Like a lot of films that have come to viewed as classics, Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy didn’t make a lot of waves when it was released in July of 2004. It was thoroughly trounced at the box office its opening weekend by Spider-Man 2 and came in 30th overall that year, barely edging Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and falling far behind movies like The Princess Diaries 2 and DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. Home video and cable turned Anchorman into a oft-quoted touchstone, but as recently as 2010 Paramount had little interest in making a sequel. In the “Hey, why not three Hangover movies?” era, that seems baffling, but Paramount wasn’t alone in harboring doubts about making another Anchorman movie. Director/writer Adam McKay and writer/star Will Ferrell weren’t dying to make one, either—funny, successful comedy sequels are few and far between. When McKay visited Chicago in advance of Anchorman 2’s premiere, he chatted with The A.V. Club about what made him, Ferrell, and Paramount change their minds.
The A.V. Club: You tried to get funding for a sequel in 2008, and tried again in 2010, but Paramount had turned the idea down. What changed?
Adam McKay: Initially it was about budget. They were at a very low level. We were at a higher level, so that was the initial stumbling block. We were hoping for some negotiation to find a middle ground. They just weren’t as interested. They were like, “No, this is what it is.” We’re like, “If we do it at that level, we’re basically doing it for free with no pay.” We were a little ambivalent about doing a sequel anyway—we were reluctantly coming to the table. People kept asking us [if we were doing one]. But then we did come up with that idea, the 24-hour news idea. That is a legitimate idea. We can actually do a movie around that. When they balked, we were like, “You know what? Probably for the best.” We went and did The Other Guys, and kind of forgot about it. I think at one point we went back and checked again, and that’s probably when I tweeted that it’s officially dead. Then we got the idea of doing a sequel. The challenge of it seemed interesting to us: Could we do a good sequel?
We were going to do Step Brothers 2, and we had an idea lined up. We had everything ready to go. We were about to go over to Sony to do it, but everybody I told about it would say, “Oh, because you couldn’t do Anchorman 2?” Which was true. I said, “This could be a big bummer, and every response could be, ‘They couldn’t make Anchorman 2, so they made this.’” It’s not like you care that much about that, but if it’s every response, it kind of sucks. I told Ferrell, “I keep hearing this.” He really didn’t care. He’s like, “So what? Let’s go make it if it’s funny. Eventually no one cares. The movie just is what it is.” I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, but let’s check one more time on Anchorman 2.” Some of the reps were like, “It’s a waste of time to even call.” My agent, Ari Emanuel, was like, “I’m going to fucking call them.” So he called them. It just so happened that they had a movie fall out a week before, so there was an empty slot. They were interested. Ari was then able to work the deal with them and get this slight increase in what they had offered. We still all took big pay cuts, but that was it. He called me back the next day, like, “I think we’re going to get this done.” I was like, “Fuck you, no way.” He’s like, “I’m serious.” They figured it out. It was a lot of luck. Once again, everyone saying, “Why aren’t you making Anchorman 2?” [helped make it happen]. It sounds cheesy, but I give the fans of the movie credit.
AVC: Do you remember what the budget was when they balked in 2010?
AM: I can’t remember the exact numbers. I think they wanted to do it for $35 [million]. I said 80, which really should be the budget if everyone’s getting paid their full freight and you’re making the movie correctly—80 is actually the number. Then we said, “All right, maybe we can do 65.” They’re like, “No, it’s 35.” Thirty-five is crazy. That’s basically like no money. There’s no way we could do it for 35. What happened when we went back the last time was they said, “All right, what about 50?” We’re like, we still getting some money. In case the movie eats it, you’re not walking away at a loss. There’s a little bit of money being paid, especially if you have to leave town [for production]. Fifty was the number that got it done, and as it turned out, a pretty good number because when movies get too expensive, you can kind of smell that money on-screen. It can kind of feel a little gross sometimes. Fifty still kept it scrappy. After actors were paid and everyone was paid, it was probably, adjusted dollars, a similar number to the first one in some ways.
AVC: You’ve talked at length about how sequels in comedy are very difficult to do. Was there anything in particular you wanted to avoid with this?
AM: There’s one big one: not to repeat the first movie, not to do that thing where you just recycle the same story beats as the first one. You know when you go see the sequel and it’s like the exact same movie as the first one with just slightly different things? We just, from talking about it, those were all the sequels that had been a bummer to us, the ones that did that.
AVC: Wayne’s World 2.
AM: Actually, Wayne’s World 2 I kind of liked. I think Wayne’s World 2 does have some creative things in it, some ideas in it. The two I looked at that were pretty decent: Austin Powers 2, pretty damn good, and I actually think Wayne’s World 2 is not bad. There’s some creative stuff in there. That having been said, I’m comparing it to other comedy sequels, and it’s a rough list of comedy sequels. We’re talking Arthur 2: On The Rocks and stuff like that. It’s a pretty tough lineup of comedy sequels. Those were the two I remembered watching and being like, “Hey, that was pretty good.” Both of those, especially Austin Powers 2, had a new story. Austin Powers 2 is easier because it’s like a James Bond character, so it lends itself [to sequels]. Our big thing was why are The Godfather Part II and Empire Strikes Back so good? Well, they just continued the story. You didn’t feel like there was any part where you’re bored looking at your watch. “Oh, they’re doing this again. It’s the guy getting killed at the tollbooth scene, only now it’s a check-in line for a movie theater.” Something slightly different. They didn’t do that. That was our big, big thing. “Let’s have a second act to this story. Let’s treat it like it’s chapter two.” If we can do that, it can only be so bad.
