BY ROBERT ABELE
DEEP THINKER: On the set of their latest film, Hall Pass,
Bobby (left) and Peter Farrelly discuss the meaning of life
and directing. (Credit: Peter Iovino/New Line Cinema).
Taking a break on a Warner Bros. dubbing stage, the Farrelly Brothers are readying a temporary sound mix for an early test screening of their new comedy Hall Pass. It's the part of studio-financed moviemaking that can give even the toughest, battle-tested directors night sweats. But Bobby, the younger sibling by two years, is pacing around, catching snippets of a Little League game on ESPN, and Peter is relaxing on a couch. As modern masters of the irreverent laugh, they need to know what works, so showing a cut to people in rudimentary form has become a given for them.
Playing off of each other, as they do on and off the set, the brothers start reminiscing about their very first test screening for their debut feature, Dumb & Dumber (1994). They assembled a group of friends and subjected them to a three-hour-and- forty-minute cut.
"We didn't know what we were doing," says Bobby. "It was our first movie. Well, the first guy out [of the theater] was one of my best friends. I said, 'What do you think?' He goes, 'The worst.'"
Peter colors in this painful memory a little further. "He paused and said, 'The all-time worst.' We did torture them. We thought, 'Well, they're our friends.' They were shooting daggers, they were angry."
And yet, after cutting and cutting—and then adding stuff back in when, according to Bobby, they determined they had "overcooked the meat so that it didn't taste good anymore"—the Farrellys found the one-hour-and-forty-eight-minute version of Dumb & Dumber that would launch their careers as fearless comedy auteurs.
If the history of film comedy has typically been a two-track system of either specialized zaniness (the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Animal House) or general audience mirth (every romantic comedy ever made), the Farrellys shook things up with a shrewd combination of laughs both breathtakingly twisted and sweetly good-natured. After Dumb & Dumber, the mixture would sometimes lean toward the bawdy (Kingpin , Me Myself & Irene ), occasionally toward the sweet (Stuck on You , Fever Pitch ), but in the case of their smash There's Something About Mary (1998), which expertly laced a spirited boy-meets-girl love story with edgy, shock-worthy laughs born of typically unseen body parts and functions—the raunch and romance soared in equal measure.
Of Mary's success, Bobby says the whole movie was its own bull's-eye joke, on target for being unexpected. "There hadn't been an R-rated romantic comedy in a long time," he suggests. "That's why nobody saw it coming."
To make their formula work usually means stretching the genre past its typically favored 90-minute length. The payoff for certain gags, they believe, requires spending a bit more time with their characters at the outset. "In Dumb & Dumber, there was a scene at the beginning where Jim Carrey is getting emotional with his friend, welling up, and it's not comedic at all," says Bobby, who remembers how the studio brass wanted them to take it out. The brothers insisted on its importance.
"Our feeling was, in two minutes he's selling a dead bird to a blind kid in a wheelchair," says Peter. "You'd better love him, or else the movie's over."
MOMENTS IN TIME:The brothers give a couple of golf tips to Cameron
Diaz on There's Something About Mary. (Credit: 20th Century Fox).
Peter working with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels on Dumb & Dumber.
(Photo courtesy of Peter Farrelly)
In films like The Heartbreak Kid and Stuck on You, the Farrellys shook things
up with both twisted and sweetly good-natured
laughs. (Credits: Everett)
If the Zucker Brothers (Airplane!, Top Secret!) are an obvious reference point for the Farrellys' brand of humor, an unexpected sensibility cue comes from The Andy Griffith Show, one of their favorite programs as tube-obsessed Rhode Island youngsters. Though the creators of that TV series might be surprised to know their humble black-and-white sitcom was a tonal antecedent for getting millions of moviegoers to laugh at Jeff Daniels' toilet-perched convulsions, or Ben Stiller unwittingly providing Cameron Diaz with sticky 'hair gel,' The Andy Griffith Show, says Peter, was instrumental in shaping their directorial approach.
