To find out how this concept from two Hollywood unknowns became a big budget film with some of the biggest stars in comedy, we talked to the film’s screenwriters, brothers Craig and Jeff Cox, along with Will Ferrell himself, for an oral history about the film. From how it got made, what they love about it, how the figure skating world responded, and its legacy, here is the history of
AN UNLIKELY IDEA BECOMES A MOVIE THANKS TO BEN STILLER
Craig Cox: We shared story credit with Busy Philipps who is a friend of ours. We grew up together in Arizona. She and I were watching a figure skating competition on TV and she was the one that initially said, “Oh, that would be funny, like a story about rival figure skaters.” Then Jeff and I kind of came up with the twist of, “Actually it would be funny if those rivals had to team up and be the first male figure skating pair.” It came very quickly. It just seemed funny while watching this on TV.
Jeff Cox: It was definitely pre-YouTube and you couldn’t just get on the computer and watch figure skating. I remember we went to like a
Craig Cox: We watched the Olympics with our family growing up. We were always really into it, so we knew the broad strokes. That book was really helpful. Then honestly we kind of watched
Jeff Cox: I gave the script to a friend who had a manager. Eventually his manager read it, asked what we wanted to do with it, and we wanted to take it to Ben Stiller. That’s what we did.
Craig Cox: Yeah, he was able to get it to Ben Stiller who liked it, and [his studio] came on board as producers. It was pretty awesome.
Jeff Cox: I think one of our managers called us and told us that he read it and really liked it and wanted to produce it. That was the greatest moment.
Craig Cox: The dream come true.
Will Ferrell: I was shooting
Jeff Cox: It’s kind of weird, but we honestly [envisioned] Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller.
Craig Cox: Those were the key guys we were writing to. The other part that is amazing is that we also envisioned Amy Poehler and Will Arnett as the rival pair, an they ended up being in it. The cast that came together was remarkably close to what we were envisioning when we were writing it.
Will Ferrell: The world the movie was having fun with, I was at least a fan of. I was a fan of watching it, and appreciating it at the same time as mocking it. There’s a percentage of the audience who likes it as pure sport, but there are a lot of people who are like, “Wow look at that outfit,” or, “Look how serious they are as they skate to this song.” I was probably more drawn to it on pure spectacle more than anything else.
Jeff Cox: Just as a bit of trivia, we had Will Ferrell in mind for Jimmy [Jon Heder’s role].
Will Ferrell: I thought that character was great too. That would have been fun. I do have to say to get to play the not-innocent guy who is overly macho and has been so cocksure all the time was really fun. And yet no less than a thoroughbred. That’s what these athletes are–they’re thoroughbreds.
“John Heder broke his ankle early in the training.” – Craig Cox, Screenwriter
Craig Cox: [Knowing how to skate] wasn’t imperative. This is the first script we wrote together and sold, and we didn’t think about any kind of production concerns or anything like that. They actually had to learn how to do this stuff. Jon Heder broke his ankle early on in the training. It was kind of a scary moment because like, “Oh God, are they even going to be able to film this?” Obviously it worked out, but those guys didn’t have much experience at all. Maybe Will Ferrell did?
Will Ferrell: No, not at all, other than a birthday party in third grade that someone would have had at the
THE MAKING OF JIMMY AND CHAZZ
Craig Cox: Our vision of Jimmy was that he basically has known nothing but skating his entire life, really has no idea how to interact with people, has had no social life.
Jeff Cox: Johnny Weir, at least in terms of his style, became sort of an inspiration for Jimmy.
Craig Cox: Chazz was the most unrealistic figure skater, but I did have images in my mind of [three-time world champion skater] Elvis Stojko. I remember as a kid thinking he was a bad-ass, and he could do those back flips. He just seemed like kind of a bad boy with the long hair and everything, so I had him in mind when we were working on Chazz.
Will Ferrell: We also talked about a vibe of Jim Morrison meets Steven Tyler of
Jeff Cox: It may have been Ben Stiller’s idea to make Chazz a sex addict. Originally he was just a Lothario, just constantly on the prowl, but that just sort of crystallized it.
Craig Cox: I think it probably came out of trying to create an extreme. We thought Jimmy as a virgin, so what’s the polar opposite of that?
Craig Cox: [As far as their distinct styles,] we had no vision for the hair at all, honestly. That just kind of came out in production meetings with the directors, and whoever was doing hair and makeup.
Will Ferrell: For the hair, we all came up with that look together. In terms of the costumes, so much of that was [costume designer] Julie [Weiss], and every idea she had I was like, “That’s fantastic.” You can’t really go too over-the-top with any of that stuff. We always talked about how in his personal life, he seemed like a guy who’d wear a lot of leather and fringe jackets. The one thing I remember specifically coming up with was his special hairbrush that was made of whale bone. He just had weird objects like that. And then they’d later use that to come to the surface in the ice after I’d punched through. It was an embarrassment of riches with the costume choices because Julie was on top of it from the get go.
“My wife doesn’t let me hang my costume in the house. It’s in the garage, right next to one of my Ron Burgundy suits.” – Will Ferrell
Craig Cox: There were a lot of discussions about how much the costumes should suggest an animal versus being an outright Halloween costume. We were always going back and forth on how absurd to be with that.
Jeff Cox: For us it was always more about the attitude, and we were pretty descriptive in the movement and the vibe of the skaters. We were pretty specific about their bodies too.
