Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were both hired for “Saturday Night Live” on the same day in 1995, but no one could have predicted the wildly successful partnership that would ensue. Though Ferrell has built an empire on playing over-the-top, out-there characters, his natural demeanor is, by his own admission, much more mild-mannered. “I’m not cracking jokes all the time. I like to gauge a temperature of a room,” the actor says.
In fact, McKay, who would stay with “SNL” for six years, including three seasons as head writer, initially thought Ferrell would take on more sober parts. “You always need a straight man, a decent-looking guy to play leads,” he says. “But we go into our first read-through, and this guy uncorks four of the funniest characters you’ve ever seen in your life. We all walked away going, ‘Where did that come from? He seemed so normal!’ We started calling him the Silent Assassin.”
Before long, the Silent Assassin and the Tall Guy With Glasses (Ferrell’s first impression of McKay) were collaborating on sketches and creating characters that would eventually lead the two funny men to form a very serious empire. Gary Sanchez Prods. began in a tiny bungalow on Whitley Court with just four employees — Ferrell, McKay, producer Chris Henchy and Jessica Elbaum, who now runs their sister company Gloria Sanchez.
|STAYING CLASSY: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay dress for the part of entrepreneurs at Gary Sanchez’s Hollywood offices. Michael Lewis for Variety|
Ten years later, it occupies two floors in a new building in Hollywood housing almost 100 employees, including the staff of their wildly successful website Funny or Die. Their films, which range from blockbusters like “Daddy’s Home” to acclaimed indies like “Welcome to Me,” have grossed well over $1 billion worldwide.
And the founders haven’t fared badly either; Ferrell has been ruling the box office for over a decade beginning with hits like “Elf” and films directed by McKay including “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers.” And McKay is fresh off winning an Academy Award for co-writing “The Big Short,” a film that also earned him an Oscar nomination for directing. Ensconced in McKay’s spacious office, the two longtime friends share an obvious rapport — they don’t so much finish each other’s sentences as trade off words throughout an ongoing free association.
To hear them tell it, neither had ever dreamed of running a company and it was McKay who initially pushed Ferrell on forming Gary Sanchez.
“I just love movies,” says McKay, who sports a Wikipedia-like knowledge of even the most obscure pics. “And I knew Ferrell’s not a guy who chases money or quick hits and I knew if we had a company where we only did stuff we liked, it could be really fun and be a good chance to meet other talented people.”
One such person is producer and Funny or Die co-founder Henchy, who had done punch-ups on both “Anchorman” and “Elf” when he was approached about Gary Sanchez. “We agreed to try it for two years and see what happens,” Henchy says. “We started in this small office and I brought my desk from home. We spent our first six months playing Playstation boxing and World of Warcraft, waiting for the phone to ring.” Henchy reflects on how times have changed: “We don’t play videogames anymore. Adam and I haven’t online boxed since 2006.”
|“We both felt like, ‘Stop telling us what the rules are. Let us mess around with the form.’ ”|
The very first pitch that came to their company was, in fact, “Daddy’s Home,” the Christmas 2015 release that went on to become the biggest hit of Ferrell’s career. While that went through many changes and took time to develop, the company released the microbudget comedy “The Foot Fist Way,” which launched the career of Danny McBride; Gary Sanchez would go on to produce his HBO series “Eastbound and Down,” as well.
Next, Gary Sanchez staked its claim in the digital world with the formation of Funny or Die, the website that has become a hub for comedy videos and launched such series as “Drunk History” and Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.” Once again, a little persuading was needed. “I think we were both slightly unsure, there hadn’t been any sites like it,” says Ferrell. “It wasn’t something we had in our game plan.”
It was their manager Jimmy Miller who persuaded them, McKay says. “(Jimmy) said, ‘It’s none of your money. Why not do it? Go make some fun sketches with your friends. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,’” McKay says. Adds Ferrell, “And if it doesn’t work, it would just disappear.”
Funny or Die launched on Jan. 24, 2007, with “The Landlord,” a 2½-minute short starring Ferrell as a tenant being harassed for rent by his foul-mouthed landlord, played by McKay’s then-2-year-old daughter, Pearl. In addition to accumulating over 84 million views, the video has become a pop culture signpost of the era, having been featured in such films as “Boyhood” and McKay’s own “The Big Short.” As for the now-11-year-old Pearl, McKay says she is unfazed by the attention: “She just expects to be featured in an Oscar-nominated movie every year.”
Since then, Funny or Die has become the go-to destination for anyone and everyone; while anyone can upload a video they’ve shot, it seems that every big name, from Brad Pitt to President Obama, has appeared on the channel. And the site keeps finding ways to top itself; in February, it quietly released the 50-minute “Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie,” starring Johnny Depp as the titular Trump.
Shortly after launching Funny or Die, Gary Sanchez began to make its name in the film world, beginning with 2008’s “Step Brothers.” That was followed by such hits as “The Other Guys” and “Anchorman 2.”
|TEAM PLAYERS: Right to left, some of Gary Sanchez’s producers include Chris Henchy, Robyn Wholey, and Kevin Messick. Michael Lewis for Variety|
Mark Wahlberg, who starred opposite Ferrell in “The Other Guys” and “Daddy’s Home,” says “Guys” was his first foray into big comedy and he might not have continued down that path were it not for Gary Sanchez.
