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The four years it took to make Movie 43, the raunchy, star-studded ensemble comedy feature 15 shorts, might seem like a long time, but it’s nothing compared to the 15 years it took producer Charles Wessler to get his idea turned into a reality.
Wessler says he first came up with the idea for an outrageous comedy made up of several short films a decade and a half ago. He got three pairs of directors — Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, The Book of Mormon), Peter and Bob Farrelly (The Three Stooges, There’s Something About Mary) and David and Jerry Zucker (the Naked Gun and Airplane! films) — to sign on to write and direct one-third of the project each. He says he then began working out a deal with a studio for the project, but the project didn’t stick.
“They ended up calling me about a month after we started negotiating the deal and said ‘we can’t do it’ because they had political pressure to not make R-rated movies that were marketed to teenagers,” claims Wessler, whose production credits include Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene.
He went around to his other friends who were studio chiefs, but no one could understand what he was trying to do.
Then, about four years ago, he, Peter Farrelly and producer John Penotti took their pitch — along with about 60 scripts for the vignettes — to Relativity’s Ryan Kavanaugh and Tucker Tooley.
At that meeting, Wessler, Penotti and Farrelly presented one short that they already had shot, starring Kate Winslet as a woman going on a blind date with a seemingly successful and handsome man (Hugh Jackman).
“They just looked at me and said, ‘Go for it,’” Wessler tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It takes a lot of balls to make something that is not conventional.”
Not only is the film unconventional in its structure, but it takes plenty of risks in its storytelling. The jokes often are crass and outrageous, making fun of plenty of things that are rarely spoken out loud, with both physical and gross-out humor included.
“I remember once I said, ‘Look, it’s sort of experimental,’ ” says Wessler. “And Tucker took me aside and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody else it’s experimental because they’ll be scared.’ “
One of the most amazing feats of the film is the inclusion of so many big-name actors. Along with Winslet and Jackman, the cast includes Halle Berry, Emma Stone, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gerard Butler, Seann William Scott, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Richard Gere, Justin Long, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts.
Each castmember worked on one of the short films, which cover a range of storylines from truth-or-dare blind dates to superhero Robin speed dating and an African-American basketball team going up against a Caucasian team. The jokes range from slightly silly to extremely risque and borderline offensive.
“It’s like Funny of Die, only if you could go crazy,” says Farrelly, who also directed one short featuring Halle Berry. “Because with Funny or Die, there are certain limits. And we just wanted to do that kind of short and go much further than that.”
But how did these producers get so many A-list actors (including two of this year’s Oscar nominees in Jackman and Watts) to step out of their comfort zones and be a part of this zany project, which is sure to make some viewers laugh but might offend others?
It turns out that it was a mix of industry connections and plain determination.
Jackman was the first actor Wessler called. He met the Les Miserables star at a wedding and then called him some time later and pitched him the short. The actor read the script and agreed to be a part of the film.
“He called me back I think 24 hours later and said, ‘Yeah I wanna do this,’ which I think is, quite frankly, incredibly ballsy. Because …you could be made a fool of, or you could look silly, and there will be people who say, ‘That’s crazy; he should never have done it.’ ”
When it came to some actors, like Winslet, Wessler had to just go through the proper channels of agents. But he adds that he was turned down plenty of times because all the actors were asked to work for scale.
“Most agents would avoid me because they knew what I wanted to do — what agent wants to book their big client in a no pay, $800-a-day, two-day shoot?” he says. “The truth is, I had a lot of friends who were in this movie. And if they didn’t say yes, this movie wouldn’t have gotten made.”
He adds that actors were willing to take part because the film only required a few days of their time and often allowed them to play a character outside of their wheelhouse.
Because the filmmakers worked around the stars’ schedules, the filming of the whole movie took several years. There were times when an actor, like Richard Gere, would find he had a couple of free days in New York, and so they’d rush into preproduction with just four days to prep.
While so many A-list actors were on board, most weren’t completely aware of what other sketches would be included in the film, which features 15 vignettes tied together by a story of a man (Dennis Quaid) pitching ideas to a movie producer (Greg Kinnear).
Penotti says many of the actors didn’t ask many questions about what else was going on in the film.
“They were attracted to their script, and as long as that tickled their funnybone, that was enough,” he says.
Movie 43 opened Friday in theaters.
Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford