With the Farrelly Brothers ("Me, Myself & Irene")
(First published in Madison Magazine)
Even the directions to the set are nice. Like an old friend giving counsel, they spell out in homey detail how to wend my way an hour north of LA, diagram the cross streets, and warn me to be careful crossing the road into the old California ranch (black angus cattle posing beneath statuesque old oaks) where the final shots of "Me, Myself and Irene" are being filmed. Following these directions in my airport rental car, the smallest in the county, I find myself growing well disposed even before I’ve made the acquaintance of the Brothers Farrelly.
Nor am I disappointed. Nicer, more down-to-earth guys could not be imagined. They have none of the usual trappings of success chic – air-blown hair, baseball caps angled just so. As I’m ushered into their trailer, they both stand to pump my hand and I sense at once that they’ve made a point of not letting themselves be put through the glamour machine. That the brothers are close is evident in the way they finish each other’s sentences and speak in the singular ("We’d rather be thought of as a writer than a director"), but what’s a wonderful surprise is that I feel instantly close to them.
Warmth is contagious, that’s why. Everyone on the set is nice: Renee Zellwegger flirts charmingly, Jim Carey makes lame jokes just like the skinny junior high school geek he really is. The prop man shows me the chicken that just exploded anally (guaranteed to be the hit image of the summer). With no hint of awkwardness or strain, conversations with people this real could encompass any number of elements we have in common, but we choose to begin with the coincidence that our fathers are medical men.
Daniel Asa Rose :Your father was a doctor, too? What kind?
Bobby: A GP. Yours?
Peter: Oh yeah? You seem okay.
DAR: I'm recovering.
Peter: Let me ask you something. Do you believe in psychiatry?
DAR: Do you?
PETER: I think it's good in bursts. I think you can definitely get screwed up and somebody can help you out. But as a lifelong thing, I don’t know.
DAR: You guys have never taken the plunge?
PETER: Three months – right before I got married.
PETER: This part, you’ll be opening the story, Dan. Exclusive!
DAR: What happened?
PETER: I didn't get married till I was 40. And I wanted to get married, crazy about my wife, you know. But getting married was like my decision to be a writer. It took me about 3 years to jump into it. It was too much of a leap. But with both, once I tied the knot – once I made that decision to write – never looked back. Been happy as a clam. But I got very depressed right before the marriage, for 3 months.
DAR: What was it?
PETER: Panic attacks. The guy said it was a variety of things. Number one is, fear of success. You know, we were in LA for 9 years and nothing was getting done. Then DUMB AND DUMBER came out, and I was, like, fear of success. And that's how I was about marriage.
PETER: And secondly, I wasn't good on breakups. Like, whenever I had a girlfriend, I’d never be like "That's it, it's over." It'd be kind of like I'd be ducking away, and then it would fizzle, and then I'd be on to someone else. He said I was mourning every girl I ever went out with. So, in my head, whether it was like 15 or 20 years ago, I was thinking of everyone else.
DAR: That's interesting, because a lot of your characters are the type that hold on forever. Ben Stiller [in There’s Something About Mary]: 12 years later, he still wants to respark it.
PETER: Yeah, yeah. I could be driving along with my wife I'm crazy about, yet I could be thinking of someone I went out with 15 years ago and wonder how the hell she's doing. Anyway, for me, I went [to therapy] twice a week for 3 months and the guy kind of straightened me out. I got married and he said, "I think you're okay."
DAR: So next time there's a crisis you have somebody to check in with, right?
PETER: Yeah. He's a good guy. The way it turned out, it was really interesting. It turned out I'm gay, and I didn't know that. [LAUGHTER] No, he was really great for me. But I wouldn't want to be raised by one. [To Bobby] Of all our friends, you know who went into psychiatry? Jimmy Levine. Yeah, we know this guy Mark Levine – one of our best friends. But his younger brother Jimmy was a pain in the ass. Everything was like, "Well, why did you say that? What did you mean by that?" And I'm like, "I don't know, man. I'm fucking ten." And he was a constant source of annoyance to Mark. It was a Goofus and Gallant thing.
