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


Charlie Day is going to have a Fist Fight this weekend with Ice Cube, thanks to director Richie Keen. The It’s Always Sunny star and his director recently made their way to Arizona in promotion of the upcoming schoolyard brawl comedy, and the Nerd Repository joined a select group of journalists to get the low down on how they brought their fists of fury to the screen.

You can check out the highlights below:

On being in Arizona:

Richie Keen: I love Arizona. I’ve been to Arizona, many times and Phoenix many times. I have friends who live here, and there is something very, very peaceful to the desert life. I grew up in Chicago, it’s much different. I always love coming here, I just find it really peaceful.

Charlie Day: Yes, same here. I grew up in Rhode Island and there is something about when I come to these desert places. Well, now I’m stuck in Los Angles. There’s something about the desert that I like so much and it’s like a well-kept secret too. Right? You think, well what’s out there in Phoenix? And when you get here… of course no one ever leaves. You’re living in paradise.

Richie Keen: It’s like a much nicer LA.

Charlie Day: That’s right! It’s LA without the cars!

Richie Keen: And not everyone looking over their shoulders.

On if any the cast made them break character or threw them off while filming:

Charlie Day: Well, the kids threw me off. And I think you mean threw me off my game as an actor? After getting thrown into a school bus 15 times by Ice Cube, I started to get a little off. I was wondering if anyone knew if we were still filming or if he was trying to smash me to pieces.

Richie Keen: I was impressed, because I was thrown by Tracey Morgan and Charlie wasn’t. To me, he’s so bizarre and interesting and nothing is done the same way again, that I couldn’t believe that Charlie would just roll with him and stay in character and stay in the story. I was just cracking up, thinking thank god I had a camera on him for half the time.

Charlie Day: Yeah, for some reason I speak Tracey Morgan. I like the absurd non sequitur.

On filming a scene in a tight school hallway with a live horse:

Charlie Day: I was just happy we weren’t trampled to death, because I was worried that would happen.

Richie Keen: I had never worked in a confined space with an animal that size, aside from Charlie being the star and my friend: A) How he would be safe in that scene? and B) How he would be safe in the other scene when the horse is going down the hall? I can’t give you all the movie secrets, but I can tell you that if you have the right animal people around you that know the animal and know what they need, and I am always asking what I can give them, what do they need? Do you need time? I never want to rush them.

Charlie Day: I made sure never to have an apple in my pocket. That’s how they find you.

On what lessons Ice Cube’s character learns in the movie since Charlie Day’s character learns a lot:

Charlie Day: That’s a great question. I think [his character] learns that possibly his methods are a little too extreme. That this man who is known for being so soft and kind and easy with the students wasn’t just a fool for having that point of view, but he has a point of view and is was willing to go down swinging for that point of view, and both he and [Ice Cube’s character] have to find middle ground. It’s a good metaphor for everyone in life. No matter what your point of view is, you can’t be so bullish not to listen to them. So they are forced to understand one another.

Richie Keen: Yeah, piggybacking off that I think it was so important to us that both teachers cared and they just happened to have their philosophies. And Ice Cube loves the Civil War. He cares. He’s old school. He says “I don’t need to be liked, I’m here to educate,” where [Charlie’s character] wants to be your buddy, and there’s different philosophies in teaching now. I don’t know what the right answer is. I think it’s probably specific to each school, each class and even each student. I think that [Ice Cube’s character] probably learned that he could ease up a little bit, that without ruining the ending, he does actually tell Charlie’s character to calm down at one point.

Charlie Day: Maybe that is where he learns his lesson?

Richie Keen: And he sees someone else doing it and realizes that’s a little out of control.

Charlie Day: That there is such a thing as too far.

Richie Keen: If you scrub away all the laughs, and all the F-bombs and all that, there is some good social commentary here.

On bringing social commentary to the film:

Charlie Day: I’m sure there was something in the original draft, but it was something really important to both Richie and myself that the movie was anchored, which is essential to any comedy, especially if you wanna be edgy or occasionally outrageous. If it’s not anchored on some positive message then it really just feels like shock value for the sake of shock value. And we’ve been doing that for 12 and a half years on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I think we would have been a one season show if each episode or the majority of our episodes weren’t rooted in some message, and I hesitate to say what they are, but to make people watch them and make them think just a little bit. It was important to us.

