"The First Cut Was Four Hours" - Inside the 'Anchorman 2' Editing Room With Director Adam McKay

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Paramount Pictures

Adam McKay is releasing a new film in December, and it’s kind of a big deal.

'Anchorman 2,' one of the few films that truly earns the description “highly anticipated,” arrives in theaters December 20, and the filmmaker is in the final days of editing the film down, paring out superfluous bits, rejiggering set pieces, and swapping out jokes to ensure that audiences thoroughly split their sides watching the overdue reunion of Ron Burgundy, Veronica Corningstone, Champ Kind, Brian Fantana and Brick Tamland.

McKay invited us inside the 'Anchorman 2' edit bay, where he showcased a couple of scenes from the film and offered a few details about what audiences might expect to see. In addition to elaborating on possible plans to release multiple versions of the film in the same way they did with the original 'Anchorman,' McKay explained their massively complicated process of arranging and assembling all of the footage they shoot, and offered perspective on the longevity and the legacy of Anchorman, as Burgundy and his news team prepare to return to the screen.

And, he's such a nice guy, he even gave us three new 'Anchorman 2' posters to share with you featuring James Marsden, Meagan Good and a hilarious Kristen Wiig.

With the first film, you had so much material left over that you made a whole second feature, 'Wake Up Ron Burgundy.' How long was the first cut of this one? Sixteen hours?

Adam McKay: You're not far off! The first cut was four and a half hours. Then our first cut where it all kind of tracked was about three hours. It played. It played like a real movie with a beginning, middle and end over three hours. I think we screened our first cut at two-and-a-half hours. It was the best screening we've ever had at that fat length. Normally when it hits two and a half, three hours, the audience gets exhausted and start yawning. This time it actually played throughout the whole thing. We probably shot a million and a quarter feet of film. It's hard to say now because everything is digital, but it's probably that easily.

Have you ever thought about doing a comedy like 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'? Something that lives at that length and can be screened?

McKay: This is pretty long. This is 1:53 right now without credits, so this'll end up being two hours, which is by far the longest we've ever done. We usually do 90 minutes and then, tack on credits, it's 1:40. I don't know if I can quite go epic. It's not 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,' but it's very long compared to what we normally do. But it's good. It doesn't feel long. It plays. You guys will have to let us know. But it feels like the energy carries throughout the whole thing. But we talked about it. When we screened the two and a half hour version, we asked, "Should we do 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'?' We looked up what the longest comedies were and the longest was 'Blues Brothers' at two and a half hours. We were like, "We're not going to do that."

What about a Peter Jackson-style extended edition on home video?

McKay: It's funny you should say that. Brent [White] was editor on the first 'Anchorman' with me. I went into the editing room and he said, "I think you've got a whole second movie here." Brent actually cut the 'Wake Up, Ron Burgundy' version where we then went back and put in voiceovers. This time I came to the editing room and I went, "Well, Brent, do we have a second movie?" Brent goes, "Actually, you don't have a second movie, but you have a whole other movie with all-new jokes." I go, "What do you mean?" He goes, "You can replace every single joke with a different one." They're all quality alts. That was crazy and, sure enough, we're doing it right now. I think we're at, what, 250 alt jokes?

White: It's like 240. Something like that. If you saw the movie and then they said, "Hey, come back and see 'Anchorman 2' again with 240 new jokes, would you pay cash and go see the movie again?

I don't think anyone has ever done anything like that before. Effectively, everyone would be very interested.

McKay: That's what we were saying! If someone told me it was 'Pulp Fiction' will all new story turns and new Sam Jackson monologues, there's no way I'm not going to see that. The question is, does Paramount release that in the theaters? Is it midnight screenings or just VOD and DVD?

I think people would happily say, "250 new jokes? I'm going back immediately."

McKay: I hope they do it. Even if they only did it on like 200 screens or something. Just to see it play. We're going to actually test it. We're talking about putting it in front of a crowd. The advantage you get in that these jokes don't have to pass by an audience is that you get some stranger jokes.

