Friday, February 16, 2018

The Auteurs #63: Adam McKay

Among the current crop of filmmakers working in the genre of comedy, Adam McKay is probably the best filmmaker working today in comedy though recent films are suggesting he’s moving away from the genre to tackle more serious subjects. Nevertheless, McKay has managed to provide a body of work that doesn’t just play into the world of silliness as well as push the ideas of what is profane in comedy. Through his collaboration with comedy actor Will Ferrell, McKay would provide not just exploration of men dealing with their shortcomings but also face obstacles that pushes them to be better. Even as his films in recent years show that he’s willing to showcase a world that might be too complex for a wide audience yet give them something to relate to. As he’s about to emerge with a new film that would explore the controversial life of former American vice president Dick Cheney, McKay has already made his mark in mainstream American cinema with his eye on the absurdities of the world.

Born on April 17, 1968 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Adam McKay was the son of a jazz bassist and a cocktail waitress as he spent much of his young life living in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Like many kids living in rural or suburban areas near big cities, McKay spent much of his time escaping through films where video stores became the place to go to as he learned about the films of Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini while was also drawn by the comedies that were emerging during the early 1980s. In the late 1980s, McKay attended Penn State and Temple University where he would drop out from the latter just a semester-and-a-half before getting his bachelor’s degree feeling that college didn’t give him much to learn. In 1990, McKay moved to Chicago as he formed an improve comedy troupe called the Upright Citizen Brigade with Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Rick Roman, and Horatio Sanz. The troupe would later include Amy Poehler and many others as the troupe would become a hit in the Chicago comedy circuit.

Through his work with Upright Citizen Brigade and the Second City comedy team in Chicago, McKay attempted to audition for the famed late-night comedy-sketch show Saturday Night Live in 1995 for its 21st season as a featured player but executive producer Lorne Michaels noticed McKay’s work as a writer. While McKay would spend time in cameo appearances during the 1995-2001 series, it was his work as a writer and later a head writer during this time that showcased his talents for creating sketches. It was during this time he met Shira Piven (sister of actor Jeremy Piven) whom he would marry in 1996 while that time writing for the show also gave him a chance to work with two of the show’s main cast members in Will Ferrell and David Koechner as they would become collaborators. Notably in the former as the two worked with closely while McKay would bring in fellow Second City alum Tina McKay to join the show as a writer for its 23rd season. Following the end of the 26th season in mid-2001, McKay would leave the show wanting to pursue work as a filmmaker having gained experiences directing a few episodes of Saturday Night Live during his tenure.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

In the early 2000s during his time working for Saturday Night Live, McKay and Ferrell collaborated on ideas for a film that would eventually evolve into a project set in the 1970s about a news anchor and their sexism towards women at the time. The project attracted the interest of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who wanted to produce it as he was a fan of the work that McKay and Ferrell has done but found some of the ideas that included a parody of the 1993 film Alive which lead to Anderson leaving the project. Filmmaker David O. Russell came on board as an executive producer as would Judd Apatow who would eventually produce the film. The project eventually morphed from a series of bizarre stories into a more straightforward story about a news anchor who falls for his new co-worker only to share the lead anchor job with her.

With Ferrell playing the role of the titular character and Christina Applegate in the role of his love interest/co-worker Veronica Corningstone, the cast would include several of McKay’s associates in David Koechner, Second City alum Steve Carell, and Chris Parnell of SNL as well as Paul Rudd, Kathryn Hahn, Fred Willard, and appearances from Ferrell’s Frat-Pack cohorts in Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Luke Wilson. The script would originally involve a story relating to a group of hippie bank robbers as well as other stories involving rival news organizations and Ron Burgundy dealing with changing times. The bank robber storyline wouldn’t be well-received during test screenings as McKay and Ferrell chose to re-write the script into something more cohesive as it play more in to Burgundy’s relationship with Corningstone and their eventual rivalry as well as a report about the impending birth of a panda at the San Diego Zoo.

Though the film was to be a starring vehicle for Ferrell who was becoming quite popular in comedy, both he and McKay knew that it shouldn’t revolve around him as they wouldn’t just make sure that Applegate’s role as Corningstone isn’t just some typical love interest. At the same time, Ferrell and McKay wanted to focus on the supporting characters such as Burgundy’s news team that included Rudd as the charming field reporter Brian Fantana, Koechner as the brash yet closeted sportscaster Champion “Champ” Kind, and Steve Carell as the loyal but dim-witted meteorologist Brick Tamland who would provide some of the film’s funnier moments. Much of the humor was improvisational due to many of the actors work in comedy clubs where they learned their craft. The film would also include this over-the-top sequence in which rival news team where Burgundy and his team face off against other teams led by Vaughn, Stiller, Wilson, and Tim Robbins as it adds to the sense of absurdity that Ferrell and McKay wanted.