"Every episode you would laugh, and you would also feel something. And that's what we've tried to do. In the first 20 minutes of Mary, Ben Stiller is standing up for an intellectually challenged guy, and he's got braces, he can't get anybody to go to the prom, and your heart goes out to the guy. 'Cause if you don't love him, you can't hang the stuff on his ear. We take that time so we can get away with murder."
Despite their success with outrageous gags, they hate the "gross-out" label with which they've often been saddled. "We're certainly not highbrow," Peter acknowledges, "but to call it 'gross-out humor' is simplifying something that's extremely complicated. If you don't have the humanity in there, it doesn't work. 'Gross-out' is guys pulling over to the side of the road to suck on a cow's udders for no purpose, which I've seen in movies."
"Our guys do it for love," cracks Bobby.
That said, "We're not bashful about pushing the envelope," Peter admits. "Before Dumb & Dumber, nobody walked into a bathroom, sat on the toilet and went. They'd walk in and the door would shut. We weren't afraid to keep that door open. And people were howling, not because it's gross, but because they didn't see it coming."
The Farrellys admit they were afraid that when it came time to film that notoriously un-private, humiliatingly sonic scene with Jeff Daniels, that somehow this Academy Award-nominated actor would "come to his senses" and balk. Peter explains: "We talked to him and he said, 'No, don't worry. I'll be there. I know what you guys are doing.' We hired him right out of the gate because we need good actors. We don't do well with stand-up comedians who want to be funny."
They see real actors as people skilled enough to add that extra touch to what's on the page. "What you hope for is someone to push it past where you could bring it as a director," says Peter, citing Ben Stiller's ad-libbed mangling of quarterback Brett Favre's name in Mary, and Bill Murray's wholesale on-camera rewriting of his Kingpin role. "We handed Bill the sides the first day. He said, 'I get it,' threw it, and never said one sentence the way we'd written it. But it was funnier than what we'd come up with."
During a shoot, it's typically the talkative Peter who communicates with the actors, while Bobby—the quieter one—stays at the monitor. "The first day on Dumb & Dumber, we both walked up to the actors," recalls Peter. "I'm saying something, he's saying something, and I remember them looking between us, like 'What the fuck?' So what we do is, after the take, he and I look at each other, we talk, and then I approach. But later on in the shoot, if I'm sick of walking across the room, he'll do it."
They're a united front on set—"a brotherly love-a-thon," says Peter—because they've already worked out what they want during the scriptwriting and preproduction process. They see their strength as sibling directors in protecting their comic vision from the day-to-day battles that crop up in making a movie.
"There are fights to be fought, compromises to be made, and if you're one guy, eventually you get ground down," explains Peter. "But when there are two of you, you hold each other up. Sometimes I want to say, 'Oh what the hell, forget it,' and Bobby will be like, 'No way! We are not giving in on that!' If you look at the brother teams, the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Zuckers—they have their own stamp, and I think it's because you have two guys to help maintain that point of view without it getting watered down."
But the Farrellys are far from on-set dictators. Before filming began on Dumb & Dumber—gripped by fear of exposure as screenwriters in over their heads—a friend of Bobby's suggested that the brothers rig a first-day drama in which somebody screws up, so the brothers could fire that person on the spot and show everyone who's boss. "Instead, we went the other way," says Peter. "We let the crew know that while we knew what we wanted, there was a shitload we didn't know. We threw ourselves at their mercy, and because of that, they were very helpful. I mean, I didn't know when to yell 'Action.'"
The Farrellys refuse to accept the "comedy is hard work" maxim. They run a set where they want everyone to be happy, and one that's appreciative of good work and ideas. At the beginning of each shoot, they openly solicit everyone's advice on how to make the film better, so a team spirit is engendered immediately.
"We're not stress cases on set," says Peter. "We throw a lot of parties, and we invite our crew to bring friends and family. A lot of crew guys are like carnies: they go from show to show, and eventually it all blurs. We want them to feel that this is a special show, one they'll remember. Movie crews are blue-collar people, and they're our kind of people—nice, hard workers. They're the people we grew up with, and we have a real affinity for them."
