Note: You can check out Part 1 of our “Campaign” set visit here.
Will Ferrell and Sarah Baker are doing it, and I’m watching.
I’m on the set of Jay Roach’s new political comedy “The Campaign,” and on the monitor in front of me Ferrell and his female co-star are bumping and grinding in the lotus position.
“Woo! Woo! Woooo!” cries Baker, face-to-face with Ferrell as she bounces.
“Are you ready?!” he bellows back at her, bobbing his head back and forth like a rooster.
I first became aware of the frisky goings-on when, sitting at a long table on a New Orleans soundstage with a small group of other reporters, wild sounds of coitus had risen from the house set a few dozen feet away. Naturally, we were curious.
Back at the monitor, Ferrell and Baker have finally cracked, after miraculously keeping it together through multiple takes without laughing.
“I mean, it”s just weird,” said Baker when she sat down to speak with us later. “It”s crazy because that”s what I was thinking to myself, was the first moment I did a scene with Will, like, I have watched him so many times. I mean it. You watch him on ‘SNL,’ watch him in a movie. And I”m just so used to watching him and openly being able to laugh at him. …So, you know, you kind of have to dive into it. [But] there are certain moments where you just can”t bear it and you laugh because he”s so freaking funny. I mean, what are you going to do, when he”s in my ear? I”m like, ‘It”s really loud Will Ferrell noises in my ear!’…You have to laugh.”
A relative newcomer to the scene, Baker enjoys her first major film role here as Mitzi Huggins, the wife of Zach Galifianakis’ character Marty. In the scene previously described, she is ambushed and seduced by Ferrell’s character Cam Brady, an incumbent in a suburban North Carolina congressional district who goes to great lengths to fend off Marty’s attempts at winning his seat. Of course, dirty political tactics beget dirty political tactics, and by this point in the film events have spiraled ridiculously out of control.
“It’s the escalation of the campaign and the back and forth nature of it, and each of these guys kind of trying to undo the other guy,” said screenwriter Chris Henchy, who bears an oddly striking resemblance to Ferrell. “And what happened is, coming up to [the scene between Ferrell and Baker], Zach, who plays Marty Huggins, grabbed – took Cam”s…fifteen year old son out for the best day of his life; water park, looking at girls, snow-cones, go-carts, batting cages. And it ends with them sitting on a bench at an amusement park, and saying what a great day they had.
“…So [Marty] says, ‘I know your dad”s not with you a lot because he”s busy campaigning, being a congressman, so, you know, if you ever need a father figure, I”m always here,'” he continued. “And the kid”s like, ‘yeah, all right.’ [And Marty says,] ‘You can call me dad, but I don”t know. Try it out, dude…call me dad.’ The kid fights it, then finally [says] like, ‘dad,’ and then Zach looks at the [hidden] camera and goes, ‘I”m Marty Huggins, and I regretfully approve this message.'”
Of course, the ferociously-determined-but-not-so-bright Cam isn’t about to take that lying down (in a manner of speaking). Hence the bumping and grinding.
“So he says, ‘Well, you make my son call you daddy and make a campaign ad out of that…then I”m going to do something worse,'” said Henchy. “And he tries to make a sex tape where he seduces Marty”s wife – Zach”s wife – and he”s going to make a kind of campaign video out of it.”
Included in the setup, of course, is a strategically hidden smartphone camera that records every squealy second of the illicit sexual coupling – an element we could see quite plainly on the monitor thanks to a visual mockup that framed the encounter within a faux-iPhone display. Still, even in the heightened, broadly-comedic political environment constructed by the film’s creators (albeit one not as far from the truth as most of us would like to believe), recording yourself having sex with your opponent’s wife and then using the footage in a TV ad doesn’t exactly fall within the range of acceptable mud-slinging.
“The idea that he thinks he”s going to put it on network T.V….his campaign manager [played by Jason Sudeikis] says, ‘You can”t put that on T.V.! What are you, crazy?'” said director Jay Roach, dining at our table during the production’s lunch break. “‘Put it on the internet!'”
Notice I said T.V. ad.
Roach, of course, is no stranger to political satire, having received his greatest career acclaim for helming the recent HBO telepics “Recount” (about the behind-the-scenes skullduggery of the 2000 presidential election) and this year’s “Game Change,” which centered on the ramifications of John McCain’s disastrous decision to bring Alaska governor Sarah Palin on as his running mate in the 2008 election. Though in a tonal sense both are much subtler works of burlesque than “The Campaign,” Roach claimed that his background directing these relatively more grounded offerings actually helped in finding the right approach here.
“A lot of times in comedy you want the straight version of things to be as straight as they can, so the X factor can be [as] absurd and out there as you need it to be,” said the director, a strikingly thoughtful and Zen-like presence. “And to actually know, ‘You know what, I think in this press conference this is what would [actually] happen. Here”s who would be standing there, and here is how much security they would have. Here”s what kind of cameras would be at this level.’ I actually did so much research on those things for ‘Recount’ and ‘Game Change’ that I felt pretty confident about how to deliver a grounded-ness to the political stuff so that when the characters go off, it”s against something that”s plausible. And that helped a lot.”