White: You can really go out on these tangents. We couldn't quite put the in the movie because it has to be PG-13 on the box or whatever it is. There's a little bit of open ended stuff that, because of timing or rhythm or whatever else, we could put in this version and let it be a little bit fat.

McKay: Translation: More crazy s---.

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Who goes out on the furthest tangent?

McKay: There's a run where Ron Burgundy and Brian Fantana talk about breast implants and all the alternatives they're using to silicone now. Nickels, taco meat. It's just this long, insane run that we tried at one point. Test audiences were like, "no thank you." But it still makes us laugh. That's part of the fun.

Meagan Good, what’s the story behind her character?

McKay: So she’s the manager of the whole new network – she’s not the owner, but she’s the day-to-day kind of manager of it. And she’s, you know, she’s an ass-kicker, she’s brilliant, she went to Columbia School of Journalism, and typical kind of thing in the sense that she’s, you know, overqualified for the job, but of course because she’s a woman, because she’s a minority, these idiots can’t, you know, get around that at first, and then she kicks their ass so badly that they have no choice but to accept her.

So she’s awesome in the movie. She plays really, really well and funny as hell and beautiful and she was a great addition to this cast, and seeing Burgundy struggle with, you know, the issue of race was just really funny. And you forget, like, the early Eighties was really when you saw this big leap happening – you had 'The Cosby Show' coming and, you know, certain music was mainstreaming, so it really is the point at which, you know, people like Ron Burgundy would have been dealing with, you know, issues of race. So it was a really fun kind of relationship for us to have in this movie, and it felt new enough and different enough – she’s such a different energy for the movie that it really worked well.

Given the anticipation people have for this movie, on the first few days of filming, did you sort of feel any pressure?

McKay: You know, I was thinking about this before. The spirit of the movie is so much, “Who gives a f---?” that if you had pressure, it would nullify the whole premise of the movie. Like, you know, it’d be like the Sex Pistols having to worry about if their guitars are in tune. Like, you kind of have to not give a shit going into it to do it. So you actually don’t think about that at all when you’re doing it. You’re just purely trying to make each other laugh, trying to come up with crazy shit, and that’s really the game of the set. And then at the end of the day sometimes, you go like, “Oh wow, that was a good day,” or “Hey, this could be good,” but in the moment it’s always, we’re just trying to make each other laugh. That’s the engine of the entire thing, so no, not really. Now that it’s done, you’re kind of like, “Hey, I wonder what people will think of this,” but in the moment, we’re just purely laughing around. It’s, you know, Paul Rudd in underwear, posing with an underwear model. It’s, you know, these guys flying around in a Winnebago on a giant gimbal for like half a day. Those are the days. It’s pretty hard to have standards while you’re doing that.

We’re in a time now where race is such a hot topic issue. Were you you conscious of, this is gonna push some buttons, while you were writing it?

McKay: Yeah, you know, we were aware there’s a fine line. I mean, these guys are so dopey that it’s not, the subject of race is not like we experience it in the news now. It’s -- they’re so innocent and so stupid about it that it’s never really mean or pointed. I mean, you’ll see in the whole movie that they really just don’t get it, and then they start to a – always, they never fully get anything, but they a little bit get it by the end of the movie, so…and they deal in this movie with like about five or six different issues, like that it’s not just, like in the first movie it was just the idea of a woman in power. In this movie now, it’s race, there’s another woman in power, there’s, you know, psychology, there’s, you know, there’s issues with a child…there’s like all this different kind of stuff they have to deal with.

Paramount Pictures

You mentioned a Gimbal in the Winnebago scene, what was the process like to shoot that? It seemed like a pretty effects heavy scene for a comedy.

