February 27, 2011|Having conducted my usual round of research (re-watching the movies, poring over the DVD commentaries and other making-of material), the Farrelly brothers were pretty much how I expected them to be when I interviewed them at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston: older brother Peter is very talkative and up for an impromptu debate, while Bobby is content to hang back and drop the occasional pearl of wisdom into the conversation. Of course, research only prepares you for so much. Their career-defining gross-out sight gags have never been my cup of tea, but just about every one of their films (including their latest, Hall Pass) is driven by an unmistakable--perhaps surprising--humanity. Still, it wasn't until our discussion heated up that I truly began to appreciate the source of that humanity. The Farrellys seemed a little surprised that anyone would bring it up, but their innate kindness shined through as we talked about their approach to making movies. (I feel somewhat privileged, actually, to have witnessed it firsthand.) It's obvious that they've spent their joint career striving to promote an egalitarianism in Hollywood--not just with their all-inclusive casting decisions, but also with their embrace of the test-screening process as a barometer of artistic success.
It was a tremendous thrill to shoot the shit with these guys, and at the end of the interview, Peter shook my hand and told me that he expected "good things" from me. "I've been doing this for one week solid," he said. "I've probably seen, I don't know, three, four hundred people. You're probably the best interviewer who came in the door." It's a compliment that left me floating on air for the rest of the day.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I really enjoyed [Hall Pass]--I think it's probably your most well-rounded film.
PETER FARRELLY: I appreciate that--we had a good time with it. It was a real tightrope, walking a tightrope making this movie, because you want to be fair to the concept of people getting a hall pass, but you want to have a satisfying ending. When we were writing this we literally were thinking [that] we had to see it through and let it be what is, and if they both get divorced at the end, so be it. Be true to the concept. And it wasn't until the end that we realized they'd all made mistakes, they'd been punished for those mistakes, and that they could end up together.
So this was written like your other films, you started with the concept and then--
BOBBY FARRELLY: This one, actually, the original script was written by a guy named Pete Jones, who happens to be the guy who won the first, uh--
PETER AND BOBBY: (in unison) "Project Greenlight"--
BOBBY: --that show. So he's a really good screenwriter, and he wrote the script, and somehow Pete and I got to read it, and we loved it, we just thought it was a great idea. Two married guys get a week off--ripe for comedy, and we all got in and kind of rewrote it together. But it took us a long time--even though we loved the original one, it took us a long time to get it to where we thought we had everything covered.
One thing that really interested me about the film was that you didn't subscribe to this Judd Apatow school of morality. You were more about very deeply-held feelings.
BOBBY: I don't really understand what you mean by that--I'd actually like to hear more.
[There's] a very [deep,] underlying conservatism to a lot of comedies these days. No sex before marriage, no divorces--I think the way you approached it was the right way. Like I say, you didn't have an overarching sense of morality, you just have people who feel things for each other, and that's the driving force behind it.
PETER: The thing I'm proudest of with this movie is that there are no bad guys. Maybe the DJ/coffee guy.
BOBBY: He's not even [a villain]--he's a nutjob.
PETER: He's a nuisance. But the people, the couples, are good people, and they make some mistakes. Like I said, they're punished for those mistakes, but it's not like the guys are bad and the wives are good. It goes across the board. Everybody's vulnerable to this, and ultimately what is a guy concept--the hall pass--I think turns out to be a chick flick, because in a way, the women get away with more, the women win: the guys come back humbled, literally on their knees. I liked the way, how it worked out. Even--what's her name--Leigh, the coffee girl. She wasn't bad. She was not a bad person. She wasn't sinister.
Is that a theme for you? Reviewing your films these past couple of weeks, that was what struck me about Kingpin. [It] didn't have any real villains--just opposing forces.
BOBBY: Well, Bill Murray was a bit of a villain.
But even then, the third act of the film, he was just there. [H]e was an opposing force, and we just have to beat this guy, and that was it. He didn't need any comeuppance or anything like that.
BOBBY: And he never got his comeuppance, either, did he?
PETER: I love that he got no comeuppance. He completely wins, he gets the money, he goes away. We felt that not everybody has to get their comeuppance, it doesn't always end that way.
