Many of the strongest comedic actors trained as improv comics. Thus, many of the strongest comedy films feature actors who were allowed to show off those skills on set. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is one example. Released in 2006, the film gave stars Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Leslie Bibb the opportunity to improvise throughout key scenes.
Of course, it can be difficult to make a movie in this way. Simply editing together the various footage of comedians giving in to their first instincts can present a struggle. After all, the editor and director still need to tell a cohesive and consistent story; while there may be room for improvisation, the dialogue and action need to further the narrative.
That’s why it was important that someone like Adam McKay direct the film. Having previously worked with Ferrell on Anchorman and at Saturday Night Live, he thoroughly understood how to make a movie that shows off the unique qualities of improv comedy, while also making sure each individual scene added up to a quality picture.
Interviews with McKay also illustrate the complex process of directing this kind of movie. For instance, McKay stated that the original cut of the film was longer than three hours. He and his editor simply had a large volume of footage to work with when putting the pieces together. They needed to find a way to turn that long cut into a shorter film, while also maintaining the integrity and humor of the performances.
The importance of editing
McKay’s approach demonstrates his overall understanding of just what type of effect a comedy movie should have. Although comedy films can absolutely be personal or political, they should also be designed to please general audiences. Thus, McKay showed the original cut of Talladega Nights to friends and family in an attempt to better determine which aspects of the movie were funniest. Instead of considering himself the sole authority, he appreciated the fact that other viewers could help him identify which scenes he needed to include, and which scenes could be left on the cutting room floor.
McKay stated that showing the movie to personal friends whose comedic opinions he respected helped him to reduce the length of the cut to just over two hours. Of course, this is still too long for many commercial comedy films. That’s why he also showed the film to a preview audience. By listening to the suggestions from the preview audiences, he was able to edit the film down to a manageable length of under two hours. Finally, as director, he made the choice to add in a few extra elements that he personally enjoyed and didn’t want to exclude.
Essentially, McKay described the experience of editing this type of movie as a constant “discovery.” Some elements that didn’t seem to be particularly strong during the production ended up having a much greater effect on viewers than anyone had anticipated. On the other hand, scenes that McKay and others expected to get big laughs didn’t elicit the anticipated response from the audience, and were thus excluded from the movie’s final cut.
A cast of gifted—and unexpected—comedians
Of course, the director is by no means the only creative force responsible for the success of a comedy film that relies on improv-based performances. It’s also extremely dependent on the cast members—their creativity, timing, teamwork, and their understanding of their character and his or her relationships with others.
Luckily, McKay worked with highly talented performers on Talladega Nights. Again, he had already worked with Ferrell in this capacity on other projects. He knew he could count on his leading man to deliver the goods. He also recruited Baron Cohen, who had demonstrated his mastery of improv comedy in Da Ali G Show and Borat.
That said, McKay was also surprised by the improv skills of other key actors, like Reilly and Bibb. He had wanted to work with Reilly before, but was still impressed by just how substantially he exceeded expectations.
Bibb, who had never performed improv comedy before working on Talladega Nights, also made a tremendous impression on the director. McKay explained, “Bibb also took to the loose improv climate on set. Although she had done several films, this was the first that enabled her to showcase her flair for comedy. Leslie did so well improvising with Will, we immediately knew she was right for the part… She possesses that rare combination of talents, an actress with movie star looks who can create a strong character and flow right along with all the improv around her.”
This combination of creative talents resulted in a rare type of comedy film, one that offers audiences the experience of watching an extended, professional-quality improv session on screen. Without the right cast, the film wouldn’t have worked. The same can be said if the wrong director made the movie. Luckily, Talladega Nights is the kind of improv comedy movie where all the right elements fell into place.