Fall 2008

The Not-So-Wild Life

The director of Step Brothers and Talladega Nights says the glamorous life isn't what it used to be—and maybe never was.


Adam McKay
PARTY GUY: Adam McKay says directing is only romantic
when you're chasing the light for the last shot of the day.

There are many aspects to directing that have a romantic place in people's minds. The image of a guy in jodhpurs with a beret and bullhorn filming in an exotic location with Ava Gardner and Peter Lorre... smoking opium with Communists... getting into a fistfight with Orson Welles... exiting a limo with Peter Bogdanovich and Tatum O'Neal to go to Jimmy Connors' birthday party, etc., etc. Pretty exciting, huh?

The great thing about getting to do a job like directing is that these romantic notions are smashed and replaced by more realistic experiences. I've done 11 feature-length films so far (okay, fine Mr. Fact Checker, three) and what you realize pretty quickly is that the only time directing is ever cool or romantic is when you're chasing the light for the last shot of the day. That is very cool and romantic. Otherwise it's mostly a grind. A fantastic grind hopefully driven by joy, but still a slog nonetheless.

So here are my five top myths about directing contrasted with the harsh realities. Who knows, maybe in 30 years these too will have become romanticized and someone can come along and burst that bubble.

1. Shooting on Location

Istanbul! Katmandu! Marrakesh! No, sorry. Even back in the '30s when movies had names like Sleeper Car to Morocco! or Deadly Tryst in Patagonia! they were shooting those movies in Culver City against a painted backdrop with a stuffed camel and summer interns in turbans. Nowadays with the tax incentives that continually drag lower and medium budget films out of state, movies should be named Rendezvous in Columbia, South Carolina! or Murder on the United Direct Flight to Bridgeport, Connecticut!

I remember going to Vancouver to interview potential crew members on a movie that we were 40 percent sure we were going to make at 70 percent of the necessary budget. I was sick from eating Cinnabons in the airport and staying at the Vancouver Marriott (ice machine every other floor). Nothing against Vancouver, it is a lovely, lovely—aw screw it, things against Vancouver! It was hot and boring. Yeah, the ocean's nice, as are the mountains. But guess what? When you're directing you don't get to go to the mountains. You watch an Ashley Judd movie on pay-per-view and eat lukewarm steak fries from room service.

There is, however, something very cool about becoming part of a community for the four to five months of preproduction and shooting a feature. I lived in a beautiful house in Charlotte and gained 10 pounds from eating egg and biscuit sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A.

I also got to sit next to Lions wide receiver Roy Williams at a Bobcats basketball game, and was flashed by what I think was a woman in the infield at a Nascar race. So I realize as I knock the romanticism of shooting on location, I'm also building it up at the same time. Hey, maybe it's not so bad after all.

2. The Casting Couch

Yes, Ms. Victoria Principal, have a seat... So you really want this role? How much do you want it (hand on thigh)? Once again, nope. First off, I have never been in a casting session that even had a couch in it. Never. Every single time, there are desk chairs and folding chairs. That's it. Now as for the old vision of making love to Kelly LeBrock while reading sides of Weird Science and drinking mojitos, I'm sure there was a day. And I'm not sure that day was all that grand. It was probably pretty creepy and perhaps a downright health hazard, and even a little awkward. The most I have ever gotten out of a casting session was a free coffee from the casting director's office.

Assuming there was a casting couch, I would start abusing it for more mundane and utilitarian favors: What say I give you the part... (wink, wink)... and you round up five of your buddies to help me move this weekend. Or, Why hello beautiful Hollywood starlet. What are you doing this Saturday night? Maybe you could babysit my 3- and 8-year-olds while my wife and I go see a show at the Greek?

Adam McKay
STAR STRUCK: As a director, McKay (left) gets to hang
out with lots of cool celebrities, like Will Ferrell on
the set of Talladega Nights.

3. Hanging Out with Cool Celebrities and Doing Cool Things

Hmmm, let me see what I have scheduled this weekend: Paragliding with Daniel Craig; then Brad, Angie and I eat grilled manta ray at Kofi Annan's house before going to Cuba with Sean Penn to finish the screenplay about Henry Miller. Not quite. Actual schedule for the weekend while shooting: sleep for 15 straight hours, spend as much time with kids as possible and then apologize to wife for being so tired from a job where all you do is get out of limos with Peter Bogdanovich and Tatum O'Neal to go to Jimmy Connors' birthday party. (Even wives believe the myths sometimes.)

And here's another big fairy tale smasher: Celebrities and "famous" people are just regular folks. I know, it's a shocking and potentially dangerous statement. Sometimes famous people are very good-looking. And sometimes they are very funny. But go to Delaware or Michigan and you will find good-looking and funny people. Ultimately, the only people who are in any way edified by hanging with famous people are you at the age of 11 and your mom.

4. The Love and Adoration of Fans

If you make comedies everyone thinks, "Why can't he do serious movies?' If you make dramas, 70 percent of the audience doesn't see them because they go to comedies. If you make action movies the critics will savage you, and then your movies are outdated the following week with the new wave of special effects. There is no pure validation. The only person who has gotten to have his cake and definitively eat it as well is Steven Spielberg. Otherwise get over it fast. Make the movies because you love them and hope others will love them as well.

5. The Cool Cars

Maserati Party! Lambo Large! Hummer Time! Come on, drive a fun-ass car and live the life Entourage style. Not anymore. Go to any parking lot at a studio and what do you see? Prius after Prius.

Would I love to pull up at Griff's in an Excalibur with a Stefanie Powers look-alike on my arm for lunch and an ast spumante? Of course I would. I'm human. But with a huge glacier splitting apart in Greenland and a war over oil that's killed a quarter million innocent Iraqis, you have to be a jackass to drive a '58 Aston Martin that gets 6 mpg and leaves a grease slick in its wake wherever it goes. You'd be a cool-looking jackass but a J-ass all the same. Sadly, for directors the days of driving cars you can literally cram dung and meat into the gas tank to get them to run are over. As are the days of chain smoking, boozing hard, and getting a bump before breakfast. The new image for the director is more about health and trips to Bali. Come to think of it, that's still pretty damn romantic. So I guess all is not lost.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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