McKay: Yeah it turned out to be a giant pain in the ass. We wrote just at two in the morning laughing like idiots and then suddenly the reality of it was like, “Oh god, we’ve got to do all this.” So it was a huge gimbal with the Winnebago. It was them hanging from a green screen, it was stunt doubles inside the Winnebago, it was then the plates you had to get from the inside. Then it was all the objects you had to get, then you had to have fake bowling balls, and real bowling balls. It was probably a total of three days of shooting to get that silly little sequence. Don’t tell anyone that.

Brick especially is a guy who can say anything and its funny. Is there ever a tendency to over abuse that? To have too much Brick?

McKay: That’s a good question, Brent and I talk about this all the time. He’s definitely the Harpo Marx of the team in the sense that he has no rules whatsoever to him. He can step out of scenes. He can comment on scenes. He can look at the camera. So he’s got this magical power. And then rhythm-wise he can just get laughs. He has one line in the movie that’s not even a joke and it gets a huge laugh. He just says something and the crowd goes crazy. We actually did a pass where we would go through and look at Brick and take out anything that’s mediocre. We’re like, it should only be high quality when it’s Brick -- it’s got to be a fresh premise. It’s got to be like the one you saw in the Winnebago of him not understanding what reminiscing is. I’ve never seen that joke before so Brick gets that. You are right though, it’s very tempting because you literally put him in any scene and get a laugh. You have to be very careful with it.

How do you decide what jokes to keep?

McKay: We come in with a script that’s been pretty beaten up. We do a lot of table reads with it, we do punch ups, we do rewrites constantly. You want to have a script that’s working really, really well so then you always know you’re getting the written script and then on the day we usually do a coupe takes where you get the written script and then we’ll start messing around. We’ll start trying - I’ll throw out some lines, they’ll throw out some stuff. And then eventually you’ll kind of discover an area like, “Oh that’s funny” and you’ll do a whole take on that. You know, you have the digital so it’s longer now. So the really quick answer to what I’m telling you is basically he has to make sense of it all.

White: That’s another reason why there’s so many options, so many alts because there’s the joke idea and so I would cut different versions of every scene. So some of these scenes there’s 3 or 4 or 5 different versions of every scene and they’re all completely different. They still do the same job in the movie, but they all have different joke runs in them. And then from there we can cherry-pick and find the ones that really make us laugh or put them up in front of people and see which ones-

McKay: And you remember the good ones. Brent and I will dig into a scene for like, a whole day so when you’re looking at that scene its bringing back all the memories of shooting it and I’ll go to Brent like, “Hey we did this one really funny bit” and he’s got this whole cool cataloguing system where he can just call up the lines. Can you show them that script thing you have? This is the coolest thing. So he’s actually got the script and then you can click on it and take will show up.

Were there times where the guys ad-libbed and you just kept rolling?

McKay: Oh, god yeah. That’s mostly what we do. I mean we do a couple takes where it’s the script and then we just start screwing around. We try different lines, we try different takes, different attitudes. There was one scene where Will gets punched and we did five different versions of him reacting poorly to a punch. One version was that his whole sense of orientation was off and he couldn’t speak or even stand up. So that was a whole version. The other version was where he tried to act tough about the punch, and tell the guy who hit him, “That didn’t bug me” but while he’s doing it he’s fighting back tears and his voice is cracking. Then there was another version where he goes on at great length about all the people who have hit him harder than that and it's women and children. And I’m forgetting two more, so that was a thing that in the script was literally one line of dialogue and we ended up improvising on it for like an hour and we’re laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes and then it’s not in the movie.

With lines like that or takes that are so much better than the last one, how do you pick your favorites?

McKay: You screen and screen is what you do. You keep putting it up in front of people, whether it's friends and family or whether it's a recruited audience, you just want to see all these jokes you liked when you shot them to make sure either they work or they don't work. So you're constantly kind of flipping them in and out. On this movie, which we've never done before, we did A and B screenings. We were doing two screenings every night. So you had one whole rack of jokes in the A screening, and you had a different rack of jokes in the B screening, and we were constantly... the B screening was like the minor leagues. So if a joke got a big laugh at the B screening, we would then bring it up. If a moment worked or if there was a cool shot, we would then move it into the A cut.

