How a Sandwich Got ‘Anchorman 2’ In Trouble With the MPA

Also: find out which US president almost had a cameo.
By  · Published on December 20th, 2013

As their world keeps evolving, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his news team remain the same guys we met 10 years ago in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. They’re stuck in their adolescent and ignorant mindsets, which Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues challenges. For a man like Burgundy, real drama is having to accept a black woman as his boss. Heavy stuff.

The old Channel 4 news team may not have changed, but their sequel has. Co-writer/director Adam McKay and his characters were barely bound by structural rules, giving Anchorman 2 some wild directions to go in. To no surprise, McKay took full advantage of those opportunities, and 60% of the time it worked every time.

I spoke with McKay, who explained his improv method for the film in depth, described his minor battles with the MPAA and revealed the cameos he wanted but couldn’t get.

A lot of people didn’t appreciate Anchorman until after a few viewings. Since those people are coming into the sequel knowing the tone, do you think they’ll be more prepared for it?

I think so. I think one of the reasons why we were excited to do the sequel was because they’d be able to get into the tone of the movie more easily. On the first movie it took 10 minutes for people to click with what we were doing. We knew for the sequel we could go a little faster and a little bit stranger.

Did the first movie almost fall through because of that tone?

Yes, that was exactly it. People would read it and not get at all what we were going for. They thought we were doing another Broadcast News. When they would read the script, they’d say, “Well, this Brick Tamlin character doesn’t do anything in the story! He doesn’t serve a purpose!” They didn’t get it, because, I mean, that’s the whole idea. The second your explaining it like that, you are dead when it comes to comedy.

Since it’s taken a while to get the sequel made, how did the story develop or change over time?

Well, for the first five or six years we didn’t try to make it at all. We were just off doing other movies. The chorus of people saying “make a sequel” got louder and louder, which usually doesn’t happen, because it usually gets quieter and quieter. Around six years after the first Will asked, “Wait a second. Could we actually do this?” We took six months of doing other stuff and kicking around ideas, and it was 24 hour news that cracked the whole thing. We thought, “Oh my God. That’s probably the biggest change in broadcast news history.”

From that point on, it took another three years of going to the studio, trying to find a budget, having to get the schedule for the cast, and then, finally, we got to make it.

Maybe this was only a rumor, but weren’t you considering making it a musical?

That’s 100% true. Our whole idea came after the George Bush one-man show that I directed for Will on Broadway. This was before Book of Mormon, so we were saying, “This is crazy people don’t do more aggressive comedies on Broadway. They do comedy, but not like that. The crowd is clearly hungry for that.” It was kind of inspired by the Marx Brothers, who used to take their movies on the road as live shows. They’d perform them and get all the timing and jokes exactly right, and then they’d film them. We thought we could do that.

We liked the idea of it being a musical, so we were going to do a stripped down production of it for six months. When that was over with, we were going to go film the movie. Paramount really liked the idea, so that wasn’t what threw them off. What threw them off was the budget. That’s what took a couple of years to negotiate.

Was any music written?

No, we didn’t write anything. We just knew it was going to be 24 hour news. We thought of calling it “The Dawn of the New Media,” showing computers, the first fax machine, the first cell phone, and this whole new world scaring the hell out of these guys. Once we dumped the musical, we just streamlined it to just 24 hour news. No songs were written, but we did have one in mind, which we did do for the movie. It got cut out, but it was called: “It’s a Big, Big World.” I guess you could say we had one song.

What scene was it for?

It was for when they first show up 24 hour news station and they plug in their big board of monitors from all around the world, showing their feeds. You see these guys from San Diego looking at people from Pakistan, China, and Madagascar, and it’s the first time they realize it’s a big, big world. It turns into this giant musical number. We’re putting that on the DVD. I don’t know if you know this, but we’re putting out an entirely alternative version of the movie, where we we replace every single joke.

Right. The two and a half hour version. Do you have cuts that long for all your films?

Every one, yeah. There’s always a three or three and a half hour cut, which has all of the improv and story beats thrown in. It doesn’t exactly play like a cut, though. I mean, we had a four and a half hour version of this when we first came in, but it wasn’t really a cut. It starts feeling like a movie at three hours. If you were crazy, you could release that version.

Didn’t you have a four and a half hour cut of Step Brothers?

I believe you are correct. The first draft of the script was 220 pages long, which I know sounds crazy [Laughs]. We never turned that in. It was only for us. We got it down to 135 before we turned it in.

Because you shoot so much footage, is there usually room made in the budget and schedule so you can have that extra time on set?

Maybe a little bit. What our line producer and executive producer, David Householter, says to me with the AD at the beginning is: “Are there any scenes you anticipate heavy improv on?” I’ll usually circle three or four scenes, saying we’re going to dig deep on those scenes. They’ll chuck us an extra quarter day, so there is an extra day thrown in for improv.

