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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are Will Ferrell, who's starring in the new cop comedy "The Other Guys," and Adam McKay, who directed and co-wrote the film. They first teamed up when Ferrell was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and McKay was a writer. They also worked together on the film comedies "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and "Step Brothers." And they co-founded the comedy website "Funny or Die."

Their new film is a satire of buddy cop movies and action films. It's about the cops who aren't the action heroes of the police force. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play cops assigned to desk duty. Ferrell's character is a forensic accountant who actually likes paperwork, but Wahlberg, who was demoted to desk duty, wants to be back where the action is.

When the film opens, two daring members of the police force, played by Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, become the heroes of the city after getting the bad guys in an action-packed chase.

In this scene, they return triumphantly to police headquarters, where they're welcomed with a round of applause. Then they make brief statements. Wahlberg looks jealous and resentful, Ferrell is cheerfully taking pictures. We'll hear Ferrell at the end of the clip. Samuel Jackson speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Other Guys")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SAMUEL JACKSON (Actor): (As P.K. Highsmith) We know, we know, we know. All right, all right, all right, listen up, listen up. We're having a celebration tonight at Butter(ph). Brody Jenner's going to be there, and most of you are on the list.

Unidentified Actor: You're the best!

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DWAYNE "THE ROCK" JOHNSON (Actor): (As Christopher Danson) Let me say something right now. We couldn't do our job if it weren't for you guys doing all the paperwork, answering the phones...

Mr. JACKSON: (As Highsmith) All the gunfights, all the car chases, all the sex we don't want to have with women but we have to, all due to what you guys do. Thank you.

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (As Allen Gamble) And we'd do it again and again.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Highsmith) Hey, hey, you shut your face. If we want to hear you talk, I will work your mouth like a puppet, you hear me? Cash bar.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Adam McKay, what made you think about doing a film about cops who aren't the rock stars and who don't get to see the action?

Mr. ADAM McKAY (Director): It was somewhat inspired by the guy who caught Bernie Madoff like eight years before he really got deep into his Ponzi scheme. And everyone sort of ignored him and treated him like he was a nerd and a noodge. And it was sort of that idea, the idea that there's new types of heroes, and that's sort of a little bit what informed Will's character, a guy who loves, you know, being a paper-pusher, Allen Gamble.

GROSS: And did you write the part for Will Ferrell?

Mr. McKAY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, Will had input on it. Will was working on another movie. So we didn't directly write the first script together, but he was sending us ideas in, and he came up with the idea of a guy who loves to be a paper-pusher, actually relishes it.

GROSS: And Will Ferrell, if you were a cop, which you would not be, I'm sure...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't think you're probably quite cut out for that.

Mr. FERRELL: No, right, right, right.

GROSS: But if you were a cop, would you be one of those cops, one of the paper-pusher cops?

Mr. FERRELL: I probably would be, yeah, because I kind of - I probably would've been the guy who was like, hey, this office work needs to get done, and that's where the real glory is. Why would you want to risk being shot at out in the field when you can actually get this legitimate, crucial work done? So that's -that whole angle seemed so funny to us.

Mr. McKAY: Will's a little bit like that even as an actor in Hollywood. He's very involved in all the release forms, all the paperwork, the contracts.

GROSS: Seriously? Is that right?

Mr. FERRELL: A lot of times, the line producer will use me to facilitate a lot of the paperwork throughout a film.

Mr. McKAY: You'll come in at night, after you've done shooting all day with Will, and he'll just be in the office just looking through documents. He has a notary that follows him around 24 hours a day.

Mr. FERRELL: Sure.

GROSS: Okay, you're kidding me now, okay.

Mr. McKAY: Yes, I'm kidding.

Mr. FERRELL: We're kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought you were for real. That's terrible. Okay, all right, all right. So, no, I love the opening scene. It's a great satire of the obligatory opening car-chase scene in cop movies. Now, there's the bullet flying in slow motion before it hits its target. The cars crashing, cars flying through the air, cars crashing through glass windows. One of the cops jumps onto the hood of a moving car. Innocent bystanders are watching in horror. And it's all so quickly edited that you can't follow what's going on or who's doing what to who.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what are some of the elements that you really wanted to parody in the opening?

Mr. McKAY: Well, that was the idea, was the gross excess of the whole sort of modern-day heroes as they're kind of perceived through movies and TV, just how sort of ridiculously over the top they are.

And, you know, the real truth is cops had to stop doing high-speed chases because they were doing too much property damage. So it was an agreement with most police that they go, okay, let's back off and eventually, we'll catch the guy.