The film made its premiere in late June of 2004 before going into a wider release in early July as the film received good reviews but some critics felt the film relied too much on gags and absurdity to be considered a well-rounded comedy. Yet, the film would prove to be a box office success grossing more than $90 million worldwide with $85 million in the U.S. against its $26 million budget. Upon the film’s home video release in December of that year, the film would grow into a cult classic of sorts with many quoting lines of that film as it would later be considered one of the finest comedies ever made.

Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie

During the post-production for Anchorman, McKay wanted to revive the poorly-received storyline involving the bank robbers into another film of sorts where and Ferrell along with the film’s original editor Brent White in re-assembling a version of the film that would include outtakes and alternate versions into an entirely different film. The film would feature much of the original cast of the film with rapper Chuck D, SNL actress Maya Rudolph, Kevin Corrigan, and Tara Subkoff as the bank robbers where it played into them robbing banks for some kind of cause with Corningstone getting kidnapped while on assignment for another story. McKay would re-tool much of what had been shot in the initial production of Anchorman while bringing in material that had been deleted from the original film and reuse it for this sequel of sorts.

The film was released in December of 2004 as a bonus release for anyone who purchased the Anchorman DVD as the film received mixed reviews from critics as well as fans of the original film. Nevertheless, the film was successful enough to ensure the growing cult following for Anchorman as it had become popular among fans of comedies.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

The massive success of Anchorman wouldn’t just give McKay some clout but also helped make Will Ferrell a star that can bring in money as the two decided to work on another project that would play into another character who is unable to cope with reality. The film would be set in the world of NASCAR stock car racing as it relates to driver who becomes a racing champion as he would win all the time but struggles with father-abandonment issues as well as the emergence of a Formula One racer who would become his newest opponent. The film would have Ferrell in the lead role as it would be the second part of a thematic trilogy of films known as the Mediocre Man Trilogy relating to men dealing with their own insecurities and inability to deal with reality. With editor Brent White returning on board as McKay would gain another recurring collaborator in Oliver Wood as his cinematographer.

The cast, aside from McKay regular David Koechner, would include John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby’s best friend Cal Naughton Jr., Sacha Baron Cohen as Bobby’s new rival Jean Girard, Michael Clarke Duncan, Amy Adams, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, and Gary Cole. The film would be shot in North Carolina as it would play into the world of NASCAR with a lot of emphasis on product placement to establish the world that Bobby is in while it also had an element of satire. Yet, McKay didn’t want to make fun of NASCAR nor its racers as there’s cameos from several NASCAR luminaries including Dale Earnhardt Jr. who appears in a scene wanting an autograph from Bobby. It’s more about a man who wants to be in that culture of racing all because he wants to go fast and manages to become a star when he replaces a driver who quits during a race where he would become a superstar with his best friend becoming his teammate and the second-best driver in NASCAR.

Still, McKay wanted to show the flaws of Bobby as he always want his father to come and see him race since he was the inspiration for Bobby but he never shows up to a single race. At the same time, Bobby is forced to deal with the realities around him once he is unable to defeat Girard in a race as he loses his wife and everything else. It would eventually lead to his father coming back to help him as well as get inspiration from his longtime assistant who would get him to realize why he was a great racer. The film made its premiere in August of 2006 where it was a major commercial hit at the box office grossing more than $148 million in the U.S. box office with a worldwide total of $163 million against its $72.5 million budget.

The film would also receive positive reviews from critics as a lot of them had re-evaluated their opinion on Anchorman stating that McKay and Ferrell are a force to be reckoned with. The film also attracted positive notices from the racing community where the film’s climatic race was re-enacted somewhat when Carl Edwards ran towards the finish line after his car had crashed during a race at the 2009 Aaron’s 499. At the 2013 United States Grand Prix, racer Sebastian Vettel and his engineer Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin would make references to the film as well as pay homage to Bobby and Naughton’s “shake and bake” quote sustaining the film’s popularity.

The Landlord/Good Cop Baby Cop

During a break between film projects, McKay and Ferrell teamed up with writer/producer Chris Henchy in forming a project that would be a platform to create comedy shorts and ideas for people in the world of comedy. The production company that would become Funny or Die would begin as a comedy website to create shorts and ideas McKay teamed up with Drew Antzis in directing a two-minute short film about a man being confronted by his two-year old landlord. With McKay playing the small role, his daughter Pearl would play the landlord who confronts Ferrell about wanting her rent money while being intoxicated. The short film was seen on the Internet by millions in its initial 2007 release as it was considered one of the funniest videos ever shown which lead to McKay making another short film with his daughter and Ferrell.