Are there any arguments, like, "I really want that line in the final cut, and it didn't make it!"

McKay: You know what we do? Despite everything I've just said, at the end of the day, we do go through it and go, "I just want that line [in the movie]." There are some lines the audience never... like the joke where he opens his mouth and goes, "The only way I can stop saying that is to just open my mouth" actually doesn't get a laugh from a regular audience, but we love it, and we're like, "Too bad, you're getting it anyway." Because eighty percent of the time, it's a give-and-take with the audience, but sometimes... and on the first movie, we did that a lot, too, and it actually proved to work. Like "I'm kind of a big deal" never got a laugh, but we just liked it. So we were like, "Too bad, it's staying in even though the audience was never laughing at it." And it ended up becoming one of the big quotable lines. We do that with all the movies. At a certain point we just put in ones we just like. So it's a give and take that you're playing.

Has it been satisfying for you to see the way Anchorman has grown in stature in pop culture, and become this iconic film that actually led to the momentum to get this film made?

McKay: Yeah, it's been crazy. We all kind of witnessed it slowly. The first movie came out and it did pretty good, and we got pretty good reviews. And we were like, "Hey, we got to make that crazy movie, and it was fun." Then we're kind of going on to our next movie, 'Talladega Nights,' and while we were doing it Halloween would happen, and we would keep seeing people dressed as Ron Burgundy. We'd hear quotes, and I'd have friends calling me saying, "I just heard it quoted on ESPN." I had a Google Alert, and it got to be so many I had to turn it off because they were quoting it [so much]. It went from this insane movie that made Will and I laugh to this thing that everyone connected with. Yeah, it's definitely satisfying and exciting. I mean, it made it harder to do the second one because a lot of the comedy has been co-opted in commercials and kind of other styles in other comedies, so we really had to write this script over and over again to make sure we had original things. It made it a little harder, but at the same time without a doubt it was great to know your 2 AM flights of fancy other people think are funny. Things I used to get in trouble for writing at SNL, suddenly other people like it. It was nice.

Anchorman 2 poster James Marsden

In what way did that help you refine what the story was going to be, since the first time around you essentially had two movies?

McKay: The first one was definitely an unloading of material because we'd waited so long to do it. This one, because there were all these delays and because we could never quite get the budget right and the schedule right, we got really lucky that we got to keep refining the story. We approached it once where it was going to be a musical, and then there was a delay again and we went back to it. Because there were those delays we had time to test them and sleep on ideas and see how they felt the next day. We had some crazy idea for an ending where it was going to be an Irwin Allen thing. The Underwater Hotel was being announced. It was the most obvious setup for a disaster ever. There was this glass dome over it, and Burgundy has ignored the story about how the glass manufacturers skimped on prices because [the network] advertises undersea dome glass. Ferrell and I wrote this crazy ending, and... there were like gushes of water coming through and shooting sharks at people. It was absolute madness. But we wrote the whole thing, and it wasn't bad. It almost worked. Then we took a beat, and were like, "That's not the end of the movie." It was going to be crazy expensive. I'm not sure it would've worked. But, yeah, we got those advantages of being able to work on the story and see how it felt as time went by.

Without spoiling too much, you mentioned the musical thing. Did any of that make it into the movie at all? What was the musical going to be?

McKay: It was going to basically be the same storyline and the same kind of CNN twenty-four-hour news/Fox News kind of thing, but just a musical. We had four or five numbers written, and we did shoot them, so there are a couple of musical numbers in here. But we had one big giant one that didn't quite play the way we wanted it. It always worked. It wasn't like it was bad. It just didn't quite play storywise, so we took that out. But that having been said, there are still a couple of songs in there. There's one big love song at the end of the movie that... I'll wait. I don't want to give it away.

