It’s the week before Mardi Gras, and Will Ferrell is scheduled to ride in the Sunday night kick-off parade as King Bacchus, temporary ruler of the famed New Orleans “superkrewe.” He’s a tad worried.
“It’s slightly ominous, like it’s a fraternity hazing or something,” said the actor, speaking to myself and a small group of other reporters on the set of director Jay Roach’s upcoming political comedy “The Campaign.” “I don’t know what to expect.”
Of course, it could be worse.
“I”m riding behind Will”s float,” said Ferrell’s co-star Zach Galifianakis, who chatted with us separately. “Literally on his coattails. So yeah, I”ll be in the parade behind Will. But I”ll have a mask on.”
At least for now, I suppose the positioning makes sense. While Ferrell hasn’t exactly set the box-office on fire with his last few efforts – even “The Other Guys,” which grossed over $170 million worldwide, struggled to reach profitability thanks to an inflated $100 million budget – he’s inarguably the bigger star of the two. Galifiankis’ celebrity, at least in the mainstream, comes mostly thanks to his roles in the two blockbuster “Hangover” movies, which are at heart ensemble affairs. Whether he can parlay that success into a career as a bankable actor in his own right, as Ferrell did (at least temporarily) with the one-two punch of “Elf” and “Anchorman” in the mid-noughties, remains to be seen.
But then none of that stuff matters here. Because on the “Campaign” set – bar none one of the most laid-back I’ve ever visited – hubris seems in short supply.
“The collaboration with [director] Jay [Roach] and Chris [Henchy], and the writers, and [producer] Adam [McKay] has been really good,” said Galifianakis of working on the film. “I”ve known the guys for a while, so it”s been pretty easy. And there”s no ego on this set. Except for those pugs. That can be very bad for comedy, to have an egotist on set. There”s none of that. That”s very helpful for me, at least, because I”m not nervous.”
Oh yes, the pugs. In the film, Galifianakis’ character – a lisp-toting political candidate named Marty Huggins – is so obsessed with the diminutive dog breed that when he runs against Ferrell’s Cam Brady for a House seat in a conservative Southern district, his political handlers (one of them played by “American Horror Story” actor Dylan McDermott) relentlessly pressure him to tone it down. Well that, and basically everything else about himself.
“He kind of becomes groomed. He stops his lisping. He”s coached,” said Galifianakis of his character’s transformation from oddball family man to…well, slightly less oddball politician. “When he”s not in front of an audience, he does go back to his normal ways. But when he”s doing a debate or speech for the public, he is changed.”
Huggins, as has been mentioned previously, is based on Seth Galifianakis, a character the comedian has been embodying in his stand-up act for years. But while Galifianakis told us he’s been looking for a way to insert the so-called “effeminate racist” into a feature film for some time now, he admitted he’s still not sure whether it’ll end up working in long form.
“Whether it”s sustainable for two hours is the question we”re working with,” he said. “I started doing this character when I was high school. Back then, his name was Kenny Ballard, and he was an effeminate racist – which I always thought was funny: an effeminate guy, who probably gets made fun of, to also be racist. I don”t know, it was a weird mix. I used to do it for my dad. I used to do it for the black kids at school. They would bump me in the hallway because they knew this character would come out. They were laughing because they knew I was doing a joke about the rednecks that were racist. …I had been wanting to try and figure out how to do that persona in a movie. I hope people can sit though it.”
Though Marty’s back-story is liable to conjure up images of former president George W. Bush for many – the character is, after all, the black sheep son of a successful political clan who’s brought back into the fold and groomed for a political career by the powers-that-be, who believe the family name will allow him to defeat incumbent Brady – Galifianakis actually approached him with a certain former Alaska governor/presidential running mate in mind.
“It was more about the plucking out of obscurity – the Sarah Palin,” he told us. “And how your ego can kind of run you over. When someone plucks you out of obscurity, you kind of start believing the hype, I think, if a machine does it. And he does that.”
Ferrell’s character, on the other hand, was inspired by another recent (now disgraced) figure in American politics – former Senator/Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
“He’s very polished,” said Ferrell of Brady, who, like Edwards, boasts a head of hair that’s unfailingly calibrated, down to the last strand, for every public appearance. “He can kind of, you know, take command of a room and then you leave realizing he literally didn’t say anything that was of any value, you know, with any substance.”
