Interview: Adam McKay Schools Us On Mean-Spiritedness and ‘The Other Guys’

By  · Published on August 13th, 2010

With The Other Guys, director Adam McKay walked a fine line of not making another cop spoof and has instead turned in a straight-faced comedy. But it’s really more of an action movie. It follows the tropes, the story structure and the whole cop movie formula we all know… except it has an oblivious non-hero duo at the center.

Mean-spirited is possibly the best way to describe most of McKay’s protagonists. They’re usually completely oblivious and seem to have no guilt for what they do and say. While McKay slightly disagrees with that stance when it comes to Allen and Terry for The Other Guys, he agrees there are still sprinkles of cruelness to them.

McKay and I talked about this at length:

Here’s what Adam McKay had to say about The Other Guys:

Note: This interview contains spoilers.

What’s your attraction to mean-spirited characters?

Well, there’s nothing more fun than mean-spirited characters. Which ones are you thinking of specifically?

Both Allen (Will Ferrell) and Terry (Mark Wahlberg).

Allen is not that mean, though.

You think?

He seems alright, right?

Well, he’s not very complimentary to his wife.

(laughs) Well, you know, I also think a lot of it is that if you have mean-spirited characters then there’s issues there and things you gotta deal with. Part of the fun is that mean-spirited characters get to break norms and behave in slightly different ways. So in comedy, to me, the greatest comedy character of all time is W.C. Fields, who was just nasty. He was awful to kids and awful to everyone.

Wouldn’t you say Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby are a bit mean-spirited, too?

I wouldn’t quite go with mean for Allen Gamble or Ron Burgundy, I’d say oblivious would be better. I think you’ve hit on a good point that there’s a really thin line between oblivious and mean. George Bush is great example. I always thought George Bush was more oblivious than mean, but oblivious can quickly go to mean.

I’d also say Terry is a pretty mean guy, as well. He does hit on Allen’s wife…

Terry is definitely mean. Terry has got an anger disorder and there’s no doubt about it. He’s really struggling with some shit. But I think we like oblivious characters more than mean. I think Ricky Bobby was more oblivious than mean. Dale and Brennan in Step Brothers were super oblivious, but they actually were mean. They were awful to their parents (laughs).

You’re finally realizing (laughs).

I’m realizing oblivious and mean are close cousins.

What makes the different for you?

It’s tricky, but all my favorite stuff and all my favorite comedy tends to operate in that world. A big trick is the actors. There’s certain actors that can pull that off. Will [Ferrell] is a guy that just has this inherent decency to him. Wahlberg is the same way. He has a vulnerability to him that shows through even when he’s being awful. And there’s other guys I’ve seen who’ve been able to pull it off. Danny McBride does it masterfully in Eastbound and Down. On paper, he’s the most despicable character ever, but you can’t help but to feel sorry for him. That’s usually the case with oblivious or nasty people. There’s usually some giant wound operating behind it all. With Terry, clearly he’s a guy with a big wound behind him. If you’re able to flash that pain occasionally you can make these characters sympathetic, while also being able to laugh at them and at the same time somewhat root for them.

I like how Terry’s wound is shooting Derek Jeter.

(laughs) Yeah. It’s probably the worst shoot in the history of the NYPD. It’s an absolute PR disaster larger than LeBron James with dissing Cleveland on television.

Where did the idea come about of making him not just a total nerd, who’s okay with being picked on?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a nice nerd streak running through me and I have many friends who are nerds. Probably the biggest, giant nerd I’ve ever met is this guy in Chicago who had a one hundred and eighty IQ and he was a city planner. He was no pushover though, man. He was kind of cocky and had his own type of aggression. I think that a lot of nerds are more like the comic-book store owner in The Simpsons, you know? They have this strident type of know-it-all thing down.

A feeling of self-importance.

Yeah. Even Napoleon Dynamite had a bit of that to him, even though he was a complete loser. He was very confident in what he thought. I think there’s a tendency to think geeks and nerds are just sweet guys that were picked on, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’m certainly not like that, in a lot of ways. There’s a difference between being meek in a fistfight and being meek in an argument, and Allen Gamble is not meek in any way.

He’s arguably more stronger than Terry, too.

Oh, I think so. Absolutely. He’s a more together guy and he knows what he is, in a lot of ways, even though he’s battling with a dark side. Terry is a bit of a mess. Terry is going off this old movie idea of cops and trying to make it work, but he doesn’t really understand crime beyond drug dealers whereas Allen actually has a foot in the real world.

I would say Terry is a bit more self-aware than Allen, though.

More than Allen?

He does call Allen crazy in that car ride and he’s kind of right.

