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'Anchorman' Director Adam McKay Reveals the Sequel Backstory (Q&A)

The writer-helmer and frequent Will Ferrell collaborator explains why the Paramount film wasn't going to happen -- and how it suddenly did.

Will Ferrell Ron Burgundy Anchorman - P 2012
Dreamworks

A portion of this interview appears in the April 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

That Paramount finally decided March 29 to make an Anchorman sequel was as much a surprise to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as anyone. After all, the collaborators had been trying for years to revive Ron Burgundy, and only three months earlier the possibility had been “really 100 percent dead,” according to McKay.

Despite the fact that McKay, along with contemporaries Jay Roach and Judd Apatow, has one of the best modern live-action comedy records in town, the economics of the studio laughter remain very tight. The studio had refused to budge from a $35 million budget limit. But that number wouldn’t have covered even a few of the above-the-line salaries: Ferrell’s ask can now reach $20 million, and several of the secondary Anchorman players, including Paul Rudd and Steve Carell (now up to $12 million-plus), have since blown up.

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Anchorman, a story about what happens when a macho ’70s newsman and his crack team are forced to deal with an ambitious new woman in the office, was made for only $26 million. It racked up a decent $85 million in domestic revenue for DreamWorks in summer 2004, but while the film’s quotable lines and 1970s San Diego TV news setting helped generate a cult following on DVD, the period humor didn’t play overseas. Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman had been the executive on the film at DreamWorks, which greenlighted the comedy after Old School had done well for the studio in early 2003 and Ferrell had his first huge hit with the New Line Christmas comedy Elf, which grossed $220 million worldwide later that year.

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McKay was a Saturday Night Live vet making his directorial debut, and it was a surprisingly strong result. Since then, he has co-written and directed three additional Ferrell comedies for Sony — Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby grossed $148 million domestic in 2006, Step Brothers grossed $100 million in 2008 and The Other Guys grossed $119 million in 2010. Goodman, who moved to Paramount with the property rights after DreamWorks left the studio in 2008, remained interested in an Anchorman sequel, but studio revenue projections repeatedly didn’t justify paying the team any more to reunite.

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McKay spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the sudden unexpected breakthroughs that made the Anchorman sequel a reality, and what he and Ferrell have in store for Ron and the Channel 4 News team when they return, possibly in the summer of 2014.

The Hollywood Reporter: Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman was the executive on the first movie at DreamWorks, right? What’s been his attitude over the years about making a sequel?

Adam McKay: You know the story: Everyone said no, it was dead, a long road to get it made. And then finally Old School hit and, boom, DreamWorks was like, “We want to make it now.” We came in, and Goodman was our day-to-day guy on it. That movie was one of the funnest movies we’ve ever made, and he had a great time and got to see our process. And then the movie came out and did really good but then got even bigger on DVD and cable. So then, when he was at Paramount, he said to me, “Would you ever do a sequel?” And at first we were like, “No, we don’t want to do sequels, we have too many ideas. Why do sequels?” And then finally, we kept hearing the question so much from fans, and we’re like, Shit, man, there’s almost something original about doing a sequel, like, can-we-do-a-sequel suddenly became an interesting challenge to us. We got our heads around on it and said, “All right, we’ll do it,” and Goodman was really excited. But then it went in the numbers machine over there. And their numbers machine purely looked at the box office. It didn’t project off of DVD sales and TV and cultural influence. It stopped at the box office. And when you stop at the box office, you stop at — what did it make, like $95 million with almost no foreign numbers?

THR: I think it was closer to $80 million…

McKay: I think it was $85 million domestic and maybe $5-10 million internationally or something like that. See, I keep trying to inflate the numbers a little bit. [laughs] Let’s just call it $200 million! So their numbers machine did not compute that. They kept saying, “We’ll give you $35 million.” And we’re like, “Wait a minute, if we do it for that, we’re literally not getting paid!” And they weren’t doing back end… I said, “Look, we want to do it, we don’t need to get rich off of it, but you’ve got to give us something!” This was three years or something. So, basically they came back with a low budget. Originally, I was saying, “Hey, $80 million budget ,because it’ll be the period, and you gotta pay the stars,” and they were like, “Are you crazy?” And then quickly I was like, “All right, fine, $60 million and we can make it work, we’ll all take pay cuts,” and they were still like, “Are you out of your mind?” And we were like, “Oh, wow.” And the whole time, to Goodman’s credit, he’s like, “I really want to get this done,” so he’s clearly pushing for it, and the numbers aren’t computing. And then we did Other Guys and we came back again and we were like, “Look, can we take another shot at this? We’re not asking for $80 million or $60 million. Let’s just do it so we can get some money, a little bit of back end, let’s just make it fair.” And they still said, “No, no, $35 million,” or whatever the number was, and crappy back end. Our reps wanted us to do it, and they’re like, “You can’t, this is such an awful deal.”

THR: You could have gone and made a movie somewhere else with your regular deal, so why take a lowball offer?

