For the past few years, Jay Roach, the director of the “Austin Powers” series, has alternated between making comedies and true-life political films for HBO. His latest effort, “The Campaign,” combines those two very different genres.
In “The Campaign,” which hits theaters on August 10 Will Ferrell plays a popular incumbent North Carolina congressman who suffers a scandal and faces a political opponent for the first time in year, played by Zach Galifianakis.
We spoke with Roach for our Summer Movie Preview and learned just how ridiculous politics can be and what it’s like to have Ferrell and Galifianakis on set together.
MTV: You’ve been switching between political films and comedies recently. What’s it like to combine the two?
Jay Roach: That’s been an enjoyable part of this one. I’ve been working on some more serious films at HBO, but Will and Zach and Adam McKay came up with this idea and asked me to get involved about two guys running against each other for a congressional seat and mentioned that it would mostly be about how the win-at-all-costs approach to politics these days could be taken to an absurd degree. It might be funny. I pictured those two guys, Zach and Will. I’ve worked with both of them briefly on other films, and the idea of those two going up against each other in a super, super negative campaigning situation made me laugh. It would be a chance to delve back into some of the political issues but in a very comedic format.
MTV: Do you find politics funny?
Roach: It’s funny, but it’s painful. It’s painful that it does get absurd. There’s definitely humor, but when you’re doing it about real-life situations, it makes me anxious. It’s uncomfortable. I spent a fair amount of time to put people back into uncomfortable situations that they, in a certain way, wish to avoid because they already happened. I’m trying not to let them forget about them. It’s a painful thing to ask the audience to go through. It’s a little therapeutic in a different way to laugh through it, as opposed to cry through, because I found myself crying through the other stories. This one, I’m laughing.
MTV: Did doing those political films before help you make this political comedy?
Roach: It did help that I had a little bit of a background and had done a little bit of research. I’m still very naïve about politics. Through the research for those films, I was able to familiarize myself with how campaigns work, especially how spin doctors work, how campaign consultants work. Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott play the respective spit doctors for Will Ferrell’s and Zach Galifianakis’ characters. Seeing how those dynamics work does at least create a plausible version of that that could be funny.
MTV: How far removed from reality are the politics of “The Campaign”?
Roach: In a certain way, you want to say it’s far removed, but if the current campaign is any indication, it’s not that far. While we were shooting, we would sometimes come to the set having seen a debate the night before and “Oh my God, reality is trumping us. We better step it up.” I do think politics have become kind of a circus anyway. We were just a contrived circus, as opposed to the real one. Because it’s Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, and they are determined to smear each other to destruction, we use that premise some of the campaign ads and campaign stunts pretty far.
MTV: What was it like having two great comedians in the leads?
Roach: They’re incredible. I had a great time with both of them. Each is an excellent improviser and a great designer of character. When I heard they might want to work together, I don’t know where that goes wrong. Those two guys, who are both very, very good at playing somewhat deluded losers, going against each other with the conviction that they both deserve to be winners, that to me always sounds fun. They compensate for any of their deficiencies by just turning up the conviction that they are super capable. In the case of story, they turn up their antagonism toward each other. In some of the debate scenes, we just let them run and kind of go at each other, using their own improv skills and fantastic stuff came out of it.
MTV: Were they as funny off-camera?
Roach: I would also do stuff off-camera with them. In a debate, I had not decided who the background actors should be cheering for, usually you predetermine that. I just said to the actors off-camera, “Whoever they like best, that’s who they’re going to cheer for.” They started wooing the crowd between takes, offering them bribes and special drinks if they would be on their side. Zach started sharing his little portable fan that he would use to cool off in the New Orleans heat. Will started passing out trays of water. It was hilarious watching them. Then they turned on each other and started insulting each other to try disparage the other and turn their audiences away from them. It was just a funny trick. They riffed so much that I just kept doing it.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Campaign.”
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