Every once in a while, an A-list actor who is known for doing mostly comedy will do a drama to show his versatility. Will Ferrell may have his pick of movies that he can do, but he says that he does not really get offered a lot of scripts for dramas that he thinks are good. So that is why he says he jumped at the chance to make “Everything Must Go,” a dramatic film based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”
In “Everything Must Go,” Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who gets fired from his job, only to come home and find out that his wife has left him, changed the locks to their house, and thrown all of Nick’s belongings on the front lawn. As Nick deals with his problems and tries to get his life back on track, he meets some people (including a neighborhood kid named Kenny, played by Christopher Jordan Wallace) who may help him out his downward spiral. Here is what Ferrell said when I sat down with him for an interview at the “Everything Must Go” press junket during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere.
How did you end up choosing to do “Everything Must Go”?
Dan Rush, the writer/director [of “Everything Must Go”]. I got a call from my agent and manager, who said, “There’s this great script and Dan wants to sit down with you.” We had a great meeting. I thought it was one of the more original scripts and premises that I had ever come across, as well as the challenge of doing something this serious.
I said, “Dan, I’d love to do it. The only problem is that you have to wait a year-and-a-half, because I already have that many things lined up.” And he actually did [wait]. And that’s how it happened.
But we were very frank with him: “We just think this is so great. We’d understand if you don’t want to wait for us, because I’m sure there are actors who are clamoring to do this.” But he did [wait]. I’d love to ask why he wanted to wait for me.
Can you talk about the balance that “Everything Must Go” has between being funny and sad?
They’re pretty much two steps away from each other in any moment. Last night [at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of “Everything Must Go”], I was surprised at how many laughs it did get. The only other time I’d seen it was in a small audience in Los Angeles. It got some laughs, but not like last night. So that was really interesting to see. This [Toronto] audience was getting a lot more of the subtlety of things.
[Getting laughs] really wasn’t on our minds in any way. We talked about how we didn’t want a certain part of the movie to be the “funny part,” [not], “We just did something sad and depressing. Let’s do something funny here.” It was just going to naturally happen.
And if there were going to be [funny] moments, they would be little moments that were organic to the story. That’s another thing I loved about doing this. There wasn’t ever pressure on it to ever be forced comedically.
How do you think Nick Halsey sees himself at the beginning of the film’s story compared to the end of the story?
That’s a smart question. I guess we don’t really know how he views himself at the beginning of the movie, in a way. I think he’s just kind of been going through his life. I assume that as the story goes on, you see that he’s kind of going along making decisions, because he thinks that’s just the way to live your life, and trying to keep up with the Joneses, whether it’s work or his personal possessions, his house and things like that.
In this kind of cataclysmic series of events that happens at the beginning of the movie, he’s forced to kind of sit there and be with himself and figure out what he really wants and what is valuable to him. So by the end, I think he is someone who is going to go on, and there’s hope for him. I always view that there’s hope for him, even though it’s ambiguous.
That’s what I loved about the script and the movie. It wasn’t wrapped up in a neat, tidy bow. It’s very much the way life is. It’s kind of gray. We don’t know what’s going to happen to this guy. But I always viewed that he’s gained a little bit of confidence that he can kind of function on his own and make decisions that are best for him.
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Are you looking to do more dramas? And do you feel less pressure when you’re doing a drama, because you don’t have to be funny throughout the movie?
I don’t know if it was less pressure, but it was definitely freeing to do something like this, probably because there are points in the movie where it’s just real life. You don’t have to think about what the joke’s going to be.
There’s a lot of stillness in this movie. I think a lot of people are afraid to do those types of movies, in a way. And that was really refreshing to be kind of still, in a way — as opposed to running around and acting crazy. As much as I love [running around and acting crazy], it was pretty freeing [to do something different].
In terms of this [as] a conscious choice to do [a drama], this was just more of an individual project coming my way. The only other time I’ve been to the [Toronto International Film] Festival was for “Stranger Than Fiction.” And since then, this is the next movie that’s been offered to me that’s off the track of what I normally do. So it’s been a three-, four-year gap in between things like this.