McKay: Yeah, and once again, we didn’t even want our regular deal. Just to get it so you’re not losing money making the movie. Because for me, I’ve gotta be on it for two years, and if I’m making such-and-such money I’m losing a lot of money, and it’s hard to explain to your wife why you’re working 14 hours a day for… when you’re directing, once you’re in it you’re in it. Believe me, I’m not complaining. But at the same time, you want to make some money, even out of a sense of fairness, and it was literally like no pay, a little shot of back end. And once again, all the reps, when we went back the second time, were like, “This is horrible. You can’t do this.” So we gave up.

THR: This was about three months ago, right?

McKay: Then we even went back a third time! In like November, just for the hell of it, [our manager] Jimmy Miller called and was like, “Hey, is there any change?” And they were like, “No, that’s what it is.” So now it’s really, really 100 percent dead, and Ferrell and I are sitting down and there’s talk of doing Step Brothers 2, and we were going to line that up at Sony and we were like, “You know what? That’ll be our sequel. The first one was so much fun, we’ll go do that.” But I keep hearing from everyone: Anchorman 2, Anchorman 2, Anchorman 2. … So we’re about to set sail on Step Brothers 2, and I go to Jimmy, “Can you just check one last time?” And he goes, “It’s a waste of time. We’ve already checked three times.” I go, “Just call, I just need to hear it one last time.” And he said, “I’m telling you, it’s a waste of time.” So Ari Emanuel, my agent, is like, “Fine, I don’t give a shit, I’ll call.” So he calls, and he goes, “They’re interested.” And we’re all immediately like, “Screw you, we’re wasting time.” And he’s like, “No, no, they’re interested.” Next thing you know, I hear from Goodman, going, “Hey, we’ve got a shot.” I guess a movie fell through for them or something, and that was it.

THR: Do you know what the movie was? They had a comedy slot open in the slate or something?

McKay: I don’t, no. I guess so. And then two things happened. We tried to set this other movie up for Will and Vince [Vaughn] that ended up being, once again, a crazy low offer, no back end, at Paramount, and that didn’t happen. And then the other thing that happened was I did some work on The Dictator for Sacha [Baron Cohen], kind of helping out. And I think the combination of those two things with a movie falling through, I think they saw the numbers on the other one and were like, “Wait a minute, if we’re looking at these numbers for an original Will/Vince one, and we have this other franchise that’s guaranteed to at least get you to here, why wouldn’t we do this for just a little bit more?” I think some of the numbers suddenly started rubbing against each other. And I think the other thing was, I suddenly was working with them again as a writer and as a little bit of a producer/director. They started looking at The Dictator and having fun working with me on that, and I think all three things kind of perfect stormed into, You know what? Let’s do this. And Goodman finally got them over the hump.

THR: You were doing unit-directing work on Dictator?

McKay: I was sort of producing, writing, helping with the reshoots, kind of a vague title.

THR: What budget did you guys finally agree on then? It must not have been that much higher.

McKay: The budget we ended up getting was $50 million. It was perfect. We wanted $60 million, they were saying $35 million, $50 million we can get it done for. We came up with a — we’re not going to get rich — but a fair little back end sweetener on it.

THR: You could get it done at a certain budget the first time. But that movie launched so many different people that are much bigger now. Rudd, Will, you—

McKay: Oh, it’s crazy. And Carell’s a huge star. And Vaughn obviously only got bigger. Yeah, they’re all in.

THR: So does everyone get back end then?

McKay: Well, we’re still finishing everyone’s deal on it, nothing’s official, but yeah I think we’ll get it done. It looks pretty good. It’s not officially closed yet for everyone else yet.

THR: You have David Koechner, you’ve got Carell, you’ve got Rudd…

McKay: Yeah, yeah. And I’m actually calling [Christina] Applegate’s manager, but we already have talked about the story and it looks like there will be something for her.

THR: In a way, her character is the one that’s sort of expendable…

McKay: Yeah, kind of in the Austin Powers tradition, they always flip out the lead lady. No, we haven’t written it yet, but we have an idea for her that we think is pretty cool. So tentatively right now she’s in. But obviously we kind of have to let it be what it’s gonna be, we don’t want to handcuff ourselves, but we love Applegate, so any chance to work with her is always fun. So, yeah, that’s it. The last couple weeks we’ve been sitting down and banging out the story and putting it together.

THR: Are you guys going to go hole up somewhere when it’s writing time?

McKay: Yeah. We’re going to start next week actually, we’re going to hole up. So I’m doing all my last meetings this week, because I know I’ll have less time.

THR: How much time do you typically set aside?

McKay: Usually in a month and a half to two months we can come up with the full draft, like a rough vomit-y draft. Then, you know how it goes, the real work is in the re-writing, so then we just pound it for the next five months.

THR: And then you re-do every scene during shooting…

McKay: Yeah, we improvise often. Although, we work the crap out of our scripts. We definitely want that last read-through to be kind of seamless, and everything’s working, so you know you have at least an A-minus script when you’re hitting the set. And then obviously ideas come to you. You can only plan so much with a script for comedy, and then you get all the extra stuff on top of it.

THR: Do you have a tentative date you’re trying to hit for shooting?

McKay: Yeah. We’re looking at January-February for shooting. Probably it’ll end up being February is my guess.

