Interview: ‘Fist Fight’ Director Richie Keen and Actor Charlie Day

John Allegretti ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Editors Note: Fist Fight, starring Charlie Day and Ice Cube, is a big studio comedy filled with classic high school movie tropes a bevy of comedy veterans. Staff writer John Allegretti had the opportunity to sit down with Charlie and director Richie Keen to pick their minds about the film.

What was your superlative in high school?

Day: I was voted “funniest” in my high school, but I was also voted “thinks he’s the funniest”, which was a real snarky move by those rich kids. I didn’t like that school. I don’t know what kind of kids we got at that school now so it’s tough to say. But I hope I might be able to get that title again. It’s the last award I won.

Keen: I was runner-up for two things in high school: “most likely to succeed” and “teacher’s pet.”

Day: Of course you were “teacher’s pet.”

Keen: I had a good system. All the teachers loved me, but I would get in trouble. I would do pranks and they would send me to the dean’s office and the dean would take me to lunch. So I had the whole system worked. I think if I were in high school now I would get voted “most likely to get stuff done”.

Day: Me too. I’m more of a “get stuff done” guy than I used to be.

Keen: My route to directing is almost an impossible, long-road story that all was about out-hustling, out-working, making stuff against the odds, and pivoting when no one wanted me. I think if I were to get anything now it would probably be some version of that. Or “dumbest for sticking around”.

What challenges did you face in the transition from directing television to film?

Keen: In television, as a director, your job usually is to support the showrunner who is usually the head writer. You’re there to really support their vision as opposed to bringing your own. You’re hopefully bringing something special, but in making a movie–especially a movie of this size–I had a take on everything. The lighting is very specific, the casting is very not traditional, and how we did the fight. So every little thing was something I had thought about, decided on, and executed and that’s different than what you do in TV.

(To Charlie) Before filming started, what were you most looking forward to about this movie and did it live up to your expectations?

Day: Yeah, I was looking forward to doing a movie where I got to be in almost every single shot. I was looking forward to the opportunity to carry a story and build the arc of a character who starts out straightforward and then unravels. It absolutely lived up to expectations. I’m very happy with the final product and hope people enjoy seeing me be a guy like that.

What was your senior prank in each of your high schools?

Keen: We talked a lot about some big ones. As a matter of fact one of the ones we talked about is in the movie, which is taking apart the principal’s car, moving the parts into the lobby, and reassembling them so you couldn’t get the car out. But logistically, none of us could figure out how to actually get it done. I think we did a lot of lame ones. I don’t think we actually pulled through with any big ones.

Day: I wasn’t involved in it, but somebody got up on the roof of the school, part of the roof looked like the roof of a Pizza Hut, and took shaving cream and wrote “Pizza Hut.” But the sun baked the shaving cream into the roof, which was made out of copper and ruined it, so they had to re-polish the whole roof. I don’t think they caught whoever did that.

Keen: The senior pranks were something we added later because we wanted to set up this pressure cooker of a situation and see how the teachers would deal with it. We wanted to justify why Ice Cube would be so angry on this particular day. One of the fun things we did was sit around and ask these questions to anyone who had did a senior prank, had seen a senior prank, or had heard of a senior prank. That went into the pile and we kept saying “Did someone really do that? Did someone really have a mariachi band follow around the principal of the school?”

That was a good one.

Keen: Yes, it really happened. So we kept dreaming up the worst versions of what we had heard about and put it in the movie.

What was the experience of shooting the movie?

Keen: It was very interesting for me. I’ve never been on a set where once the actors finish a scene, stuck around to hang out. Tracy Morgan would just be in a tank top walking around the set hanging out. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was having so much fun.

Day: There was something about being in that school together with all the extras who were playing the students. Most of them had just graduated high school. There’s something about being in that environment that felt like you were in school or camp and you wanted to stay there.

Keen: Yeah, it wasn’t one of those shoots where everyone goes back to their trailers, and I think that translates on screen. Everyone had fun hanging out. So even if they were against each other or yelling at each other in the movie the second you yelled cut everyone started laughing. So it was a blast and everyone had fun.

Day: Except when we filmed the fight. After shooting I wanted to go to the hospital.