(laughs) Well, lets face it: they’re both kind of fucked up. There’s no doubt about it. Allen does have some really odd parts to his personality and he does say, “I got aroused when I put my foot down on the accelerator,” and he’s into the Little River Band, and he has a wife that he cant acknowledge. Terry has got anger issues all over-the-place and he’s kind of living in a movie. They’re both kind of screwed up guys.

For Terry, you understand why he’s like that. But for Allen it’s like, “How could somebody become this?”

Yeah, yeah. Well, I go back to the guy I knew with a one hundred and eighty IQ. It’s also like a hound dog that that they develop their nose to such a degree that they can smell anything, but they also act a little crazy. My parents had a Border Collie that was wicked smart, but too smart and he was strange. He would put little miniature wholes all around the yard and was constantly chasing things that nobody else could see. I think that’s what Allen is. I think he’s so finely tuned in such a specific way that he just comes off as very odd in other circumstances.

He’s pretty cocky (laughs)

He’s less vulnerable than Terry. I think you’re probably right, ultimately.

A lot of people are probably going to be surprised when they go into the theater and realize this isn’t a parody. Wow did you go about making sure this didn’t become the cop film parody?

I’ll tell you, we sort of underestimated how difficult it would be with a buddy-cop movie. As soon as we got into it we realized that there’s been so many of these made and there’s a lot of parodies of it. We wanted to go more for satire than parody. You’re obviously talking about a very thin line, but I’d say the line is that you never do anything poorly by choice. You always do things the best you can, while also operating in those genres where you try to make interesting choices. Parody, you do things purposely as a little inflated or stupid. The funny thing is, of course there’s some things we just failed at where people go, “Oh, it’s parody!,” and the good news is: at least when you strive for the satire and you miss, you at least hit parody.

If you aim for parody right off the bat and it misses, no offense to the filmmakers, but it is Meet the Spartans. So we never wanted to do that and the times that we do hit parody, sadly, it means we just slightly failed.

Did you want to establish satire with that opening?

Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s a great example of what I’m talking about. We did that the best we could and I’m not an action director. So me doing it the very best I can is, it’s not going to be Zack Snyder. At the same time, because I have a great DP, Oliver Wood, we actually got a lot of cool moments in the film. But yeah, that was a big part of the trick: lets just do everything as well as we can. Lets treat it like it’s a real, completely buddy-cop film. It’s almost like doing a comedy-western. The second you’re funny in a western everyone is going to say it’s parody, because we all just know the genre inside and out. What I kind of like about those stale genres is that it allows you to do more absurd humor and stranger choices, and the audience will go with you, because they’re so familiar with the storytelling structure.

I’ve said this before, but it’s sort of like doing a sketch about a job interview. We’ve all seen thousands of job interviews sketches and we all know the emotional stakes of it inside and out. We did a sketch on SNL that had Christopher Walken interviewing a centaur for a job, and only that idea could work in a job interview sketch. It would be too strange in a slightly original story structure. That’s why we’re always drawn to these traditional story arcs because then you can really fuck with them, really try to go after satirical moments, and in a weird way, it almost gives you more freedom.

Would you call it an action movie?

Yeah, that was our goal. Believe it or not, and I don’t think we entirely succeeded, actually I cant really even say we didn’t succeed because we cant help it, we do what we do, and we do what we’re drawn to. You know, to me, the ultimate action-comedy is Midnight Run. It’s terrifically balanced, completely real, has actual stakes, and actual characters. So we sort of kept that in the back of our minds. We weren’t really looking to do a cougar in the backs seat of a car or a guy getting killed by a trident, but certainly there’s some crazy shit with Gator the pimp. But that’s just where we can’t help it. As hard as we try, there’s always going to be some of that stuff that jumps in.

This is probably your least broad film, though.

I would think so. It’s funny, because we obviously love each of our movies that we do, and I have such fondness for Step Brothers. I really, really love that movie, but I think it’s very fifty-fifty. People either love it or absolutely hate it. I just love that movie so much. So it’s funny to go into doing a movie like this where it is more mainstream and more grounded. You definitely love it in a different way. I’m seeing some of the reviews where they say, “It’s their best film and it’s the best thing they’ve done,” but I’ll tell ya, I still love that Step Brothers. It’s great though, we get to do different things with each movie and it was so much fun shooting those big action sequences, working with these actors, and it’s just a different kind of muscle to work with. It’s definitely a much more mainstream movie and much more grounded [than Step Brothers]. I’m actually stunned by the reviews.

I think the mean-spiritedness of Step Brothers is what splits people. It’s more extreme while, with The Other Guys, it just has subtle meanness to it.