Richie Keen: We think that first of all, we don’t have the answers. We all can agree no matter what you think about politics or anything, that we need to look at the education system. It’s not working the way it once did and I wanted the film to feel like a prison riot movie. I felt like it was the prison guards versus the inmates and you’ll never see two students go at each other. That was deliberate.

The way I shot it, I wanted it to open in a prison yard, a court-yard. I didn’t open with the school, or the flag, or the football field. Even in the way I tried to light it. The cinematography, I hired the guy that did Cop Land and To Die For, My Own Private Idaho. He’s done commercial movies, but I wanted it to have that feel. The school I picked was rusty, crumbling. It was important to all of us. We’re not a hard message film. We wanted to be the most outrageous comedy of the year.

Charlie Day: It’s very pro-teacher too and really shines a good light on the difficult situation teachers are in these days. Both in their lack of ability to discipline kids, and their lack of resources sometimes. I think Cube’s character really would have been one-dimensional if we didn’t give him this great philosophy of why he wanted to have this fight, beyond the original identifier.

On whether there was any rituals to get the energy up in right before filming:

Charlie Day: It depends what scene I’m in. Certainly in the beginning of the movie when it’s just me talking to my students, I don’t wanna do too much before. I do a little jumping around sometimes, and pumping my fist. It’s something an actor friend told me he saw Tom Cruise do, and as a joke we started doing it on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and now I just love to do it. It gets the blood flowing. Sometimes, I learned this from Danny [Devito], I’ll just say a few lines in character either to someone else in the scene or just no one, and then roll the camera. There’s little tricks you can try.

Richie Keen: I will tell you, I don’t think you mind me saying this [Charlie], in the scene where Charlie finally tells off the administration, he did it one time perfect. I shot it a second time just in case the camera messed up. I was sure I was going to be there for hours in this passionate scene, this monologue. By the time we got to that point in the shoot he was so ready for it.

On giving the fight justification:

Richie Keen: Just in terms of the tension, that is something that we added. It was important for the fight to have meaning, it had to be a cathartic experience for everyone so we added these crazy senior pranks that the principal was going through because I just kept thinking when I cast Dean Norris – seeing Charlie between an angry Dean Norris, Hank from Breaking Bad on one side and Ice Cube on the other I really felt like that is a no-win situation. What do you do? And to watch him try to finesse that and just, “Yes, he did it but he had a reason!” I’m glad you picked up on that because we wanted all the teachers, Tracy Morgan get pranked, everyone by the time we got to the fight…

Charlie Day: Yeah and there were great pranks in the script, the original draft, but we definitely wanted to make this such a terrible day for Andy Campbell that by the time he finally says, “I’m going to go down swinging no matter how hard you hit me,” that you can kind of justify that he gets to that place.

On whether current political events should be addressed in their comedy:

Charlie Day: It’s really interesting. I think certainly Sunny has thrived in that era and we’ve been around a long time, so when we first started the show Bush was in his first term, maybe second. But that was an interesting time. The reasons we were in Iraq and then of course, it’s not to say the Obama years weren’t interesting times.

And now of course it’s very volatile, and of course out of volatility comes hostility and then great comedy. I think it’s our job to just point out our flaws no matter what side of the political line you’re on. Both sides deserve a good comedic lashing and I don’t think anything is going to change in the place of comedy, and if the world gets to such a tame place that it doesn’t allow satire anymore, I don’t know, maybe it won’t be a good thing?

It is definitely getting harder for people to take a joke.

Richie Keen: As we’ve talked about, and I’m watching [It’s Always Sunny] as a fan again now because I was working on the movie. I was their first fan to become a director. Their show inspired me to try directing. They made their own pilot, I was an acting teacher and a stand-up comedian and an actor. I saw It’s Always Sunny, these guys were my age, they made their own thing, so I went out and made my own thing which wasn’t as good, but full circle they end up hiring me.

The thing about what you just said, not to worry, is they don’t shy away from anything. 90 percent of the people who see the show completely get it and love that they are taking it on. I mean this season premiere the cast turns black and they examine that whole issue in a way only these guys could. They didn’t shy away from it and it’s probably one of your most well received seasons. Right?

Charlie Day: Right. And I think that if 90% of people are getting that episode, they realize that if it’s making fun of anyone, it’s making fun of racists, but 10% of the people may not pick up on that. And that is always a risk you run with anything that is politically touchy. I think humor is necessary at times like this. I think the best thing to happen is for Fist Fight to come out and people can just go laugh and relax a little bit. And they can watch somebody punch someone if they’re feeling enraged at somebody.

