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Opinion Adam McKay on ‘Talladega Nights,’ red states’ rebellion and the rise of Trump

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” (Suzanne Hanover/Columbia Pictures)

Ten years ago last week, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” arrived in theaters, and America met Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell), a NASCAR driver who lives by the motto “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Or at least, he did, until the wealthy man who owns his racing team dumps Ricky in favor of Jean Girard, a gay, French Formula One driver (Sacha Baron Cohen), Ricky’s wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) leaves him for his best friend, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), and Ricky has to find a new place for himself in the winner-take-all culture that once made him great.

Anchorman,” the movie that director Adam McKay and Ferrell made together before collaborating on “Talladega Nights,” may have launched a million memes; everyone knows what you’re talking about if you shout “Loud noises!” or note “That escalated quickly.” But 10 years on, I’ve come to think that “Talladega Nights” offers an even sharper diagnosis of one of the signature American pathologies that has animated McKay’s career: the corporate exploitation of ordinary people and American institutions.

I caught up with McKay by phone Tuesday to talk about the legacy of “Talladega Nights,” how scary it is to drive an actual race car, and how the country has changed since George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about “Talladega Nights” is the idea that it’s not car racing that’s ridiculous, but rather the corporate culture that’s grown up around it. Do you think the two have gotten conflated in the minds of people who don’t know much about racing?

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Yeah, that was exactly what we discovered. We went into the movie kind of as a result of Bush’s reelection. We were so stunned that he had been reelected after those disastrous first four years that it sort of stopped us in our tracks and went “What is going on?” . . . We’re sports fans, but we didn’t know a lot about NASCAR, so we did what we always do, which is dive in, and start researching and asking questions and getting on the phone with people and watching races. The idea that those cars have stickers on them that make them look like regular cars but they’re not at all was interesting to us. The idea that they started with real cars that people would soup up, it was a working man’s sport. We got into the idea of what it really was to us and how people treated it.

The most obvious thing was the corporate sponsorship. I’d never seen anything like it. Every single element of the sport had a sponsor. These guys were owned 30 different ways. Contrast that with the aura of individuality that’s at the center of the sport.

It sounds like you emerged from the research with a respect for the sport that you didn’t have going into it.

We actually went . . . and did that thing where you can race the cars around, and it was terrifying. We showed up and we heard those engines and saw how fast the cars were going and were like “Forget this! We’re not doing this!” We had heard people actually crashed doing what we were about to do. I think John C. Reilly was the one who pushed us, like “You can’t walk away!”

It was so scary. Those cars handle tough. They don’t have power steering. We definitely walked away with a massive appreciation of it. After talking to the crew chiefs and the different drivers and seeing the races, it was like this is really, really hard. We also saw the spectacle of it. It was impressive, it was fascinating. It was super-unique. Ferrell and I have family from the south, Ferrell has a lot of family in North Carolina. I have family in Nebraska and Texas. We are definitely crossed over with the Deep South. So pretty quickly we realized we weren’t going to be attacking this. We were going to be going into it and kind of exploring it.

To that end, Larry Dennit Jr.’s (Greg Germann, playing an owner who doesn’t really care about NASCAR) focus on a points championship, rather than more satisfying outright wins, seems to have a lot in common with the financial industry. Do you see any connections between “Talladega Nights” and “The Big Short,” which are both about people taking very real, material things and reducing them to abstractions?

I think that’s exactly it. Both movies involve main characters with a certain belief system who realize that what they believe in is not really what’s going on. Ricky Bobby had this idea that racing is pure, if you’re not first you’re last, that it’s about the racer, and then he realizes that it’s not, that it’s more complicated than that, and for the first time feels fear. That’s what happened to the characters in “The Big Short.” . . . They all believed in a free market economy, they realize that it’s not, and have to confront uncertainty and dark forces. . . . I think for Ricky Bobby, it’s the terrible advice his mangy father gave him: if you’re not first, you’re last.

I think that permeates “The Big Short,” too. If you’re not a winner, you’re a big loser. What Ricky Bobby hadn’t experienced is the loser side of it, and that’s the story of America over the last 30 or 40 years. We thought we were setting up this cool game where everyone would go head to head. It’s like the game of Monopoly. It started out as Rent, and was supposed to be a warning about landlords. Then it became Monopoly, and it was supposed to be a warning against monopolies, that when you set up monopolies you end up with one winner and a lot of losers. With Ricky Bobby, when he’s winning, it’s awesome. . . . But the second he has a rough day, everything’s gone. And that all or nothing mentality isn’t really good. Is that really the game we want to be playing?

