Etan Cohen directs Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in the upcoming R-rated comedy, Get Hard. Cohen talks about getting Ferrell and Hart on screen together, the social commentary of the buddy comedy, Ferrell’s nude scene, and the film’s character relationships. Our set visit interview with Cohen follows below:
So, I understand this is sort of a tricky scene to film today, because it’s kind of two scenes combined together? That’s what Kevin and Will were telling us.
How was it separated and how did you…
Cohen: Well, it used to be one scene about her stitching him up and one scene about the dinner with the same content, and we just realized that we get all the important stuff in one. It’s just sort of, I don’t know if they talked about, there’s a lot of really important plot and character moments that happen in this scene, so we wanted to make sure we preserved all of that and preserved their characters without bulking up.
I know your background is as a screenwriter primarily. What’s it like to finally get to direct? Is it a relief or …
Cohen: It’s great. I mean, that’s, you know, I mean, it’s, you know, it’s, when you write you have a certain vision of how it could be and it’s great to be able to see it all the way to the goal line.
Can you talk about the evolution of the script and what’s changed since the original draft of it?
Cohen: Wow, it’s hard. It’s a blur, because we change things all the time and I’m sure if you talk to Will and Kevin, you know that we change things every day in the set in the performance too. You know, what hasn’t changed is like the, kind of the DNA of it and you know, the sort of soul of the set-up that Ian and Jay wrote, but the, it’s a really hard question.
Were there any large scale changes?
Cohen: Well, I would say, put it this way, it used to be more a movie about, we tried to make it more, something about class, and like, when I approached the rewrite, I had in mind movies like Trading Places, had become about, a little more social satire and have a bit more something to say. To me, that’s, with movies I did like Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder, the real joy is being about the sneak in some social commentary and some satire, while having it really be funny, like one of my proudest moments is still, ow, my balls, where you know, it plays on every level and it’s, you know, we can all just enjoy someone getting kicked in the balls, but also we understand that it’s a satire about media and what entertainment has become. That’s, to me, that’s always the holy grail is to find jokes like that and this seemed like an opportunity to say something about class and be able to says something about the American economy while doing crazy funny stuff, so that was kind of the goal with the rewrite.
We saw a little bit from filming today, the process of Kevin and Will when they get into a scene and going through it, to figure out where the jokes are and how to make it work. Has that been sort of the day to day process with them and also sort of allowing room for them, obviously Kevin and Will are great improvisers, coming up with this stuff in the moment.
Cohen: Yeah, I think, you know, obviously we had a long rewrite process and then we had a table read and then we had rehearsals, so throughout that we’re honing the script and the story and trying to make sure that, especially as a first time director, I wanted to approach the production with as tight a script as we could, so we always had the safety net of a script that we knew worked on the page, and then that give you the liberty to explode it and go off the page, because you know as long as we shoot what was on the page, we knew it made sense at the table read. We knew we had a coherent story.
So, then that gives us the freedom to like go crazy, both in terms of tone, in terms of the level, in terms of the kind of jokes we had, and then we get all kinds of stuff. A movie like this, when you have great improvisers, you’re kind of just harvesting as many joke areas as you can, and then when we get to post and editing, we’ll go, oh we said, fuck, too many times, or we showed too much nudity, or we didn’t show enough nudity or, you know, it’s getting too this or too that and you can kind of dial into the right kind of consistent tone throughout. So…
Is it hard filming someone like Kevin who comes up with so many different versions of the same line…
Cohen: It’s a luxury. I mean, and Kevin is great, because he knows how to lock into the story and the performance and what needs to be done for the grounded version and then we just kind of let it rip and we sort of go mining for gold too at the same time. So like, like what, my approach is always, we know it worked on the page, but we’re never going to be satisfied with what’s just on the page. We have these two guys here who are the best at what they do and coming up with new stuff, so we’ll always like try to look for things we didn’t even think of on the day.
Are you editing as you go?
Cohen: You know, I’m trying not to too much. We always have in mind, ok, well, if this doesn’t work, or if, for some unforeseen reason, audiences find this too graphic or too crazy, we could drop out of this scene and jump to this scene. At the same time, we don’t want to censor ourselves too much, because we want to feel free to like do all the weird stuff that makes us laugh at the same time, but at the same time, I think a lot of the production process is always giving yourself, like what I call like escape routes, like, if this scene doesn’t play, if we realize we’ve had too many dirty scenes in a row, and it’s like, because you don’t have the luxury when you’re in the middle of shooting, to see how these scenes play all in a row, kind of, you know what I mean. So, like we’re always trying to like have insurance policies on, ok, if that doesn’t work, we can just jump to this thing.
You keep saying nudity. I’m assuming you mean Will?
Cohen: Will demands it.
Will said that there was a scene coming up later this week that he’s scared to film. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Cohen: Absolutely not. I wasn’t going to fall for that. First time director, not stupid.
We heard this day 42 of a 44 day shoot, so what has been your biggest challenge so far and what do you think is the biggest challenge yet to come, whether it’s in these last two days or in the post process.
Cohen: Well, the thing that’s going to be really interesting and a challenge, but also exciting in the post process is finding the specific tone of it, because this is, for all of the crazy stuff that we do and the things that Will is talking about, the scenes he’s scared to do, we want it to feel very grounded, like Will is not playing character like he might in other movies. So we want it to feel very true and we’ve gone to very extreme places, so I think it’s going to be interesting in the editing, finding that balance between grounded, but still being able to justify some of the craziest jokes we’ve had.
