'Get Hard' director on working with 'gifted' stars Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart
How a newbie won over two of the biggest names in comedy.
Most college students barely have time to sleep between studies, cereal binges and hanging out with friends. But Etan Cohen was a bit different. He thought the best way to spend his college downtime was to write a script for one of his favorite shows, "Beavis and Butt-head." Little did he know that 20 years after faxing that script to the show's creator, Mike Judge, he'd be directing two of the biggest names in comedy in a big-budget feature film.
"I think what really led me to do it was just being totally naïve about the process," Cohen told From The Grapevine. He directed "Get Hard," the comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart that will be released on March 27. When he wrote the "Beavis" script, the Harvard student was spending some time at a yeshiva in Israel, and he had gotten word while interning at MTV that Judge was open to story ideas. "I mean, I never would have done it if I knew what a long shot it was, but I was like 19. So, I was like, 'Oh, I can do this.'"
Luckily for Cohen, Chris Brown, who was the executive producer in charge of running "Beavis," liked what he read – at least he eventually did. "He wrote me back that it was all terrible, but once I decided that I was going to do it, I just kept coming back at him with probably hundreds of ideas," said Cohen, who was born in Jerusalem and lived between Israel and the United States through college. Brown finally asked him to write out one of those ideas as an episode, which ended up getting made. "That kind of turned into my college job," Cohen added.
It also launched him into a writing career where he wrote or contributed to the screenplays of hit movies like "Men In Black III," "Idiocracy" and "Tropic Thunder" as well as writing for television shows such as Seth MacFarlane's "American Dad!" and Judge's "King of the Hill."
Once he got the attention of Ferrell and his production partner Adam McKay, though, an irresistible opportunity opened up to direct the big-budget comedy about a white-collar criminal (Ferrell) who is sentenced to maximum-security prison and turns to a man he thinks is a hardened criminal (Hart) to get him ready. Of course, Hart's character is a family man and is just as clueless about being prison-ready as Ferrell's character is.
"I think I started first being just like a guy who would come in and pitch some jokes" for Ferrell and McKay's movies, Cohen said. "And then that evolved into writing some scripts for Will and even though those didn’t get produced, it still helped us develop a relationship and he started to like my work. And when it came time for this, they thought of me." Cohen also contributed to the movie's screenplay.
What's it like to direct Ferrell and Hart, especially for a guy whose only directorial credit to that point was a live-action short film? "One of the biggest challenges when you have two stars and you’re a first-time guy is just accepting that you’re the director on set and you get, to a relative degree, to have say about what’s funny in this movie. And that’s a big change when you go from writer to director in features," Cohen said. "I was fortunate that Will and Kevin were great about that. But there was a moment I remember when Kevin looked at me and he’s like, 'Oh, OK. I get what you’re doing. I trust you now.'"
Trying to make sure the styles of the two stars mesh well is also a challenge that Cohen relished. "What’s great is that they have totally opposite energy," he said. "If you’ve watched Will for a long time, he’s very Zen. He can just sort of take anything and react to it really quietly. Kevin is the opposite. He’s super hyperkinetic, he takes what you give him and he takes it to like a next volume usually, whereas Will kind of settles into more like a reactive thing. He can go big, but he has a much quieter, more reactive kind of tone, whereas Kevin is more aggressively trying to get to the laugh."
Cohen, who said he "read a lot" during his years in Israel and watched a lot of British comedies, considers his sense of humor to be "more R-rated comedy that has something social or political to say." He thinks "Get Hard" fits into this category, and he tried to direct with that in mind. He also got some good advice from McKay, who directed Ferrell in hits like "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights": Get as many alternate versions of scenes as you can, especially with talented improvisors like his stars. "Will and Kevin are so gifted about taking something you give them, even on the fly, and doing something great with it."
What he enjoyed most was that the two stars pushed each other's performances constantly. "Kevin was excited to work with Will for the first time. Will is always challenging himself, too. Everyday he comes to the set trying to bring you something you haven’t seen. So, all three of us were hopefully always pushing ourselves and each other to bring fresh stuff. I thought that was really healthy."
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