So I just jumped at the chance to do it. I’d like to do more [dramas], but it will be another four-year gap, probably. It’s just the way people are conditioned to think. I think no matter how high up you go in the food chain, you’re still typecast, in a way.
How did Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” influence how you portrayed Nick Halsey?
Dan had gotten me the Carver short story. I read the entire book of short stories. So it’s only a six-page story. It’s really short. My first reaction was, “This is it? You thought of this entire script based on this [short story]?”
I think the short story is just a guy on his front lawn. And the guy and the girl come up and are looking through records and have a little slow dance or something in the middle of the night. And that’s the end of the story. Any of the Carver stuff all came from Dan. And there’s not much to base [the Nick Halsey] character on from the short story. [Dan Rush] created that whole thing, in a way. And we discussed how it would be played.
And also, how was I going to play drunk? That was a big thing. It’s like a slippery slope, I think. What’s too much? What’s not enough? So that was something that we didn’t want to have to ever feel forced. We wanted to err on the side of something of it not ever having it be too big.
Do you feel it’s more rewarding artistically to do a small-budget, independent film like “Everything Must Go” than to do a big-budget studio film like “The Other Guys”?
That’s tough to say. [“The Other Guys”] is my fourth movie with Adam McKay. I don’t really collaborate with anyone like I do with him. That’s almost like stepping into a well-oiled machine. We both know each other’s thinking, and we have so much fun. So those are totally enjoyable.
That having been said, this [“Everything Must Go”] was so amazing because of the different things that I got to try to force myself to do as an actor. And also, the thing that was really gratifying to find out was that on a $5 million movie — everyone from the cast to the crew — obviously, no one is signing up to do the movie for the money. So what you find out was that everyone was there because they loved the script.
You would think it would be the opposite, but a smaller budget, in this experience, unified everyone. It was just a real team effort. So yeah, I’d never experienced anything like that. It was great.
Nick Halsey has fallen on hard times, like a lot of people have in this recession. Can you comment on how timely “Everything Must Go” is during this economic downturn?
Maybe it’s good that it took us two years to make it. It’s kind of serendipity, in a weird way, in a sad way. We’ve heard that from a lot of people who’ve seen the movie: that it feels right for what everyone’s going through right now. Not to go too deep, but I watched the movie and I thought it was a real statement about consumerism at the same time. We’re conditioned to think that we need all this stuff.
I was watching the news a couple of days ago, and they were talking about how Americans are saving more and their savings are back up, because everyone was so criticized for not ripping up their credit cards and for having horrible debt. Well, now people have done that, and savings have shot up by a good amount, which is supposedly a good thing, but consumer spending is down.
“So what are we going to do get consume spending back up?” When is this awful cycle going to end? Why is it up to us to rescue the economy? So that’s what the movie is about.
“Everything Must Go” is Dan Rush’s first feature film as a writer/director. Did you give him any feedback or advice since you’re more experienced in making movies?
Dan never seemed like a first-time director. He was so squared-away in what he wanted. At the same time, you’ve got to have that balance between knowing what you want to do and being decisive and being able to throw it in reverse and listen to other ideas. You have to be open but also be strong with your convictions.
And he was perfect, and at the same time, he would let us [actors] play around with the script, which is not usual for a writer/director. It’s usually, “Say my words exactly the way I envisioned them.” And he would always be like, “What do you guys think about this?” So he was great.
I just said, “Be prepared. It’s not ‘if’ something’s going to go wrong. It’s just ‘when.’ And it’s going to happen every day. I don’t mean that to bum you out, but there are just going to be days where a piece of equipment breaks. And just be prepared to scramble.”
How was Christopher Jordan Wallace cast in “Everything Must Go”?
We had another young actor was in the running, but he was a kid who’d never done a movie before. And we had this real debate. And with Dan’s comfort zone and this being his first movie, with a little bit of experience that C.J. had, that was the clinching factor. I think it’s pretty well-supported that we made the right decision. That kid’s fantastic. He’s so good.
For more info: “Everything Must Go” website
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