Talladega Nights with Adam McKay

Adam McKay's comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” tells the story of a dreamer who can only count to #1. After winning and losing it all, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) must claw his way back to the top the only way he knows how–the hard way.

Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole and Michael Clarke Duncan star in “Talladega Nights,” co-written by Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay. Jimmy Miller and Judd Apatow are the producers. The supporting cast includes Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams, Andy Richter, Molly Shannon, Greg Germann, David Koechner, Jack McBrayer and Ian Roberts.

Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) has always dreamed of driving fast–real fast–like his father, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole), who left the family to pursue his racing dreams. Early on, Rickys mother, Lucy Bobby (Jane Lynch) worried that her boy was also destined to end up as a professional daredevil on wheels.

Ricky Bobby first enters the racing arena as a jackman for slovenly driver Terry Cheveaux (Adam McKay) and accidentally gets his big break behind the wheel, when Cheveaux makes an unscheduled pit stop during a race to gorge on a chicken sandwich. Ricky jumps into the car and so begins the ballad of Ricky Bobby.

The idea for Talladega Nights is the brainchild of co-writers Will Ferrell & Adam McKay, who have been writing partners since meeting on the set of Saturday Night Live, where Ferrell was a fledgling cast member and McKay a show writer nearly a decade ago. Their collaboration continued after they left the show, most recently on the outrageous send-up of 1970s newscasters, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (produced by Judd Apatow, who also produced Talladega Nights).

Comedy about NASCAR

A comedy about NASCAR had been racing around our minds for several years. Will and I talked about NASCAR racing while he was making “Elf.” We were in New York City and he was set to take a break before we started work on “Anchorman.” We noticed how fascinating the world of NASCAR racing had become. Its gigantic. We werent even huge NASCAR fans at the time, but after we started going to the track, we got swept up in the phenomenon.

Experiencing the sights and sounds

It was producer Jimmy Miller who first invited us to join him at a NASCAR race in Fontana, California, where we experienced the heady sights, smells and sounds of a NASCAR event. As soon as we heard the roar of the engines, we knew there was something here to make a movie about. The crowd was huge, like a city, with campers and bonfires outside of every race. I was told that during the Talladega Race [the UAW-Ford 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway] each year, the speedway becomes the second largest city in Alabama.

Finding the voice

As soon as Will came up with the voice for Ricky, I was hooked. I told him then that it looked like our lives for the next two years would be dealing with race cars. We continued attending NASCAR events and became friendly with the drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

NSACAR's involvement

As the project began to take shape, the participation of the NASCAR organization became a reality, enabling us the possibility of filming in the pits and garages of some of Americas most popular racing arenas. We were very lucky to get NASCAR involved in the movie. We showed them the script early and hoped they would come onboard. If they didnt, we would have to come up with a new racing league. But they got it and we were excited that NASCAR could have a sense of humor about it and really allowed us to be a part of their world. During filming, occasionally some guy at NASCAR would pitch us a better joke than we had, and then we were embarrassed that they could ride cars at 150 miles per hour and be funnier than us.

NASCAR executives Richard Glover and Sarah Nettinga became closely involved with the film and monitored the accuracy of its design and content, as well as facilitating access for the production crew to actual racing events. Production designer Clayton Hartley, who had also worked on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, joined with costume designer Susan Matheson to ensure the sets, cars and uniforms (called fire suits) were in keeping with real NASCAR drivers and events.

We had a great deal of help from NASCAR. They were completely open and gracious to us from start to finish. We also won over the team owners and drivers. Without them, we could never have secured the access we did. Still, it was tough to shoot at the actual races, because we had to wait to use a garage or a pit. And when they came available, we immediately had to man the battle stations to get everyone ready to film on a moments notice.

Authentic locations

With NASCAR on board, we were able to secure the films locations and cast. Charlotte, North Carolina, with its majestic Lowes Motor Speedway, was chosen as the films main location, with the actual Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama slated as well. The footage you pick up at a real race cant be created any other way. Youve got the cars, the motor homes, and the support vehicles. You have everything in the racetrack arena there waiting for you. And when the crowds arrive, it all springs to life. You could never afford to recreate that on your own.

Strong cast

As on “Anchorman,” Ferrell and I planned to shoot as many improvisational variations on their scripted scenes as time would allow. A lot of actors arent used to working in that style and sometimes view improvisation as a burden. But once everyone gets into the flow of it, it becomes a really fun process.

With that in mind, several of the actors chosen for the film have a background in improvisation. Performers like Jane Lynch, Ian Roberts and Jack McBrayer had done improvisational work for Chicagos Second City. Others, like Gary Cole and Michael Clarke Duncan, had also trained on the Chicago stage.

Improvs

Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the flamboyant French driver Jean Girard, is also no stranger to improv, which is the core of his popular HBO television series Da Ali G Show.

Two actors who were surprisingly very talented at improvisation were Oscar- nominee (“Chicago”) John C. Reilly and former model Leslie Bibb, a current regular on the popular television series Crossing Jordan. We had actually offered John a part in Anchorman, but he couldnt take it because he had committed to working with Scorsese on “The Aviator.” John was so funny, he blew us away. So when we wrote this film, we knew we had to find a role for him. He is incredible, a revelation. We were amazed at how well he did with improvisation.