And so the end of our giant chase, of course, you find out that it was all over a quarter pound of marijuana and that they destroyed 40 vehicles and blew up a building.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, we actually went on a couple ride-alongs with NYPD detectives. And I kept asking the guy I was with, like, do you have any crazy chase stories? And they basically said, no, we kind of lay back and know that they'll probably come back again. So don't try to be a hero. If you want to be a hero, join the fire department.

So it's funny to kind of make fun of the, like Adam said, the gross excess.

GROSS: One of the other things you make fun of, too, is how in cop movies, the cops are always making - well, not always, but in a certain kind of cop movie, the cops are always making witty retorts just as their lives are most at risk. So can you talk about trying to write the best retorts?

Mr. McKAY: We actually wrote some that, it might have been a little too inside for the audience, but at one point, Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson crash through a bus in their car, and there's just sort of a beat where they're in the bus, and obviously, he's supposed to say a funny line.

At one point, we had him say a line like, man, I feel a lot of pressure to say something clever right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: And that really made us laugh, but I think it was - like, it's funny. You make fun of it, but you also want it to be a little funny for the audience, and that one got dead silence.

GROSS: Is that why you cut it out, because it didn't test?

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, you know, if something's on the fence, we'll certainly put it in, even if it doesn't play, but when it completely dies and sort of stops the energy of the movie, we will actually heed the advice of the audience in those cases.

GROSS: So did you both watch cop films for inspiration in the writing and the directing and performance?

Mr. McKAY: Did you watch any, Will?

Mr. FERRELL: You know what, I don't know if you recall, I had mentioned to you, oh, I should watch some more kind of buddy cop movies. And Adam actually said no, don't. I actually don't want you to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And Adam's point was I kind of want your ideas to come from an unfiltered place of just randomness. So, yeah, so I purposely and lazily didn't watch anything and just kind of - and that's where, you know, I kind of, I emailed Adam the idea for the scene of where my character gets convinced that he can shoot his weapon in the office.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And that was just a random, you know, obviously the fact that I didn't have a great knowledge of all these kind of buddy cop movies, something like that was able to just pop into my head.

GROSS: Will Ferrell, would you describe your look as the cop who likes to do the paperwork and the forensic accounting?

Mr. FERRELL: I hate to sound so simplistic in that I knew that my character would wear glasses, but that was kind of a key element, and once I found kind of the right glasses for this guy, it kind of set the character off.

But he's a guy who's very kind of well-put-together, but all of his suits are probably bought at the next step below like a Men's Warehouse, not quite a Men's Warehouse.

Mr. McKAY: Marshalls?

Mr. FERRELL: Maybe a Marshalls. And so he's very sensible, very prudent with his finances, and yeah, so we try to embody that character in the look.

Mr. McKAY: We said a little bit, it was like Keith Olbermann with a gun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: Sort of the vibe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You mentioned the eyeglasses, and they're kind of like the '80s version of aviator glasses.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, they're not - they're just a little off.

GROSS: Those wire-rimmed aviator glasses.

Mr. FERRELL: As soon as I found them, we forwarded pictures to Adam, and Adam was like, that's it. That's the look.

GROSS: How did you look for them?

Mr. FERRELL: Just with the prop master and just kind of looked through a sea of glasses, and...

GROSS: The prop master brings it in. You don't go to, like, LensCrafters and say, give me something very '80s.

Mr. FERRELL: Right. No, I didn't do that. But I did go to a - I wanted to give myself a standard-issue haircut, and I did go to a Supercuts in the San Fernando Valley and just walked in and got a standard haircut, and I then forwarded the pictures to Adam. And you kind of were shocked. You...

Mr. McKAY: It was a thing where we heard Will was going to do it, and in theory, it sounded like such a great idea, but you know, you have to remember, when you're about to go into a movie, that look is what you carry for the whole movie. So...

Mr. FERRELL: I think your quote was: We still want you to look good on camera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: But the haircut was - was perfectly bad, in a way...

Mr. McKAY: Oh, yeah.

Mr. FERRELL: ...and we kind of had to reshape it.

GROSS: Did the haircutter not know who you were?

Mr. FERRELL: She cut my hair for 15 minutes, and then halfway - she didn't say a word, and then finally, towards the end of the haircut, she's like, you're one of the "Step Brothers," aren't you? And I said yes. And then that's all we mentioned it. We didn't talk any more. So that was, it was kind of funny.

GROSS: And you didn't say, I came here expressly for a bad haircut.

Mr. FERRELL: No, no. I just - in fact, very few words were spoken.

Mr. McKAY: So it was an awkward silence in the room?

Mr. FERRELL: It kind of was. It was an awkward haircut.

Mr. McKAY: Was there a dog barking in the distance?

Mr. FERRELL: There should've been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, "The Other Guys" is rated PG-13, and one of the things that's missing from this film, Will Ferrell, is your traditional nude scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Yes. Which...