AVC: Weren’t you planning to bring the film all the way into the Internet age at first?
AM: The initial idea was called The Dawn Of The New Media. It was going to be everything: cable TV, 24-hour news, computers, and, like, three other things. They were just going to be dealing with all this technology. We realized that was more of sort of 2-D, heady idea as opposed to a practical idea, and really it was about 24-hour news. We consolidated it to that, and that’s where the meat was. I think we kept the scene in where they were dealing with the first personal computer at one point, but something about it felt trite and kind of forced. It felt like more of a joke from Back To The Future. “Can I have a Tab?” “What do you mean? You haven’t paid your bill yet.” We ended up taking that out. We did them laughing at Garfield jokes. [Laughs.]
AVC: People have talked about the cast getting more famous since 2004, but less about how comedy sensibilities have changed since then. That was before Judd Apatow made all these films, before Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg...
AM: Todd Phillips, too. He had Old School before us, but then he caught a bit of a run. Apatow caught a bit of a run, [Jay] Roach… It’s a crazy age of comedy. It’s a 15-year run of a lot of quality comedies if you really look at it.
AVC: There are different sensibilities, but it seems like comedy has changed in film over the past 15 years. Has that affected your sensibility when you’re writing and directing these films?
AM: I don’t think it has, actually. I think we’ve always just done what we liked and what we find funny. The only thing you have to do is you have to watch these other comedies to make sure you don’t stumble into a big scene that someone else has done. You have to try to watch out for that. Basically we used to have a rule at Saturday Night Live that you’re not allowed to bring up The Simpsons at the rewrite table, because The Simpsons has done every joke there is. Every week there would be guys going, “The Simpsons did that.” I go, “C’mon.” And South Park, too. What’s changed is the amount of comics out there. The amount of funny people you can draw from has increased. Fifteen years ago, there were like four people. That was it. Now there’s like 70 you can draw from. As far as leads go, there’s probably 15 you can draw from, whereas there used to be two. Creatively, it’s helped a lot. There’s also just a lot of good comedy editors out there, a lot of good people who have worked on comedies. The talent pool got a lot deeper. My argument for what changed about comedy is the Avid [editing system]. I think that’s what created this boom.
AM: Yeah, because you’re able to get your timing so precise. You’re able to time it to a laugh track with a crowd where you’ll play it in a screening, and the changes you’re able to do are so fast and facile. You can do two cuts in one night. I’ll literally go through my editor, we’ll go down to like two frames and cut a frame off. Crazy detailed timing you can do with the Avid that you couldn’t do with the old hand editing. It was just impossible. There’s no way you could do that many edits. That’s my secret theory on it. There’s always some boring reason like that that creates these booms. It’s not some bubbling of the human spirit or something. I think it’s the Avid, and the incredibly fucked-up times we live in.
AVC: Speaking of fucked-up times, the first film didn’t have the media commentary that this film has. Of course, it’s a completely different setup. But this one definitely has more of a message than the first one did. Was that a natural result of the time you’re looking at, or was that something you really wanted to have as part of the script?
AM: The first one had a little bit of it—“Panda Watch,” we’re definitely taking shots at news and how ridiculous and fluffy it is. But that was also an age where the news wasn’t a train wreck yet. The ’70s still had Watergate and Deep Throat and all that. Journalists were doing amazing things. The second you step into 24-hour news and you step into cable news, you can’t avoid the fact that everything changed. You’re a couple years away from babies being in wells and Pee-wee Herman jerking off in a porn booth and becoming giant news. Why was it that happened then but not before? There was still junky news, not to be completely naïve about it. But you just can’t avoid it, the second you go into it. It really was a byproduct of the idea. First, we came up with the 24-hour news. The second we put our toe into it, it’s obvious that’s the next thought you have. In writing the story, you need Burgundy to catch lightning in a bottle, and it’s obvious what lightning in a bottle is at that time. It starts making us laugh that it’s Ron Burgundy’s fault that the fourth estate completely eroded.
AVC: The Forrest Gump of that era.
AM: Exactly. We really liked that idea. As far as a message goes, it’s not a very divisive message. It’s right wing and left wing. It doesn’t matter who you are; we all know news media is a mess, with some exceptions, obviously. Crowds really hook on it. It doesn’t play dry, like some Network-type commentary. They really laugh hard when we do the graphics. That was a nice surprise. I did worry a little bit. That part of the movie can be a little dry or a little message-y. It didn’t seem to happen, which was great news when we first screened the movie.
AVC: You tend to tweet about more liberal stuff, but you’re right that everybody hates the way the media is run. Even though there are certainly more left-leaning elements when you talk about corporate synergies.
AM: I would argue stuff like that isn’t really left or right, unless you’re a really crazy, free-market kind of guy, which is really extreme for a free-market, at that point, to believe it. That type of conflict of interest tends to offend right wing and left wing. People who are right wing might not hear about it as much because they’re watching Fox. Any Republican you talk to, “Hey did you know that this news company didn’t do this?” “That’s horrible.” It’s a pretty universal kind of thing that everyone’s upset about. Why not? If you’re going into those waters, you have to give a little jab in that direction. If it’s funny on top of that, hopefully we pulled it off. When they laughed, that was the biggest relief we had. “Thank God.” A dry stretch of commentary in the middle of an Anchorman movie would have been a terrible thing.