micro oral histories

‘Uh-oh, Here Comes Trouble’: The Oral History of Anchorman’s Battle Scene

The one scene from the original Anchorman that everyone remembers — more than the flute solo, more than the Baxter kick, more than the depressive milk-drinking — is the newscaster battle. Bookended by the immensely quotable Ron Burgundy lines, “Uh-oh, here comes trouble” and “Boy, that escalated quickly,” the scene summed up the film’s essence in five mock-action-packed minutes. “That scene, more than any other scene in the movie, points to the tone of Anchorman,” director and co-writer Adam McKay tells Vulture. “It’s 40 percent legit, 40 percent melodramatic, and 20 percent just ridiculous.” As part of our ongoing micro oral histories week, Vulture asked McKay, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and other participants to reflect on the whirlwind day they shot the out-of-control scene, which earns a callback in the 2004 comedy’s sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

Adam McKay (writer, director): Will and I had written the script and we kept putting these scenes in that were sort of in the vein of The Blackboard Jungle and The Warriors, with these tense eye-to-eye standoffs with Vince Vaughn and his Channel 9 news crew.

Will Ferrell (Ron Burgundy): The studio said, “This doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you cut those scenes?”

McKay: Then Judd [Apatow] was like, “Guys, you should just try taking a pass where you go further.” And we were like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, what happens if they do get into a fight?” So we started rewriting it and I realized, “Oh, this town would probably have four news stations, and I don’t know if they had Spanish-language news back then, but we can certainly cheat and chuck that in there.” And then we were like, “Wait a minute — are we going to do this? Are we going to have a gang fight? I think we are.”

Steve Carell (Brick Tamland): It was all-out mayhem. People on horses with nets, à la Planet of the Apes, guys smashing through car windows, a guy on fire.

McKay: Judd read it and he’s like, “This is awesome.” But we didn’t have a ton of money. It wasn’t a big-budget movie. But our line producer said, “We can do this.”

David Householter (line producer):  The question was, Can we do it in one day? Because that’s all the time we had allotted for it. And then of course we started getting cameos — Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, Luke Wilson — and everything just kept growing.

Matt Rebenkoff (first assistant director): We were still picking guys up through the week prior. It was a scramble right up until the finish.

McKay: We knew exactly what shots we were getting. It was all storyboarded. But it was pretty tight, and the only way we could pull it off was to be that tight.

Ferrell: I think it was, like, 30 or 40 set-ups in one day.

Householter: I don’t remember how many [setups we did, exactly], but close to 70, probably.

McKay: I think the final tally was 110 setups. It was insane.

Householter: We shot it down in a parking lot in L.A. in this warehouse district by the Sixth Street bridge.

McKay: Householter was like, “No one is going to bug you here. You can do fake graffiti on the walls.”

David Koechner (Champ Kind): It was somewhere near an overpass, and there were no lookie-loos whatsoever.

Jay Johnston (Eyewitness News Member, part of Wes Mantooth’s crew): It was kind of a circus, because they had all these pyrotechnic guys and stunt people and cameos.

Rebenkoff: We had all these big actors there, and they were all doing it for scale. And everybody was tensing up for these actors, because we had to get them out on time.

McKay: Our prop guy, Scott Maginnis, kept coming to me with weapons. I basically wanted a highlight reel of the most horrible weapons you could have, a mixture of the Middle Age weapons with modern-day gang weapons.

Scott Maginnis (propmaster): At the place where we shot this, I laid out a big tarp with all the weapons on it — ones that were scripted and others that I had or just seemed funny to me — and everyone just kind of “shopped” for their weapon, if it wasn’t scripted. It was like a playing field with all these toys.

Rebenkoff: Some of it was stupid stuff, like a baseball bat with a nail sticking out of it. Another was just a board with a circular saw. The actors came, and they said [in a discerning tone] “I’ll take that one,” like they were really going to go into battle.

Koechner: I got brass knuckles. Maybe it shows that my character is that fucking tough. That’s all I need, is brass knuckles.

Paul Rudd (Brian Fantana): They handed me a crowbar at first, and I took it, because I figured I was going to need it at some point. There’s something classic and clean about just a tire iron. But I also took a gun. I think Brian Fantana has carried a gun on occasion, on probably more than one occasion.

Johnston: I wasn’t that quick to pick out a weapon, so I had slim pickings. But I got to use the chain, so that was fun.

Maginnis: With Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins, they came and went so quickly, we just handed them things.

Ben Stiller (Arturo Mendes): I remember wondering what the hell was going on! Not knowing anything about it! And being handed a whip.

Rebenkoff: Tim Robbins asked for a pipe, so he could be smoking a pipe when he walked in.

Rudd: I didn’t even use the gun. I just held on to it.

Carell: They gave me the trident right about three seconds before I threw it. “He’s a natural with a trident. He doesn’t need to practice.”

Maginnis: The trident, I actually had made. It was the most dangerous weapon on set. There were a couple of them: a full metal trident, and also a soft one that we made out of rubber, so you could throw it and not hurt somebody.