Another theme that seems to run through your films is this idea that everyone deserves respect--everyone deserves to feel good about themselves. Where does that come from?
BOBBY: ...Well, I don't wanna, like, pat our back or anything like that, but honestly, Pete and I both, we like people. We like people, we like all people. We like the homeless guy on the street. For some reason, I see a homeless guy on the street, I'm drawn to him, I like him. I feel for him. I like successful people and I like people that aren't successful. I like them all the same. I think that that's the thing, we just try to make sure that every man, woman, and child is treated with respect, that's all.
PETER: But it's an interesting question, I mean, we don't get asked that. We just like people, that's it.
BOBBY: And some time in our filmmaking career, we started to use people with disabilities and all, and it came from the fact that we grew up with people with disabilities, and we just wanted to include them in the story.
PETER: We're the ones who gave them their disabilities! (smiling) No...
BOBBY: And there [were] a lot of people who said, "No no no, cut those people out. It's a comedy, you don't want to be dealing with that sort of thing." We just felt strongly the other way, "No, they're part of the story. They have a disability."
PETER: It's actually odd, we've been accused by studios--they say, "Stop putting people in wheelchairs or people with disabilities in your movies, because you're doing it too much." But to us, it would be odd to go a day without seeing somebody with a disability. Everywhere you go, there's somebody, and so to have a whole movie where there's nobody with a disability is kind of unusual, you know? That's not how the world is, so if you want to be realistic... I think the casting agents in Hollywood, they have to think outside the box. I hate that expression, but they really do, because when you write a script, and it says, "The girlfriend walks in the room," nowhere does it say "able-bodied, white, great hearing, excellent vision." So why can't they occasionally send you someone in a wheelchair...or a woman with a speech impediment, or a hearing disorder, whatever. I mean, any kind of woman. But they always send the same woman in the door, and that's the problem. That's why people with disabilities don't get in movies, because very few parts are written specifically for people with disabilities.
|The men of Hall Pass|
You also seem very interested in general Americana. Not this Norman Rockwell vision of it, not even nostalgic in any way-- just "this is how it [is]."
PETER: Well, y'know, it's funny--that's true. Like in Dumb & Dumber, when they were driving cross-country, our production designer when we were setting up for the movie kept showing us pictures of gas stations that looked like Route 66 gas stations. I said, "No no no no, I don't want that. I want a gas station. I want an Exxon, the way they look today. I want a Sunoco." I like walking into a 7-Eleven with Styrofoam coolers at the door. 'Cause that's what people know, and that makes it more real to me. As opposed to trying to do the old-fashioned pumps at the gas station. That's a world that most people don't know.
BOBBY: It's probably a little more cinematic, but yeah, it's not real.
PETER: But when we write, we like to drive a lot if we get stumped. We work in the house for a couple of weeks, and if we hit a wall, we'll get in the car and we'll just cruise, because for some reason we write well in a car. It's not that we're writing--we're getting ideas in a car, and we write them down. And so we drive a lot, all over the place. I've been in forty-nine states--haven't been to North Dakota--all the others I've been to, and I love driving cross-country. I love driving anywhere. I like driving to Florida, I like driving cross-country, I love driving from L.A. to Washington state. To me, when I get a vacation, I don't have to go to Europe, I don't have to go to Asia, I don't have to go to Africa--I just want to go across Middle America, and that's when I feel best. I just love it.
With comedy, how do you deal with the schism between amusing yourselves and amusing the audience?
BOBBY: We amuse ourselves first, we do what we think is funny, and hopefully it translates to the audience. We're not always right, by any stretch, it's trial and error--but we don't know for sure what's gonna work in our movies until we show it to an audience. An audience of people that we don't know, that have no reason to deceive us or be nice to us, and we do that. We do a lot of testing of the movie, and ultimately the audience decides.
