It’s a fall evening in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Sierra Madre, where filming for the raucous new comedy The House is underway. Will Ferrell, trailed by Amy Poehler and three of their co-stars, knocks on a pair of red storm doors, where a voice from the other side asks for a password. Ferrell provides the secret code, name-dropping a figure from the world of sports and films, and the basement doors open.
Holding a torch, Ferrell sneaks his way downstairs as Poehler and fellow castmates huddle close by. As they reach the basement, a voice calls out from the darkness. ‘Cut!’ Director Andrew Jay Cohen emerges from behind a monitor, joking with his actors that they’ll need to ‘clump’ together more as they enter the door. Positions are reset, the assistant director calls ‘Rolling, sound, action!’ and the actors group tightly back together, moving as a single body as they again enter through the door and move down the staircase. Cohen yells cut again and Ferrell, eyebrows arched, asks, ‘Was that the right clumpage?’
It’s day two on the set of The House, the latest film from New Line Cinema, bringing comedy giants Ferrell and Poehler together for the first time on the big screen (technically they both appeared in the feature comedy Blades of Glory, but didn’t share any scenes). Given their respective pedigrees, spanning Ferrell comedy classics like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Elf, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Poehler’s acclaimed series Parks and Recreation, plus big screen appearances in Mean Girls and Baby Momma – not to mention beloved runs by both on Saturday Night Live – their pairing is a no-brainer, not to mention long overdue.
So it comes as no surprise that Cohen is thrilled with the Ferrell-Poehler on-screen union. ‘Will and Amy are magic together – and amazing! Watching them push each other to crazy heights is a force on its own’.
Matching Cohen’s fervour for the two stars is Jessica Elbaum, one of the film’s producers along with Adam McKay for Gary Sanchez Productions, plus Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake, partners at Good Universe. ‘You really buy Will and Amy as a couple’, Elbaum says. ‘They know when to pull it back and when to let it rip’. Kahane also shared his thoughts on how Ferrell and Poehler bring to life one of the film’s relatable elements. ‘Will and Amy really bring home the predicament faced by parents everywhere, as their characters Scott and Kate prepare themselves for some seismic changes in their lives’.
Joining Ferrell and Poehler on-set for the second day of filming is actor Jason Mantzoukas, who portrays Scott and Kate’s neighbour Frank. As Cohen returns to capture more ‘clumpage,’ he praises Mantzoukas’s ‘edgy comedy style and wild eyes’ in portraying the manic Frank’s winning combination of anarchic energy and humanity, as he strikes gold with the idea to turn his barren, split-level home into a gambling mecca. Thanks to Frank, Las Vegas is suddenly just down the road.
Standing amid the set of Frank’s DIY casino set-up – which includes a green-felted ping-pong table standing in for a roulette table – Mantzoukas says the character fits nicely into his ‘comedy sweet spot of completely unhinged and lovable maniacs’.
Frank’s cohorts in his maniacal plans are Ferrell and Poehler’s Scott and Kate, an ordinary suburban couple who, after learning that the scholarship they were counting on to pay their daughter’s university fees has fallen through, open an illegal, Vegas-style casino. It’s a safe bet to say that, given the Ferrell-Poehler teaming and the protagonists’ wild, get-rich-quick scheme, things don’t go exactly as planned.
You don’t have to be a Vegas regular to know that the only real winner at a casino is the casino itself, or, in Vegas parlance, ‘The House.’ That said, Scott, Kate and Frank’s plan to turn a suburban home into their own House is, well – it’s still crazy, but, to Ferrell, irresistible as well. At 6’3” the laid-back superstar seems even taller than expected before he eases into a director’s chair to chat, crack jokes and share his enthusiasm for the film. ‘It’s one of those ideas that hits you right away as being unique and that combines a lot of things I love, including characters looking for a reason to let their hair down. The problem is that Scott and Kate have too much fun. Way too much fun’.
Wearing two hats – he’s also a producer on the film – Ferrell notes that the idea of having a casino in one’s own neighbourhood is as compelling as it is insane. ‘It’s a lot of fun to be imagining what that would bring out in people – the allure, the fantasy and the excitement of Vegas, right in your own backyard’. Before he’s called back to set, Ferrell makes special note of his onscreen mate, who transitions from suburban mum to gambling pro. ‘We get to see Amy go off the deep-end funny, and that’s something new to audiences’.