Keen: Yeah. We shot that fight for eight days. And I defy you to find a stunt double in that fight. I knew as the director of a movie called Fist Fight we had to deliver on that promise, so I put aside eight days and Charlie and Ice Cube were just athletes. Let me tell you something; when you keep up with Ice Cube for eight days in a fist fight–that’s impressive. And the designing of the fight, making the fight not just two guys in a circle punching, but to figure out what could we set up earlier in the movie that would pay off there. How do we make this like a horror movie where at the end of the horror movie you run through all the places you’ve been throughout the movie? Watching these two guys do that for eight days, someone should have been filming that because that is a documentary that people would want to see.

Day: That was a horror story for me.

Keen: Yeah, horror movie sounds right.

Day: I got genuinely beat up filming that movie.

You have a lot of different types of actors in the movie. Did you find that it was different working with people who hadn’t been in comedy before?

Day: Absolutely. Jillain (Bell), Tracy and Kumail (Nanjiani) have different styles of comedy, so with each person you kind of dealt with their style. It was interesting to work with Dean Norris, who is funny in Breaking Bad, and you could tell wanted to be funny in this movie and is funny. He balanced his performance between being funny and serious and I think he did a great job. And there’s Christina (Hendricks), who was thrilled to get the opportunity to be funny in this movie and have more of a comedic part than she’s been given previously. My approach is to feel as though I am the character in the moment. You react differently to what each person brings. If Jillian gives me ten different crazy improvs I react to them all and with Dean maybe I take a little more of the comedy and I let him do the straight man and kind of pass it back.

Keen: What was fun about being a friend and fan of Charlie was watching the way he interacted with the different actors. You can see where Jillian and Kumail and Charlie were in a scene together and Charlie was like “I’ll come up with something even better.” Whereas with someone like Dean he would do his thing and Charlie would take the ball. My goal as the director was to find the funniest people on the planet and put them next to the people you didn’t know were the funniest people on the planet, to have this very surprising mix of people. To look at Christina Hendricks from Mad Men and see her next to Ice Cube. To look at Dean Norris, Hank from Breaking Bad, and see him next to Tracy Morgan. To see Ice Cube and Charlie on a poster called Fist Fight, you would think that’s the shortest movie ever made. You would think that it would be Cube punching Charlie and he falls down crying. So to me the goal was always “How shocking and surprising can we be?”

Day: We also wanted actors that would help ground the movie. As great as Will Ferrell is if he was the school’s principal then you wouldn’t feel the stakes of getting fired in the same way when it’s Dean Norris. So it was important for us to have people who are raising the stakes; the principal, the police officer, those types of roles, be played by people who are a little bit more grounded. That way Jillian can be heightened and Tracy can be more heightened and I can be more grounded in the beginning and get more heightened. But surrounding some of those characters, Dennis Haysbert, with more serious actors, it helps the world feel a bit more real.

Keen: And likewise with the filmmaking. I kept saying “This was a prison riot movie”. It was about the prison guards versus the inmates and the cinematographer I hired was a dramatic cinematographer. He did movies like Cop Land back in the day and To Die For. We had fun when we did things like snap zooms and weird pull-backs. So same thing with the filmmaking, we wanted to keep it grounded.

Day: That’s something we always do on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where we don’t want the director to try and make the camera funny. Make the camera interesting or dynamic or even dramatic and let us be funny.

When you guys were in high school did you have any teachers like your (Charlie Day’s) character or Ice Cube’s character? How much of this film drew from real experience?

Day: I certainly had teachers that were the hard-ass teachers that you knew if a kid was acting out the teacher might grab them by the collar or dress them down in a way. And I certainly had teachers that were softer. I had a French teacher of Spanish teacher– just the sweetest guy in the world, and of course the students were terrible to him. Other guys that were more like Ice Cube’s character, the students listened a little more. But by the end of the year you hated the Ice Cube teacher but you like the Spanish guy. So certainly there’s some comparisons to teachers that I knew.

Keen: I had a vice principal that was a lot like Dean Norris’s character and I tried to infuse it when we were re-writing it because he was a guy who you thought was really mean but when you really stood back and watched you realized he was being terrorized by the students. He had to be strong, he had to not show weakness. So I wanted to show with Dean Norris’s character, Principal Tyler, that’s he’s sort of a middle management guy. He’s just trying to get through the day. With Charlie and Ice Cube’s characters I had the teacher that was trying to be inspiring and trying to be your buddy and I also had the teacher who was old school and you wouldn’t mess with. But they were both really good teachers they both really cared, and it was important for us going into the movie that we show that they both cared and it wasn’t just gonna be a mean big guy trying to beat up a little wimpy guy.