The second short involves Ferrell as someone who refuses to cooperate with the police with McKay as one of the cops forcing to bring in someone that could break Ferrell which is Pearl. Pearl’s tactics would prove to be Ferrell’s undoing as she would assault him and give him insults to the point that Ferrell would confess. While the short didn’t have the big impact as its predecessor, the short was still successful though it would mark Pearl McKay’s final acting performance as she decided to retire at the age of two despite a cameo a few years later in Anchorman 2.

Step Brothers

During that break period between feature film projects and developing the Funny or Die production banner, McKay and Ferrell attempted to make a third film that would be part of a thematic trilogy with Anchorman and Talladega Nights. The project that was to become Booby Trap: The Tale of Rusty Butte was to revolve around a porn star and his skills in porn. Yet, the project never got off the ground as McKay and Ferrell would get another project in collaboration with John C. Reilly about two people meet and fall in love yet they both have unemployed slacker sons in their 40s who are forced to become stepbrothers against their own will. With McKay and Ferrell writing the script with Reilly receiving a story credit as it would star Ferrell and Reilly as the stepbrothers, the film would mark a major change for McKay in his approach to comedy as it had leaned towards element of satire and silly humor.

With Richard Jenkins playing Reilly’s father and Mary Steenburgen as Ferrell’s mother, the cast would include Adam Scott as Ferrell’s younger yet arrogant brother, Andrea Savage, and two regulars of the McKay ensemble in Kathryn Hahn and Rob Riggle plus a cameo from Seth Rogen. While McKay would also retain the services of his collaborators from previous films, he would gain the services of music composer Jon Brion who had been famous for his score music to the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson. The film would be shot largely on location in Southern California as McKay knew that this film would be different from previous films that often toed the line of what was acceptable and what was profane. Knowing that this film would be given a possible R rating for its brash language, McKay decided to forge ahead and create something that is confrontational and uneasy for a wide audience.

Among these scenes involve Ferrell and Reilly’s characters doing all sorts of things as it shows them not wanting to conform to the expectations of society such as this one moment where they both show up for job interviews in tuxedos proclaiming “we’re here to fuck shit up”. McKay also decides to give the other actors their moments with Kathryn Hahn in the role of Scott’s unhappy wife getting some scene-stealing moments as a frustrated wife who engages in a one-sided sexual affair with Reilly’s character. The film’s climax at this corporate wine mixer known as the Catalina Wine Mixer would play into the film’s protagonist who had succumbed to being part of society until Jenkins realizes how miserable they are. Even as it showcases a moment where an 80s Billy Joel tribute act is being heckled by a guest leading to its lead singer spewing profanity at the heckler to showcase the element of anarchy and rage that looms throughout the film.

The film was released in late July 2008 with a lot of anticipation where even though it made more than $128 million worldwide against its $65 million budget. It was considered a disappointment by some in the industry while the critical reception was polarizing as some didn’t like the film’s mean-spirited and confrontational humor though others found it to be fresh. The film’s home video release later in December would give the film an unexpected cult following that would grow as people would reenact certain scenes or say certain lines.

Eastbound & Down-Chapter 5

In 2006, McKay and Ferrell formed a production company called Gary Sanchez Productions named after a fictional financier from Paraguay as it would be a company that would develop films and TV shows where filmmaker Jody Hill had developed a project about a former baseball pitcher who returns to his hometown after years of failure where he becomes a middle school physical education teacher. McKay and Ferrell would serve as executive producers for the show that made its premiere in 2009 on HBO with Ferrell making an appearance as the owner of a car dealership. The show’s six episodes in the first season were directed by Hill and David Gordon Green while McKay would direct the fifth episode that featured Ferrell in an episode in which Ferrell’s character wants to challenge the character of Kenny Powers, played by Danny R. McBride, to face off against one of his foes played by Craig Robinson. It’s a moment where Powers wonders if he’s still got it after having been humiliated by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in the previous episode as it would become this big moment that Powers might return to the majors. The episode was a hit as it would give the show three more seasons on HBO to great acclaim and solid ratings.

