Semi-Pro: Making of Will Ferrell Sports Comedy

Casting

When the time came to enlist a director, the producers and New Line Cinema found an inspired candidate in Kent Alterman, who makes his directorial debut with “Semi-Pro.”

Director Kent Alterman

A former East Coast Head of Development for Comedy Central and writer/producer/director for Michael Moores acclaimed television show, TV Nation, Alterman most recently was Executive Vice President of Production at New Line Cinema. During his time at New Line, Alterman formed a close working relationship with Will Ferrell and producer Jimmy Miller during the development and production of the hit 2003 film, Elf.

When Alterman made the transition to first-time feature director, he had the trust of Ferrell as a result of the creativity and commitment he had shown during their collaboration on Elf. The project came a long way, says Ferrell. Kent was amazing. We were really impressed by the fact that he had really smart, creative ideas.

Coincidentally, Alterman has his own personal connection to the ABA, growing up in San Antonio, Texas in the mid-seventies when the Dallas Chapparals of the ABA moved to San Antonio and became the ABA Spurs. In an attempt to jump start fan interest and make the franchise more community-based, the majority owners offered shares of the team to the town at large. Altermans father, uncle and a friend went in together and bought one share of the team (spending about $700 each). Alterman and his family then had mid-court seats on the third row and he became a smart-aleck fixture at the Hemisphere Arena. Alterman, using his megaphone to harass, once provoked a visiting player to come into the stands and threaten him harm, something Alterman is not proud of today.

He and his family were invited by the majority owners to join the team on a road trip, traveling to New York to see the Spurs play the New York Nets (who were led by their star player Julius Dr. J Erving)

Several of Altermans experiences at these games find their way in to Semi-Pro. For instance, he bought a game program before every home game and harassed the P.A. announcer to rig the random drawing and call his program number for a chance at the halftime three-point shot. It took nearly a full season to wear down the announcer, but when called, Alterman hit the shot and won a gift certificate to a local mens store. This inspired the sequence where the character Dukes, played by Jackie Earle Haley, hits a 3-point shot.

The first time the Spurs made it to the playoffs, the cover photo of the program was not the expected shot of Spurs star George Gervin, but a crowd shot featuring Alterman, megaphone in hand. That cover photo became the image for the Flint, Michigan Mega Bowl at the end of Semi-Pro.

The filmmakers set out to bring together an impressive cast of gifted comedians and actors to complement Will Ferrell.

Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson plays Monix, a former benchwarmer for the Boston Celtics who is acquired by the Flint Tropics in a trade for a washing machine. I have a championship ring from my days on the Celtics, but Ive been dropped down to the ABA and playing for the Kentucky Colonels, says Harrelson. I get the golden opportunity to come to Flint, Michigan and play for the Tropics. Thats my characters trajectory.

Andre Benjamin

Andr Benjamin, a musician and actor who is half of the acclaimed, multi-platinum selling music duo Outkast and has appeared in films such as Four Brothers and Idlewild, plays Clarence Withers, the flamboyant superstar of the Tropics. I guess hes the most athletic of them all, says Benjamin. He has this natural ability from the neighborhood or from the playground style of playing. He likes to go for all the shots and doesnt like to pass the ball. He doesnt even run down the court to play defense.

Will Ferrell was impressed by Benjamins contributions to the film. For Andr to be thrust into a comedy like this and have to be the best player on the court, hes been amazing. He brings his whole charisma to the film. And he may be the most stylish person I will ever meet in my life!

Josh Braaten

Josh Braatrn plays Twiggy Munson, a nave country boy from somewhere out in the sticks. I got the script and loved it, says Braaten. Ive been a huge fan of basketball all my life. During my audition, I got along great with Kent Alterman. We just talked about basketball for a while.

Jay Phillips

I think I have the coolest name in the world for 1976, says Jay Phillips, who plays Scootsie Double Day. I love that name. Scootsie is a Bible thumper, but the only reason he became a Bible thumper is because hes so bad that he had to hold himself down. And the only way he holds himself down is to keep that Bible with him.

Peter Cornell plays Vakidis, Lithuanian powerhouse of the Tropics. Vakidis is the first kind of foreign player to play in the ranks of professional basketball in the US, says Cornell. I like to say my character is the pioneer of, uh, the eastern European invasion.

Cornell is the only principal player who had a professional background. I played basketball at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. And I spent the last nine years in the NBA, the minor leagues, Europe, Australia and Japan and China. Ive seen a lot and Ive really enjoyed it. Its been a very exciting career.

Andy Richter, who appeared in Talladega Nights with Will Ferrell, had also collaborated with several other members of the cast. He was happy to join the cast as team manager Bobby Dee. It was a lot of fun and those guys are friends of mine and Ive known them for a long time, says Richter. It was a great excuse to hang out with your friends.

Maura Tierney

Maura Tierney plays Lynn, Monixs old flame who finds herself involved in an unusual romantic relationship. Tierney has a fond affection for the 70s. This is the third movie Ive done that takes place in the 70s and the second one Ive done that takes place in 1976, she comments. I really like it and think Im suited to it.

Tierney found that she was a grounding force in the comedic cast. Im the straight man, she comments. Even when Im in comedies, I kind of play the straight man. When I did a sitcom, I was the straight man. I dont mind, because its important, too. In this movie Im a little bit more of a grounding character to the real comedy of it.

Tierneys shooting schedule had to be coordinated around her Emmy-nominated role on the NBC series, ER. I would go to ER for three days and then come to the film set for two days and then go back to ER. I have always enjoyed working in comedy and it was great to go back and forth between two completely different genres at the same time.

Will Arnett

Will Arnett, who co-starred with Will Ferrell in “Blades of Glory,” plays team commentator Lou Redwood. Hes a former player and current color commentator for the Tropics and sometimes for the ABA, for the league itself, says Arnett. Hes the right hand man of Dick Pepperfield, the play-by-play announcer for the Tropics. But not unlike the mighty Redwoods in the great northwest, Lou Redwood can stand alone and stand tall.

At Arnetts side is Andrew Daly, who plays Dick Pepperfield. Daly actually won the role as a result of his hilarious performance in a read-through of a draft of the script.

Will and I have just had so much fun sitting next to each other, goofing off all day long, Daly says of his collaboration with Will Arnett. Daly and Arnett took liberties with their dialogue because their actual dialogue would not be heard until the crew got together to watch dailies. We knew that theyre not hearing our dialogue until the next day, Daly explains. We were just sitting there, amusing one another, and nobody else could hear it. Were just all alone, cracking jokes for one anothers benefit. We had an incredible amount of fun on and off camera.

After calling the game for a while, you start to see other stuff, Arnett adds. And you just start calling it like you see it. And you also start trying to amuse yourselves as you watch the guys run the same play a hundred times in a row. I would say that ninety percent of good improv comes out of sheer boredom.

Jackie Earle Haley

Rounding out the cast is Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley, who plays the wiry, shirtless Dukes, and who worked with director Kent Alterman on the film Little Children during Altermans tenure as an executive at New Line Cinema. Kent was one of the main people that pushed Little Children through. When he started this process, he wanted me to come play Dukes. So I said, You bet. Lets do it.

Rob Corddry, who plays Kyle, sums up the strategy behind assembling this group of talented actors: The screenwriter, Scot Armstrong, has been a good friend of mine for years. We used to perform together in New York. This whole movies about nepotism. Its all just buddies, and friends, and buddies of buddies.