Now, with that, are you a proponent of including all that stuff on like extras on an eventual Blu-ray down the road, having alternate takes, deleted scenes available, or even an entire additional cut, like McKay is kind of known for doing.
Cohen: Oh yeah, there’s stuff that makes, I’m sure that some of the stuff that makes us laugh the hardest won’t end up in the movie because like, Judge, who gave me my first job, like, you know, just like the biggest friend to comedy is being short. So, I don’t think you can like, stuff gets stale if it gets too flabby, but yeah, I’m proud of the stuff we did and want people to see it.
Will had mentioned that the studio had asked, is there any way this could be PG-13 and you guys were like, no, there’s no way. Do you think it’s easier to make an R rated comedy now that so many of the biggest comedies are R rated?
Cohen: I don’t know. It’s like, I mean, it’s like I try to let other people think about the economics of it and I try to focus on the creative side, and I definitely, there’s moments when people are like yeah, let’s make another R rated comedy and there’s moments where people say like oh, you cut your audience in half if it’s R as opposed to PG-13. We just felt like we couldn’t be true to the material without it being rated R and if we tried to make it PG-13, it would be this weird feathered fish. It would just feel very unnatural to talk about prison rape without making an R rated movie and it was just like, it wasn’t so much like, it was more about just felt like it couldn’t be done and that ultimately, even if we tried to make it PG-13, we’d get an R rating and it would just be a sort worst of all worlds.
You mentioned Trading Places as sort of similar in tone. Do you watch…
Cohen: I don’t know about tone, but the goal of some of the commentary.
Do you watch movies to psyche yourself out to get in that mindset?
Cohen: Yeah, I mean sometimes I want to watch movies both to see what to do and what not to do also. Yeah, definitely.
Has there been anything in your experience as a director that you didn’t think was going to be part of the job, but is something you’re dealing with and have overcome.
Cohen: I think that what a lot of people tell you, a lot of the job of the director is having an opinion about everything, and it is important, but you have to have thought about, ok, we’re going to have salt shakers on their table, like should they be this size or should they be that size. Like, the mega phone he holds in a certain scene, should it be this size or should it be this size, and like, you have to know, you have to either pretend, like at least pretend to have a very strong opinion about it, which is also part of the joy of it, that you get to pick all those things, but you’re creating a whole world, so you have to care about every detail of it.
Did you ever expect to be directing a baboon in movie and how was that experience?
Cohen: Always. I don’t know why I always did, but I did, and then it happened and now I understand.
How was that?
Cohen: He was great. He took direction great, was very respectful.
Not too demanding. Not too many coffee breaks?
Why was Kevin the right actor, comedian to pair with Will to play off in this film, for this role?
Cohen: Well like, I mean, I’ve though about this a lot and what’s so great about them is they have, you guys were talking to them together, you see, they have very opposite, to me, anyway, opposite comedic energies and styles and I always feel like Will is very zen and quiet in his energy and lets the materials flow through him and Kevin is constantly creating this perpetual motion machine, creating stuff out of nothing and pulling it out of the air, and the two of them together, seeing opposite kinds of energy on screen is really exciting and together, as a pair, whenever they’re together on screen, you just always want to watch them together. It’s really exciting.
Is there old duo that they remind you of?
Cohen: Nothing comes, that is a good question, but…
You mentioned Trading Places you think of Murphy and Aykroyd.
Cohen: Yeah, but I don’t want it, like I don’t want to say it’s a black guy, white guy comedy. I don’t know. It’s more about Kevin being very frenetic and Will being very calm. To me, I’m not sure…
Cohen: Well, that’s great and it’s, Kevin has done really an amazing job of, and you’ll see in the movie, he has a different voice for both characters. He has a different posture, and a lot of that is about saying, yeah, we’re playing into the stereotypes that you’d expect, like the black guy in the white guy/black guy movie to be playing into, so hopefully it comes across as, we understand what we’re doing and we’re sort of making a statement about it, but he has a different posture, the way he talks, different wardrobe. It’s a very complete character within the character that he’s created. Even his character is saying I’m playing a character within a character.
Are those two characters, those two worlds coming together in this scene, because…
Cohen: The first time he’s sort of had to sort of dance around the fact that he’s doing two different guys and that’s why he’s forced into this ridiculous boys in the hood story, because it’s like what’s most accessible to him about this pretend thug that he’s created.
When in the movie is this scene as far as, how far through?
Cohen: I guess it’s about, I mean, it’s sort of a little past halfway, about 60% through, and it’s kind of after the end of, it’s sort of at the end of Will’s training and where it pivots to them kind of solving the crime of the movie.
Can you talk about Will’s relationship with his fiance, Alison Brie, as compared to Kevin and his wife’s relationship.
Cohen: Yeah, great, I mean, we tried to make, there’s a lot of parallel worlds going on in the movie, and one of them, we see that even though Will thinks, or James thinks that Darnell is like this thug who’s had this criminal past, Darnell is actually a middle class small business owner with a very solid family and this great relationship with his daughter, in contrast to Will’s character, James, who has this fair weather fiance, Alissa, played by Alison, who you know, is sort of representative of the world that kind of abandons him as soon as he’s convicted, and Will may find true love in this journey, without spoiling anything. I’m not supposed to say, it is the baboon and part of this is sort of thinking, you know, him getting stripped of all the things that are superficial connections to his world, and then discovering a more real life at the end of it.
Get Hard opens March 27th. Click here for all our previous coverage which includes interviews, trailers, and more.