DAR: You mean the good and bad characters in Highlights? The magazine that was in every dentist’s reading room in the 60’s? I never heard anyone reference Goofus and Gallant in a filmic or literary way before. Is one of you Goofus and one of you Gallant?
BOBBY: No, we're both Goofuses.
PETER: We’re like 4 year olds, we reference them all the time. We went to the dentists a lot as kids. Bob once had – what did you have 15 cavities?
PETER: I had 13 at once. Irish teeth. Really weak.
BOBBY: Especially after Halloween.
DAR: Well, I'm older than you. I grew up after fluoride. I bet I’ve got more cavities than you. [Peter opens his mouth to show DAR a set of fillings that would set off an airport security monitor.]
DAR: (impressed.) Whoa.
PETER: Oh yeah, our teeth were weak – you bite into a banana and you lose a tooth.
DAR: So was the shrink right? Has it worked out all right with you wife?
PETER: I give her some slack, because she's first generation Yugoslavian-Hungarian
DAR: Wait a minute. What's her name?
PETER: G–o-c-s-a-s. Why?
DAR: I think I may have dated her.
PETER: You have? [LAUGHTER] Were you ever on the football team?
DAR: No, but I was in the Navy. [LAUGHTER] But levity aside, as they say: You guys are getting some major respect these days. Wasn’t it Bill Goldman who said MARY was the best film of the year?
BOBBY: Bill Goldman has been very complimentary to us.
PETER: If you're gonna be complimented it's nice to be complimented by him. If I could name one guy that had an influence on us it would be him because not only do I love BUTCH CASSIDY, but I love his books, too. I love "Temple of Gold."
DAR: That was my favorite book freshman year!
PETER: Yeah I love that.
DAR: I never met anybody who read it before!
PETER: My writing is probably closer to him than anybody else.
BOBBY: He doesn't follow the strict format of how sentences should be constructed, you know. But I always know exactly what he's saying, where his inflection is.
PETER: He's got a great voice and he's able to get it out there. I mean that's the beauty of it. It's very clear.
DAR: Does he talk that way in person?
PETER: He's extremely charming because he is very humble. He's a humble guy and, you know, he’s a god. He’s sort of the premier screenwriter.
BOBBY: We love him.
DAR: The reason "Temple of Gold" touched me so much, you knew he was really speaking about things that moved him.
PETER: He, he's, that's the guy we want to be.
PETER: There's a couple people that we look up to in this business. He's one. The Zucker Brothers. We worked with them when we first came out here and we saw how they treated people and it was – they were very nice. They treated people well and people in return worked hard for them. And that's what we wanted to do.
DAR: What other writers do you admire? Coen brothers? I’ve heard you say you’re anti-Coen.
PETER: When I say anti-Coens I mean that with the highest respect.
PETER: You know that's my way of complimenting them, seriously. They're artists more than us. We’re comedy writers. That’s our strength. We’re not great directors. But we're really good writers. We direct for one reason only: so no one fucks with us.
BOBBY: Yeah. That's why we like Goldman because Goldman never even directed. He just sees himself as a writer. He's a writer at heart. If we were to be complimented about being a director we'd much rather be complimented being a writer.
BOBBY: That's the hardest part. Directing is just like Pete said. We do it so that nobody else screws it up for us.
PETER: But the Coens are – they're directors. I mean they're writers as well but they're really good directors. Like I look at their stuff and I'm, "Whoa, that's pretty good."
BOBBY: Very stylized. They definitely know what they're doing with the camera, you know. We don't. [LAUGHTER] We're not camera buffs and we don't see ourselves as becoming real stylized directors in five or ten years. Like we’re, we're just happy.
DAR: Is that partly a clue to your success? That there aren’t intricate camera angles and you're just telling the story?
PETER: Kind of. In the Coen brothers movies the camera is like a character, part of the movie. You’re very aware you're watching a movie. In our movies we don't want you to think about the camera in any way. If you are then we're doing something wrong.
BOBBY: Right. [In our movies] any time you thought, "Oh, that's an interesting shot; wonder how they did that?" We broke frame.