Will Ferrell: The studio gave me one [costume] as a gift framed with the gold medal. Unfortunately my wife does not allow me to hang it in the house. It’s in the garage. It’s right next to one of my Ron Burgundy suits, so it’s right up there.
Craig Cox: Will Ferrell probably came up with the “Michael Michaels,” because in our original script it was Chazz Lewis. He made it much funnier.
Will Ferrell: I can’t remember who came up with what. I do have to say that’s always usually a good sign when people can’t remember, because it just means everyone was throwing stuff out and no one had an ego about keeping track of who thought of what.
REWRITES AND IMPROVISING
Jeff Cox: I don’t know who came up with this, but the Iron Lotus move was pretty inspired with the head getting decapitated.
Craig Cox: In our original script the second act ended with the two of them being kidnapped by an assassin and taken to this cabin on this mountaintop to get them away from the games. They manage to wriggle out of the ropes and escape down this mountain. It was just this crazy action set piece where they were basically doing every other Olympic event that wasn’t figure skating, doing all that stuff to escape this assassin who’s also chasing them down this mountain with a shotgun. It was nuts, and ultimately
Jeff Cox: It was funny how we never thought about the logic. Craig and I had never considered like, well couldn’t they just kidnap one? They could just kidnap one guy and the routine couldn’t happen. We’re like, “Oh, right.”
Craig Cox: What came out of those rewrites was good in terms of an actual foot chase on ice skates, and getting caught on the escalator.
Will Ferrell: The slow-motion chase that Will Arnett and I had on skates throughout that whole thing was a genius set piece. We were making it look hard, but it was kind of crazy. Will and his JFK outfit and the weird little moment when we’re stuck on the escalator, and I’m like, “Wait what are you again? Are you the guy from
Jeff Cox: One of the biggest changes from our original script was that the rival figure skating pair had no dialogue. They never spoke, and they had a coach who was their mother. That was an insane character who we were envisioning as like Gloria Swanson in
Will Ferrell: I like the smaller moments. I just loved Chazz backstage at the beginning, about to have to go and skate in the kid’s show he’s now part of–the moment where he’s alone having to put the helmet on and he’s so depressed. Those contextual things make me laugh more than anything.
Craig Cox: When we saw that first routine when they skate together for the first time in front of a crowd, we were both so excited about that. I give the directors a lot of credit for this–because tonally, it’s just exactly what we envisioned. Even today, that’s one of my favorite scenes, because it’s just such a perfect embodiment of what we wanted.
WE’RE GOING TO SKATE TO ONE SONG AND ONE SONG ONLY
Craig Cox: I actually don’t know [how Fergie’s “My Humps” made it into the movie].
Jeff Cox: I don’t know if that was pure Will Ferrell. There needed to be a song, but that was definitely a game-time thing. It wasn’t something that was in our script.
Will Ferrell: I do remember Jon was like, “It’s so weird no one knows what it means.” It was all improvised. Then Kanye West ends up sampling that into his song. That’s so bizarre and weird.
Jeff Cox: The [lyrics] really don’t make sense.
Will Ferrell: I’m going to assume [it’s about] mammaries. It just seemed like a good song to do on the treadmill at that time.
THE REAL WORLD OF FIGURE SKATING
Craig Cox: No figure skating fan has ever got on us about anything, honestly. That would be amazing to run into someone who really took issue with it, but that’s never happened.
Will Ferrell: Not one complaint. I think the world of figure skating was more than happy to have anyone pay attention to them. In fact, I just ran into Dorothy Hamill out in Palm Springs and I think professional figure skaters think that movie is hilarious: “Thank you for making it, and I know you guys are trying to be funny but it’s actually more accurate than you think.”
Jeff Cox: Scott Hamilton’s in it, Nancy Kerrigan. It would have been amazing to get Elvis Stojko because he was somebody that was on our minds, but I was pretty happy with who they got for the movie, and it was cool meeting all those people.
“I just ran into Dorothy Hamill, and I think professional skaters think that movie is hilarious.” – Will Ferrell
Craig Cox: I really enjoyed watching skating in the Olympics, and I didn’t want to seem like we were just crapping on it or something, so I was glad that it came off goodhearted.
Will Ferrell: It’s really hard to do–two little thin blades of steel and you have to do those jumps and everything, but I still laugh at it. I appreciate it, but I still laugh at the kind of “it is just a world of peacocks.” That just makes me laugh.
CHAZZ AND JIMMY TAKE OFF AS A TEAM
Craig Cox: There were talks up until we were into production of like, “What’s this final moment gonna be? How’s it gonna work?” Then Ben Stiller just had that idea [of taking flight into the sky], I think probably like a day or two before they even filmed it. So that really came out of the moment.
Will Ferrell: The thing that I loved that made the movie, which was a big debate at the end, was the fact that we end the movie, and we just fly out into the sky–that surreal ending. They put Jon and I on these wires and flew us to the roof of the sports arena. It was just this weird, abstract ending and it was like, “Should we do it? Should we not?” And I was like why not–it’s so weird. And that actually stayed in the movie, and I don’t think anyone questioned it. There were those that said “that’s just weird—where are they going?” I was like, “It’s kind of a metaphor that they reached their dreams. Who knows, they’re just flying out. It’s just a movie, let’s do it.”