Actor Charlie Day and Director Richie Keen, of the film Fist Fight, came to Phoenix for a press event to discuss the film. A few of us got to meet and talk with them. Here are some of those questions.
Q: Having just come from Chicago, and we have such beautiful weather here in February, it had to be asked, what do these gents think of Arizona?
Richie Keen (RK): I love Arizona. I’ve been to Arizona many times, I’ve been to Phoenix many times I have friends who live here and there’s something very, very peaceful about this sort of desert life. Uh, I grew up in Chicago and it’s a much different vibe and yeah… I always loved coming here; I just find it really peaceful.
Charlie Day (CD): Same here. I grew up in Rhode Island and there’s something about when I come to the desert that I like so much and it’s like a well-kept secret, too. It’s like, ‘What’s out there in Phoenix?’ And you get here and you’re like… ‘of course, no one ever leaves.’ He smiles.
CD: It’s… you’re living in paradise.
RK: It’s like a nicer L.A.
CD: That’s right. L.A. without the cars.
They both laugh.
RK: And everyone looking over their shoulders.
Q: Charlie, did any of your cast mates try to throw you off?
CD: Kym (Whitley) threw me off a bit. (Laughs) I assume you mean get me off my game? I think when Ice Cube threw me into the school bus (Keen snickers) for the fifteenth time in a row, it really started to rattle me.
RK: He’s a very committed actor.
CD: I started to wonder if anyone realized we were still filming and if he was trying to smash me to pieces.
RK: I was impressed because I was thrown by Tracy Morgan and Charlie wasn’t. To me, he’s so… bizarre and interesting and nothing is ever the same way again that I couldn’t believe how Charlie could just role with him and stay in the character and stay in the story. I was just cracking up, thanking God I had a camera on him for half the time so– CD: Yeah… for some reason, I feel like I speak Tracy Morgan.
CD: I like the absurd nonsequitur.
Q: Part of the fun of this film is that Andy has to grow and learn on this journey. One thing he learns is that ‘snitches get stitches’, right?
CD: Yeah that’s the tough lesson.
CD: That’s a great question. I think Ron Strickland learns that, possibly, his methods are a little too extreme. That this man who is known for being so soft and kind and easy with the students wasn’t just a fool for having that point of view but that he has a point of view and that he’s willing to go down swinging for that point of view and that both he and Ron Strickland have to find middle ground. It’s a good metaphor for, I think, everyone in life which is that no matter what your point of view is if you disagree with someone you can’t be so bullish on your point of view as to not listen to them. And so they’re forced to understand one another.
RK: Yeah, just piggybacking off that, I think it was so important to us that both teachers be teachers who cared and they just happen to have different philosophies and that Ice Cube was, you know, he loves the Civil War. I mean, he cares. It’s not like he’s a bad teacher, he just believes that (he’s old school), he believes, as he says in the movie, ‘I don’t need to be liked. I need to educate. Whereas, Charlie wants to be your buddy. And there’s different philosophies in teaching now… I…I don’t know what the right answer is; it’s probably specific to each school and even each class and even each student but I do think that Ron Strickland probably learned that he could probably ease up a little bit. I mean, without ruining the ending, he does actually tell Charlie’s character to calm down a little bit at one point.
CD: Right! Maybe that is where he learns his lesson.
RK: He sees someone else doing it and he realizes it’s a little out of control.
CD: That there’s such a thing as too far.
Q: If you scrub away all of the laughs and all of the F bombs and all that, there’s some good social commentary here. Was that in the script or was that something you guys brought into it during the production?
CD: I’m sure that there was something in the original draft there but it was something that was very important to both Richie and myself that the movie was anchored on… which is, I think essential to any kind of comedy, especially comedy where you want to be edgy or occasionally outrageous. If it’s not anchored on some positive message then it really just feels like shock value for the sake of shock value. And we’ve been doing that for twelve years on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I think we would have been a one season show if each episode or the majority of the episodes weren’t rooted in some message… I hesitate to say what they are but for people to watch and make them think just a little bit.
CD: It was important to us.
