Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and director Richie Keen stopped in Scottsdale and sat down for a lively group interview with the Phoenix Film Festival and other entertainment outlets to chat about their new comedy, “Fist Fight”. The movie offers a new twist on the high school experience, because two teachers - Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) and Andy Campbell (Day) – are scheduled to fight each other when the 3:00pm bell rings.
“Fist Fight” also stars Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, and Dean Norris, and it opens on Friday, Feb. 17.
Q: Did any of your cast members (who are mostly comedians) try to “throw you off” during the filming?
CD: I think when Ice Cube threw me into a school bus for the 15th time, it really started to rattle me.
RK: He is a very committed actor.
CD: I started to wonder if anyone realized that we were still filming, and he was just trying to smash me to pieces.
RK: I was thrown by Tracy Morgan, and Charlie wasn’t. Tracy is so bizarre and interesting, and I couldn’t believe how Charlie would just roll with him and stay within the story. I was just cracking up and thanking God that I had a camera on him half the time.
CD: For some reason, I feel like I speak Tracy Morgan.
Q: Charlie, you have a scene with Jillian Bell, where you are in a hallway with a horse. How did you do that scene…with a live horse in the school?
CD: I was just happy that we weren’t trampled to death, because I was almost positive that it was going to happen.
RK: I’ve never worked in a confined space with an animal that size, and aside from Charlie being the star, he’s my friend. I did spend a lot of time (figuring out) how he would be safe in that scene and another one where the horse follows him down a hallway.
CD: I (just) made sure to never have an apple in my pocket.
PFF: Andy (Day) has to grow as a person over the course of one school day. One thing that he learns is “snitches get stitches”, when he snitches on Ron (Ice Cube). He also learns another life lesson, which we won’t reveal here. What do you think that Ron learns after the movie?
CD: That’s a great question. I think that Ron Strickland learns that his (teaching) methods are a little too extreme. Andy, who is known as being so soft and kind and easy with the students, wasn’t just a fool for having that point of view. He has that point of view and is willing to go down swinging for (it). Both Andy and Ron have to find middle ground, and it is a good metaphor for everyone in life. If you disagree with someone, you cannot be so bullish, (that you will) not listen to (other person), and Andy and Ron are forced to understand one another.
Q: If you scrub away all of the laughs and rough language, there are some good messages coming through here. Was that in the original script, or did you add it during production?
CD: “Fist Fight” is a very pro-teacher film. I think it shines a good light on the difficult situations that teachers have these days, with their lack of ability to discipline kids and lack of resources.
RK: We don’t have the answers, but we all can agree (that) we need to look at our education system. It’s just not working the way that it once did.
Q: There’s a lot of intensity in this movie, and many characters are right on the edge of losing it. Did you have routines that you ran through before getting into that mindset?
CD: I do a little bit of jumping up and down and pumping my fists (before a take). An actor once told me that he saw Tom Cruise doing it. As a joke, we starting doing it on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, and now I love doing it. It just gets the blood flowing.
PFF: Andy’s daughter has a big talent show performance that is adding to his stress. I think that you have a son. Have you seen one of his performances, and have you been stressed about it?
CD: I have a five-year-old, (but) I have not been stressed about his performances. With five-year-olds, I think that anything goes! But the stress of parenting, I think that’s something that any parent can relate to.
I got a text message today. Here I am, out of town, and (my son) is upset, because he got into an argument with one of his best friends at school, and yea, it ruins my day. So, I can absolutely relate to Andy Campbell. I think to Andy Campbell, his daughter’s performance is (probably) the most important thing in the movie.
RK: His daughter’s performance really added to the pressure cooker situation. He has a daughter who needs him, a wife who is about to have a baby and he’s about to get fired.
We just kept asking, “How can this be the (tensest) day for all of these (characters)?”
Q: What were your high school experiences like?
CD: I was in public school, and my parents gave me the idea to apply for this really fancy private school, just one town over. I impressed (the school administrators) for some reason, and they accepted me on some financial aid. So, I went.
It was an all-boy school, and these kids were all living together and bonding. I would drive in, get dropped off and go to school, so I wasn’t having that bonding experience. There was a lot picking on the freshman where they would grab you, throw you in the bushes and make you do pushups, (but) I never took it from the rich kids. No matter what they did. There was one kid who kept giving me a bunch of hell, and I picked him up and put him inside a garbage can, even though I was about half his size. That was the end of me getting picked on.
RK: My high school was literally “Sixteen Candles” (1984). I was literally Anthony Michael Hall. I was King of the Geeks (during) my freshman year and would end up at the senior parties. Because I was in acting and knew all of the pretty girls, I remember upper classman guys coming to me and trying to broker a meet with a girl.
I would say, “Let me see what I can do. What are your intentions?”
I love an underdog. I was always an underdog. I’m a Cubs fan. I’ve been an underdog my whole life. (Making) a movie about a guy who is the unexpected sparring partner of Ice Cube was really fun because of that.
Q: Given the narrative, did anyone play pranks on set?
CD: I tell you what, if anyone pranked me (during) the shooting of that fight, I would have killed them. (laughing) Parts of this movie were so physically difficult to shoot, there wasn’t a lot of room for extracurricular activities.
RK: I’m not a prankster - ever - as a director, because I want the actors to feel safe.
CD: I imagine with all of those kids on set everyday...
RK: Oh, they were probably (pranking each other).
CD: I think the prank on them was that there was no running water, and the prank on us was that they used the bathroom anyway.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.