The Other Guys

Having spent time producing and develop projects for other writers/filmmakers in comedy, McKay decided to return to the world of film though wanted to do something different while retaining his love for light-hearted comedy. During a dinner with Will Ferrell and actor Mark Wahlberg, McKay saw the two actors banter and laugh with each other prompting to create a buddy comedy for the two that would eventually be a spoof of sorts of the buddy cop films with Ferrell and Wahlberg in the lead roles. With Ferrell unable to take part in the writing due to other projects, McKay was able to get help from writer/producer Chris Henchy in writing the film. The film would more than just a buddy cop spoof sorts where it relates to two mismatched partners who try to prove their worth to the New York Police Department in filling the void of two revered cops who died on the job by taking on a case involving financial embezzlement.

The film’s cast would include Eva Mendes, Damon Wayans Jr., McKay regular Rob Riggle, Ray Stevenson, Steve Coogan, and Michael Keaton along with appearances from Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, an un-credited Anne Heche, and Bobby Cannavale as well as a cameo from Henchy’s real-life wife in actress Brooke Shields. Rapper/actor Ice-T would do some of the film’s narration as it would be shot largely in New York City as McKay retained the services of his many collaborators from the previous film. McKay would allow room for improvisation as well as provide moments for the supporting cast to do more such as Mendes and Keaton with the latter playing the police captain who also manages a Bed, Bath, and Beyond while unknowingly quote lyrics from the R&B group TLC.

The film would also include a subplot as it relates to a dark past that Ferrell’s character is carrying as he tries to deny the fact that he was once a pimp. It’s among some of the comical moments that McKay would create which is why Ferrell’s character often gets the attention of a lot of attractive women including Brooke Shields. Even as Ferrell’s character shows a dark side that is starting to re-emerge as McKay wanted to get that out in a funny way where he tells Keaton’s character “Gator needs his gat you punk-ass bitch!” The film would premiere on August 2010 where it was a big box office hit as it grossed more than $170 million worldwide against its $100 million budget. The film’s critical reception was also positive where the film would hint a new direction for McKay that was shown in the film’s closing credits.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

After many attempts to get Booby Trap out of development, McKay and Ferrell decided in making a sequel to Anchorman that began around 2008 where the two traded ideas. During the production of The Other Guys, McKay and Ferrell wanted to incorporate more satire as it relates to the rise of FOX News and its right-wing stance in creating stories that are supposedly untrue. When the rights to the original film and its characters were transferred from Dreamworks to Paramount after a buy-out from the latter in 2006, plans for the sequel were on hold despite the fact that Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell were willing to take pay cuts to lower the film’s budget. In 2012, Paramount ultimately decided on getting the sequel made which Ferrell announced as the character of Ron Burgundy on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show. With Christina Ricci and David Koechner reprising their roles from the previous film, the cast would also include Kristen Wiig, Meagan Good, Dylan Baker, Greg Kinnear and James Marsden in major supporting parts.

With appearances from Vince Vaughn, Fred Willard, and Chris Parnell reprising their roles from the previous film as cameos, several personalities would appear in the film in cameos such as Will Smith, Harrison Ford, John C. Reilly, Jim Carrey, Marion Cotillard, Kirsten Dunst, Kanye West, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Liam Neeson, and Sacha Baron Cohen where many of them appear for the film’s climatic news team battle. Shot on a $50 million budget with much of it shot in Atlanta with some parts of the film shot on location in San Diego and Jersey City, New Jersey as the production began in March 2013 where McKay brought in Melissa Bretherton to aid regular editor Brent White in the editing for its impending release later that December. The film would be set in the early 80s where Burgundy doesn’t just deal with losing a top anchor spot to love-interest Veronica Corningstone but also take part in the emergence of 24-hour news where he calls upon his old team to join him.

While the film would have gags and such that was prevalent in the original film, McKay would tone it down in favor of satire as it relates to Burgundy’s plan to become a big deal in the ratings in creating news that people want to hear rather than what they need. It showcases the idea of what news would become in the 1990s and later into the 21st Century with Burgundy becoming extremely famous and eventually alienating his loyal news team. The film also included a subplot in which the character of Brick Tamland gets a love interest of his own in an equally-idiotic typist named Chani who is played by Kristen Wiig which gives the film some offbeat humor as well as a couple for audiences to root for. Yet, the film does remain a character study of sorts in which Burgundy is also a father to a boy that he shares custody with Corningstone who becomes appalled into what Burgundy has done to the news forcing him to make a decision as a man in what he really needs to do.

The film was released on December 2013 to much anticipation as it was a major box office hit grossing more than $170 million worldwide against its $50 million budget. The film’s critical reception was positive though many agreed that it isn’t as good as its predecessor but still entertaining enough. The film’s success continued to maintain Ferrell’s status as box office draw in comedies while McKay would also gain some clout though he decided to take a step back to help develop other projects for other filmmakers.

