It was one of the bigger logistical challenges of shooting “The Ridiculous 6.” Dealing with live animals is never easy, but director Frank Coraci had a particularly difficult shot in mind involving a donkey, one that would involve both visual and practical special effects to make it work, eventually having to bring in a big compressor to pull it off and testing all sorts of things to make sure it would look right to the audience.
“It is funny when you’re doing something like that, [you’re thinking], “Alright, we’re spending a ton of time doing one of the craziest shit jokes ever,” Coraci says of the defecating burro who can be counted on for one of the film’s most reliably funny running gags. With a laugh, he adds, “My job is problem solving and creating an illusion.”
The humor may be crude, but the moviemaking is sophisticated, which is likely why Coraci has been the director Adam Sandler has called for the past 20 years with his most ambitious productions. That may sound like an oxymoron to some, but in films like “Click,” “Blended” and “Zookeeper,” Coraci has demonstrated a unique ability to ground the often outlandish antics of Sandler and his friends in a relatable reality by emphasizing the personal relationships between characters that make the jokes matter and exhibiting a light aesthetic touch that help the punchlines land harder.
Both these skills are on display in “Ridiculous 6,” which lovingly recreates the period detail of spaghetti westerns that Coraci grew up watching while mining comedy from the premise of a promiscuous drifter (Nick Nolte) whose half-dozen sons — among them, Sandler’s Tommy Stockburn, who was raised by Native Americans — come together to find the fortune that he has supposedly buried for them. Sandler and a cast that includes Luke Wilson, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Taylor Lautner, and Jorge Garcia as the brothers — as well as Will Forte, Steve Zahn, and Harvey Keitel among the various villains they come across in their travels — are given the entire frontier to run roughshod over, running into the likes of Gen. Custer (David Spade), Wyatt Earp (Blake Shelton) and Abner Doubleday (John Turturro) along the way.
Every one of the elaborate mustaches that took an hour-and-a-half to perfectly coif and the scenic vistas that could only be captured with intensive preparation are a part of Coraci’s handiwork, which Sandler has benefitted from ever since the two went to NYU together during the 1980s. As part of the gang that would frequently attend Sandler’s early standup gigs and help by giving notes on the characters he would invent on stage, Coraci was one of the foundational members of the brain trust that would move on to make movies for Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. With “The Ridiculous 6” now appearing in homes everywhere as the first of Sandler’s films for Netflix, Coraci reflected on how times have changed and yet in some ways have stayed the same, the 10-year wait to make the western and which actor was smart enough to bring a jar to pee in when buried in sand.
How did you become Adam Sandler’s go-to director?
We’ve known each other now 31 years. We met freshman year at NYU. We just hit it off as friends and made each other laugh. I was in film school, and he was in drama school, and I was using him for so many of my student films and I was there when he was doing standup. A lot of the stuff, like the gibberish that we talked in our movies, it all sprang out of our friendship with a few friends of ours. Tim Herlihy [the co-writer of “The Ridiculous 6”] was Adam’s roommate. Jack Giarraputo was my roommate, who is Adam’s producer. We basically were saying, “Someday, we’re going to make movies together.” Then, we found ourselves on the set of “The Wedding Singer” going, “Wow, they really let us do this.”
Since that core group has been together so long, is directing a different job something different that what one might think? It seems like the auteur theory may not apply.
With a lot of comedies, when it comes to the actual comedy of the movie, it’s a group thing. Some of our other friends are writers — Allen Covert, who’s [also] our producer — and when you have Rob Schneider there, we’re all suggesting stuff. It’s not that uncommon to have a troupe of people because you know how to generate a certain kind of brand of comedy, and you want people that are familiar with it. in that way, it’s different, but I think in every other way, it’s pretty much the same.
I’m in charge of how to visually tell the story. I was the film student, so I saw every great movie, from Fellini’s “8 1/2” to Truffaut to Godard, so I always was really obsessed with making real movies that happened to be funny. I do feel like when I do a movie with Adam, because I have his support as a lead actor that’s driving the movie to get made, he supports my vision of how to make the movie, so I feel like I’ve gotten to make comedies that probably [have] a bit more thought put into the visual look of them than others. There was a move in the ’70s to just do overlit, high-key lighting. We’ve always tried to make movies that are much more stylized, but appropriate to the story.
Almost immediately in “Ridiculous 6,” you’re thrust into an action sequence that has to be taken seriously for the purpose of the story, but at the same time, mix in the kind of physical comedy you can expect from the rest of the film. Is that a tricky balance?
I try to make the movies visual. This was the one time as a filmmaker, I was like, “Wow, I really, really [can go all out].” For 10 years, we’ve been wanting to make this movie. When it comes to a romantic comedy like “The Wedding Singer,” I felt like my job was to step back and not make you feel the director. In “The Wedding Singer,” I did it with really cool colors and I didn’t want to move the camera too much. For this, I obviously leaned more heavily on the spaghetti western style, although I tried to pull from the classic westerns as well. We wanted something between Sergio Leone and a John Wayne classic and the goal was to make a real western, but then make it funny, both in the storytelling — with the twists and the darkness in it — and the visual look.
