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Having played every variety of dimwit the English language has to offer, Will Ferrell moves onto Spanish with Casa De Mi Padre, where he plays the misfit son of a Mexican rancher. The rest of the cast is filled with native speakers, including Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, but apart from the occasional fleeting reference, none of them seem to notice that the pale-skinned gringo speaks with a Southern California accent. That’s about the only joke the movie plays straight. Inspired by the threadbare sensationalism of Mexican telenovelas, the movie is filled with transparently fake sets and repurposed props, a fond tribute to the unintentional absurdism of low-budget filmmaking, which doubles as a prolonged conceptual gag. Ferrell recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the joy of bad special effects, acting with his ass, and his viral Super Bowl ad.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the important subject first: Old Milwaukee. Seeing those commercials spread over the course of a few hours was pretty astonishing.
Will Ferrell: Pretty good, yeah. It is astonishing.
AVC: You had a good sense that something would happen with these?
WF: Well, that was the hope. Just to do this weird, under-the-radar campaign where it only aired in the markets that we shot in was like, “Perfect. Let’s do that.”
AVC: How did you end up shooting in Davenport, Iowa, and North Platte, Nebraska?
WF: We didn’t do it in North Platte. That was the one Super Bowl spot that we bought. We just, guerilla-style, got in a van and drove to these cities and filmed, and then got out before anyone noticed we were there.
AVC: What was the context? It seems like there’s some sort of broad framework for social-media promotion between Funny Or Die and Pabst.
WF: I just love Old Milwaukee. That’s my official answer.
AVC: So it was just “It’d be fun to do a series of bad commercials”?
WF: No, I just love a good, crappy beer.
AVC: There’s definitely a love of cheap, deliberately bad production values in those spots that dovetails with the moth-eaten stuffed tiger and wooden horses in Casa De Mi Padre.
WF: Yeah, even though they were separate, totally not conceived at the same time. I think there’s a certain amount of joy in seeing that in this world of CGI. It’s so funny, I see these CGI movies, and everyone says, “It looks amazing!” And I’m always like, “It looks terrible to me. You can see the outline of the thing.” I think it’s great, in the face of this world we live in, to kind of fall back into the celebration of bad effects. [Laughs.]
AVC: And non-effects, in the case of the big fight scene in the film.
WF: Right, and non-effects and lost footage, and owning up to that.
AVC: You shot on film?
WF: We did.
AVC: So instead of using the RED, you’re shooting in “MexicoScope.”
WF: Yeah, and even on old lenses. That was one of the crazy parts of getting shot through this cannon on this movie.
AVC: Watching the movie, it seems clear that the fact that you’re speaking Spanish is not meant to be part of the joke.
WF: Right, that was the intention. I didn’t want that to be the joke. I thought it was just a funnier choice to me—a smarter choice, a more difficult choice—but that it would also potentially help us get a better cast. We wanted the language to be handled with care, and that it wasn’t a joke about wearing a sombrero and a poncho and things like that, even though some of the costumes have some of that flavor. It was more about all these actors in this movie giving “award-winning performances.” That was more the joke.
AVC: Gael García Bernal had an argument with Pedro Almodóvar while they were shooting Bad Education. He accused Almodóvar of “colonialism” for insisting he speak with a Spanish rather than a Mexican accent.
WF: Oh, really? Wow. That’s interesting to hear, because we were in Spain promoting The Other Guys, and I’d never been over there to promote. They’re like, “Please come over here. Why haven’t you come before?” We said, “We would love to, it’s just that the studio doesn’t send us.” It’s this whole cycle of, the more you go, the more you get in the eyes of that audience, but if the studio doesn’t send you, you don’t get to go. But anyway, I started talking about this movie with some of our hosts over there, and they were like, “You did a movie in all Spanish? Well, where is it set?” I was like, “Mexico.” “Oh, so it’s Mexican Spanish? Yeah, it won’t play here.” [Laughs.] They just openly said, “No, that kind of Spanish isn’t the right Spanish.”
AVC: It sounds, at least to someone who doesn’t speak the language, like your Spanish is competent.
WF: It is. It’s right there in the pocket of… I would check in with Diego, like, “How am I doing?” “Here’s the good news…” [Laughs.] “I can really understand what you’re saying. Your accent goes in and out, but the main thing is that you’re clear, you’re showing that you’re making an effort.”
AVC: You aren’t going to have to use subtitles for a Spanish audience.