The Big Short

Following a break in between films where McKay produced his wife Shira Piven’s directorial debut in Welcome to Me starring Kristen Wiig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, and Wes Bentley which received good reviews despite its limited release. McKay was approached by Paramount in taking part in an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction novel as it would be produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment platform with Pitt taking on a small acting role. Working with screenwriter Charles Randolph who had been involved in the project since 2013 when Paramount bought the rights to the book. McKay is aware of the complexities of this story that relates to the 2007-2008 financial crisis though he had explored the world of finance in 2010’s The Other Guys. It would take time for McKay and Randolph to find an approach to the film’s narrative as it would revolve around three different storylines playing into a group of men who would make discoveries that would cause the financial crisis.

With the exception of Steve Carell and production designer Clayton Hartley, McKay would work with an entirely new cast and crew for the film as it would be a much more serious project than his previous films yet it would feature elements of satire. The ensemble would also include Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Karen Gillan, and Tracy Letts. British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd would take part in the production which began in early 2015 in New Orleans with additional shooting in New York City and Las Vegas as it play into the vast environment of finances. Especially as the three different storylines would all be set in different places in time as well as different locations where these characters would make a discovery that would rock the financial world. Since the film would have taken on a complex subject that would probably overwhelm a wide audience, McKay found a way to explain these ideas.

In cameo roles, actress Margot Robbie, singer/actress Selena Gomez, famed chef Anthony Bourdain, and renowned economist Richard Thaler would appear as themselves in moments where the fourth wall is broken. The comical expositions from these individuals would define what these financial terms and ideas do and the effect it would have on a global economy. The approach would prove to be a difference-maker for the story as McKay would also show the immoral implications it would have where many of the film’s central characters deal with the consequences and face a world that is even more cynical in the wake of this crisis.

The film made its premiere at the AFI Film Festival in November of 2015 as it would be given limited release in early December before going wide a week later. The film would prove to be a major success both critically and financially as the film made more than $133 million worldwide against its modest $28 million budget. The film would give McKay not just his best reviews but also accolades as the film would receive five Oscar nominations including Best Supporting Actor to Christian Bale, Best Editing to Hank Corwin, Best Picture, and a Best Director nod for McKay. Yet, the film would win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay to McKay and Randolph as it would mark a major career highlight for the former.

Succession (TV series)

Among the slew of upcoming projects that McKay is working on including a bio-pic about the entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes entitled Bad Blood that is to star Jennifer Lawrence. One of two projects that McKay is about to unveil is a limited-TV series created by writer/producer Jesse Armstrong with McKay directing the episodes as it’s about an American global-media family. The series would star Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kiernan Culkin, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun, Hiam Abbass, Matthew McFayden, and Alan Ruck. While there hasn’t been a release date on the series which will premiere on HBO, the project is still on board for a release as it is a mixture of comedy and drama.


The second upcoming project from McKay that is slated for a December 2018 release is a bio-pic on the former American vice president Dick Cheney that will be portrayed by Christian Bale. The film would once again be co-produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment platform with Annapurna Pictures distributing as it is likely to be an unconventional film. With Amy Adams playing Cheney’s wife in her second collaboration with McKay, the film would also star Bill Pullman, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, and longtime McKay regular Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfield with Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush. There is no clue on what the film will be like although McKay’s track record with past films will show that it will at least be interesting.

Whatever the outcome of his upcoming projects will be, there is no question that Adam McKay is one of Hollywood’s reliable filmmakers. While his films may cater to a wide audience, there is an element of substance in his approach in creating memorable and compelling characters as well as go into places that many comedies wouldn’t go into. Though he’s leaning towards more dramatic-based films, there is still that element of smart humor and satire that McKay is willing to put in to give audiences something to be engaged by. It is why Adam McKay is one of the small number of filmmakers in Hollywood who can create films to a wide audience as well as offer something unique to cinephiles that often doesn’t occur with mainstream films.

© thevoid99 2018


Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! Adam McKay is awesome and I cannot wait for The Backseat (or whatever he decides to call it)

Alex Withrow said...

GREAT work. I adore your Auteurs series. I'm very interested in Backseat, as McKay seems to have reached a new maturity with The Big Short.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-Indeed he is as he's managed to make a body of work that can stand against anyone's body of work.

@Alex-I'm just glad the Auteurs series is back as I've already started on the next one although I'm taking a slower approach this time around. I hope Backseat is good as McKay always make something interesting.