PETER: And the truth is, the big gags, it's very easy to know. If you do a big gag, and it doesn't get a laugh, we either recut it, try it again, or we cut it entirely, just cut it out. Whereas it's the little ones, the little laughs--that's what we debate over, because a lot of times, when you test a movie, a little joke won't get a big laugh. So the studio might say, "Cut that," and then [we say], "No no no no," "Why?" "Because we like it," and it grows on you[.] I'll give you an example--like in Dumb & Dumber, at the end, when he gets a knock on the door...he finds out that Mary's married, and he looks at her and he says, (in that sing-songy Lloyd Christmas voice) "What was all this one-in-a-million talk?" And that would get no laughs--no laughs in any test screening. But we liked it. And now, I have people quote it all the time! They quote it on ESPN! "What's all this one-in-a-million talk?" It's one of those things that grows on you. So those are the ones that you really debate over. The big ones are easy--laugh, no laugh, boom. Out.
So with all that in mind, with all of these different forces, how have your comedic sensibilities evolved since you started in this business?(pause)...If at all.
BOBBY: I dunno--have they, at all?
PETER: To me, explaining comedy, or how we understand comedy, would be like explaining marriage. We're both married, he's been married twenty years, I've been married fourteen years. People say, "Well, what makes a good marriage?" Luck? You married someone that you get along with and they grow at your pace? And that's comedy, too. We try, we work on it, we don't have any rules, except that I know that if you surprise people, that makes 'em laugh a lot. That surprise. If they don't see it coming. And so that is the only clue we have, is that we ask ourselves, What do they think's happening? And you try not to give 'em that you give 'em something else, but not disappoint them.
Your relationship with film criticism seems to have changed over the years.
PETER: How so?
Like in that cut ending from Dumb & Dumber: "We don't really have anywhere to go, and we don't fit anywhere in society. Maybe we can become film critics."
PETER: Oh, yeah! Was that in there?
BOBBY: Well, no, it's not in there.
Right, the alternate ending. But then, later on--
PETER: And that was before we ever got a bad review!
BOBBY: We sensed 'em coming.
PETER: We came out swinging!
And then you dedicated Me, Myself & Irene to Gene Siskel.
PETER: Well, Siskel and Ebert sort of saved our lives at one point, and that is when Kingpin came out. 'Cause when Kingpin came out, it did five million opening weekend. It was a bomb. It was supposed to do eighteen million, and it didn't. It was a disaster. And then the studio called, and we were upset with them for not promoting it during the Olympics that were out then. And they were like, "Guys, the movie doesn't work. It didn't work. Look at yourselves. Don't blame anyone else." So we're sitting on that for a day, and then Sunday morning comes along, we turn on the TV, and there's Siskel and Ebert, and they gave it the most glowing review I think they've ever given any movie ever. To the point where they literally stopped--
BOBBY: Particularly Siskel.
PETER: Yeah. And he looked into the camera and he said, "Guys--you guys who made this movie: Thank you. We're thanking you. 'Cause we have to watch a lot of junk, and this was a great movie experience." And we're sitting at home, having just had our asses kicked. And we're like, "Oh, awesome!" It lifted us, and it kept us going. I'm telling you, it saved our lives. So yes, we are indebted to those guys forever.
In Hall Pass specifically, another thing that really struck me about it was that it wasn't just about maturity--it was about physical aging. Here are these middle-aged men, and they literally cannot do this. Where does that come from?
BOBBY: I guess we draw [from] our own experience. We're getting a little older and it becomes more...
PETER: You're talking about the fatigue of going out to dinner, and then they're like, "Let's go to bed"?
Just that general fatigue, yeah.
PETER: Well, I'd seen that happen a lot. Everybody's like, "Hey it's gonna be a big night!" And you get a meal and all of a sudden-- (Peter lets out a long, tired grumble.)
BOBBY: It's funny, when you were asking that, I was actually daydreaming for a second thinking, "Boy, I'd like to take a nap in a little while."
PETER: You know, it's funny, when you're in college, and even early twenties, it doesn't seem like--entertainment doesn't revolve around meals. You basically grab a slice of pizza and you hit the road, and you go out, and you party, right? And then when you get older, almost all of your stuff revolves around some meal. You go meet people for dinner, you have a date [for] dinner. There's all sorts of dinners, and I think it just knocks you out. The food beats you up. But yeah, I've seen it a lot--and also red wine, it's not exactly a pick-me-up. It's one of those things that, you have a couple of glasses of red wine, the lids start getting heavy, and that's what older guys drink.