When John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey emerge from the Kennedy-esque Cleary mansion dressed in over-the-top preppy clothes nearly midway through Wedding Crashers, they’re expecting to join some version of backyard touch football meant for 1 percenters. Or maybe impress the people they’re deceiving.
After giving up a walk-in touchdown, John (Owen Wilson) asks Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) to throw an interception to Claire, his love interest played by Rachel McAdams, to make her feel good.
“John,” Vaughn replies. “I was first team all-state. I can put the ball wherever I want to. I’ll make it rain out here.”
Vaughn’s ad-libbed reply tips off a scene that captures the essence of Wedding Crashers, which debuted 15 years ago on July 15. Underneath the ensuing absurd hit-stick tackles and hysterical name-calling is the kind of layered storytelling that helped make Wedding Crashers the first R-rated comedy to earn over $200 million at the domestic box office.
In other words, the set piece isn’t just for cheap laughs. Instead, each action or exchange in the football game develops characters and advances the plot.
“Part of the magic of that scene is you’re still following a story line,” director David Dobkin says today.
In a way, the game acts as a microcosm for the film’s second act at the Cleary compound: Claire walks away from the game with Sack (Bradley Cooper), not John, but the latter relationship begins to blossom as they make googly eyes at each other across the line of scrimmage. Sack’s in-your-face taunting and hardo-in-gym-class vibes establish him as the clear antagonist. After his first knockdown of Jeremy, Sack snarks, “Big tree fall hard, right? How many fingers I got up? C’mon, Pepe, how many fingers I got up?” And, in repeatedly getting pummeled by Sack, Jeremy proves he’ll go to extreme lengths to be John’s wingman. At its core, Wedding Crashers is a coming-of-age love story between John and Jeremy, and Jeremy reiterates that by taking physical and emotional hits for his best friend.
The football scene isn’t the most quotable or iconic. (Those honors go to Will Ferrell’s brief cameo—“Ma, the meatloaf!”—and the “Shout”-soundtracked wedding crashing montage, respectively.) But by blending the chemistry of a superstar ensemble cast and a nuanced script with witty dialogue, the touch football game puts all the pieces in place to prevent the film from slowing down after a high-octane first 30 minutes. And it wasn’t easy to pull off.
Long before Wedding Crashers hit theaters, the idea behind it evolved through real-life experiences. As interns on Capitol Hill, screenwriters Steve Faber and Bob Fisher would sneak into bigwig lobbyist events for free booze and food. Producer Andrew Panay would get excited for weddings in his 20s because he thought he might meet a girl. Dobkin was looking for an R-rated script and was partly inspired by growing up with a tight-knit group of guys, according to MEL Magazine’s oral history.
At the afterparty following the 2003 premiere of Shanghai Knights—a martial-arts comedy directed by Dobkin starring Wilson and Jackie Chan—the director had an epiphany when he saw Vaughn and Wilson. Dobkin had worked with each of them prior, but envisioned them leading a comedy together. “Oh my god they’re like Abbott and Costello,” he thought.
In the months after the Shanghai Knights party, a script combining the outlandish concept of crashing weddings with the idea of what happens to your best friend when they grow up and fall in love came together. Vaughn and Wilson signed on, and a legendary casting process began. Dobkin and Co. got Rachel McAdams before the release of The Notebook made her a star, picking her after more than 200 people auditioned for the role of Claire. Bradley Cooper had done only minor parts, mostly in TV shows with titles like The $treet and Touching Evil, but he impressed in his audition and was cast on the spot. Dobkin’s reported wish list for Treasury Secretary Cleary included Harrison Ford and Burt Reynolds, but he was enamored of Christopher Walken.
Will Ferrell—coming off of Old School, Elf, and Anchorman—had a full schedule but signed on as Chazz, the godfather of wedding crashing who still lives with his mom, at the last minute. (Another actor on the list for the role was reportedly Nicholas Cage.)
Dobkin called it a “perfect storm” of a script he loved and talented actors who developed great camaraderie. Plus, he got to shoot much of it in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and across the Chesapeake Bay in Easton, Maryland.
“Wedding Crashers will always be very special to me,” Dobkin says. “Not only because of the experience with Vince and Owen, and then later the experience with the audience, but also because of all the different actors who were in the movie.”
Dobkin starts the filming process for each of his movies (including his latest, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) with a three-week rehearsal. For the first week, he works with actors individually, going over the script and their characters’ backstories. In the second week, actors pair up and study the next layer of the performances, interacting with each other in character. The third week is for blocking and tying up loose ends. But the second week is the fun part: That’s when the cast goes through scenes and works through improvisations, a key aspect of comedy filmmaking.
“The improvisations yield other new ideas that get rescripted into the scene,” Dobkin said.
In the football scene, after Sack scores a game-opening touchdown, Flip (Carson Elrod) celebrates by exclaiming, “Crabcakes and football. That’s what Maryland does.” That line, and countless others, came out of those improv rehearsals.