Carell: I also had a grenade. Everyone was jealous of the hand grenade. I mean, you have a switchblade? I can blow you up!

Paul Rudd: If I had said, “You know what? I really am feeling something else,” I’m sure they would have given me another weapon. But there was no reason for any of our weapons. “How did you get that hand grenade?” “I don’t know.” That applied to all of us. How did any of us get any of our weapons? We didn’t know.

Rebenkoff: We started the day with a typical fight scene between the extras and the stunt guys beating on each other, just to get it going. We put all the smoke in, and rolled cameras, and it looked like a really good fight. They screamed and yelled at each other, and it was great. I looked at McKay and said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I think that was fucking awesome.” They were all so nervous before that about it looking phony, but we knew the day was going to be okay after that.

McKay: We basically had three units going. I had the main A unit, with all the cameos with Tim Robbins and Luke [Wilson] and Vince [Vaughn] and Ben Stiller and everyone. And then I was directing a B unit that would get little pop-shots of stuff while we were shooting. And then there was a C stunt unit. So while I would be shooting, let’s say, chopping Luke’s arm off, someone would tap me on the shoulder and go, “We’re about to set the guy on fire.” And then they would hold up a clamshell for me and show me the guy on fire.

Householter: I took a camera and I was shooting stuff, like the guy being flipped into a windshield, the guy on horseback, and the net dragging. And the stunt coordinator starting shooting while Adam was in the first unit shooting stuff. We got everything the old-fashioned way: “We got it! We’re moving on!” There was not a lot of discussion.

McKay: I swear it was like 103 degrees.

Johnston: I remember a couple of people were succumbing to the heat. The heat was the worst goddamned thing on the planet. And everyone across the board smelled like we were homeless, or home-free, by the end of the day.

Rebenkoff: We didn’t have extra shirts, and makeup was getting on the shirts, and that was a hassle. Nobody had enough prep to get the wigs together and get the suits ready.

Ben Stiller: Luckily, my fake hair and fake mustache stayed on. Because you know, the heat can dissolve the glue.

Johnston: The man on fire was competing with the sun, and he was still hotter than that. People talk all the time about how hot fire is, and yes, fire is hot. I get it. Obviously. But you can feel that heat 35, 40 feet away. You got to hand it to the fellow.

Householter: Adam really wanted a guy on fire. I remember going to the stunt guy and saying, “I don’t care what you do, you got to get the man on fire.” He had to be isolated in the shot.

McKay: We did one take with the man on fire, and it wasn’t right. I think they tracked with him, and I wanted him just to walk through the frame. So we actually did that again. I had a lengthy discussion where I was like, “Is there any danger to this? This is just a comedy.”

Johnston: You have to be “safe,” or whatever, which is a pile of beans. I don’t know what they were complaining about. There are plenty of stuntmen in the world.

McKay: But the stunt guy was like, “We have this perfected. There’s no risk whatsoever.” And I was like, “For real? Or are you just saying that because you’re a stuntman?” And he was like, “No, honest to God, the burns are not dangerous anymore. They used to be dangerous back in the seventies and eighties, but they’re not at all dangerous anymore. We know exactly how to do them. It will be fine.” So we did another one.

Johnston: He’s covered in gel, which doesn’t burn, and a head-to-toe fire suit, and his face was covered in a mask. There was another stunt man’s image on the mask. It was fucking terrifying and horrible, but hilarious.

Koechner: The only thing I was thinking was, I wonder what that pay grade is?

Rebenkoff: The hard part was getting all the actors ready, all at once, and then doing the Clash of the Titans. It took a while to get that right, where they all ran at each other, because we were still figuring out which teams were coming from where the day of.

McKay: Paul slipped and fell. It was an accident, but we had to leave it in. I think he legitimately just fell. I think only if you’re freeze-framing it, would you catch that, but it was a legitimate fall. We laughed about it afterwards. He was like, “I was kind of too into it.”

McKay: The crew busted their asses. It was a great moment of filmmaking.

Householter: So, the next day, Adam and Will pull the crew together, and they’re standing up there, and they’re doing this whole bit, this whole comedy bit, “You know, guys, we’ve got to work harder. That wasn’t good enough.”

McKay: “What happened yesterday was unacceptable! It was horseshit!”

Ferrell: We thought it would be really funny to chastise them for how lazy they were. And everyone was so tired, no one laughed.

Householter: McKay was like, “Oh my God, this bit is just really going south.” It didn’t go over well. People had no idea what was going on.

McKay: We didn’t understand that there are actually directors out there who would yell at a crew like that. It was our first movie, and so Householter had to go, “No, no.” We felt so bad.

Ferrell: We were like, “We were just kidding! We were just kidding! You guys were amazing.”

McKay: I don’t think I’ve ever had a day like that, and we’ve done all kinds of crazy shit. To this day, that’s still the craziest day I’ve ever had. And that scene, more than any scene in the movie, became the signature thing, in the sense that you had the feeling that the movie could do anything.

Anchorman Battle Scene Oral History