RK: I think we felt like, first of all, we don’t have the answers but we do… we all can agree no matter what you think about politics or anything that we need to look at the education system. It’s just not working the way it once did. And I wanted the film to feel like a prison riot movie. I felt it was the prison guards versus the inmates. You’ll never see two students going at each other; that was deliberate in the movie. And the way I shot it, I wanted to open in that prison yard, that courtyard. I didn’t open it from the school or from where the flag or the brick wall are and even in the way I tried to light it, you know, the cinematographer I hired did Copland he did To Die For he did My Own Private Idaho I didn’t hire the guy– I mean, he’s done commercial movies but I wanted it to have that feel of like– the school I picked was rusty and crumbling and so it was important to all of us that– we’re not a hard message film; we wanted to be the most outrageous comedy of the year but–
CD: It’s a very pro-teacher film, too.
CD: I think it really shines a good light on the difficult situation that teachers are in these days both with their lack of ability to discipline kids and their lack of resources sometimes. And I think Cube’s character would have been really one dimensional if we didn’t give him a great philosophy as to why he wanted to have this fight… beyond the fact that I got him fired.
Q: There’s a lot of intensity in this movie. There’s a lot of characters who are right on the edge of losing their sh*t and as I’m watching it, it reminded me of this story I read a long time ago. Bruce Willis, one of his action films, before each take, would get psyched up… throwing chairs around and such. I was wondering if you or any of the other actors had any little routines you ran through before each take to get into that mindset.
CD: It depends on where in the movie I was. Certainly, in the beginning of the movie where it’s just me talking to my students I probably wouldn’t do too much before but if I was supposed to be especially agitated, I would do a little bit of jumping up and down and pumping my fist. It’s something an actor once told me he saw Tom Cruise doing and uh, as a joke we started doing it on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and now I love to do it. I just feel like it gets the blood flowing. Or sometimes even, and I learned this one from Danny (DeVito), I’ll start just saying a few lines in character, either to somebody else in the scene or to nobody, just right before we roll the camera but… there’s little tricks you can try.
RK: I will say, I don’t think you’ll mind me saying this, in the scene where Charlie finally tells off the administration… he did it one time. Perfect. I shot it a second time just in case the camera messed up. I was sure I was going to be there for hours. I mean, it’s this passionate scene and this monolog and it was just… (He thinks) …he was so– by the point of the shoot, when we had gotten to that point, he was so ready for it. Umm… just in terms of the tension that is something we added, ultimately, in the script when Charlie and I started working on it. It was important that the fight have meaning. It had to have a cathartic experience for everyone so we added these crazy senior pranks that the principle’s going through because I just kept thinking, when I cast Dean Norris, seat Charlie between an angry Dean Norris, (Hank from Breaking Bad), on one side and Ice Cube on the other, I really felt like that is a no win situation. What do you do? And to watch him try and finesse that and just– Yes, he did it but he had a reason and so… I’m glad you picked up on that because we wanted all the teachers… Tracy Morgan getting pranked, and everyone. We just wanted to feel that by the time we got to the fight it was gonna be–
CD: And there were great pranks in the script, in the original draft, but we definitely wanted to make this such a terrible day for Andy Campbell that by the time he finally says, ‘I’m gonna go down swinging no matter how hard you hit me,’ that you can kind of justify that he gets to that place.
Q: The world has gotten a little bit more absurd lately. As someone who deals with absurdist humor, how do you catch up to a world that’s just getting crazier and crazier? Do you use your free speech to ridicule things that are going on or do you go in a different direction?
CD: It’s really interesting. I think, certainly Sunny, has thrived in that era and we’ve been around a long time. When we first started the show, I think Bush was in his first term, maybe his second term. So, that was an interesting time if you remember… [sic] we were in Iraq and then, of course, it’s not to say the Obama years weren’t interesting times, too, and, of course, now it’s very volatile and out of volatility comes great comedy. I think it’s our job to just point out our flaws, no matter what side of the political line you’re on. I think both sides deserve a good comedic lashing and umm, you know, I don’t think anything’s ever going to change in terms of that with comedy. If the world gets to such a tame place that we can’t have any sort of satire any more than maybe that won’t be a good thing… who knows.
Q: Kinda lookin’ like you might not be able to make fun.