Even with the prerehearsed rescripting, there was still on-site improvising. For instance, the 25 seconds of Vaughn’s presnap playcalling, which would impress even Peyton Manning but goes straight over Wilson’s head:
Vaughn: Blue 17! Blue 17! Red seven! Red seven! Red seven! Hot route! Hot route! Hot route! Red seven, red seven red sev-en! Hot route! Red seven! John! Red seven!
Wilson: I don’t know what “red seven” means.
Vaughn: Hot route!
Wilson: I don’t—what is “hot route”?
Vaughn: Will you just go stand on the other side, please?
But the scene took much more than comedic dialogue to execute. Shooting it was a whole different challenge. When Dobkin studied film at New York University, a professor told him if you ever want to see how to edit a great scene, watch the NFL. Broadcast teams know when to cut to a nervous wife in the luxury box, a coordinator covering his mouth with a play-call sheet, a wide shot of the field while a play develops, an injured player on the sideline.
Dobkin, a lifelong football fan, applied the NFL lesson in the most literal way possible. The cutaway shots to Kathleen (Jane Seymour) and Gloria Cleary (Isla Fisher) for their reactions after each play come straight from NFL Sunday crowd pans. So does the three-quarters shot of pre-snap motion. “It’s always really guided me,” Dobkin says. “I had that in mind when I went to go shoot this scene, because there are so many points of view, so many characters, and so much movement.”
To get all the action on screen, Dobkin had to film strategically. He set up four cameras—including handhelds and a steadicam—and instructed the actors to sprint in certain directions. This way, you get to see every actor’s perspective, their body language and interactions. It feels like we’re playing in the caricatured backyard football game with them.
Every couple of takes, the crew had to adjust the cameras to get Vaughn and Wilson’s two-shot, Dobkin says. And for every reset came another taxing sprint. Dobkin called everyone involved with the scene a serviceable athlete, though Walken’s awkward, elbows-out throwing form on his touchdown pass might beg to differ.
Everyone put “150 percent” effort into each take, says Andrew Panary, one of the film’s producers. It took five hours to shoot the four-minute game.
“I just remember it being all out,” Panary says. “Between Vince taking the hits and the amounts of sprints everybody was doing up and down the field, and resetting over and over, they were playing their hearts out.”
To make the scene work, the hits had to be right—not necessarily in the realistic sense, more so in leaning into the absurdity of the situation. And the physical comedy had to fit into what Dobkin calls the “mini-storytelling setup” for the rest of the movie.
The 6-foot-5 Vaughn—who played football, baseball, and wrestling in high school—took real contact from Cooper, though a stunt man hit the deck for him (the zoomed-out shots are his double, Dobkin said). The filmmakers pulled this off by attaching Vaughn to a ratchet, a machine that rapidly yanked him backward onto mats, and then replacing him in postproduction with the wide shots. Dobkin says he wanted to avoid having Vaughn actually crash into the ground, since a serious injury could’ve halted production.
On the giving end of the body shots, Cooper looked the part. He played basketball growing up, and Sack runs convincingly enough that Wilson’s character speculates he must be on steroids. “It’s like trying to cover a fucking racehorse,” John quips.
For maximum effect, Cooper’s hits had to be big, and they had to be loud. Not only for laughs, but to emphasize the beating Jeremy would take for John. During the mixing stage, Dobkin pushed the volume up until Andy D’Addario, a re-recording mixer, informed him it literally couldn’t get any louder.
“The louder it got, the funnier it got,” Dobkin says. “And I kept swearing that ‘I’m telling you, if we go really loud and people feel that hit, the laughter will be knocked out of them.’ And it totally worked that way in the theater.”
Though the audience hears each ridiculous hit, John’s back is always turned when they happen. He thinks his buddy “Baba Ganoush” is faking. “Come on, stop milking it. You’re making us look like a bunch of pussies,” he says as Jeremy writhes in pain.
The exchanges help unpack John and Jeremy’s dynamic; John’s becoming so distracted by love that he neglects his childhood friend. When Jeremy ends up pancaked yet again, John asks in disbelief, “What is his deal?”
“If I had any air in my lungs, I’d scream at you. … I hate you,” Jeremy whispers, showing his frustration with John’s shifting priorities and foreshadowing the friends’ rough patch later in the movie.
Wedding Crashers isn’t a perfect movie, and 2020 isn’t 2005. It’s impossible to look back on the movie now without considering that the main plot hinges on two borderline predatory men who lie about their identities to sleep with women (not to mention the Cleary family’s homophobia and misogyny). But the football scene, and the film overall, certainly resonates with many viewers, at least thematically. Although we haven’t all crashed weddings, we have played in games that someone took way too seriously. Suffered for a friend to help them find love. Said “I hate you” without really meaning it.
“I think the audience is laughing because they’re going on this journey and they understand how the characters are feeling and can identify with making sacrifices for your friends,” Panay said.
Danny Emerman is a freelance reporter and student at Syracuse University, where he covers sports for The Daily Orange.