Ah, politics. The darkest, dirtiest, most dangerous game ever played. The sort of game that can turn good, honest men into shifty, cannibalistic cretins for the mere taste of glory. Politics: murky. cutthroat, explosive… and hilarious.
That’s what a visit to New Orleans for a The Campaign set visit taught me. My first trip to either an active movie set or the American South was thrust upon me quite suddenly in February of 2012. Less than forty-eight hours after I was told I’d be heading down to the set of The Campaign, there I was, watching take after take of a toupee-topped Will Ferrell make ferocious love to Zach Galifianakis’ onscreen wife.
And believe it or not, even that scene was all about the politics. As the duo blasted obscene exclamations into one another’s faces — a routine the lot of us treated to the set visit would be watching for the better part of a half hour — it was explained that to this scene, and to every other scene in director Jay Roach’s film, the dirty game of politics was at play.
Ferrell plays Cam Brady: a polished incumbent with “strong hair” and a penchant for double-talk. His opponent is Galifianakis’ new-to-the-game challenger, Marty Huggins. Marty… he likes pugs.
And as ridiculous as these two fellows might sound, and as comically as the these two actors might be playing them, director Roach and his stars will assure you that just about everything in this movie comes from the real world of politics, in some form or another.
“All of us are 100 percent coming from seeing politics,” Roach explained to the group over lunch, “seeing how politics has become much more about … win-at-all-costs, take-down-your-opponent. And less and less about statesmanship.”
It’s a sad case, but definitely one that is conducive to comedy. In fact, as dark, demented, and utterly shameless as the antics of The Campaign’s central duo get, they never seem to compare to the madness of the real world. And therein lies the comic genius.
Galifianakis, whom we got to speak to in between takes, illustrates this point by revealing one of his characters’ political ploys that fans will see in the film: “I do a hidden camera ad with [Ferrell’s] son in a park. Which, probably, will come across as really creepy. With the hidden camera, I try to get him to call me dad,” in an effort to shatter his opponents home life, and make him look weak. “If you read the script, it’s like, ‘God, this is a little bit over-the-top.’ But then you read the news, and you go, ‘God, it’s really not that over-the-top.’”
Ferrell feels the same way: “The only think we're worried about now is, ‘Is our movie crazy enough?’ We’ve seen … Herman Cain. The Rick Perrys of the world. All these things that keep coming out. Gingrich's ex-wife suggesting that he wanted an open marriage. We're just right in that line.”
All this considered, somewhere around the fifth run-through of Ferrell and actress Sarah Baker engaging in the throes of infidelity, it became clear that the film was not above having fun with its sincere themes. A tour through the set of Marty’s family house proved this: the eccentric décor boasted too many owl figurines to count, and family portraits that seemed straight out of toothpaste commercials. Some heavily improvised takes of Galifianakis and Baker massaging each other’s feet proved that the movie didn’t even mind veering from the political for a scene or two, just for laughs. As Galifianakis told us, “I’m all about jokes. I just like jokes. As long as it goes along with the character.”
The inherency of the themes did reappear during a faux political ad we got to watch Galifianakis tape at the end of the day. The once humble Marty Huggins had come to flamboyant acts of showmanship to win supporters. In this scene, he teamed with an evangelical preacher to attract the “religious vote.”
“We’re not a very preachy movie,” Roach explained. “But we’re definitely going after those kinds of candidates, that kind of race that is all about, ‘Smear your opponent before he smears you, and then, if he does smear you, smear him back as hard as you can.’ It’s that continual character assassination, and so called ‘opposition research.’ That’s where we got inspired to take on some real life.”
Even Ferrell’s hair, which Roach admitted, “came from Rick Perry, John Edwards.”
“Marty’s character is inspired by the out-there candidates that ... come out of nowhere and just become suddenly significant,” the director said.
Although this movie might be taking a few jabs at the campaign game, the director doesn’t quite have animosity for the world in question: “I always had a respect and an admiration for people who got into politics. I certainly have always been interested in law and political science and I’ve been an amateur student, you know just a dilettante really in connection to politics my whole life.” This is evident by his past projects — films like Recount and Game Change.
Ultimately, what we’re dealing with here isn’t a beat down of the game, but just a means of pointing out the flaws therein. Galifianakis broke his jokey demeanor to tell us, “As cheesy as it sounds, I think comedy is a really good tool for trying to say something. I think, especially — to be serious for a second — after this last war our country was in, the folk singers — you really didn’t hear a lot of people singing about stuff. The comedians started. Because there’s a bullshit detector with comedians. Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt started questioning things. Jon Stewart to a huge extent, and Stephen Colbert. So I think comedy does have that powerful thing that doesn’t seem too preachy, because you’re also making people laugh. It’s a really good tool for messaging.”
There is a lot to be learned from comedy, and a lot of comedy inherent in the idea of campaigning for public office. Everything exhibited on the New Orleans set seemed to broadcast a dedication both to the laughter and to the messages. With a team including the highly educated, politically fascinated Jay Roach and the dynamic comic forces of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, The Campaign stands a chance to deliver wholeheartedly on both fronts.
[Photo Credits: Warner Bros.]