What we’ve learned is how to move really, really fast. It helps that you have these great actors that can do what’s written in three takes. Plus, I know not to shoot it in wide and to shoot it on the single and straight up twos, because that’s where you get all your improv. You can just use the wide shots as a connector, if you need to bridge two things.

Over the years we’ve gotten a lot more economical. We don’t waste a lot of time with jokes that are really far off field. We’ve learned to somewhat keep it in the key of the movie, so we don’t wander as much as we used to.

When bringing in new actors you haven’t worked with before, do you brace them for your way of working?

You have to. It’s essential they know. I won’t have anyone come on the set without having a conversation with them saying, “You know how we work. Here’s what I’m going to do. I know this sounds crazy, but you’re going to have fun. Are you okay with this?” Everyone, of course, says yes. You never want to be on set and have someone say, “Wait a minute. What’s going on?” You know, having a guy on a microphone yelling lines at you is counter to a lot of acting techniques [Laughs]. Actors stop in the middle of the scene to ask, “Hey, what if we go with this?” I don’t think there’s ever been an exception. Everyone loves it when they do it.

Harrison Ford seemed thrown through a loop because he hadn’t seen the first film, but he said he enjoyed the experience.

I told him when I talked to him on the phone how we do it. I think he was unfamiliar with the first movie and us, although he kind of knew Will. You could explain that process to someone, but until you’re there…I think when a lot of actors hear improv, they think of throwing a line in or doing a slightly different take. I don’t think they get the degree to which we do it. That’s exactly what happened with Harrison Ford. He stepped on set and looked a little bit shocked, but within a minute, he had a smile on his face. He just loved it.

Yelling all those lines out, how many takes do you usually end up with?

Well, this was interesting, because it was the first time we ever shot on digital. Hands down film looks better, but there are a lot of advantages to digital. Those longer takes were really, really nice. The first take is almost like a rehearsal on tape, which is just as written. The second take is where we polish it up. The third take is where we begin to mix it up a little. After that third take, we’re off and running. That’s the point where I start throwing ideas out and the actors start generating their own stuff. The most takes I’ll ever do is eight or nine, but on digital I’d just let it roll all through the 22 minute card. The actors loved it, because they’re up to speed and in it.

The one trick, which no one ever told me, is the boom operator’s arms get tired. I would occasionally do a full 22 minute take and the sound department wouldn’t get mad at me, but they would say, “Hey…I don’t know if I can do that for 22 minutes.” I started saying they could lower their arms, but the guy wouldn’t want to, because the cardinal rule for a boom operator is to never lower your arms. He figured out ways to hold the mic in different ways. If you ever shoot in digital and do those long takes, be aware of the poor boom operator.

[Laughs] Of course. For the past few months people have been spoiling the film’s cameos, even in headlines. When you made the first movie, were people that spoiler hungry or was the movie too far off the radar for that?

So off the radar. It was a studio release, but there was no anticipation and no photographers on the set. There was maybe a crowded location where one or two photographers would grab a photo of Will, but that was about it. For the sequel, it was insane. I so regret not getting celebrity impersonators to walk on and off the set. I should’ve gotten Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe lookalikes, just to throw them off the scent.

I thought it was lame that they would report it in the headline or with the bold declaration. That kind of wrecks the fun of it, but, you know, they gotta get their hits.

Did you think that would happen or believe some people would be respectful?

We never thought there’d be a natural respect, but we were surprised by the degree to which it was happening. I mean, there were photographers everywhere on top of buildings and all over.

[Cameo Spoiler Alert]

[Seriously, Skip Ahead to Baxter If You Don’t Want Cameos Spoiled]

The big cameo that never leaked was Will Smith. I kept hoping no one would catch that. We shot him on his own day, because he had scheduling conflicts. No one ever found that out.

The one that threw me off was Marion Cotillard. How did that come about?

We had heard from her agent that she was a big fan of Anchorman and a big comedy fan. We just thought, “Really? Will she do it?” At the time, we couldn’t believe it, but her agent told us how much she loved the movie. We still expected to hear, “No, no, she can’t do it. She’s doing a Chris Nolan movie or something else really impressive.” It was a simple “she’ll be there.” Up until the day they showed up some of those people I did not believe would be there. Liam Neeson was another one where I thought, “Holy crap. Liam Neeson has arrived.”

Did people start reaching out when they heard about the sequel or was it a matter of offering them the chance?

Half and half. Some of those people we kind of know or are friends with. I had happened to be talking to Kanye West about something else, so in the middle of an email exchange I asked, “You wouldn’t by chance want to do Anchorman 2?” He wrote back in all caps: “FUCK YEAH.” Amy [Poehler], Tina [Fey], and Sacha [Baron Cohen] are all friends, so that was easy. When it came to Liam Neeson, Will Smith, and Marion we had to go to their agents and cross are fingers.