PETER: I'll tell you another writer we really like a lot is Philip Roth. "My Life As A Man" isn’t his best book because it's a little uneven. But there's a section in the middle of that book -
DAR: I know what you're gonna say. About that crazy girlfriend?
BOBBY: Yeah. That influenced Peter –
PETER: My book "The Comedy Writer" has a kind of a crazy character like that and I was inspired by reading his book.
DAR: She definitely inspired him into a whole new range of comedy because he didn't believe there were people like that in the world until this woman started fucking with him.
PETER: Yeah, yeah. The whole thing with that woman is one of the funniest fictions I've ever read in my life.
DAR: What about the pantheon: Chaplin, Preston Sturgess, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen?
PETER: You know, we were compared to Preston Sturgess a lot when MARY came out and the truth is we'd never seen any of his movies. I actually went back and watched a bunch. And, you know, what I got is that comedy doesn't hold up well unless it's physical comedy. Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Chaplin, that stuff's hysterical. But like verbal repartee –
DAR: – tends to go on and on and on.
PETER: So I didn't find his stuff really funny. But what I found so impressive was that within each one of his movies, he had five movies by today's standards. Today you get one idea and run with it for an hour and a half. He had like every 15 minutes a new idea that was better than the last. So I was really impressed by that.
BOBBY: Woody Allen was a huge influence on us. Mel Brooks. Harold Ramis.
PETER: We never had anyone we're like, "Oh geez, you know, we're kinda following this format or style." If anything, we try to stay away from whatever we feel has been done to death.
PETER: When we were writing MARY and Ted [Ben Stiller] goes to the door and he knocks –
BOBBY: – and we had a goofy father come in. He's got the pipe and we realized wait a minute, that's such a familiar character. What if he opened the door and her Dad's a black guy, you know? Like we just get sick of writing a scene that's real familiar so we – it eventually comes to us to do it a different way.
DAR: So that's what drove that scene for you – you were looking for something that would surprise yourselves?
PETER: Yeah. Almost every scene we tried to just think what's familiar about it and –
BOBBY: – ask "Why does it have to be familiar?"
PETER: We always try to paint ourselves into a corner. We go to a place where it seems like we're shit. "Hold on! You have three guys that could end up with her!" Like that's not good because, you know, two are gonna be disappointed that they aren't gonna get her. It's the best place you can be. [Because] now you have three weeks writing to figure a way out of it and nobody sitting in the theater is gonna figure it out in 10 seconds. That's how we do it.
BOBBY: Whenever we come up on a scene, a joke, we always ask ourselves what does the audience expect in the next 10 minutes? Like when Ted goes to pick Mary up for the prom, you expect a very All-American mom and dad. Don't give 'em that.
PETER: The trick is – you don't give them what they expect ...but you don’t dissatisfy them, either.
DAR: So that's essentially respect for the audience, then?
PETER: Yeah, oh yeah. It's gotta be equally satisfying but in another direction. I don't mean to single anyone out but if you give them one of those TWIN PEAKS kinda thing where it's like all the rules of reality are slightly different, well that doesn't work that well with comedy, ‘cause then it's like anything can happen. A UFO could come out of the sky. But Mary's father could be a black guy.
BOBBY: It puts them off balance. It's like "oh wait a minute, it's not quite what I thought." So then they have to start paying attention.
PETER: Our ideal, when we set out to make MARY, was to make Mary the woman we find perfect – somebody who is kind, smart, athletic, she treats people well. But the idea that her stepfather is black in a way makes her more perfect, because that says a lot about her. That she's clearly close to him. You know, the last thing we want is somebody that shows any sign of bigotry.
DAR: What were some other possibilities for the dad opening the door?
BOBBY: We always liked Chris Farley.
PETER: And we thought of a couple other guys, I can't remember who. Just casting ideas in our head. But then, I don't know, sooner or later, one of us said to the other, you know –
BOBBY: If you just keep thinking long enough, you just come up with those little differences. And again, you know, keep people satisfied.
DAR: For me, the perfect example of this is the end of Dumb And Dumber, where we think we foresee the ending. They’re going to get on the bus with the cheerleaders. And then, as you say, you change the expectation in a way that really satisfies the audience.