GROSS: How come? Was it to get the rating or because it would've been too -what's the word I'm looking for?

Mr. FERRELL: Upsetting?

GROSS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Scarring?

Mr. McKAY: There's actually a new law from the MPAA that if Will just shows even his naked chest, it's an automatic R.

Mr. FERRELL: In some cases, NC-17.

Mr. McKAY: NC-17, yeah.

Mr. FERRELL: No, you know what, that - it dawned on us later that we basically had Mark Wahlberg, who's famous for being shirtless for different reasons than me, that we probably missed that opportunity to have two iconic shirtless people not take their shirts off.

So no, I - it just didn't happen. We don't really have an explanation.

GROSS: Now, there's times when Mark Wahlberg, who plays your partner, looks like he's on the verge of laughing. And I'm wondering if there's times when, Will Ferrell, you improvise something that Mark Wahlberg wasn't prepared for, and it was hard for him to get through a scene.

Mr. FERRELL: There's one scene towards the kind of beginning of the movie that stands out in that way, which is, it's kind of our opening salvos with each other to kind of establish the dynamic that he has no respect for me and doesn't think I'm a real cop and...

GROSS: Or a real man, for that matter.

Mr. FERRELL: A real man, exactly, and goes into this whole monologue about how if he was a lion and I was in a different food group, if I was a tuna, he would swim out into the ocean and eat me. That's how much he hates me.

And then we just improvised this whole second half - Adam kind of threw up this idea of the fact that I'm a tuna who then figures out how to get back on land and use my resources with my tuna friends to now actively hunt lions. And that was - anyways, it's this long rant that reverses his kind of aggressive posture in a way where I all of a sudden get the upper hand.

And that was completely improvised, and you can - there's one bit of coverage where you can see Mark's on the verge of losing it.

Mr. McKAY: There's a great moment actually in the end of the movie where Michael Keaton gets Will...

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

Mr. McKAY: Where he says, he's leaning over Will, after Will's been shot, and he says, I'm going to go check on Mark's character. Hold on, I got a bad knee. And he braces himself by putting his hand on Will's face to stand up.

And we literally cut it to the frame, the last frame before Will laughs because he does break. So when you see it in the movie, it's down to the millisecond before he cracks.

(Break)

GROSS: Now, "The Other Guys" may be a comedy, but the explosions in it have to look real. They have to look as real as a real cop film would. And so what are some of the things you each had to learn in order to pull off the explosions and the stunts?

You know, like, you know, there's like, a wrecking ball that smashes into a car and then into a building, and there's cars crashing into each other. There's explosions.

Mr. McKAY: We were actually pretty thrifty with this movie because, you know, we had to shoot in New York. It was a pretty big movie. So all told, we only crashed, like, destroyed, like, four cars.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

Mr. McKAY: And we were doubling a lot of cars. And that's kind of what we learned is that even though these movies look big and excessive, our second unit guys were very thrifty with it. And when we would shoot our stuff, we really had to plan when we were going to break something because didn't have doubles on it.

It wasn't like a $200 million movie, where you just do whatever you want. So that was a little surprising to us. And then the rest of it is just a lot of planning, like a lot of storyboarding. You go over it and over it, and you do safety checks.

And, I mean, some of this stuff's pretty scary, what they do. I mean, we have a car that shoots into a building that explodes at one point and jumps another car. And sort of halfway through, you're like, oh my God, like, if anyone got hurt because of this - it's just a comedy. You know, so I think that's about as far as we would ever go with those kinds of stunts.

Did you learn anything, Will? Did you have a moment of inner knowledge?

Mr. FERRELL: I, unfortunately, Mark's character has to do - well not -unfortunately for Mark, not for me, Mark has to do a lot of the action, and I stand there and say, "watch out."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And "we should probably run." So my action consisted of running from Point A to Point B, even though - I guess the hardest thing I had to do was there's a scene - we do a take on the good-cop bad-cop scene in a buddy cop movie, but my character misunderstands and thinks that Terry says bad-cop bad-cop.

So Mark starts in with his interrogation, and then I get even crazier, and I basically in one take, maybe it was two takes, but two long takes, destroy -wrestle Steve Coogan and destroy his office. And so that was the toughest bit of action I had to do.

GROSS: So you said, Adam McKay, that you had to double cars because you didn't have a big budget. What does that mean?

Mr. McKAY: It means you crash into one, and you wreck the right side of it, and then in another scene, you turn it around so you only see the left side, and you wreck that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: It's real tricky stuff like that. But, yeah, they do it. They re-use it. Or if there's not a whole lot of damage to it, sometimes they'll fix it in their own shop, our second unit, and - I mean, these guys are super crafty. They know what they're doing. So we got a lot of use out of a lot of things.

