‘Anchorman’: How Will Ferrell’s classic almost didn’t exist
Anchorman is a brilliant film. It’s funny and charming and wonderful, all mixed into a tight package (a breathtaking hiney, as Ron Burgundy might say). The 2004 movie launched Will Ferrell into the stratosphere, and helped kickstart or dramatically enhanced the acting the careers of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner. Plenty of other actors you now recognize had bit parts. Go back and watch it now. (We’ll wait…) You’ll be amazed. Put it this way: Seth Rogan is a cameraman who is onscreen for maybe a minute. The film helped establish Judd Apatow and Adam McKay as comedic geniuses with an ear for the mainstream. Heck, it may have even predicted a trend.
But Anchorman almost didn’t exist. In fact, the initial version of the film fell flat with test audiences and was scrapped. According to legend, the original plot involved the kidnapping of Veronica Corningstone by a terrorist group called The Alarm Clock. Rob Burgundy and his band of willing cohorts sprung into action, rescued the fair maiden with an affinity for non-regional dialect, and celebrated with a pool party (probably).
It was the perfect absurdist comedy. Except for one problem: audiences hated the movie. They didn’t think it was funny. The terrorist plot fell flat. The jokes were lame. DreamWorks, the studio putting up the cash for Anchorman, demanded reshoots and a dramatically recut version. Alarm Clock, meet the cutting room floor. The result was a significantly altered flick and, it’s fair to say, a far superior one. Many of the chopped scenes can be seen on the direct-to-DVD release Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. Trust me, it’s not good.
(A quick aside: Things absolutely no one could hate include Steve Carell’s screen test for the part of Brink Tamlin. It must be seen to be believed.)
What’s amazing about the original version is that it would have launched even more careers. Bradford Evans took a look at the cast. The bandits of Alarm Clock were none other than Kevin Corrigan, Maya Rudolph, Chuck D of Public Enemy fame, and Tara Subkoff. Not too shabby. But that’s not all. Amy Poehler, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Neil Flynn, and many other now famous faces would up jettisoned from the theatrical release. The all-star Anchorman cast was initially a murderer’s row of talent.
I wondered how a movie like Anchorman would end up in reshoots, so I asked around. Adam McKay did not respond to an email requesting comment on this story. (Seriously, I emailed him.) Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow declined interview requests through a publicist. But a friend in the industry who asked to stay anonymous because Hollywood is a strange place provided a little bit of insight into what might have happened.
“Research will let marketing/creative know that the film/spot/trailer is not testing well amongst the four basic groups – young male, older male, young female, older female – and other criteria. If the film is trying to ‘own’ one of those quads, they will tweak creative to track better,” she said. In the case of Anchorman, it’s fair to assume the target audience was young males and test screenings failed to satisfy that fickle crowd. Enter reshoots.
The result, the Anchorman we all know and love, is a film that relies more on jokes, gags, and catchphrases – and yes, a bit of sexism – than the initial effort. There’s barely a plot; just ad-libbed scene after ad-libbed scene featuring a cast that can do no wrong. The result is excellent and audiences approved. Anchorman grossed more than $84 million despite a budget of just $26 million even with the reshoots.
Apatow, McKay, Ferrell, and the rest of the gang learned a lesson. They learned it the hard way, but they learned it well. When Anchorman 2 hits the silver screen, don’t expect any complicated plot twists. It will be straight up fun. That’s what everyone – the actors, the studio, the audience – wants.