CD: Yeah, that’s true. It’s definitely getting harder for people to take a joke. I think humor is necessary in times like this. I think the greatest thing that could happen right now is for a movie like this to come out so people can just go laugh and relax a little bit and they can watch people punch each other if they feel rage and want to punch somebody. I think movies that have something intelligent behind the humor will survive. It’s tougher to make senseless jokes and it should be tougher to make senseless jokes but if there’s a good intelligent reason behind the joke telling, I think it should hang in there.
Q: How did you pick the song you have Andy’s daughter sing on stage to her bully during the talent show? That song is a touch dirty, we’ll say.
RK: That was written to be the Kanye West song, Power, which is the coolest song. I’m so excited about it. And then we found out, shortly before filming, that we couldn’t afford it. I was like, ‘Oh my God! How do you replace this Kanye song?!’ And my music supervisor must have sent me a hundred songs and I got my headphones on late one night and I hear this song and I’m not that hip… I don’t know all the best stuff. And I send it to Charlie and I go, ‘Charlie, this will change the movie!’ And Charlie’s like, ‘We gotta do this song!’
CD: Well, for me, it gave us the idea of… cuz originally we kept getting notes about that sequence that it felt like this sort of an About A Boy moment and then suddenly, ‘Oh, what if it feels like it’s going to be an About A Boy moment but then we make it a big comedic…’
RK: …we don’t do earnest very well.
CD: But also then that gave us the idea, ‘Oh, what if my daughter is being bullied and she’s using this song as payback?’ Cuz in the original script, she was just a fan of rap music. Sometimes those limitations lead you to an idea that makes it a better movie.
RK: It was Charlie’s great idea that, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if he and his daughter were going through a very similar day and she also didn’t know how to handle it and that in helping her handle it, he manned up enough to realize now he’s gotta go handle his stuff.’ So, it was a really amazing opportunity that started off as a problem.
CD: Yeah. Sometimes the best ideas come from the limitations that you have.
Q: Did you allow a lot of improvising, Richie?
RK: Charlie made a distinction between improvising and alternative punch lines. Everyone stayed on story. We’d always get everything we wrote and then I’d be a fool not to have Tracey or Jillian or Charlie or Kumail take a shot at, ‘Do you think there’s something funnier to be said?’ For example, in that scene in the hallway where they’re talking about meth, a written line was, ‘Don’t do meth.’ ‘Why? Because it’s a gateway?’ ‘No. Because it’s the finish line.’ That’s written. Charlie’s saying, ‘Don’t do meth. Period’ And Jillian is saying, ‘When I’m on my period don’t do it, because that’s when I need it the most.’ Jillian came up with it so… we always played. It was such a challenge for me in editing because I did like to let people play and there were so many things that made me laugh. You know, I had a playwriting teacher in college who said, ‘Disciplined writing isn’t writing every day… it’s cutting your favorite scene because it doesn’t progress the story.’ And editing was an exercise in that.
Q: Given the nature of the narrative, were there any pranks on set?
RK: There really weren’t.
CD: I’ll tell you what… if anybody pranked me during the shooting of that fight, I would have killed them. Parts of this movie were so physically difficult to shoot there wasn’t a lot of room for extracurricular activities.
RK: I’m not a prankster ever as a director because, for me, I want everyone to feel so safe. I want them to feel so taken care of that… people can fuck with me all they want and I have a sense of humor about it, although on this movie no one did, but my job with this group of personalities is to just be like a big hug around everyone saying, ‘We’re gonna do it. It’s gonna be great!’ So, I’m not a big believer in it.
When I first walked in to meet them, I couldn’t help but notice they related to one another very well. They seemed like brothers or dear friends who have known each other for their entire lives. They were overwhelmingly warm to me. That said, I don’t want to sound like a fan, I’m only presenting what I witnessed.
Charlie Day and Richie Keen are two of the friendliest people I’ve met in a long time. I sincerely hope they continue working with one another and as often as possible. As I’m sure so many are aware, the air around them is filled with the aroma of mutual respect and admiration and each would only wish the best for the other… not only themselves or their friends but for anyone. I was happy to have been around them. To be honest, I don’t think I saw Keen’s face ever drop its smile. What impressed me the most was their attitude toward their fans. Where the interview was taking place, we could be seen through a window and people couldn’t help but notice the familiar faces behind the glass. Much to my surprise, they stayed after the interview and met their fans, took pictures, signed autographs; never once saying, ‘No.’ They were very humble and very kind.