How political do you allow yourself to get? Do you take any shots at the Tea Party or anything contemporary?

McKay: You’ll have to see. I mean, a lot of it’s about when you do 24 hour news, it’s so much about ratings, and it’s so much about for-profit news, that’s a lot of what the comments are about, and just trash news and infotainment. You know, 1980 was like a dividing line where they started going towards puffier, sugary news, so that’s a lot of what it’s about – and of course, Ron Burgundy is right in the middle of that change and leading that change. So we did feel like with Anchorman more than anything we’ve done, it’s such a fun, colorful movie that we wanted to keep it pretty buoyant. But some of the kind of commentary did lend itself to that, so yeah, there’s definitely some shots at our infotainment American media and how they oftentimes don’t talk about much beyond animals and breasts. So, yeah.

Since Ron learned about equality in the first film, did that handicap you in any way with the character in this?

McKay: He mostly forgot that (laughs). I mean, we always laugh about the first one – what did he really learn? Like he learned just not to be a dick when your girlfriend gets a job, is what he basically learned, which isn’t really that much. So you’ll see pretty quickly in this one he’ll have to deal with some more success that she has, and he’s not equipped to handle it at all. So he’s a tad less of an a-hole than he was in the first one, but so small that it doesn’t really play.

How does the editing system work?

White: So I have all of the options, and every time we go through, we just, we can go, you know, we can just look and make sure that’s the best idea, that’s the best joke, that’s the best delivery, that’s the best rhythm, whatever it is we want to make the thing work. And this really helps us do that.

McKay: And then the filing system for the alternate runs and bits is also in there. So then he’s just got a bin that’s all titled just different runs and improv bits that we'd done, and this one also comes really in handy.

Is this something you developed yourself?

White: Over time working with McKay and Judd. It’s just that this kind of improv-based comedy just needed a way that you could handle it so you could get around all of the material and just be able to find it on any given day. Because like Adam says, he would remember the day he shot it, he would remember something he did, and now he says, “I know it’s in there, but it’s in there somewhere. And I would have to like go in there and dig it out and in a fairly easy time, try to figure out what it could possibly be.

How long was the editing process on this film compared to the first one and compared to some of your other films?

McKay: This was actually shorter. We had a little bit of a crunch time. How many weeks was it Brent, 22? Was our whole post?

White: Yeah, because we have to be in theaters for Christmas so we just had to get everything done a little bit faster but even the fact there was so much material, that’s the other reason why I cut, and the other guys around me cut, alternate versions of each of the scenes. So we’ve already kind of explored all the options, or just kind of laid them
out so we can find different [pairings].

McKay: Yeah, it really helped us a lot in the sense they got a pretty playable cut really early on that we were able to do a friends and family screening. One last thing that’s funny, on the friends and family screening Seth Rogen was there and he sat dead center. We had 100 people there, it was a 2.5 hour cut and the entire laugh track we recorded was completely wrecked because of Seth Rogen sitting in the middle going “hauh hauh huah.” One of the great laughs of all time and also his comedy sense of humor is so good that you’re like I don’t know if other people will laugh at that. I know Seth Rogen finds that crazy joke, so we were like okay, friends and family screening useless because of Seth Rogen. I wish it would just play for 300 million Seth Rogens. I don’t know what that would do to the world, but yeah.

Is he on the no invite list for the next friends and family screening?

White: No! He’s actually a really great barometer of what we know to be funny.

McKay: He just laughs at everything we laugh at. That’s basically it. And with the loudest laugh you’ve ever heard. No better audience member than Seth Rogen.

You should release a version just with him on the audio track, laughing.

McKay: That’s really funny. Just release the Seth Rogen laugh track. That’s really funny. There should be a law for one whole year all laugh tracks are Seth Rogen for all TV shows. The world would get ever so slightly better.

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