How Adam McKay Directs at the Top of His Intelligence

Adam McKay’s path to becoming a director began as a notoriously mischievous improvisor under the tutelage of guru Del Close in Chicago, then joining SNL as a writer, eventually ascending to head writer in the mid-nineties. It was there he began his collaboration with Will Ferrell that would come to define his feature directing career. The two have collaborated on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, establishing a formula of highly designed and actively structured plays on genre that have shaped the modern comedy landscape beyond their work alone.

Since Judd Apatow has become somewhat of a control to whom I have compared most other directors I’ve written about in this space (and even though this was not done on purpose I actually think it is instructive both because of his omnipotence in the comedy filmmaking landscape and his very easily explained visual technique), let’s indulge that process once more in regards to McKay. Here is where the two are similar: both directors rely heavily on improv in their films, both shoot massive amounts of footage to end up with their final product. McKay even shot enough footage on Anchorman to be able to cut together an entire second film, released as Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie. However, the similarities end there, because the way they use improvisation to serve their goals as directors trend in opposite directions.

In his scenes, McKay is dedicated to his roots in Close’s theories of improv, which famously values “truth in comedy”. This means avoiding the meta, and playing scenes straight and to the top of your intelligence. McKay’s characters do not comment on the scenes from within, the actors improvise as their characters and reference only the fictional world in which they exist. In contrast, Apatow’s characters exist in “our” world and their improv is very much metacommentary on things we know and recognize. It is reference heavy and relies on a sense of a familiarity rather than on a deepening of a character mythology within a created world.

McKay is dedicated to creating a deep world for his characters to play in. The set-up to the jokes are in the mise-en-scene – the production design, costumes, camera work – which allows the performances, specifically Ferrell’s performances, to be the constant punchline. In Talladega Nights, McKay began his collaboration with cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also photographed the Bourne Trilogy. Using an action film cinematographer is the perfect example of the dedication McKay has to creating a serious, accurate world within the genre in which he is working. There is no reason why dumb characters should mean a dumb movie. McKay has precision sharpness in making a movie about American sports and in working within the sports movie genre. Putting equal thought into the quick filmic style of a Nascar race to the jokes taking place while sitting around the Bobby dinner table is a prime example of playing to the height of audience intelligence.

In The Other Guys, one of the elements of “playing it straight” McKay employs most effectively is Mark Wahlberg’s on-screen persona. The film is not Wahlberg’s first foray into comedy but he is somebody I generally have a difficult time with when he does dabble in the genre because he takes himself so seriously. McKay is able to harness this and play it off of Ferrell in order the make Wahlberg’s performance one of the genre conventions he uses in setting up the world for Ferrell to play in. From there, it is all about a game of subverting expectation. McKay throws in one action movie signifier after another – The Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Chechen rebels, scheming billionaires – in an attempt to make the first post-Recession comedy. In a certainly ambitious, but perhaps not totally successful attempt to truly parlay “dumb” comedy to an intelligent point, McKay puts images from the Madoff trial and other financial fraud cases over the credits to put the film and it’s characters in perspective.

In an interview in Mike Sacks’ book Poking a Dead Frog, McKay references a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is an economist and the book is about the psychology of decision-making. In the interview, McKay summarizes the book as such, “Fast thinking is what we do every day. It’s intuitive; it’s quick. Slow thinking is when you stop, shut out everything, really look into the foundations of the decisions you’re making, and then make changes. It’s extremely painful and uncomfortable.” Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional; slow thinking is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. McKay clearly values this dichotomy of thought and works to apply it to his films. It is perhaps this instinct that allows him to take broad, populist material and treat it with a level of scrutiny and specificity to the filmmaking style that makes it stand out from the pack. It is easy to see the difference in the films McKay directed against the similar films Ferrell starred in without McKay. The detailed mise-en-scene and flashy photography is gone, replaced by a flat, fake looking world and filmmaking. The importance of McKay’s attention to detail in the filmic worlds he creates allows Ferrell’s unique performance style and their strong character building and joke writing to thrive.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.

How Adam McKay Directs at the Top of His Intelligence