Will Ferrell has a movie playing at SXSW: eight words not inherently demanding of a second glance. After all, Will Ferrell is a major star in the world of cinematic comedy and any film fest would be thrilled to showcase his newest project.
But when you hear that his new film, Casa de mi Padre, is a Spanish language comedy produced by an American studio, your neck-snapping double take is all but assured. Written by Andrew Steele, one of the current head honchos at FunnyorDie.com, and directed by former SNL writer Matt Piedmont, Casa de mi Padre seems particularly apt for Austin, a city with a sizable Spanish-speaking (and comedy-loving) population.
We were lucky enough to sit down with these two comedy icons who are helping to define the
CultureMap: This is a very high concept comedy. What was the genesis of this project?
Andrew Steele: Will, being a bit of a loony bird, always wanted to do a movie in Spanish. It’s been in his head for probably four or five years. There weren’t going to be any takers there in the studio world that he lives in, and it was just a project for which he couldn’t find the right people. We started laughing about it and started thinking about what it could be, so I just took that and went off and wrote it. That was how it came together. In the process of writing it, I felt the joy of thinking of Matt directing it. I had worked with him at HBO and then going back to Saturday Night Live. So the whole film really is about the three of us coming together to make this weird thing because we all share this weird sensibility.
CM: With Funny or Die being started by Adam [McKay] and Will, and with you guys working on SNL and Funny or Die, there already exists this creative relationship. However, this is the first film to be born of the Funny or Die system. Were you at all trepidatious about bringing that sort of content to the screen in feature-length form?
AS: In fact, it’s not a Funny or Die film, it’s a Gary Sanchez film, and I think that was intentional on Will’s part. But Funny or Die is going to do films, and you’re right, there’s a little trepidation going into that. It has to be the right statement film for Funny or Die. This is more like we were trying to make…I mean, it is out there…but we were going for a straight up piece of film.
Matt Piedmont: Yeah, and not have to fit into a Funny or Die brand, which is a great brand and an amazing place. But the films that will be born out of the website will need to be a little different from our movie. With our movie, I mean people talk about how we don’t love comedy anymore so we set to make a different kind of comedy. The whole film’s a joke but it’s played deadly serious. That may or may not fit the Funny or Die brand, it may, but we look at as if we were making a $200 million epic and only had five dollars so we had to cut corners.
AS: To that point though, it is the same sensibility as Funny or Die. It’s Will and Adam, and me, and Matt. We all think alike; we’re all in the same world. So to say it’s not a Funny or Die film, technically it’s not, it just lives in that same space. I don’t think there should be any trepidation toward anything that comes out of Funny or Die. We try everything, and that’s the driving force behind that site and behind that film.
CM: Matt, I want to talk a little about directing Will in this movie. I was actually just informed that Will doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, which is surprising because his diction in the film is so good. So what were some of the challenges of directing a comedian like Ferrell in a language not his, or your, native tongue?
MP: The only real hurdle was that, because he wasn’t fluent in Spanish, Will couldn’t ad lib; he couldn’t improv. Well, he could, but only with his physical gestures. That was actually a miracle because, in Spanish, your subject and verb get moved around all the time so it’s hard to know where to gesture. But he comprehended it somehow. The other hurdle was that we were constantly going to the translator/script supervisor to see if he had mispronounced any of the words. The trick we wanted to do was to have him deliver all his lines with no dubbing. But other than that, it was pretty much like any other directing experience. I tried to find the perfect moments for my characters.
AS: What’s remarkable is that his whole brain had to be focused in on literally just the sound of these words; almost memorizing things by their sound. He had a comprehension, he could read Spanish, but he had to do it with such good diction. That puts so much energy up here (points to the brain area), that asking him just to light a cigarette was a task.
MP: Like I said, it’s a miracle that he pulled it off. He’s brilliant in the movie, and I think it’s really an accomplishment in his career whether you like the movie or not.
CM: On the surface, it would be very easy to perceive this as a gimmick movie since it is so high concept. But you also have Gael Garcia Bernal who is a tremendous, internationally acclaimed Mexican actor. So obviously this is not a movie simply relying on the gimmick. How much thought did you give to how this film would play to Hispanic audiences as well as American audiences?
AS: I was very concerned during the writing process to make sure that, first and foremost, we were being respectful. We can’t definitively say that the film will be embraced by the Hispanic community, because we just don’t know. But the fact that Gael and Diego [Luna] loved the script gave us the confidence to keep going with it.
MP: It’s coming from a completely sincere place and embracing Latino and Mexican culture. There’s always someone who will have a problem with it and miss the point. As far as we’re concerned, we were very careful about that. We also loved it all and genuinely embraced it.
CM: There are so many moments in the film in which you intentionally insert mistakes and production flubs that are obviously harkening to low budget films. As a rabid B-movie consumer, can you tell us if there were any specific titles that inspired these callbacks?
AS: Those came out of a concentrated viewing of a lot of 80s Mexican films, which was the worst period in Mexican cinema. It’s almost like they shot this stuff on VHS... in a day. There were all kinds of intentional continuity issues.
CM: I also understand if you can’t answer for legal reasons, but were any mannequins harmed in the making of this film?
MP: Our attorneys advised us not to talk about it. But yes, unfortunately we lost a couple. They sacrificed themselves for their art.
AS: The mannequin union came down on us pretty hard.
CM: One of the things that really struck me about this movie is the James Bond-y opening song. Andrew, I know that you wrote that song. How did you get Christina Aguilera onto the project?
AS: Luckily, Will Ferrell is a name that attracts people. We were able to go through that upper echelon of management that I don’t live in. But that was a choice; we were going for that Bond thing. We tried to think of who would be that Bond singer now, someone like a Shirley Bassey or Nancy Sinatra. Christina totally achieved that with her voice. And we love good openings.
MP: Andrew said, “it’s got to be Christina.” I had my doubts, and then I realized it was genius. I think it’s a fun way to kick off the movie.
AS: We have to give credit to Jon [Nau] and Andrew [Feltenstein] who wrote the music. They understood the medium so well and I’m in love with what they wrote. I really love that song. And we’re both record collectors who love music and Christina recorded that song in the Capitol Studio where all the great ones have recorded. We got to strike things from our bucket lists.
CM: This isn't a Funny or Die movie, but would you want to take Funny or Die web material and translate it to the screen in the future? Or are you worried about falling into that SNL sketch movie trap?
AS: I don’t like the idea of taking something you see on Funny or Die and making it into a movie. I like the idea of developing from the talent that made it or the characters. We’re in the process of developing a character that was in one of our videos. But it is a real concern. I just think with comedies, if you’re coming from the SNL tradition like we are, critics with no brains just automatically criticize it by rote.
CM: I’m only asking because I want to see The Landlord movie, but I can wait...
AS: That girl would be like eighteen now!
CM: Yeah, I think it would still work.