Mr. FERRELL: But to speak to what you were initially bringing up, Terry, the -I think it is so funny because the action does look so real, and we never wink at any of that.

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, there's actually a couple scenes that are pretty cool, like the slow-motion shootout in the office and in the Gehry Building. And, I mean, that was kind of our goal. Like, if you're going to do - it's the same thing we do with "Talladega." If you're going to have race scenes, let's at least make them cool.

So we did our best. We did our darnedest with them, and I think a few times, we get off some pretty cool moments.

GROSS: So even though it's a comedy, you know...

Mr. McKAY: Why didn't you agree with my statement that we...

GROSS: Oh, no, I agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I was going to start describing it, but I figured how much of the movie should I be giving away.

Mr. McKAY: We're very insecure.

GROSS: No, I love the part where Mark Wahlberg is kind of - he seems to be on some kind of, like, roller cart or something because he's kind of shooting and rolling backwards at the same time.

Mr. McKAY: That's all we needed.

GROSS: ...on paper, but yeah, yeah, I won't give it away.

Mr. McKAY: That's all we needed, Terry, just affirmation like that. We work hard. We're very vulnerable.

GROSS: So again, you know, these - it's a comedy, but the stunts had to look real, and you used the same kind of stuff that the real action movies do. So, Adam McKay, that meant you had the real responsibility of making sure no one got hurt. Not the kind of thing you'd have to worry about as much in something like "Anchorman."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But - so was that a lot to carry around?

Mr. McKAY: Well, you know, all you can really do as director is sort of set a tone. And the tone I tried to set was I just constantly said safety first. Don't do anything that's risky. I constantly checked with, you know, Conrad, our second unit director, and Brad Martin, our stunt coordinator, and is there anything that's edgy? Please don't do it. Don't do it. It's not worth it.

And I just kept saying that over and over again. Fortunately, you know, Conrad and Brad are, like, consummate pros. So they were super safety-conscious. And, you know, we had, you know, there's always a couple close calls, but you know, knock on wood, thank God, no one was seriously injured, and you get through it.

But it's crazy. It's a part of filmmaking people don't often think about that people do get hurt doing these insane stunts, and so that's the only thing you can do. There's some, you know, some people shoot a little looser from the hip and say, just get it done. And I just tried not to do that and over and over again said be safe. And our producers said the same thing.

Will, on the other hand, had a whole different attitude about it.

Mr. FERRELL: I would then behind Adam's back tell everyone don't listen to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: We got to get this shot, and you're fired if you don't. So between the two approaches, I think it came out pretty good.

Mr. McKAY: I wasn't happy with what he was doing, and it undermined a lot of my credibility as a director, but the movie did work out and no one was injured. And what are you going to do? You know, Will wants the movie to be good.

GROSS: Now, there's also, like, a financial crisis, financial scam, reform theme through the movie because the main villains are involved with financial misdeeds. And, you know, there's references to the Federal Reserve. There's a few, like, Federal Reserve and SEC jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, what's it like to write jokes like that and not worry that people won't get it?

Mr. McKAY: Well, you know, there's nothing the people love more than a Federal Reserve joke.

GROSS: Now, don't I know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, I mean, you can tour the Midwest for years based on prime rates and actuarial jokes, and yeah. No, we thought that was kind of a cool thing with - the reason you could do a cop buddy movie was because crime has changed so much.

You have a guy like Bernie Madoff literally steal $80 billion, you know, AIG steal hundreds of billions, Goldman Sachs. Crime has changed so much, and to really do a movie with, like, drug dealers or drug smugglers is kind of almost quaint at this point.

So we wanted to have that sort of laced throughout it and yet, you know, not be too didactic or boring about it. And it fit in pretty nicely. It doesn't tend to stop the rhythm. And I think people can feel the stakes of it, too. They know that it relates to all of us. It actually is high crime. So you, you know, it's a comedy, but you somewhat care what they're doing.

GROSS: So do you have another project that you're going to be working on together now that "The Other Guys" is finished?

Mr. McKAY: We actually want to do the FRESH AIR movie.

GROSS: Oh, of course. Of course you should.

Mr. FERRELL: We just need you to sign a release, Terry.

Mr. McKAY: You've been very difficult through all the legal proceedings.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, I'm happy to play myself. It's an adventure film, right? It's an adventure film where I sit in a chair reading all day. But it's exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: It's going to be for IMAX. It's going to be 3-D.

Mr. FERRELL: It's a 500-day shoot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the new one. Thanks so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. McKAY: Thank you so much Terry, it's a pleasure.

Mr. FERRELL: Thanks, Terry, thanks for having us.

GROSS: Will Ferrell stars in the new comedy "The Other Guys." Adam McKay directed and co-wrote it. The film opens tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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