I always thought that was the center of the movie, if you’re not first, you’re last. Since the movie’s come out, I’ve heard people quote that without realizing we were making fun of that. . . . I’ve heard people say that and mean it.

One of the more satisfying subplots in the movie is the way Jane Lynch, who plays Ricky’s mother, turns Ricky Bobby’s sons into decent, observant human beings. I know this is an enduring interest of yours, but one of the themes of “Talladega Nights” seem to be the way that boys and men are damaged by no one expecting anything of them.

It’s funny to hear you say that in a very dry way. It makes it even funnier. That’s kind of the idea.Once again, I think those kids are kind of infected by that hollow, “We’re No. 1” mentality. I think the kids are infected by that all or nothing mentality. I think Ron Burgundy [the newscaster Ferrell plays in “Anchorman"] kind of has it too. He’s number one in this second tier news market and that’s all that matters.

With the kids, it really kind of boiled down to I’m number one, my kids are number one, that’s all that matters, you don’t have to do any work on top of that. They’re really raised like feral cats. The kids are just horrendous. No one’s ever held them to any standards or powers higher than themselves. Jane Lynch, she’s got the dose of reality. She’s the one giving them the broader picture. And it’s a shot to their system. I’ve never thought about the movie in this way, but the more that I’m thinking of you, but the whole center of the movie is if you’re not first you’re last. This winner or loser mentality has steered them wrong.

In a similar way, Carley also seems really damaged by her narrow idea of what it means to be a woman, and what a successful marriage looks like. Leslie Bibb’s great in that role; was it hard finding a balance between condemning Carley’s behavior and having audiences just turn on her and think about her in a really ugly way?

In the beginning of the movie, you can kind of tell her values aren’t exactly centered. I’ll tell you, you can feel it when you watch it with a 400 person audience, they love her. She’s beautiful, she’s confident, she’s fun, they’re very happy Ricky Bobby’s with her. That’s her entire identity, and she doesn’t know how to make the shift. If I was making the movie now, I probably would have given her a moment of vulnerability towards the end, a reveal.

“Talladega Nights” came out slightly before a big tipping point on on gay rights. And I’ve always been interested in the way the movie acts as a rebuke of the idea that all people from red states are inherently homophobic. Jean Girard may be a stereotype of a European gay man, but racing fans embrace him once he turns out to be an excellent driver. How did you calibrate that character? And how did audiences respond?

That was one of my favorite elements of the movie, too. We really tried to create Ricky Bobby’s nightmare: sophisticated, European, really, really good at what he does, gay, really comfortable with it, loving relationship. When you get back down to it, America loves [a] winner. . . . The kiss [between Ricky and Jean at the end of the movie] really played shocking in the Deep South. And on the West Coast and East Coast, it got a big laugh, it played fun. But I heard stories from the Deep South about people walking out of the movie theater. . . . Today, I don’t think it would play with that same edge. Things have changed. After seeing the [Republican National Convention], where Peter Thiel from Silicon Valley spoke, and people were quite welcoming. The last time someone openly gay spoke at the [Republican National Convention], there were contingents praying for him.

What do you see as the movie’s legacy? Among the circles I run in, I think “Anchorman” has endured as the more quotable film, so it was a good reminder for me when I looked it up that the domestic box office for “Talladega Nights” was significantly higher.

We thought at the time that there was what I call this tunnel vision block of America, of the South and Midwest, that was full of pride and certainty about the decisions they were making, i.e. electing George W. Bush. But I think the truth is there were doubts creeping in. And I think the movie has done so well because it celebrated Southern culture while having fun with it. They embraced it. What you’re seeing now . . . Donald Trump . . . reflects a lot of doubts and questions from that Southern block, because it’s a total rejection of the establishment Republican party, and it points to people waking up to the fact that they’ve been scammed with and played by corporate interests. . . . I think we’re in the early, infant stages of people waking up to the fact that they’ve been played. That applies to the Democratic Party as well. I think the legacy of it, in a way, may be we didn’t totally anticipate which is always the way film making works, the satire that we were thinking would be so tough and rough was actually embraced by the people that watched it. . . . If you love NASCAR, you love the movie. If you think NASCAR got sold out to corporate values, you love the movie. What I didn’t predict was that both could coexist.

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