Much of Ferrell’s inspiration for the role also came, inevitably, from the batshit-crazy Republican primaries, which by the time of our visit had completely gone off the rails.
“When we initially sat down and kind of constructed this idea, we just thought, ‘boy, this would be a great opportunity to kind of comment on, you know, everything’s that happening,'” said Ferrell. “Little did we know that we’d be in the midst of the craziest political season we’ve probably ever had on record.”
In the film Brady’s aforementioned “helmet hair” becomes a subject of a not-inconsiderate amount of attention, which in a sense you could say functions as a literal extension of and visual metaphor for the rigid conventions American politicians are consistently forced to shoehorn themselves into. It also inevitably added a few extra minutes (hours?) to the production schedule.
“I’m focused on my hair throughout the movie, yeah,” said Ferrell. “That’s kind of a huge thing…there’s moments where we literally reshot something because the wind was blowing and my hair was looking too crazy and it just wouldn’t work for Cam. So we reshot a whole speech so that I could have more perfect hair.”
What’s perhaps most interesting about the film is the fact that many of the featured gags aren’t all that far from the political reality we currently find ourselves in.
“The only thing we’re worried about now is, is our movie crazy enough?” said Ferrell. “Because we’ve seen, you know, with Herman Cain and with, you know, the Rick Perrys of the world and all these things that keep coming out, you know. Gingrich’s, you know, ex-wife suggesting that he wanted an open marriage…like we’re just right in that line.”
“I do a hidden camera ad with [Cam’s] son in a park,” said Galifianakis, referencing one of the political ads that’s put out by Huggins’ campaign. “Which, probably, will come across as really creepy. I go, with the hidden camera, I try to get him to call me dad. If you read the script, it”s like, ‘God, this is a little bit over-the-top.’ But then you read the news, and you go, ‘God, it”s really not that over-the-top.'”
In one bit that was filmed on the day we visited, the Machiavellian political maneuvering gets even more personal when Brady takes advantage of Huggins’ sexually frustrated wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) by…well, let’s just say it features some combination of spanking, ecstasy-induced Oprah invocations and a strategically (and secretly) placed iPhone camera.
“We kind of made it like Marty is nonsexual,” said Galifianakis of Huggins’ relationship with his wife. “There are some jokes at her expense, because he”s not into her. Or into guys. He”s just not into that kind of thing. …She wants it, but he just doesn”t want to touch her.”
How successfully the film manages to combine these broad comedy elements with smart political satire – both of which director Jay Roach has shown an affinity for with movies including “Game Change” and, alternately, “Meet the Parents” – remains to be seen, but make no mistake – this is not “Primary Colors.”
“We had a whole thing where my campaign kind of gets revitalized and I have a whole rally and cameras…where I come flying in on a wire playing a keytar with Bachman-Turner Overdrive playing behind me, because my campaign song is ‘Takin’ Care of Business,'” said Ferrell, referencing a scene in the film that was shot in front of about 250 extras at a New Orleans theater. “And then we had like Boston Rob and The Miz come out and introduce me just, you know…get some people in pop culture, put them in there. And I have like a Janet Jackson headset on and got this crowd…to chant like, ‘Hate Marty Huggins.'”
Subtle or not, there’s certainly more than one way to illuminate the dire state of our American political culture – and in the age of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, comedy perhaps more than ever is being recognized as a viable way to air grievances with what essentially amounts to a broken system.
“As cheesy as it sounds, I think comedy is a really good tool for trying to say something,” said Galifianakis. “I think, especially – to be serious for a second – after this last war our country was in, the folk singers – you really didn”t hear a lot of people singing about stuff. The comedians started. Because there”s a bullshit detector with comedians. Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt started questioning things. Jon Stewart to a huge extent, and Stephen Colbert. So I think comedy does have that powerful thing that doesn”t seem too preachy, because you”re also making people laugh. It”s a really good tool for messaging.”
So what does Galifianakis hope audiences will take away from the film?
Answered the actor: “An empty bag of popcorn and no hope for our country.”
He was joking. I think.
“The Campaign” is slated for release on August 10.
Follow me on Twitter @HitFixChris