Though Roach got his start directing mass-audience hits like the absurdist 1997 Mike Myers comedy “Austin Powers” and 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” his more recent ouevre doesn’t seem as out of left field when you consider that his early personal history indicates a strong interest in the world of politics. Prior to his education at the world-renowned USC film school, he was heavily involved in the student senate at his high school and even served as president of the District Council in his home state of New Mexico for a time.
Later on, Roach formed a fascination with the controversial field of memetics, which studies the social and cultural effects of “memes” – i.e. ideas and behaviors transmitted from one individual to another that can have profound consequences if spread on a wide scale.
“Years ago, [I] worked on a film about the psychology of evil using Adolf Hitler as the vehicle for it…it was called ‘The Empty Mirror,’ and I did it with my film school partner,” said Roach. “And I did a tremendous amount of research for a year; actually a number of years. We worked on it for three or four years in the research and studying [Reich Minister of Propaganda] Goebbels…and [it] became a little bit of an obsession about how such a dark idea could become a contagious idea.
“…I remember thinking, ‘What? people would distort reality and make that, you know, a truth that would spread in some way?” he continued. “A truthy kind of truth that just- and I”m very naïve about those things, but the power of these spin doctors or any kind of salesmen or, you know, a storyteller; the power of stories to…make an idea contagious somehow has always fascinated me.”
But enough with the serious talk. The first order of business for a film like “The Campaign” is to make people laugh, and I’ll be damned if Roach & co. aren’t trying their hardest to achieve a busting of the collective gut.
Following completion of the “seduction scene” – a rather lengthy filming process given Roach’s self-proclaimed tendency to “over-shoot” as a fail-safe against having too few choices in the editing room – we were then treated to a hilarious bit that had Marty receiving a foot-rub from his uber-repressed wife. I have no idea how it’ll play in the finished film, but on set there was a gratifying vein of dark comedy running through the scene, with an enthusiastic – and, dare I say, tightly-wound – Marty frequently requesting that Mitzi actually “break the skin” during the vigorous massage session.
Though it’s possible I’m reading into it more than I should, I suspect Marty’s bubbling-under masochism could have something to do with the deeply-dysfunctional relationship he shares in the film with his emotionally-ruthless politician father, played by the inestimable Brian Cox.
“[Marty] wants his dad”s approval,” said Henchy. “And he comes from a family of – his father was a senator and his brother is a big DA, and he wants to get his chance. ..It”s pretty brutal. It”s not a loving – yeah, when you watch it, [at one point Marty’s father] makes him swim to shore as opposed to drive the boat back. He gives him a plastic bag to put his wallet, his watch, and jumps in the water. He”s not a supportive, loving guy. He”s supportive when he”s winning.”
Other supporting players in the cast include Dylan McDermott as Cam’s campaign manager Tim Wattley (described by Roach as “like an assassin who just happens to be a political consultant”), Katherine LaNasa (“Big Love”) as Cam’s “ladder-climbing” wife Rose, and, yes, Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow as Wade and Glen Motch (respectively), a pair of billionaire industrialists who become influential behind-the-scenes players in the campaign (and who may or may not be modeled off the infamous Koch brothers).
“We have two very wealthy industrialists, financiers played by Lithgow and Aykroyd, that like to use their money and influence and sway politics, and those are your bad guys,” Henchy told us. “And so, you know, it”s those two guys kind of taking a look back at the big political picture and finding out what districts, what congressmen and what, you know…who they can control.”
In the interest of comedy, the ruthless nature of these characters also forms the basis of some sure-to-be-memorable sight gags in the film, some of which occur at an overseas plant that manufactures dolls in rather less-than-humanitarian conditions.
“We shot this entire [scene where] we used some amazing special effects with Lithgow and Aykroyd walking through this Chinese toy factory,” said Henchy. “We see them come out the giant assembly line, being disinfected, and all sorts of toxic goo and sparks, and every anti-OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], every OSHA rule broken. And little kids, little tiny kids with huge sharp scissors cutting costumes.”
Also serving as a source of non-verbal comedy in the film is the makeover of Marty and Mitzi’s home, which during the course of the campaign is transformed from a virtual shrine to Marty’s beloved pugs into what Marty’s campaign advisers deem more appropriate for a candidate who must establish his credentials as a “true American.”
Among the choice signifiers we were treated to during our tour of the impressively-modeled interior: a sign hanging in the kitchen that reads “We Don’t Dial 911”; a deer head conspicuously fastened to the wall of Marty’s office; and a framed gun diagram in the living room. Apparently, you can’t be considered a legitimate political candidate in the South unless people feel at least mildly threatened in your home.
The last bit of shooting that took place during our visit was a scene in which Galifianakis’ character films a campaign video clearly designed to woo the “religous right.” Taking place in some sort of “mega-church” with a backdrop of Christian singers, the spot opens with a minister declaring for the camera: “Because when you have Jesus in your life, nothing is impossible. Nothing. Am I right?”
Cue Galifianakis, who takes center stage whilst belting out the old platitude: “Yes, because life is not a dress rehearsal.” Or, alternately: “Amen. Because life is a mess, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Which makes one wonder: would he feel the same way if he knew Cam was banging his wife back at home?
“The Campaign” hits theaters on August 10.
Follow me on Twitter @HitFixChris