WF: [Laughs.] Yeah, and I knew at the time that I’d be subtitled for the English-speaking audience. They’re not gonna know. So far, I’m getting pretty decent marks from the Latino press that’s seen it, which is great. That was the whole game plan. And then we hedged our bets in the script. We knew it wouldn’t sound flawless to native speakers, so that’s why we threw in the occasional—Pedro [Armendáriz Jr.], who plays my father, is like, “You speak so weird,” and things like that. So that was a way to call it out to the Spanish-speaking audience that we know that I’m not perfect, but that I’m kinda there.
AVC: Performing in a language you don’t speak gives you a lot to think about during a scene besides whether it works or it’s funny. How do you get past that?
WF: On one level, it was all I could do to just keep the words in my head. And if I missed pronunciation, we’d do the whole thing again, because we never wanted to loop it. We never wanted it to sound like I was dubbed. And then I just had to trust that what read in English would work on a comedy level.
AVC: Acting amid a cast of native Spanish speakers must be nerve-racking.
WF: Yeah, it was. I, at least, had the façade of confidence in the sense of, “Oh, this is just a comedy. This is a silly movie.” It’s not like we ever had a read-through or we rehearsed. I don’t think we did. But the scene where I talk about my idea of the perfect woman, that’s the first day of shooting. So I had to deliver that long monologue in front of Diego, Pedro, and Genesis [Rodriguez], and I was like, “Well, be careful what you wish for, because now you gotta deal with this. Here we are.” And I kinda surprised everyone. It was good. The script supervisor, who was bilingual, and obviously, the cast, were like, “You sound good. You sound all right.” I was like, “Okay. Phew.” So once I got through that day, it was like, “I think I can do it.”
AVC: You must have watched a lot of Spanish-language movies to prepare. Did that give you ideas for how to approach the character, other than how to speak?
WF: It informed us more in terms of look, and definitely the tone and the style of performance, yeah. But I also just knew that as long as we’re giving “award-winning performances” in every scene, then I’m on the right track—that we believe that this is the greatest dialogue. Diego said, “My character underneath my character was a really bad actor.” Even though it’s funny, because I watch, and I’m mesmerized by him. I think he’s so cool. He’s really naturally good, even though in his mind, he’s doing this over-the-top kind of thing.
AVC: Bad acting is certainly more interesting than mediocre acting.
WF: Yeah, it’s just really funny when it’s done well. Bad acting done well, does that make sense? [Laughs.]
AVC: Andrew Steele, the writer, and Matt Piedmont, the director, are Funny Or Die guys, and people you’ve been working with since Saturday Night Live. How much of the whole framework of Funny Or Die and Gary Sanchez Productions goes all that way back? Is there a comfort level with people you developed your sensibility alongside?
WF: Yeah, I was definitely doing this movie with two really good friends. And naturally, the sensibilities and the work styles all fold into what we’ve done at Gary Sanchez and Funny Or Die. Piedmont’s done stuff at Funny Or Die; Andrew runs it, creatively. So it’s all interwoven. But in terms of the project, it was just the three of us who never once second-guessed an idea. We were all on the same page in terms of ideas we had and furthering the ideas. And then those guys just came up with other things that I wasn’t even aware were happening until I saw the film, in a weird way, because I was in such a Spanish bubble.
AVC: Not many people will get the Alejandro Jodorowsky references in the dream sequence, but it’s hilarious for those who do.
WF: That’s all Piedmont would study. Not to sound corny, like, “This movie’s for everyone!” but it’s weird: It’s got a lot of different stuff for a lot of different people, and yet it’s not a mainstream movie, either.
AVC: You don’t need a lot of grounding to laugh at the sex scene, which opens with several close-up shots of you and Genesis Rodriguez groping each other’s asses.
WF: It’s not arthouse.
AVC: Butts are funny.
WF: Yeah, we constantly put our foot on the gas in between a subtle reference, like you just mentioned, and just a big, fat comedy moment.
AVC: What is the secret to acting only with your ass, by the way?
WF: Just be very still. [Laughs.] You know what it is? The ass is more set up by the reverse [shot], where the hands do all the kneading and the chopping, and then you cut back to the ass, and it’s funny because it’s just sitting there. All the hand stuff sets up the ass.
AVC: The hands do all the work, but the ass gets all the credit.
WF: You gotta have both sides. And then, when there’s no other place to go, throw in a mannequin. [Laughs.]