Poehler, on the other hand, is as petite as Ferrell is towering, and is having a blast joining forces with him. ‘I’m just trying to match Will’s energy’, she says, ‘though I’ll never be as tall or as loud. Will’s a maniac because he really goes for it. This film is all about taking risks and going all in, and if we can inspire anyone to start their own illegal casino, well, then we’ve done something right’ she laughs. ‘Will and I get to do some loan sharking, fight-promoting, and dress like characters form a Scorsese movie. There will be blood!’
Frank’s makeshift gambling set-up evolves over time, transitioning from a pathetic cash-pad to a cheesy DIY affair of garage castoffs and then a super-slick operation with ‘It’s Vegas, baby!’ add-ons like a strip club, pool party, live entertainment, salon and spa.
Production designer Clayton Hartley breaks down the set’s looks into four phases, spanning the House’s humble origins to its blazing Sin City glory. Phase two is the set’s current state, the casino’s ‘homespun, handmade version’ as Hartley puts it. Via elaborate concept art, Hartley provides a tantalising glimpse of phase four, the ‘Go for It’ stage. ‘It’s straight to Vegas and no one’s stopping’, he jokes as he cycles through drawings depicting lavish emporiums with new carpeting, authentic gaming tables and bright red chandeliers. It’s the full Vegas package.
Via costume designer Christopher Orozo, Scott and Kate have corresponding phases that mark the couple’s transition from suburban parents, wearing dad jeans and khakis, to their self-titled ‘Butcher’ and ‘Burner’ incarnations as casino bosses. Kate dons sequin dresses while Scott is in the finest silk suits and the latest Mob-style sunglasses. Women’s sunglasses, to be exact.
These Sin City accoutrements are reminiscent of the time-honoured expression ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’, but what’s happening in the film’s fictional community of Fox Meadows is out of control.
To maximise the insanity, Cohen has populated The House with a supporting cast of actors and comedians, all of whom are nimble improvisers. Surrounding Ferrell and Poehler in their chaos are Rory Scovel, Cedric Yarbrough and Lennon Parham, along with Kyle Kinane, Michael Watkins, Allison Tolman and Rob Huebel. ‘It’s a comedy nerd’s paradise’ says Cohen.
While it’s become a bit of a cliche when filmmakers make a big fuss about improvisation, producer-screenwriter Brendan O’Brien insists that improv here is essential in order to take full advantage of the cast’s comedic talents. ‘We stick to the script for the first few takes to make sure we get the rhythms, but then Andrew gives the actors room to go off into different zones that we never could have imagined ourselves’.
O’Brien adds that some last-minute script ‘improv’ will come into play later in the production for one of the film’s most deranged scenes – a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Scott and Kate’s neighbours, played by Parham – a fellow day two clumper – and Andrea Savage. Initially scripted as a sloppy battle between two townsmen, the scene evolved, at Mantzouka’s suggestion, into a battle royale between two bickering soccer mums, creating yet another moneymaking bonanza for the establishment’s proprietors. ‘We’re going to have a lot of fun – and maybe a few bruises – working on the big fight’, Parham promises. ‘And we’re going to have a lot of bloodthirsty actors cheering us on!’
Maybe Poehler’s tease about ‘blood’ wasn’t so jokey after all, though it probably tells audiences even more about the on-set camaraderie and, yes, hijinks on tap for this production. ‘The House is a comedy about family and friends, but it skates the edge, proving that it’s never too late for our characters to do something stupid’, Poehler says before wrapping for the night.
Ferrell leaves on this note – ‘I see that as a ‘what if’ story. What if you were faced with this dilemma? You probably wouldn’t make the choices made by Scott and Kate, but you never know’.
Some time after day two of filming, Ferrell started to live his own what-if scenario – what if he learned how to play craps? After Cohen schooled him and Mantzoukas in the fine art of playing the dice game, Ferrell enjoyed a run of beginner’s luck, hitting a 10-minute ‘hot roll’. Shortly after the winning streak, Cohen was heard proclaiming, ‘Mr Will Ferrell – actor, producer and craps hustler’.
From Warner Bros. Pictures, The House opens in cinemas June 30.