The only big “no” we got was with Meryl Streep. She was shooting something else, but I thought that would’ve been shocking and odd to see the greatest actor ever in history in that battle scene.

[Spoilers Over]

What cameos couldn’t you get?

We actually tried for some crazy ones, like, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey just for the hell of it. Actually, for Barack Obama we had a contact for a contact at the White House. For a couple of weeks there was word he might do this, like, “If you guys can bring a green screen up to the White House and can shoot this in 10 minutes, then maybe.”

We refused to get our hopes up. We thought there was no way it would happen and I guarantee you no one said a word to him about it. We thought they were all giggling about it, but, sure enough, something big happened in the world and it was off.

The battle scene sums up the movie nicely: familiar, but goes to new extremes. How do you keep in touch with the first movie while also not filling in the lines?

We were trying to be really careful with what we repeated. Will and I had a specific conversation about not wanting to do a comedy sequel where you just repeat everything from the first movie, but it is fun when you see a couple of things get repeated. The gang fight was #1 on the list, because we thought we could do that better, make it bigger, and add some new ideas in. We felt there could be a a whole extra layer to the gang fight because of the 24 hour news. There were a couple of other nods, but that was the first one. We didn’t even repeat “stay classy.”

Do most of those nods come out naturally in the writing process?

There are a few ideas we’ll bend the story to have. I mean, just look at the whole digression with the lighthouse and the shark. Any screenwriting rule will say that should be 40 seconds of screen time, but we got there for about five minutes. That’s kind of the spirit of the movie: you’re not suppose to know what’s going to happen. We don’t want to do that too much because you don’t want to lose momentum, but those types of indulgences are the spirit of Anchroman.

Like the first movie, you still come out loving Ron Burgundy. What’s the trick of making a character that out of touch with reality that lovable?

It’s a very tricky line. I think it’s that they always wear their ignorance on their sleeve. It’s so clear anytime they do something horrible it’s because they’re ignorant or insecure. Let’s face it, that’s the reason why anyone does anything horrible. In real life, you don’t cut that person a break, but in a movie or a television show, you can.

For Breaking Bad people were with Walter White for 99% of that show, even though that guy is a monster. Still, you saw all the reasons for what he did, which I think is the key. For Burgundy, you see it all with his obvious and naked insecurity. He can speak in that leadership tone, but he’s rarely saying anything.

Also, I think there’s some nostalgia for that character, too. In a demented way, we long for those simpler times, even though we know that’s crazy, because those simpler times were really effed up [Laughs].

[Laughs] And you know someone out there idolizes these white guys dominating the workplace.

I have no doubt there are people taking the joke in the wrong way. Don Draper is some people’s hero, but Don Draper is a very, very troubled man.

Are you constantly tinkering with that balance in editing? Like, could an extra shot or small touch turn you against Ron?

Always. It’s one of the reasons I love making movies because you can look at the math of a small idea for months and months. There’s no doubt about it a certain pause before a statement makes a line slightly less certain, even if you’re saying it in a certain way. A lot of the time the actors are giving it to you on the day, because they know these types of things. Sometimes you can just build those types of beats in editing. By the time we’re done with the editing, we’ve gone through every single micro beat to make sure it all lines up.

Will Ferrell said there were a lot of screenings for the film, partly because of the MPAA.

We did a lot of MPAA passes. One thing we did on this movie, which we had never done before, was two screenings at the same time. Because of that, on paper, it means we did 10 or 12 screenings, instead of the usual 5 or 6 screenings. As far as the MPAA went, that was definitely the reason why for our very last pair of screenings. We worried how much damage we had done because of all the cutting for the MPAA. I think I went back and forth with them, like, 6 or 7 times.

Have you ever had that level of back and forth with them?

Never. I just think there’s a gap happening between the rest of the mediums of entertainment and movies. You can go watch 2 Broke Girls on prime time and hear them say things that were getting us an R-rating, and that goes for music and video games as well. It’s all about sexual content, because they don’t really care about violence. It’s kind of crazy.

So they mainly took issue with the sexual references.

Totally. The one scene they also didn’t like was the crack scene, but I actually understood that. You should be careful with that, because you want to get across crack is a terrible thing to do for kids. I totally understood there, but it was the harmless sexual references I didn’t get. At one point we had Brian Fantana say, “We’re going to do stories about how much ejactulites are on hotel duvet covers,” and they said, “You can’t say ‘ejaculite’.” We had to change it to “man fluid,” which I think is far more disturbing.

We had the word “vagina” said a lot in a nonsexual content, but they said we had to take it out. We even had muffuletta being said for the word vagina at one point, and they said we had to take that out. I mean, that’s a sandwich! Once again, you turn on network television and see something 10 times worse. It was frustrating, but we got it there. We actually gained a couple of laughs by being crafty with the edit, so it worked out.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.