Working on a controlled set may be a source of merriment, but shooting during actual Boston Red Sox games at Fenway Park for Fever Pitch was the hardest thing they've ever had to do, says Bobby. "That was reality TV meets feature film. We didn't want people looking into the camera waving, and yet you didn't want to get in their way and disrupt their enjoyment of the game. You can't tell people, 'Don't look at us.'"
So while a good portion of the close-up dialogue scenes in the stands were done when the stadium was closed, the Farrellys wanted wide shots that showed stars Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore at actual games. "What we'd do was, I'd put Jimmy and Drew in their seats," says Peter, "and for a couple of innings, people would look and say, 'Oh my God, there's Drew and Jimmy.' Then they'd forget about them and start watching the game. We'd wait for someone to hit a triple or a pop-up, and everybody would look up, and then we'd get up and film because they would be looking at the ball, not thinking about us. It works, but it's scary, because if three guys look over and wave, it screws up the shot."
Despite the often absurd nature of their comedy and fondness for the broad laugh—these are the guys, after all, who are trying to make a modern Three Stooges movie—the Farrellys want their visual style to be steeped in reality. "We love bright colors, but we don't like a look of pretty and nice," says Peter. "We want you to recognize this world."
With many of their comic scenarios involving some sort of road trip—Ben Stiller racing down to Florida in Mary, Jim Carrey and Renée Zellweger on the run from the law in Me, Myself & Irene—the brothers sometimes have to remind their crew that what already exists in the contemporary American landscape is evocative enough. "When our characters stop at a diner or a gas station," says Bobby, "in the production designer's mind it's, 'Great, we'll do a Route 66 thing, something beautiful,' and I don't blame the guy for thinking that way, but Pete will be like, 'No, it's a truck stop. There's a Circle K there.'"
Adds Peter, "We want a feel of Styrofoam ice chests and 7-Elevens, not old Coke bottles and [vintage] gas stations. One of the most inspirational visual movies in the world for me is [Jonathan Demme's] Something Wild. The colors were real, the look was real. On Hall Pass, before we started it, I asked our DP Matt Leonetti, 'Will you just take a look at that again?'"
Besides a mantra of location verisimilitude, the Farrellys also like a cinematographer who works fast. That's because they shoot a lot, operating from a longer-than-usual script, so during editing they can trim what doesn't work. And sometimes they can't tell what's funny until they show it to an audience.
For instance, the snowball fight between a playful Lauren Holly and an overly aggressive Jeff Daniels in Dumb & Dumber. It is one of their most memorable gags, and one the Farrellys say required a leap of faith to film, because nobody was laughing when they shot it.
"It was the last scene we shot that day, it was cold, the crew was tired, and I said, 'Let's do this thing where he throws a snowball at her head,'" recalls Peter. "It wasn't in the script. The crew was like, 'For what?' We said, 'He doesn't know. He's stupid. It makes no sense. Let's just do it.' So we have him grinding her face in the snow, then throwing the snowball—10 feet to the side of her head, of course—then we put snow on her face. Just not funny to film. But later, when you cut it together, with the correct sound effect—we used the crack of the bat from Hank Aaron's 715th home run—it was hysterical."
On Hall Pass—which stars Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as happily married husbands who get a one-week fidelity reprieve from their wives—the studio didn't believe everything in their script could be filmed in their allotted shooting schedule, so the Farrellys were reluctantly persuaded to cut scenes. Under one condition, though, explained Bobby. "We said, 'We'll cut it, but if we do shoot it on time, can we go back and shoot those scenes? We think they're important.' They said, 'Fine.' They didn't trust us until we were about two weeks in, when we were already a day ahead of schedule. Then they relaxed, and we shot everything they said we couldn't do. The most important thing I would ever tell a young director is to stay on schedule. It frees you to try things."