Adam McKay and over a million feet of film in the editing room for ‘Anchorman 2’

Much has been written about the way Adam McKay and Will Ferrell work together, and I recently put up a piece about spending time on the Sea World set where they shot an early sequence for the film. In that article, I described the way that they build scenes, the way their ad-libs flow on a set, the way McKay and Ferrell seem to share two halves of one brain.

The one down side, if you can call it that, to the way their process works is that they end up with miles of film to choose from when building each and every scene in the movie. That’s no exaggeration, either. While the process is digital now, they shot the equivalent of 1.25 million feet of film, and when they did the first assembly cut of the movie, where they put in every scene just to see it all together, the film came in at four and a half hours.

That is crazy, but it’s one of the reasons McKay’s films end up feeling so dense with jokes. “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” and “The Other Guys” are movies that have a pretty high re-watch value because they rarely go for the easiest version of a joke. They are rich in character and they are weird. I would imagine few of the absolute weirdest beats in the films they make started out quite that weird on the page, but there is something about the almost experimental sense of play on set that brings out the strangest side of all of their collaborators. Just think of that scene where Mark Wahlberg meets Eva Mendes over dinner for the first time in “The Other Guys.” You can see just how hard they’re all pushing each other in that scene, and they all play along, willing to go wherever the scene takes them.

Sitting down to chat with Brent White and Adam McKay in the editing room where they were finishing work on “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” we talked about the various cuts of the film that they showed to audiences. There was a 2 1/2 hour cut they screened that went better than McKay expected. They were able to start screening fairly early in the process because White was cutting the film as they shot. Watching the way White works, I was blown away. The organizational skills required to even begin to make sense of all the footage they shoot on these films are next-level, and he uses a personally-modified version of the scripting tool in AVID to build out a visual representation of every scene, every take, every joke. He’ll put together as many as five different versions of each scene to show to McKay, and he can do that on the fly.

As a result, when they did start testing the film, they were able to screen alternate cuts of the film in the same theater on different screens, testing version A and version B just to see how audiences would respond. Frequently, they’d have the working release version of the film and then a version where they would try some of the edgier or stranger material, and when something really landed with an audience, they could then move that into the release version. It sounds like the best version of testing, where the filmmaker is the one benefitting from the process at every step of the way. They did a friends and family screening at one point where Seth Rogen was present, and they always record the screenings so they can play them back later to hear what made people laugh. McKay said Rogen was pretty much all you could hear for the full 2 1/2 hours. They played us a little bit, and sure enough, that distinctive guffaw of Rogen’s was front and center, and we suggested they should put it out on DVD that way. McKay said the only problem is that Rogen has such a crazy sense of humor that they don’t always know if him laughing means anyone else will get the joke as well.

If you bought some of the special editions of “Anchorman” on DVD, you’ve probably seen “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy,” a sort of semi-movie that was built from outtakes from the first film. It doesn’t really work as a stand-alone movie. It’s funny, but it barely holds together. This time around, because of the process they went through, White approached McKay at one point to show him that they could put together a film that tells the same story as “Anchorman 2,” with all the same narrative beats, but with every single joke swapped out. Now Paramount’s talking about what they might be able to do with that other cut. Is it a midnights-only release? Is it something they hold for video? It sounds like they could actually try something innovative mid-theatrical-run, and I’m eager to see it happen.

Even so, there’s stuff that won’t make the movie. In the international cut of the latest trailer, there’s an entire run of jokes about “Brian Fantana’s jimmy cabinet,” most of which would push the film to an R-rating. We probably won’t see that scene in the final release, and we also won’t see an extended sequence where Ron and Brian discuss all the things that are being used in breast implants these days, including taco meat and nickels.

We saw two sequences. First up was something you glimpse in the trailer, where the newly-reassembled news team ends up in a Winnebego driving to New York, only to end up flipping it in a massive car accident. They packed the Winnebego with hazards like a working deep-fryer, a tank full of scorpions, and an oddly large assortment of bowling balls, resulting in a fantastic visual gag that took about twenty minutes to write in the middle of the night and three full days to shoot. It’s very funny, and that surreality is what I like about the world of “Anchorman.” We’re talking about a grown-up version of a Looney Tunes reality, where you can flip the Winnebego 50 times and still have the characters get up and walk away.

There are other things the film deals with that are more grounded, though, and in the second scene we saw, the guys are introduced to Linda Jackson, their new boss, and they are shocked to realize that she’s African-American. The first film really grappled with what happened when women started to infiltrate a world that was mainly made up of white men, and the new film pushes that further, as they have to deal with an even more rapidly-changing world. Megan Good plays Jackson, and none of the guys handle the introduction with grace. Ron can’t stop saying the world “black,” and the rest of them try to defuse the situation. At one point, Brick attempts to get into the conversation, confiding that “A black man follows me everywhere when it’s sunny.”

We discussed the way Brick is utilized in the film, and in part, that conversation is about how much bigger Steve Carrell is as a movie star now than he was when they made the first film. Brick has become a fan favorite over the years, and the temptation is to use him constantly to crush in every single scene. Instead, they say they were very conscious of trying to maintain a certain reality with him and what he would say and do.

The jokes in the scene we saw weren’t about black people, but rather about white panic when faced with change. Watching Ron try to get his head around the correct way to say “African-American” had me laughing just because of how dense he is. “Are you sure it’s not like fish and chips? African and American?” Ferrell is the butt of the joke here, and that’s what makes it play.

I still don’t know what to expect from “Anchorman 2” when it opens. McKay told us that there are several musical numbers in the film that are held over from when they actually discussed doing the entire movie as a musical. There were a number of possible versions of the film they discussed over the years before finally realizing how perfect the “early days of CNN” storyline was. One of the musical numbers they shot didn’t quite work out, so I’m hoping we’ll see it on an eventual Blu-ray release. McKay said it was by far the biggest of the numbers they shot, but it just didn’t work in the final film.

How crazy could the film have ended up? Well, according to McKay, the original ending of the film was going to be set in an underwater hotel, where they were going to stage something like a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, setting it up by having Ron reporting on the construction all the way through the movie, always killing stories about shady construction practices because the underwater dome company advertises on the network. They said they got all the way through scripting and budgeting it before they realized that they had no interest in saddling the end of the film with a giant FX set-piece.

Paramount sent over the last of the character posters for the film today to premiere with this piece.

First, there’s the aforementioned Linda Jackson, played by Megan Good:

 Next up, we’ve got Jack Lime, played by one of the great secret weapons of mainstream comedy, James Marsden:

 And finally, we’ve got the character I am most eager to see, Chani, played by Kristen Wiig. Evidently, she’s the love interest for Brick:

 Just knowing Brick has a love interest makes me think we’re in for untold levels of lunacy when “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” opens in theaters everywhere on December 20, 2013.