PETER: You know, we do a lot of [audience] testing. We show it to five hundred strangers, and then ask 20 people later, a little focus group, and they'll tell you everything that has happened in every other movie. They want the clichés. And in a way, the studio puts a lot of pressure on you to go out and deliver that to them.
PETER: They almost tied our hands and said, "Get those guys on the bus."
DAR: That would have ruined the whole thing.
BOBBY: I know. They ask the audience, "How many people want them to get on the bus?" And 90 percent say they want them on. But we said, well, at least shoot it both ways so we have a choice. And luckily, we discussed it with Jim Carey and Jim said, "I'm not going on the bus. There's no way."
PETER: We're big believers, though, in test screenings. We test screens six, seven, eight times at colleges before we ever do a test screening with the studios. Just because we don't want to go in half-assed. We want it to be working already, so they'll back off, like, "Hey, this is great. Keep going, whatever you're doing."
BOBBY: When you're sitting in a room, and you have a comedy, you listen. They laugh or they don't laugh. It's cut and dried.
PETER : It’s all about timing, like fine-tuning a stand-up comic's act. He has to tell each joke probably 20 times before he realizes the right way, the quickest and best way to tell that joke.
BOBBY: And the right order.
PETER: Yeah. Some jokes will work better when they follow other jokes. Like in MARY, the scene with the zipper? Actually showing the nut caught in the zipper – we tried showing that at different places. Originally we had it when the father came in, that got not much of a laugh. And then we showed it when the mother comes in. A little bigger laugh. And then we did it when the cop looked at it. And finally we waited for the fireman. And by holding out that long, what had happened was, now the audience thought, "Well, we're never going to see it."
BOBBY: They gave up on it.
PETER: So now it's hysterical.
BOBBY: If you don't test it, you don't know which one's the funny one.
PETER: It took us, you know, two or three months of editing to get it right.
DAR: Can you learn how to get that right? Can you pull out a lesson from that, that you would apply to other kind of situations?
BOBBY: Well, there's no like rule that works for every situation. Sometimes you want to do it fast, sometimes you want to hold off. You never really know. That's why you got to play with different things. There’s no one who knows how to bring down the house, who’s the expert.
DAR: So does any of this experience help you the next time? I mean, if you can't cull lessons, how do you get better?
BOBBY: I think, in the world of comedy, what they laugh at today, they may not laugh at in a year. I don't think that we're gifted to the point that we'll always be on the top of the comedy world. I mean, in five years, the nature of comedy may be that they look at what we're doing and that's like old hat, you know. So I –
PETER: – I don't want to be one of those old comedians that's jaded, and looks at the new people like, "That ain't funny! We were funny, you know?"
BOBBY: Right. What's funny is what people are laughing at right now.
PETER: I don't know why we clicked when we clicked.
DAR: Would it help your comedy to feel more secure, or would it hurt?
[BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PETER: One reason we can write well, is because I'm always afraid of failure.
BOBBY: Yeah, a little afraid of everything.
DAR: Which is greater, your fear of success or your fear of failure?
PETER: I gotta tell you: I'm the president of the Pussy Club. I really am. I won't go on a roller coaster. I hate fuckin' airplanes. I am definitely afraid of failure. When we're writing, I'm lying in bed all night thinking of it. You know, people don't look back and say, "Well, of course, the Farrelly's turned out to be good with these big comedies. Remember how funny they were in school?" We were never the class clown. Ever. We were too quiet for that. I'm not the guy who comes up with the good one-liner. I come up with a one-liner on the way home. In the car I'm like, "Oh fuck, I should have said this."
BOBBY: That's why we're writers. Because you can make it happen.
PETER: The thing that terrifies me is being a stand-up comic. That's horrifying, to think that someone throws something out at you, you gotta come right back?
BOBBY: That's not us. We'd be there like –
PETER: "No, I'm not, you are!"
BOBBY: "I'm going home!"
PETER: But sitting in a room, racking our brains –
BOBBY: That comes to you. Or it doesn't, and you come back the next day and do it.