Bibb also took to the loose improv climate on set. Although she had done several films, this was the first that enabled her to showcase her flair for comedy. Leslie did so well improvising with Will, we immediately knew she was right for the part. But the character of Carley Bobby is a blonde bombshell, and when Leslie read for us she was dressed down and a short haircut. Once we saw her in all of her blonde glory, with the sunglasses and the tight jeans, we were shocked at her transformation. She possesses that rare combination of talents, an actress with movie star looks who can create a strong character and flow right along with all the improv around her. She is terrific.

Driving lessons

We drove sleek stock cars that are capable of reaching speeds of almost 200 miles per hour on the track. We enrolled in a (hopefully) no-crash course at Lowes Motor Speedway to learn how to race a car on the track. With instructors from the Richard Petty Driving Experience, we quickly found themselves behind the wheel of a powerful NASCAR race car.

I came away with newfound respect for the NASCAR drivers after his experience on the speedway. As soon as we heard those engines roar, we all turned into terrified chickens. When we got to drive, though it was exhilarating taking the curves and banking at a 45 degree angle. It was like climbing a wall, truly insane, because they tell you to accelerate into the bank, but your natural instinct is to slow down. The experience really came in handy when it actually came time to suit up and film the actual scenes on the track, as well as in the garages and the pits.

Shooting NASCAR drivers

NASCAR drivers do a lot of television interviews and commercials, so they are relaxed and totally natural. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has a moment in the film, as does Jamie McMurray. Dale was surprisingly funny, too. He has great comic timing. I was impressed.

Filming at the 2005 UAW-GM Quality 500 at the Lowes Motor Speedway presented new challenges since it takes place at night. Extra precautions were required in the garage areas and pits during the race, and cast and crew had to be on the lookout for cars rumbling in from the track at any moment.

Perhaps the most affecting true-to-life moment for the actors came when Ferrell, Baron Cohen and Reilly were introduced as their characters to the Talladega crowd of 200,000 screaming fans. When Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr. were announced, the crowd went wild. But when Frenchman Jean Girard hit the stage, there was a collective and deafening boo.

Access to cheering crowds

Prior to production, the producers and I considered avoiding shooting during real races, but access to large cheering crowds and the overall ambience of the races made it impossible to resist taking the chance to capture the immediacy and excitement of NASCAR events.

Our executive producer, David Householter, convinced us that we had to give it a try. He believed that you couldnt beat the production value of filming during an actual live race. There is no substitute for a track crammed with 200,000 screaming fans. It gives the film a feel that is impossible to fake. In terms of feasibility, it was absurd to have our crazy characters performing in the midst of all this real action. But we never missed a single shot. We got everything we needed during those races.

Visual style

Director of photography Oliver Wood, who has shot such fast-paced action films as “The Bourne Identity” and “Fantastic Four,” collaborated closely to capture the reality of the races. Oliver is the best there is when it comes to shooting action, McKay attests. He believes that each movie should be shot the way it needs to be shot. He sold me on using handheld, a rarity in comedy films. But he was right. It added energy to the shots and actually helped the comedy. Because the races look so real, you care more about what happens to the characters. The angles and cameras we came up with for the wrecks and stunts were unbelievable. It gave the movie a big picture feel, which is exactly what we wanted, because if you dont believe the racing, you wont believe anything else about the story either.

Live cugar in the car

Another risky proposition for Ferrells Ricky was a scene when his father, Reese (Gary Cole), decides to help his son conquer his fear of driving by putting a live cougar in the car with him. Fortunately, the cats they used, Dylan and his sister Kasey, were total pros trained by Steve Berens and his company Animals of Distinction.

The scene with the cougar in the car was one of my favorites. The real cats turned out to be sweet and very demure, so it was hard to make them look menacing. You wanted them to snarl and growl, but they were like kitties. Still, as soon as they were let out of their cage to walk to the set, the whole crew froze in fear. So, I guess Id take a happy cougar over an angry cougar any day.

Filming in North Carolina

The film was shot in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, using hundreds of locals as extras and crewmembers. Communities such as Gastonia and Cramerton stood in for Ricky Bobbys boyhood fictitious boyhood hometown of West River, North Carolina. Girards sprawling estate was located in the heart of Charlotte and Rickys mansion was situated on a lake near Cornelius.

To bolster the authenticity of the film, real NASCAR sportscasters and announcers were used, including analysts Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds, Mike Joy, Benny Parsons, Bill Weber, Wally Dallenbach, Bob Jenkins and Dick Berggren. With the help of NASCAR, the filmmakers were able to pack in the power and excitement of the real thing.

The racing stuff is fantastic, and in addition you have this absurdist comedy with great comic actors like Will, John, Sacha and Jane Lynch, as well as such world-class performers as Michael Clarke Duncan, Gary Cole, Amy Adams and Leslie Bibb. We have a lot going for us and I think itll be entertaining to a wide audience.

After the experience of shooting NASCAR races, many of the cast and crew became immediate and big fans of stock car racing. I watch all the races now on Sunday. I know all the drivers and their cars. I think that once youve experienced the spectacle of NASCAR racing, with all of its strategy and mechanics, you cant help but become a fan. There is a part of me that will always be hooked.

Adam McKays Bio

Born in Philadelphia, McKay trained in improvisational theatre with the Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade performance groups in Chicago. He also wrote for Michael Moores TV show The Awful Truth.

McKay's first film was a successful one: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which he also co-wrote with Will Ferrell. The two had been longtime friends since spending several years together on Saturday Night Live, where McKay had served as head writer and the creator of many of that series most memorable sketches and short films from 1995-2001.