Improvising is an extraordinarily fun way to work, but it can seem like an extraordinarily inefficient way to make a movie. Over the six-odd hours that it takes to finish scene 106, tons of ingenious laughs are generated, and most of them will not make the finished cut, either because they are judged not-funny-enough, or because they don't fit – tonally, logically, rhythmically – when placed within the broader context of the film. Fans of Talladega Nights cherish its famous saying-grace scene, packed with delirious, off-the-cuff runs. But McKay and his longtime editor, Brent White, have to be judicious in choosing when a feature can be unspooled that way. "That dinner scene worked because it helped to introduce all the characters, and because it came early – you haven't overstayed your welcome yet," says White. "If it came later on, it would slow things down. People wouldn't buy into it."
"I've gone into cuts and gone, 'How the fuck is this not getting a laugh?'" McKay says. "Finally, you learn the lesson: Oh, it's the story. But is it wasteful? God, no, because you still create this Darwinistic environment where the jokes all have to fight each other to get in."
At the warehouse, prop master James Mazzola is using tweezers to adjust a model of the USS Constitution tucked into a glass bottle – background décor typical of the patriotic pageantry Ron adores. Mazzola has worked with auteurs no less estimable than Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, but a job like Anchorman 2 has unique rewards. "This is the least crazy thing I've done on this movie," Mazzola says. "I've fabricated futuristic weapons, I've designed condom packaging..."
The weapons come into play during the sequel's climactic brawl sequence, which, as in the first movie, features a parade of celebrities playing rival newscasters. One such cameo belongs to Kanye West, a huge Anchorman fan who came to the set in May with Kim Kardashian. "Kanye was great," says McKay. "He's superinterested in process; he took private improv lessons with a friend of mine in Chicago a few years ago. He had a few movie ideas, he told me one, and I gave him some notes. He was really humble, like, 'Can we meet in L.A.?' I was like, 'Yeah!'"
Ferrell says that West gave the cast and crew a preview of Yeezus. "He was playing it on the set," Ferrell says. "Which was great. But then he didn't understand when it had to be turned off, when it was time to film. He was like, 'Hey, what's going on!' We didn't want Kanye to get upset, but at the same time, we kind of had to film."
The idea for the original Anchorman first came to Ferrell when he saw a Lifetime documentary about pioneering Philadelphia anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, who faced significant sexism in her career. "At one point, they were talking to this anchor Mort Crim, who was basically saying, 'I was an asshole to her.' What made me laugh was watching him. He still spoke like this" – Ferrell's voice grows gaseous and stentorian; he says he bases Ron's inflections on his memory of Crim's. "He still used his on-camera voice."
McKay and Ferrell first met when they were hired at SNL, on the same day in 1995. Ferrell, who grew up in the middleclass suburb of Irvine, California, and who was a luminary of L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, became the cast MVP; McKay became head writer after only a year. When they worked on sketches together, "we realized we loved the straight-laced situation that goes awry," Ferrell says. In the early Aughts, they decided to write a screenplay inspired by the Savitch story, but from the perspective of the buffoonish sexists. Paul Thomas Anderson was thinking of producing at that time, Ferrell recalls, "and he was like, 'If you guys were allowed to write whatever you wanted to write, what would you write?'" They sent him the original draft of the Anchorman script, in which "the news team was on a cross-country flight with all the top local-news teams, and the plane crashes into another plane," Ferrell says. "And in the cargo hold were cages with baboons and a shipment of throwing stars. And the baboons escape and take the throwing stars. So the entire movie is a survival movie, and the baboons are hunting us." The plane's lone female newswoman is also the lone voice of reason. "It's guys with mustaches and sideburns, in the wild, eating each other," says McKay.
"Paul was a little thrown," says Ferrell, laughing. "He said, 'You know, guys, I'm so busy now...' We scared him out of producing! So then we were like, 'Let's go back to the drawing board and have it be about the workplace. We can still have bizarre stuff.' And even then, nobody wanted to do it."
The script seemed destined to molder. "I remember sitting in my apartment in New York with Will and we're rewriting Elf, going, 'How the fuck did this happen?'" says McKay. "Like, 'We had Anchorman going. Now we're rewriting you as a grown man as an elf?'" The blockbuster success of Todd Phillips' Old School, however – a movie that Ferrell stole as the rambunctious Frank the Tank – changed things. DreamWorks gave Anchorman a $26 million budget and hurried it into production. "Constant props to Todd Phillips," McKay says. From there, Anchorman's success helped McKay land a $70 million budget for Talladega Nights, and it helped Carell and Apatow make The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which led to virtually every other giant comedy released in the past decade without the word "hangover" in its title.
"It changed everything for me," says Apatow. "When we did Anchorman, I was coming off Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks being canceled. I had a lot of trouble getting things going because nothing I'd ever done had made any money. Anchorman was the first project I was involved with that was successful. Suddenly, I wasn't just the guy who made highly acclaimed television failures anymore. It gave all of us credibility."
Come July, Adam McKay is in a third-floor editing room on the Paramount lot, in Hollywood, sitting behind Brent White, a bearded fiftyish editor with a calm, soft-spoken air. White is toggling between windows in Avid software; near his right elbow is a stuffed dog wearing a crocheted scarf. In one window, partially obscured, is the movie's script, where a line of dialogue is visible: "Tell me that doesn't feel like a cock." Anchorman 2 is due in theaters just before Christmas, and postproduction will last till the end of November. "Confidently, I can say this movie doesn't suck," McKay says. White nods: "It's gonna be great ... in December."
Editing is crucial to any film, but especially this one. "We improvised more than we ever had," says McKay. "It was a crazy amount of stuff when we came back, and it was all pretty quality." White's job began when shooting did. At the end of each day on set, McKay sent him fresh digital footage. "I'd cut three or four or even five versions of the scene," says White, "plugging different jokes into each one, and send those options back to Adam for notes." In this way, the film began taking shape before shooting even wrapped.
McKay laughs. "The first cut was five hours long!" he says. He and White "took a screwdriver to it" and got the thing down to "3:45." That's when a radical idea occurred to McKay: "I'm like, 'Holy shit, man – we might have two movies here.'" Thinking of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, he wondered, could the Anchorman sequel become its own sequel? McKay says that splitting the movie up like this would be a studio's dream. "In this corporate environment?" he says. "'We told you we were gonna make 100,000 sneakers – well, we're gonna make 200,000!'"
He's weighing that option. Another idea in the works is to release the full version twice, featuring the exact same story line, but told with "241 entirely different jokes," says McKay. The B version could go on a DVD, or "it could be a kind of midnight-movie release," dropping five months or so after the A version.
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