“I’d wanted to do comedy for a long time; there were comedic elements to things I had done, but never a full-blown comedy,” Wahlberg says. “I met with a lot of people and was actually thinking, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this because it doesn’t seem like much fun.’ Then I met with Adam and Will and five minutes into our dinner, I said I was in. They hadn’t even told me the gig. I said, ‘You can tell me if you want, but it doesn’t matter.’”
Wahlberg says both made him feel welcome in the genre. “I had as much fun as I’ve ever had in my entire life. They encouraged me to be free and wild — they never told me to stop, no matter how crazy I got.”
But the company also distinguished itself with more offbeat choices that often seem designed mainly to entertain its founders first. Ferrell notes that they share the belief in following their instincts.
“I think both Adam and I kind of were attracted to each other because we hated people telling us the rules of how you had to do things,” says Ferrell. “When we first sat down to write a feature we said, ‘What if we cut to a character in a monologue for no reason?’ ”
He cites “Anchorman” doofus Brick Tamland, played by Steve Carell, as a perfect example. Prone to non-sequiturs (“I ate a big red candle!”), the fan favorite confused some executives early on.
“The one note from the studio when they read it was, ‘This guy makes no sense when he speaks, maybe get rid of this character,’” Ferrell recalls. “We had to tell them, ‘He will become your favorite in the movie!’ We felt like, ‘Stop telling us what the rules are. Let us mess around with the form.’”
Such offbeat projects include the straightforward Lifetime movie “A Deadly Adoption” starring Ferrell and Kristen Wiig and the 2012 Spanish-language “Casa de mi Padre,” which required Ferrell to learn the language. The pair joke that the latter was at the insistence of their namesake, a fictitious (or is he? — see Q&A sidebar) entrepreneur and financier from Paraguay.
“That film was in our initial contract,” McKay deadpans. “His exact words were, ‘At some point you will make a movie where you don’t talk like the white devils, you talk like the true leaders of this hemisphere.’”
|“Their comedy comes from a nice place; they are genuinely sweet, kind people.”|
Gary Sanchez has also been behind films that aren’t necessarily laugh-out-loud comedies; they produced the indie “Welcome to Me,” starring Wiig as a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery, and were behind the fantasy-action pic “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
When asked about a motto or mission statement, producer Kevin Messick (nicknamed “The Grown-Up” for his tendency to keep everything on point) says, “I think that it’s about making cool stuff with attitude. They’re tackling different genres, different topics, in different ways, but there’s an attitude and a swing to them that I think is probably a good stamp for Gary Sanchez. We’ll always make comedies, but I think we can stretch in different directions as well.”
Ferrell extols the virtues of failure. “We definitely want it to be a place where you can have fun and feel safe to fail,” he says. “That really inspires forward thinking and an outside-the-box approach.”
That word “fun” comes up so much, you might forget this is a highly profitable business. “I don’t want to make everybody in the town envious, but it really is the best company to work for,” says producer Robyn Wholey, who has been with the company for seven years. The walls of the office are decorated with swag from their films — and ones they had nothing to do with, like Rowdy Roddy Piper’s cult classic “They Live!” — and the bathrooms have jokes on the wall and a “compliment jar” where you can randomly select a kind phrase.
Oscar-winning producer Dede Gardner, who runs Plan B Entertainment with Brad Pitt and Jeremy Kleiner, worked with McKay on “The Big Short” and hopes to partner with Gary Sanchez in the near future. She says their office is one of the most fun places to take a meeting. “I went there last week and they had mocked up a photo with Will’s head on Brad’s body from ‘World War Z,’ and put it on the cover of a script,” she says with a laugh. “They just left it on the counter for me to spot.” At the same time, she says they are deadly serious about the work. “They might have fun doing it, but that doesn’t translate into less commitment or devotion.”
Concurs Wholey, “I’ve sat with Adam through all these meetings all day long, watched him on set, in casting sessions, doing PR, and he makes it all look easy. But I know it’s not as easy as he makes it look.”
|PLAYING NICE: Gary Sanchez Productions has a rep for not only for fun movies, but a fun office. Michael Lewis for Variety|
Another viewpoint at Gary Sanchez is easy to sum up: don’t be a jerk. The pair says they’ve both heard horror stories of how other sets are run that stun them. Says McKay, “We used to say this back at ‘SNL’ when I was head writer, ‘I’m the guy in charge, that means I can choose to not be a d—. I’m the guy in charge who’s not an a-hole.’ And Will and I have always liked that idea.”
Wahlberg says their personalities are evident in their work. “Their comedy comes from a nice place; they are genuinely sweet, kind people,” he notes.
Ferrell has long had a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business, which he says he doesn’t actively try to cultivate. “I watched how hard it was for my father as a working musician and I know how tough it is to succeed in any sort of business in the arts,” he says. “So to have any sort of success and not be thankful and courteous makes no sense to me.”
One of their favorite things to do on set, says Ferrell, “is to pretend to suddenly get mad for no reason.” It doesn’t always work; after a long day shooting the gang fight in “Anchorman” (shot in one day, versus the week spent on the “Anchorman 2” redux), they got up on a loading dock and called everyone together. “I started shouting how terrible they all were and what BS this set was,” McKay recalls with a laugh. “And I saw these tired, confused faces.”
“We had to stop and tell people we were joking, that we couldn’t thank them enough,” says Ferrell. “It might be the only time we’ve ever bailed on a bit.”