of a highly talented female reporter within their midst. The movie is as vivid in its depiction of a boys' club perched atop shifting cultural fault lines as Mad Men, only with Ron as the dashing, flailingly out-of-step paterfamilias instead of Don Draper – and with more jokes about smelly pirate hookers and cologne made from bits of panther. In Ferrell's hands, Ron is as indelible a portrait of puffed-up American masculinity as our culture has mustered: "At first glance, you think he's really self-confident, but he's such an insecure guy," says Ferrell. "His confidence supplants knowledge." Anchorman's director, Adam McKay, who wrote both movies (and runs a production company, Gary Sanchez) with Ferrell, says, "That's stuff we both love: guys who project great authority and competence, but behind it there's just fucking chaos, incompetence, derangement or pure self-interest."
It's day 50 of a 58-day shoot. "This is the hardest we've ever worked," says McKay, getting into place in the director's chair. "Comedy is built on surprise, so comedy sequels are hard. We didn't want to repeat ourselves." The original Anchorman took in good money, earning around $85 million at the box office on a $26 million budget. But its off-kilter atmosphere, endless barrage of left-field jokes and winningly cavalier attitude toward plot gave it a cult feel. "It was a handmade movie," McKay says. "It was raggedy," says Ferrell.
Over the years, the Anchorman cult has swelled. Its jokes have permeated the lexicon, from novelty T-shirts to Kanye lyrics. During the original film's making, Rudd, Carell and Ferrell were unproven leading men, and Judd Apatow, its producer, boasted just one movie-producing credit to his name, for The Cable Guy. Today, those actors are A-listers and Apatow oversees an empire. All of which means that, with Anchorman 2, the stakes are much higher. Kristen Wiig has signed on in a supporting role; Harrison Ford makes one of many big-name cameos. Paramount's early audience-tracking numbers are through the roof, and the blogs and the trades are rapt. "The difference with this one is I'm aware that people are watching us," Rudd says. "The first one, no one cared."
If that's translating to pressure for anyone here on set, though, it doesn't show. "I've been thinking, 'Why can't this never end?'" says Koechner. "'What's better than working with these guys?'" Four lighting doubles clear the lighthouse set, and the leads get into position. Outside the cocoon, McKay sits opposite twin monitors displaying the feeds from two cameramen. Six feet five and bespectacled, McKay has a low, actorly voice; he holds a wireless microphone hooked up to a PA, so that he can direct the actors on the other side of the plywood. McKay has a deep improv background – he's a storied Second City alumnus and a founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade. The filmmaking approach that he favors, especially for a scene like today's, which features nothing but dudes sitting around a coffee table, is to run everything as scripted for one or two takes, then open up the floodgates to improvisation. As each actor thinks of every single funny thing his character can say at a given moment, McKay continually raises his mic, calling out additional impromptu lines. In other improv-heavy projects, like Christopher Guest movies or Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, there aren't scripts so much as outlines that the actors riff around. But Ferrell and McKay write dialogue as tight and detailed as possible. Ferrell says, "People would be shocked to see that the movie has a 122-page script. But for us, the writing spurs on the improv."
Performed as written, scene 106 lasts about three and a half minutes. It contains some plot-advancing moments, but mostly it exists for laughs, centering on a jarring conceit related to Ron's injury, which I won't spoil. Carell and Ferrell get the scene's ripest jokes. The best concern Ron's difficulties with masturbating while he convalesces: He says that he's forgotten what the female form looks like, and that he's been forced to please himself by imagining "one of those triangular signs outside women's bathrooms in airports."
Once this option is committed to tape, McKay hurls out others for Ron's fantasizing: "the Indian lady from Land O'Lakes," "Lady Elaine from Mister Rogers..."
Ferrell, warming up, pipes in: "Ann B. Davis from The Brady Bunch?"
McKay: "That's good."
Ferrell: "Mrs. Butterworth?"
McKay: "That's really good."
Ferrell, giving it a whirl: "The other day, I pleasured myself to Mrs. Butterworth."
McKay, building on this: "And she got me there."
Ferrell: "She got me there fast!"
McKay turns to me. "The form of the joke kind of clicks, then we just heighten it," he says. The actors try different iterations and wordings, stopping and restarting the scene, the cameras running almost continuously. "We're all sitting there going, 'How can we compete with Adam?'" says Ferrell. "He's so fast. We've learned how to pass the ball to each other, to be listening and thinking at the same time. Technically speaking, everyone has looked at the scene the night before and had thoughts of 'Oh, there's an opening here,' or 'Here's three jokes I could riff on.' But you have to be willing to throw that all away – you may not even get to it."
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