How were you guys able to convince the high school to let you film a movie about two teachers beating the crap out of each other?

Keen: I probably looked at 30 schools and wanted the school to feel like it was falling apart, and I couldn’t find it. I went all over Atlanta, I went outside of Atlanta and then I saw this school. They were building a new school so this location was condemned, falling apart, and I walked in and I thought “This is perfect, it’s falling apart!”. It was the only school I liked, I was desperate to get it, everything was lining up, and I got a call saying “They want to read the script”. And it wasn’t the fight I was worried about, it was all the vulgarity. It was Jillian’s character trying to sleep with a student or doing drugs. They knew the movie was called Fist Fight, they knew the concept, so it was more like “Oh My God, are they going to allow us in the school when they read what we’re doing?”. Luckily, a a school district getting paid to have their school rented out beat “Oh no, it’s too vulgar!”. We also had to make sure we didn’t have the actual name of the school, that it could be Anywhere U.S.A. We weren’t saying “Hey, this is a school in this part of Atlanta and it’s called ___!” We called it Roosevelt High School in Anywhere U.S.A.

Day: So the upside was we got an abandoned school, and the downside was no running water.

Keen: There were a lot of port-a-potties outside.

Day: People still used those restrooms in there somehow.

Charlie, you went to Merrimack and I was just wondering what you missed most about it or what’s like being back here for a little bit?

Day: I think what I miss most about that time in my life is the excitement about everything being new. Everything is so new fresh and exciting. Any time I came into Boston, the idea of the potential of what my life could become was always exciting to me. Like taking the bus into New York City to audition for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which I went to for years. It was just exciting; the promise of what there was out there. Not that I’m jaded now, but now I have to remind myself to be excited about life. I have to say ”Hey, you know what it’s exciting? You’re back in Boston and you’re talking about a movie and you’re the star in it!”. But I miss that young freedom that you have when you’re getting the chance to pursue your dreams and truly become and adult and go out into the world. That was a great time in my life and I wish I could go back to it.

You guys have worked before, so did you find that it was easier to maneuver this giant production because you were so comfortable with each other?

Keen: I don’t think I would have ended up with the movie I ended up with without Charlie. Charlie will never get the credit for the things he contributed to the movie. We talked early on about how we wanted to handle and fix the script. Charlie was my first call anytime I was thinking about casting. The infamous scene in the talent show–I picked that song–it wasn’t written to be that song. I sent it to Charlie to make sure he wanted to do it that way. When you have a partener like Charlie to tell you something’s good, you go forward and thank God I had him in this experience to help me.

Day: It was great to work with Richie because I got to make this movie a lot closer to the way I make It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The amount of input we shared before we even started rolling cameras helped me feel as though we really got every scene, every sequence, and every piece of casting to a place where I felt comfortable to step back and watch Ritchie take over and become the great director he became over the course of this movie. There was a moment where, (turns to Ritchie) not that you’re a student, but the student surpassed the teacher. Where suddenly it was like “Ritchie’s doing these things that I didn’t expect him to do and they’re ten times better than what I would have thought of”. It was really good to not only stick my neck out for someone I believed in but then to watch them make me look good. Not just by doing a good job but by making a great movie. So having Ritchie be the director of this movie has been the most rewarding part of it.

In making Fist Fight, what films or filmmakers inspired you the most?

Keen: I grew up outside Chicago where John Hughes was making all of his movies. When I was a kid I’d ride my bike to go sneak on the Ferris Bueller set. So when I read Fist Fight, in addition to it being the funniest movie I had ever read, I thought “This is a rated-R John Hughes movie!”. It’s a high school movie that takes place in a day, it’s the day that changed someone’s life, and it’s just that plus all the weird shit Charlie and I are into that makes it R. So John Hughes was my inspiration in terms of finding the subject matter.

Day: There’s so many movies. For me it’s Dog Day Afternoon in that there’s a guy who’s in a pressure cooker who just unravels over the course of the movie. But there’s a million movies where I can look at a performance or look at the directing and be inspired and influenced by it. So I try to always stay an open book and see a movie and get inspired by something and learn every time I sit down to watch anything.

Fist Fight is now in theaters! Read John’s review here.

Watch The Trailer: 


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