The election process in this country can sometimes get so wild, you just have to laugh, especially if you’re Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis or admitted political news junkie Jay Roach, director-producer of the irreverent new comedy “The Campaign.”
Known for “Meet the Parents” and the Austin Powers send-ups, Roach also successfully addressed the American political system from a more serious perspective in HBO’s acclaimed dramas “Recount” and “Game Change,” and has come to believe that sometimes the best way to confront the subject is head-on, with humor. “I think comedy is the correct response to politics these days. At least it gives you something to laugh about and makes the reality of it easier to swallow, whereas if you just watch the news it can be pretty scary,” he offers. “Looking at some of today’s election campaigns, I don’t know if this is what our founding fathers had in mind.”
Luckily, Roach was able to exorcise his anxieties in a big way in “The Campaign,” with Ferrell and Galifianakis, who also served as producers on the film, and whom he calls “two of the funniest, smartest guys on Earth. Will and Zach go all the way as rival candidates who have the resources to completely destroy each other by pulling out every form of shady campaign strategy you can imagine, every sleazy video and shameless dirty trick. And it quickly degenerates from there.”
The filmmakers, anticipating an R-rating, knew they’d have free rein to take this story as far as it needed to go, in a way that audiences everywhere could relate to—whether Republican, Democrat, Independent or fill-in-the-blank.
Ferrell, who stars as entrenched incumbent Cam Brady, friend to all and faithful to none, says, “One of the things the story makes fun of is the amount of money that can be poured into elections and how much influence it can have. The district these guys are fighting over is a relatively small one, unimportant on the larger stage, but, for the powers that circle it, it’s vital for their business interests and therefore worth a great deal to them.”
Representing the competition, Galifianakis stars as clueless first-time candidate Marty Huggins, who may have started out with some good intentions but soon adapts to reveal a talent for treachery that just needed some focus—which his backers are happy to provide. “I’ve followed politics all my life and I’m still amazed by the amount of puppeteering that goes on behind the scenes in the making of a politician, and how the public can be duped by that,” says Galifianakis. “We’re just showing, in a fun and funny way, how the sausage is made.”
Pitting them against each other, tooth and nail, over a hot Congressional seat was suggested by producer Adam McKay of “Saturday Night Live” renown, who has collaborated with Ferrell for years and revels in blasting both sides of the aisle. “I wrote many of the cold opens for Will as George Bush and for Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton on SNL, so political posturing in general has always been something I’ve been interested in,” he says.
In the same vein, “The Campaign” is an equal-opportunity offender, taking aim not at the politics but the process, and how, for a growing number of campaigns being waged around the country, it doesn’t seem to be so much about parties or issues or ideology anymore but about spending, fighting and winning… and spending some more. So why not take that to the next level and see what happens?
“As one insult leads to another, both characters eventually lose their minds,” McKay continues. “They snap. What starts out as typical mud-slinging and crazy accusations turns into a coliseum death match.”
“The Campaign” also lampoons one of Roach’s favorite PR tools: the ubiquitous catch phrase. Says the director, “People are always reaching for catchy, meme ideas to carry the essence of who they are; loaded but largely meaningless phrases for the short-attention-span public, that we all seem to fall for, time and again. I’d love to be in the brainstorming meetings for some of these and see how they come up with a winner. For Cam Brady, we went with ‘America, Jesus, Freedom.’ Amplify and repeat. Because these are the words he believes people want to hear. It seems that candidates can’t get anywhere now without talking about freedom as if they invented the notion, and they have to paint themselves as the most patriotic of Americans–certainly more patriotic than their opponents, who they’d like us to believe are in league with terrorists.”
Notes Ferrell, “Cam’s big slogan isn’t really a slogan. It’s not even a sentence. It’s just words, like his other battle cry, ‘Cam Brady in 0-12,’ which doesn’t even make sense, numerically, but sounds powerful and decisive.”
Screenwriter Chris Henchy, also an executive producer on “The Campaign,” explains, “It’s not long before even the pretense of running a rational race between these two is cast aside and it’s about burying the other guy at all costs. I think it’s the natural evolution of the process, the absurdity of where campaigns like this could be going. It’s all about, ‘How can I take down my opponent?’ Get him out of the picture, ruin his life and win. Afterwards, maybe you can think about good deeds and figure out your policies, but first you have to win. It doesn’t matter how you get there, just get there!”
The filmmakers’ biggest challenge lay in making an outrageous comedy that could outpace the outrageous reality of an increasingly out-of-control news cycle. Throughout the project’s development and production, everyone involved was entertained, not to mention amazed, by the fact that so many of the scenarios they devised for laughs were touched upon, if not occasionally topped, by actual headlines: affairs, scandals, lies, hunting accidents, manufactured outrage over youthful indiscretions and chest-pounding displays of national pride. And haircuts. Big, fat expensive haircuts.
“The funniest thing about the movie is that so much of it rings true,” says McKay. “You’re going to see a lot of ridiculous accusations, a voicemail message gone horribly astray, a giant rally with fireworks and dancing cheerleaders, and a candidate for Congress flying down a wire like a rock star. It’s going to look insane and over-the-top. Then, in the weeks afterward, you may notice things in the news that aren’t so far removed and realize it’s not all so crazy after all. Watch this movie, then look at what actually goes on and you might think, ‘Holy crap!’”
Still, screenwriter Shawn Harwell points out, for all the mayhem on screen and improvisational input from the cast, “Jay made sure it all made sense and that we were getting the most emotional payoff for the journey, by telling a complete story and then finding ways to mine the comedy from that, rather than a lot of throwaway gags. And Will and Zach bring a lot of likeability to these characters that I think will make audiences root for them to succeed in their own way.”
Considering the timing of the film’s American debut, Ferrell says, “Releasing it before the next big presidential race might give people some relief from the election season and the fatigue of campaign ads, and bring them some laughs just when they need it most.”
“If there’s a message here,” suggests Galifianakis, “It’s that we’re all screwed.”