I think shows like our show, I’m biased, and Fist Fight – movies that have something behind the humor are the movies that will survive. You’re right, it’s tougher to make senseless jokes, and it should be tougher to make senseless jokes. But if there is a good intelligent reason behind the joke telling, it should hang in there.

On the concept trailer Richie cut to pitch the film:

Charlie Day: You do want to see it, he did such a good job with it!

Richie Keen: So I have a friend who is a trailer editor, that’s what he does. I had no chance at this movie, no matter how much Charlie may love me. So first I had to convince him, since he had a real movie career to attend to, and he doesn’t need to do me any favors. And then I had to convince the studio. So I had made that sequence [in Fist Fight] where we do the mythology of Ice Cube. I had made Photoshop images of Ice Cube’s face from different eras, I had done storyboard sequences of a fight. I just kept thinking, “You’re not going to convince them of this movie.”

So I called my friend and asked what he gets paid a week. Told him I would give him a thousand over that if he did not work this next week. And we sat there. I’m a “from the John Hughes era” kid. I grew up watching Ferris Bueller and I grew up on his movies. So I took some of that old look the high schools had. There is nothing shiny or smooth, they look real. Like Fast Times, it’s like a real high school. I took movies like that and shots of Charlie and Ice Cube. I did shots over Charlie’s shoulder to Ice Cube to make it look like they were together.

It’s one of the things I worked on that I’m proudest because I think it actually convinced the studio to make the movie. The one thing they kept saying to me as I met higher and higher up the chain was: “You know what?These two guys together are pretty funny.” Like I proved it to them. Like they thought so or they wouldn’t have wanted to put them in the movie together. But when they could see it, forget me! They got really excited. They made that movie really quickly. It was a very fast process from when Charlie signed on, to me, to Ice Cube, to rewriting, and making the movie, which was a very abbreviated process.

Charlie Day: The trailer proved two things to me: One, it proves that aesthetically that you got this movie and you were going to make it an even better movie. But two, it proved to me that you were going to outwork everyone. And in terms of making a movie about a fist fight, if it were a boxing match you were the fighter that’s been in minor league fights who’s ready for a chance to take on the champ, who’s a lazy guy that’s gotten like 10 big hits, but now is just getting fat not going to the gym, and now you’re ready to get in the ring. So for me, I’d rather have the hungriest most passionate person when it comes to making anything artistic over someone just looking for a paycheck.

Richie Keen: And I appreciate that. I will never release the trailer. [groans from journalists]

Charlie Day: Ah, you should, you should. I might do it.

Richie Keen: The [real] movie trailer was way better.

On how the trailer inspired the flashback involving Ice Cube in the film:

Richie Keen: The reason the flashback happened was, without getting into the nitty-gritty, when I got the movie they did a budget on the movie and it was significantly higher than they wanted to spend. There was a big sequence in the movie that had to be cut. A big, historical sweeping thing. Strickland [Ice Cube] was a passionate Civil War guy. It broke my heart to have to cut it. But this was an interesting lesson to me that came up a couple of times while filming the movie when I couldn’t afford something.

What’s kind of great about this character is he’s kind of nuts and you don’t know why and I wanted there to be a mythology about him. When I sat down to write the sequence, I was still writing with the original writers, they wrote more sweeping sequences. The Iraq War, there was a helicopter coming in, and I said, “No, but we could do a bunker.” So I made each thing small. The sequence was really a fast cheap way to get out of the world of the high school.

I’ll just tell you really quickly another thing that came up that was great, the lesson again about money, the script in the big talent show sequence was written to have a Kanye West song, “Power.” Which I think is the coolest song, I was so excited about it and then we found out shortly before filming we couldn’t afford it. I thought, “Oh my god! How do you replace this Kanye song?” and my music supervisor must have sent me a hundred songs. I got my headphones on late one night and hear this song [Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”], I’m not that hip I don’t know all the best stuff, and I sent and it to Charlie and said, “Charlie, this will change the movie.” And he was like, “We have to do this song!”

Charlie Day: For me it gave this idea, originally we kept getting notes on that sequence that is was an About a Boy moment and then suddenly it felt like what if it was going to be an About a Boy moment but then we make it a big…

Richie Keen: We don’t do earnest very well.

Charlie Day: Also it gave the idea of what if my daughter is getting bullied and this is payback? In the original script she was just a fan of rap music. Sometimes those limitations lead you to an idea that makes it a better movie.

Fist Fight hits theaters nationwide on Friday, February 17.

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