(laughs) Yeah. I don’t totally agree with you on the meanness for The Other Guys, but with Step Brothers, no doubt about it. The fun of Step Brothers was destroying the American dream. Those guys were almost like punk rock the way they attacked their parents and how they dreamt of escape so no doubt it. I would say more than meanness in Step Brothers, there was also anger. I would say in The Other Guys, yeah, you’re right that there can be meanness to the humor or meanness to the moments, but I never thought of either one of those guys as mean.

Allen and Terry are likable, but there are sprinkles of meanness to them.

Yeah, yeah. Well, there’s no question that Allen is a little shitty to his wife (laughs).

Who’s also played by Eva Mendes (laughs).

We struggled with that, too. Eva kept asking me, “How do I play this? If a guy talked to me like this I’d say fuck you,” you know? We kept saying she knows it’s not for real, she knows it’s not who he is, and that it comes from insecurity. It’s a masterful little bit of acting that will never get credit because it’s in a comedy. She really found this great, floaty type of tone that just walked right through all of that stuff. Only she could pull that off.

You brought up working with Oliver Wood a few minutes ago, and you’ve obviously worked with him before. Can you talk a bit about that collaboration?

He’s fantastic. He comes out of a bit of a verite background. He’s a true old school cameraman in the sense that he likes to experiment, try new stuff, and he likes to be challenge. So when I work with Oliver, when we come up with crazy ideas, like the frozen bar scene, some people might start sweating and that’s when his eyes light up. He likes to find new challenges like that or like the shootout in the conference room. I’m the same way. We both spark off each other in that way. He loves craziness. He loves when there’s a sense of disorder or chaos to what’s going on. At the same time, on another level, he’s just an incredibly skilled DP.

He just knows what he’s doing up and down. I feel like I got to have my cake and eat it to with him. I got this guy who loves to experiment and try new stuff. And at the same time, he’s got this rock solid foundation. We’ve had a blast. He gets up every morning and does Tai Chi, and Will and I act like English perverts around him. Oliver just jumps right into the bit with us. He’s a great guy.

Would you say you’ve changed visually? With the bar scene and the shootout, you play around a lot more with the camera. Do you see it that way?

You know, a lot of it is that you kind of do what’s required for the film. In this case, because we’re in this very well tread genre with the buddy-cop story structure, we really had to go and do are absolute best to occasionally ‐ I wouldn’t say dazzle ‐ but at least do interesting stuff. Right from the gecko I said this is a sluggish genre and we’ve seen good filmmakers just get destroyed by buddy-cop films. I just said at any turn if something is not going to be funny, lets just make it look cool as shit and make sure it swings. So we were always kind of going for it with everything we were doing.

The whole idea for New York was that we watched a lot of Sidney Lumet films, watched Serpico, Prince of the City, and all of that kind of stuff. I think Sidney Lumet shoots New York just as well as anyone; Dog Day Afternoon being the best example. We really just looked at that and tried to get that kind of color pallet and tone to the city. Whenever we went to action we obviously stole moves from John Woo, of course the master, and Zack Snyder, who I’m just a giant fan of. So those sort of punch in shots like when Mark Wahlberg is flying across the table, were directly ripped off from 300. We were always pushing ourselves and it was a fun, new game to play. I hadn’t done as much visual stuff in our other work, maybe Talladega Nights just a little bit, but not as much.

The movie really is structured like an action movie.

You know, I would even argue to how much people are enjoying the humor and how much they’re enjoying the action. It’s funny, it’s almost depending on the region of the country or if the person is a film buff or a critic you kind of get these varying results to it. I would argue it’s an action-comedy.

We try to balance the two [with action and comedy], but the plot line to us felt like it was exactly what’s going on now, we tried to doing something that was current, and that had stakes to it. We tried to do characters that were interesting and dynamic. I mean, we approached it one hundred percent like it was an action-comedy. When you do that, you just hit points and you just go, “Oh my god, one of those plot points exist in everyone of these movies,” like the shootout in a western. So even though you’re trying to do it as sincerely as you can, you keep hitting those moments and you gotta play with it and do something different with it. To me, an amazing movie to watch, because it’s so by the numbers and it still works is, Silverado. Have you ever seen that?

Yeah, the eighties western.

It is absolutely by the numbers, and yet it works. I just don’t get how [Lawrence] Kasdan did that. I just don’t understand it and there’s noway you can do that with a buddy-cop film. You have to play with the story points.

How did you want Allen and Terry end up?

Our whole intent was, we kept getting, “Oh, why not just go with them getting medals in a big press conference,” and I didn’t want them to. I think the story was on page eleven and people only cared about the shootout part of it. There’s still going to be the schlubs who are chasing the financial stories and doing the paperwork. They’re still the other guys at the end, absolutely. The only thing is that they got a cooler car. That’s the only thing they got out of it.

Make sure to check back in the next few days for part two of my conversation with Adam McKay.

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