We traveled to Santa Fe to locations that nobody’s gone to in years to really give it some scale, but because it’s a comedy, I also wanted to play on the western devices in a funny way. There’s a standoff at the end [that can be seen in the film’s trailer] where there’s a bunch of push zoom-ins with really dramatic music. From when I first read [that scene] the script, [visually] it wasn’t in the script, so I just kept thinking of Taylor’s character Little Pete being this dopey guy that, in the middle of a standoff, he’s looking off thinking about flowers or something, so that seemed like a perfect opportunity to take the classic spaghetti western device and make it an actual joke, so we wanted to be a western first, but make sure we’re funny, so the two things had to weave together a lot.
You know from the very beginning what you’re in for when you see the “Presented in 4K” under the title like old westerns used to tout Vistavision.
I’m so happy you got that because I loved westerns, and I remember growing up as a little kid in the ’70s, when they used to have “In Technicolor.” And it’s funny because Netflix’s big thing was, “You know, you’ve got to shoot in 4K,” and I’m like, “Well, it’s going to stream, though.” “Yeah, but we want everything 4K.” So I’m like, “You know what? They’re excited about it. This is a perfect way to do an updated version of “In CinemaScope” or “In Technicolor,” and right out the gate, using the classic and the spaghetti western things to make you feel like at home with the westerns that we grew up on.
You get some beautiful sunsets and landscape shots — would you have to wait around for magic hour?
We had short days because we were shooting in the winter, but every day, I’d be like, “Okay, get the camera out.” I did this on “Blended” as well. When you’re in a beautiful place, and your day’s ending, and there’s this gorgeous sunset, it’s so easy to say, “All right, let’s set up a camera and get this gorgeous sunset.” I get really involved in scouting, going to every location and walking exactly where we’re going to shoot, so I always knew where we’d be. NYU taught me to be super-prepared because the more prepared I am, the better the movie looks for the same price. Believe it or not, we only had 50 days for this movie, which is more of 70-day shoot for a Hollywood version of this. Then I brought in Dean Semler, who won an Academy Award for “Dances with Wolves.” We shot “Click” together and we had such a great relationship that I couldn’t imagine anyone better photographing the movie.
Did knowing how this would go out into the world — through Netflix and largely on televisions rather than movie screens — affect how you approached making it?
At first, I was like, “Well, I make movies for the big screen,” but there’s a certain privilege and a freedom [with working with Netflix] because they were really hands-off. They said, “You guys know how to make movies. Do your thing.” As much as this is the movie we intended to make, I believe that if we were in the studio system [because] it doesn’t have a perfect happy ending, I really think some of that stuff would have gotten watered down, so when I was making the movie, I thought, “Wow, this is actually a privilege to get to do it.” First of all, it’s a privilege to make movies. I feel really lucky. Then, I realized there’s almost even more freedom to do stuff for Netflix because you’re not subject to an opening weekend, so you can be a little edgier when it comes to the plot and some of the emotional beats. It’s a western, so it should get a little dark, and I think we did, but hopefully the appropriate amount.
It’s been well-documented that this had a long road to getting to production. Were you actually involved when the project was at Sony and Paramount before it landed at Netflix?
Yeah, ten years ago, Adam pitched me the idea, stemming from a guy going on the road to find his father, and his father was promiscuous, so everywhere he went, he met another half-brother. The layer of the Native Americans came in a little bit later, and I was like, “Wow, that’d be awesome to make a western.”
We were almost a “go” at Warner Bros. too, then the Netflix deal came up and we thought, “This would be a much more fun way to make the movie,” because people were afraid to put too much money into a western just because the genre itself is not proven to be financially successful. They were so supportive every step of the way. Because it was a western, I was really thought it needs to be widescreen because it’s six guys — six brothers — a lot of faces, and initially, they were like, “Well, we’re Netflix,” but [quickly] they said, “All right. If that’s what you want …” They let us do so much great stuff without any conflict. And you don’t have to get people to go out to the theaters. They just have to turn on their TV, so we thought once they hear that it’s really funny and a good movie, there’d be no stopping how many people would watch it. As of now, I think there’s some records being broken.
The final product makes it seem like much ado about nothing, but there was controversy when a handful of Native American extras walked off the film in protest. Did that affect the production?
The real experience was that we had 150 Native Americans on set for a week and we had that beautiful ceremonial dance, which was touching for us all. I’ve got to say, there’s something magic going on in Santa Fe – there’s a reason Native Americans settled there. There’s supposedly crystals in the ground and we had such a harmonious, beautiful time there. So it was a surprise that there was a misinterpretation of what the movie was about.
