PUTTING THE FUN IN DYSFUNCTIONAL
Will Ferrell, the star of Columbia Pictures' comedy Step Brothers, sums up the central characters by describing two grown men in a state of arrested development. "Dale and Brennan never outgrew their adolescent ideas about what's cool, how they'd spend their time when they grew up, what they found entertaining. It was a lot of fun to explore that, thinking, 'What if you actually became, at 40, the guy you thought you'd be when you were 13?'"
Step Brothers re-teams Ferrell with John C. Reilly and writer-director Adam McKay after the trio's successful collaboration on the hit comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Immediately after wrapping photography on that film, Ferrell, McKay, and Reilly decided that the experience was so creatively satisfying that they wanted to repeat it. "We sat down, had dinner, and spit-balled all these ideas," Ferrell remembers.
"When we worked on Talladega, the funniest scenes were the ones that were loose -- like the 'Baby Jesus grace' at the dinner table," says McKay. "That scene didn't have a lot of story directive -- it was just about meeting the characters and establishing the tone. It was important to us to find an idea that, like Talladega, was loose enough but also had enough of an engine to drive the story along."
At the dinner, Ferrell, McKay, and Reilly came up with "pages and pages of ideas, all pretty solid, but all a little restrictive," says McKay. Then, the next day, as he was trying to come up with the perfect idea, inspiration struck. "Someone mentioned bunk beds for their kids and I thought, 'I got it.' Two grown guys, still living at home, their single parents get married, and now they have to share a room."
"As soon as we heard the idea, we immediately went for it," Reilly adds. "Imagine if your kids just never really matured and never left the house. I mean, I love my kids, but I really hope they grow up and move out eventually."
"What do you do if your kids are a mess?" asks producer Judd Apatow. "Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen play the parents, and what's funny about their fights in the movie is that they really just don't know what to do. Interestingly, it's a pretty common problem: how do you get your kids out of the house?"
"Brennan and Dale are very leery of each other. Neither of them likes the new situation at all," Ferrell says. "All that changes when Dale meets Brennan's younger brother Derek, who comes to dinner one night with his family. Derek is the complete opposite of Brennan. He's successful, handsome, and has everything going for him. He's also tormented Brennan his entire life. Dale comes to Brennan's defense by sucker-punching Derek, and from that moment on, Dale and Brennan are best friends."
Reilly explains his character's unique brand of self-centeredness: "Dale is an extreme case of arrested development. His dad's a doctor, so he's never really had to work for anything. He's just into the things that he likes and everything else doesn't interest him at all. He's into the drums, sling shots, karate, and fireworks. He's a guy who already feels like he's got the greatest life ever and he doesn't have to really work."
Still, although they'd be playing the "kids," Ferrell found that the movie's central conflict was in two other characters. "When we started writing, we came up with crazy scenarios from every kind of brotherly fight we could think of and any adolescent scenario that made us laugh," Ferrell says. "But as we continued, we really started identifying with the parents."
McKay says that when he and Ferrell sit down to write together, the first step is often improvisation. "It's like we're on stage doing it -- he's a character, and I'm a character, and we're flipping back and forth who plays each part," says the writer-director. "The entire goal is to come up with something that makes the other person laugh. We take turns, tossing out ideas -- I'll lie on the floor, saying anything that comes to mind, and Will types. He'll make sense of it all and then we'll flip it -- I'll rewrite the scenes and he'll take the job of sitting on the couch throwing out insane ideas."
"I've known Adam for about 12 years now," says Ferrell. "We were both hired at 'Saturday Night Live' at the same time. He had a long career as an improviser and a stage performer before he become solely a writer, and I think that influenced his directing style. It allows for a lot of freedom."
"I like working with Will and Adam because they are truly two of the nicest guys in the industry," says producer Judd Apatow. "They're really funny, they really enjoy making movies, they make each other laugh, and they make the set a really happy place. In fact, when I'm directing a movie and something comes up, I think, 'What would Adam McKay do?'"
As they wrote, Ferrell and McKay tried to ensure that characters that seemed similar on the surface had differences between them that the actors could explore. "John would play Dale, and he would be more of a planner with a 'business mind' -- even though he has terrible ideas," Ferrell jokes. "He's the one with the drive and initiative, such as it is. Brennan was going to be a little more sensitive, a little more soft-spoken. And he thought of himself as a beautiful singer, but of course has a terrible fear of singing in public.
"From there, we followed those guidelines to build the characters and to write the scenes appropriately, in terms of what these characters would say and do, even though they cross over at times," Ferrell continues. "I love that about the characters and the movie. Brennan becomes the leader at times and Dale's the follower. I think that makes it so much more interesting."
When the script was completed, Ferrell and Reilly started the work of shaping the performances that would bring the characters to life. "I would go home, watching my kids react to not getting something they wanted, or a petty grievance between siblings, and that stuff definitely informed my character," says Reilly. "In that way, even though it's an R-rated movie and we get into adult situations, the movie has a lot of innocence and joy to it."
"With these characters, there's a fine line between them complementing each other and enabling each other," adds McKay. "They really should never have met each other -- but somehow it works out."
With the freedom to explore their roles, however, came a responsibility. "There were no easy days on this movie," says Reilly. "You might start your day thinking, 'Oh, I just have two lines in this scene, I'm just walking through,' and hours later you'll find that your role in the scene has been expanded. You always have to come to the set fully prepared."
Reilly says that though he's best known as a dramatic actor who has lately performed in comedy roles, for him, there's been no change in focus. "It's still the same kind of work," he says. "It doesn't feel all that different to me; it's just the way the circumstances in the scenes change that make it absurd."
"John and Will have incredible chemistry," says Apatow. "I don't know where it comes from, but they're really fun to watch together and there's something about their comedic styles that really balance each other out. They're like a great comedy team."