Champions has arrived in Australian cinemas and I recently spoke to director Bobby Farrelly about the project…
Matt: You’ve been working in the film industry for roughly 30 years now. Has your sense of humour changed much over that time?
Bobby: That is a good question. The sense of humour of society has definitely changed. We went through a spell, particularly over the last few years, where we haven’t been joking about a lot of stuff. Comedy was almost on a hiatus. Laughing is good for people and good for society.
I’m just glad to have a movie like this back out. I think it’s a great, sweet story which is very funny. We know Woody Harrelson can deliver laughs and what he’s doing here is not goofy or zany. It’s set in reality and there’s a good message behind it. It’s good entertainment.
Matt: Kingpin is one of my favourite comedies and here you get the chance to work with Woody Harrelson again. He’s an interesting character in that he’s a schmuck at times but he kind of knows it and is almost apologetic about it. What made you think he was the right lead for the movie?
Bobby: Woody is a great actor who makes it look so easy. If you look at his career, he’s made some incredible, smart choices. He’s balanced his career beautifully with big movies and small movies. He’s done Natural Born Killers, LBJ, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, and then he’s done stuff like Kingpin. He’s got a great range.
In this movie, he’s really good at playing a real person who doesn’t have to be perfect. His character doesn’t realise it but he’s someone who needs to learn a few things. He’s full of himself at the beginning and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. When asked to coach this basketball team of people with intellectual disabilities, he learns a lot about himself and he allows those on the team to teach him a few things. Sometimes it’s more than just a sport and you can provide people with life lessons too. It’s all done in a funny, comedic way with the story serving as a nice backdrop.
Matt: I really enjoyed Kaitlin Olson here. Particularly in the early scenes, she’s so blunt and ruthless and seeing through all of Marcus’s tells. What was your advice to her in creating her character?
Bobby: I just thought Kaitlin Olson was a great actress. I’d never seen her do a big movie role because she’s been in TV for so many years. She totally blew me away with her performance. She’s super smart, super attractive, and she’s nobody’s fool. She’s so witty and sarcastic that Woody’s character can’t slip one by her. She’s way smarter than him. But she also plays it in a way where she’s vulnerable and has things holding her back. She too needs to look in the mirror and perhaps let go and not cling to the past so much. It’s a nice story arc and she handles it gracefully.
Matt: The members of the basketball team have such great, distinctive personalities. Can you tell me about that side of the casting process?
Bobby: We wanted to make sure that everyone could play basketball as a starting point. We went to recreational leagues for people with intellectual disabilities across the United States and Canada and asked the coaches if they had any players that maybe wanted to act. We were inundated with people sending in audition tapes. There were hundreds and hundreds. From that, it was a bit like making a cake. We wanted a range of different personalities and so we picked these ten and I think we did a great job with the casting. The actors are terrific and they’re such beautiful, different people. We got lucky and they make the story work.
Matt: We see it time and time again when real-life news folk pop up in movies. Here, we have them in fake episodes of Sportscenter. I’ve always wondered how easy that stuff is to organize? Do they love the idea of being in a movie or are they and the TV networks hard to convince?
Bobby: It’s a little of all of that. It’s not the easiest thing to organize. Scott Van Pelt is such a knowledgeable sports guy. We reached out to him, and he liked the story and responded. We got him. It lends credibility to the movie and Woody’s character being a minor league basketball coach. By bringing in the ESPNs and all that, it makes it more like real life.
Matt: The film is based on a 2018 Spanish film which I admit I haven’t seen. Was there much that you and writer Mark Rizzo felt needed to be changed to improve on that source material?
Bobby: They made a beautiful movie which we first responded to. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. Woody is Woody and he puts his own stamp on the character. That in itself was a big thing. Mark Rizzo wrote a script which was a little different tonally. We didn’t want to tell this story in a zany way. This version was a little more based on reality.