THR: Does Paramount have you slotted in a tentative release date?

McKay: We’re talking about it, we don’t know yet exactly where it’ll be, we’re kind of floating. They’ve said Christmas, they’ve said March, and then they’ve gone as late as May.

THR: Thanksgiving?

McKay: No, they didn’t say Thanksgiving for some reason.

THR: It would be too early to get done by then?

McKay: We probably could have it done by then, that’s not crazy. You know they want it to be summer, is what they want, but that gets a little long. So we’ll have to figure that out.

THR: So you have a basic idea for the storyline. Is there any tease for what we should expect Ron to be doing? You’re staying in period?

McKay: We have a basic idea. I’ll tell you we’re staying roughly period, and I would just say it’s the next stage in the development of American media and news. The fun of these characters is they confront change very poorly. [laughs] So they’ve got some more change coming their way. I can say that pretty safely.

THR: And Rudd, Koechner, Carell, what was their response when you said it’s going to happen?

McKay: Overjoyed. I bumped into Koechner, who was just beaming. Rudd sent me an email, “I can’t believe it! Oh my God!” When the announcement was coming on Conan, I saw Carell tweeted it. It’s one of those pure joy type projects, where we just had so much fun on the first one. We’re all still friends. It’s going to be fun as hell, man. We couldn’t be more excited.

THR: And it gives you an opportunity to top the classic alley fight, when Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins come in.

McKay: I would guess there’ll be some other cameos happening in this. That’s always the trick with the sequels, is how much do you repeat from the first one. Because we all get bummed out when you go see a sequel and it’s beat for beat. And you’re like, Awww… And the spirit of the first one was such a three-chord garage band kind of spirit. The funny thing is we re-watched it for the first time in four or five years the other day. I had seen pieces of it on TV. But Will and I actually sat and watched the whole movie. When it was over with, we were like, “We’ve gotten a lot better than that!” [laughs]

THR: In what sense? Didn’t you guys laugh at all?

McKay: Oh, no, we laughed the whole way through! We just meant as far as the filmmaking. The next one we did, Talladega Nights, we didn’t do any reshoots on it. We knew exactly what we were doing. Whereas, with Anchorman we were reshooting, we were improvising. Since it was our first movie it was just a little more raggedy and frayed. But that’s also the charm of it. That’s what you kind of like. So when we were talking about writing this, we said, “We almost have to go back to that raggedy, frayed mentality.” It’s like when the Who has to do “My Generation,” you’re like, “They’re way better than that song now,” but yet that’s still one of their great songs. So we have to kind of do that three-chord raggedy song again. We have to force ourselves to do some things we know are going to be risky and might not even work, just because that’s the spirit of the movie.

THR: But you guys take risks all the time.

McKay: Yeah, not to say that we’ve ever gotten safe. But I just mean, we’ve learned some things through the years. Like we’ve learned, Oh don’t paint yourself into this corner where if this one line doesn’t work you’re completely dead. We now know to give ourselves options and to have a little bit of a better sense for what’s going to play where in the storyline. So that was the funny thing in watching it was there are some parts where we just jumped blindly into the pool, “Screw it, let’s do it.” And we have to kind of evoke that spirit again, like, let’s make some crazy dumb calls.

THR: Where did you watch it?

McKay: We watched it at Ferrell’s house. We were up at his guesthouse, where we write. And we popped it in and watched the whole movie. We were laughing our asses off, don’t get me wrong. Oh my God, there’s just some great stuff in that movie. That cast is so good.

THR: It’s sort of the classic, Ferrell buffoon prototype…

McKay: It’s his best, most iconic character, in a sense. He goes right into that voice, even writing with him. The only thing we did was we watched the unrated version. I remember that whole craze with unrated DVDs, and I hate those. We were watching it, like, “No! The theatrical was the best!”

THR: Really? It seems like with all the improv you guys do, you’d want to get in as many jokes as you could.

McKay: Well, you know what it is? We’re not editing ourselves that much with the theatrical. You’re cutting the theatrical to be the best version it could be, and we’re not doing hard-R movies anyway. Anchorman was PG-13, so it wasn’t like we had to edit ourselves for content. We cut the best version of the movie we can cut, and that’s what we put out. And then they tell you, “Go put stuff in.” And you’re like, “No, I put everything in that I wanted to.” In the case of some movies, you have a bit that’s hilarious on its own, and you want it to fit into the movie. Like, in Step Brothers, we had them sleep-driving. When they would sleepwalk, at one point they got up and jumped in a car and actually drove while they were asleep. And it was one of the funniest things we’ve ever shot, but it didn’t work in the flow of the movie. I kept trying to force it in, and it just never worked. It might be in the unrated or the extra version, but if it is it doesn’t work. So that’s what it was with Anchorman, there were these bits in there that we tried that didn’t work. So you watch it and you’re like, No! And there they are on the DVD. And a lot of people only watch the unrated, so I’m glad they don’t do that as much anymore because I’m never crazy for it. But other than that, it was really fun to watch. I was actually impressed, parts of it look really good. There are some nifty little montages or tracking shots or parts that are cleverly composed, and we were like, “Oh, occasionally we knew what we were doing.”