Anchorman is Will Ferrell’s favorite of his own movies. But it’s not because it launched him to superstardom, or because its many iconic scenes continue to resonate today. It’s because it took three years and the help of countless people to finally get made. On the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Ferrell discussed topics including Ferrell’s new movie, The House, and how Anchorman finally made it to the big screen.
So, why is Anchorman Ferrell’s favorite?
"The one that stands out as the favorite, and it’s a hard choice, is Anchorman. Because of the journey that it took," Ferrell said. "And it’s kind of the Cinderella story of the movie no one wanted to make."
The process began while Ferrell was still at Saturday Night Live, working with Adam McKay.
"I said to McKay, because we were getting to know each other, writing sketches, ‘Would you ever want to write a feature together?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you mean like a character from [SNL]?’ I’m like, ‘No, something completely different.’"
Together, they created a script. It was Ferrell’s first time developing a long script like that.
"So we sat down and wrote this script called August Blowout, that was never made, but it was like Glengarry Glen Ross meets a car dealership," he said. "It was kind of going back to those comedies we had grown up on, where you had big, funny, ensemble casts. We thought, ‘Let’s just get a bunch of people being funny at the same time.’ And so we wrote it, and Lorne Michaels really liked it. But no one wanted to make it, it was stuck at Paramount. But it became this script that everyone read in Hollywood. It was like, ‘Why won’t they make that?’"
Paramount wouldn’t make the movie, so Ferrell and McKay were stuck. In the meantime, Ferrell filmed Old School while he was finishing up his last season on SNL. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson.
"Paul Thomas Anderson came and guest-wrote for a week on SNL," Ferrell said. "And he sat down with us and he was like, ‘I read that August Blowout.’ He’s like, ‘What if you guys wrote whatever you wanted to write, and I would shepherd it for you and kind of find out how to make it?’ We were like, ‘We’d do it. We’d do it in a heartbeat.’ So that’s when we wrote Anchorman. So he was one of the guardian angels even though I think the first incarnation of that was maybe a little too weird for Paul."
But this wasn’t the Anchorman that made it to theaters.
"The first version of Anchorman is basically the movie Alive, where the year is 1976, and we are flying to Philadelphia, and all the newsmen from around the country are flying in to have some big convention," he said. "Ron convinces the pilot that he knows how to fly the charter jet, and he immediately crash-lands it in the mountains. And it’s just the story of them surviving and trying to get off the mountainside. They clipped a cargo plane, and the cargo plane crashed as well, close to them, and it was carrying only boxes of orangutans and Chinese throwing stars. So throughout the movie we’re being stalked by orangutans who are killing, one by one, the team off with throwing stars. And Veronica Corningstone keeps saying things like, ‘Guys, I know if we just head down we’ll hit civilization.’ And we keep telling her, ‘Wrong.’ She doesn’t know what we’re talking about. So that was the first version of the movie."
"In Paul’s defense, that was a little too kooky."
As the script became more similar to what Anchorman would become, Ferrell found himself in the same spot as he was with August Blowout: No one would make the movie.
"Adam and I talk about this all the time, that we had, I think, 10 rejections in one day," he said. "If you notice David O. Russell is a producer on the first Anchorman, we had kind of struck up a friendship with him at that time. And he was like ‘Why doesn’t anyone want to make this? I’ll be a producer on it.’ And he even tried to get people. In fact there was a financier, we even did a read-through for them. And we filled the room. I think John C. Reilly was even in the read-through, we got a bunch of great actors to do it. And [the CFO] was like, ‘Oh, that was the funniest read-through I have ever sat through! But we can’t make the movie.’ They had already determined that for whatever reasons, they just weren’t going to make any money off that subject matter."
The movie ended up at DreamWorks. And that’s when Old School hit theaters.
"It was stuck at DreamWorks and it took Old School coming out and being a hit, and DreamWorks realizing they had Anchorman to all of a sudden be like, ‘Wait a minute! We’ll make this!’"
It was McKay’s first time directing, and the Anchorman crew went a little wild. They didn’t know what to expect once they finished it.
"We were just like trying the most bizarre stuff," Ferrell said. "And even in the testing that you do for the movie, some people got it right away, other people didn’t know what they were watching. We also had to reshoot the ending. … We even had one of the marketing people at the studio at the time say to other members of the press, ‘Oh, you don’t even have to watch it. It’s not that good.’ I had a buddy of mine who witnessed a fight in a theater break out, like a verbal fight, where the movie was in its end credits and someone yelled at the screen, ‘Will Ferrell I want my money back!’ and someone went, ‘Screw you! That movie’s great!’"
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.