It was always exaggerated. Literally, three people walked off in the end, and things were taken out of context. People were going through drafts of the script from 10 years ago and trying to find every joke that was tasteless. It’s a creative process, so there’s jokes that would never see the light of day or even get shot and the nature of a comedy is there’s going to be [multiple] drafts. It just got a little out of control because somebody was upset, and people like to pile on Adam, unfortunately, these days, for whatever reason.
I’ve seen the film now with a lot of the Native Americans that were in the scene – I was in Santa Fe doing a TV show, so I had a screening for all the cast and crew there, a majority of them Native Americans, and it was beloved. We had the best time [making the film], and it was unfortunate that a few people were upset. I hope if they see it, they see the ultimate theme of the movie is very pro-Native American. The white guys are the ones you can’t trust, and Adam’s [character’s Native American heritage teaches him to] believe in things like honor, family and truth, so I do hope they are less upset when they see it, if they see it.
The cast has its share of Happy Madison regulars, but you also welcome some new people into the fold like Luke Wilson. Is it interesting to see how the newbies fit in when I imagine the chemistry is pretty strong with the actors who have been in several films together?
I actually did “Around the World in 80 Days” with Luke, so I’d known him from that and way back when, when we were doing “The Wedding Singer,” him and Drew [Barrymore] were an item, so Adam had known him from here and there [too], and [Luke] was very excited to be a part of something like this. Everybody was — it was just like a bunch of guys making a western. It really was like a family right away.
Taylor was the most inspired casting because he had never done anything nearly as comedic before. You’ve got to think how much braver it is for him to go from [being] the “Twilight” star to really let himself look goofy. He had been in “Grown Ups” and we were like, “He’d be really interesting,” so we asked him and he said when he read the script, he got scared shitless, so he thought, “I have to do it. If I’m this scared, I have to do it.” All the actors have been calling him the MVP of the movie because he’s so funny in it and so committed. Also, the burro fell in love with him, even though it was Rob’s burrow. He was constantly licking Taylor randomly — in the middle of a dramatic scene, the burro would suddenly lick Taylor’s neck, and [Taylor] would try to perform like nothing was happening. It would just make us bust out laughing every time.
You had already worked with Nick Nolte on “Zookeeper” too, right? Is that how he ended up in this?
100%. I had worked with Nick, and when I went to NYU, I was around those Stanislavsky/Stella Adler-kind of actors, so when I worked with him, I knew he was a great actor, but to see some of these processes, even to do a voiceover for a gorilla, the guy was so prepared. He did [research] himself. He had a cassette tape he was playing me, [saying] “These are the gorillas mating, and these are gorillas angry.” We had a great time on that, so we stayed in touch. When this came up, I said to Adam, “Nolte’s the real thing,” because we thought it was really important that the audience actually believes Frank Stockburn and doesn’t think his intentions are ill-willed and you really fall in love with his character, so I said that to Adam, and he agreed that he was great. I couldn’t imagine somebody better.
There also tend to be a lot of people cast from a different world, whether it’s Dan Patrick, Rob Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice) or Blake Shelton in this. Is there anybody that surprised you with what they could do once you get them to set?
Blake Shelton had never been in a movie, and we cast him just because we knew he was really charismatic and a great performer. He was very trusting when he got there and [immediately] we were like, “Oh my God, this guy really owns the screen.” Certain people are just born with that charisma and his Wyatt Earp ended up being far past our expectations. That was probably the biggest surprise. We knew Vanilla Ice could be very funny because Sandler had worked with him in “That’s My Boy,” and [the Mark Twain role in “Ridiculous Six”] was obviously very written for him, and he definitely delivered the goods.
By the way, I have to mention John Turturro’s been one of my favorite actors my whole life, and I had not done any of the other Happy Madison movies with him, so the baseball scene [he’s in] was in a very old draft of the script. We decided, “Alright, it John Turturro will do it, it’s worth doing. If not, we’ll do the movie without it,” because we were on a very tight schedule. It ended up John said “yes,” and I was like, “Wow, I finally get my dream to work with the great John Turturro doing an really interesting character,” because I remember him from independent films when I was living in New York and I knew he knew how to take on a whole new persona. I don’t think anybody on the planet could have done Abner better than him.
When you’ve got regulars like that, is it a case of having people that want to be in the film, and you have to figure something out for them, or the reverse?
It’s more the reverse. Obviously, this was written for Terry Crews and Rob Schneider. Then, the Little Pete role was up for grabs, and Taylor was an inspired choice. Wyatt Earp, we didn’t know who it would be, and Sandler said, “How about a great country singer?” Some of them fell into place, and some of them were like, “You know what? We got to get Spade in there. Oh, he’d be a great Custer.” So it’s a little bit of both. Jon Lovitz was great in “The Wedding Singer,” so we knew he would be a great character at the poker game as some kind of spoiled millionaire.
When you have an ensemble like this, is it easy to structure jokes visually - I’m thinking the scene with Steve Buscemi in particular – where there’s a build with all the right rhythm and reaction shots?
Yeah. Buscemi is probably one of the best … It’s hard to say “best” because there’s so many great actors, but he does it totally dry. I think what helps is everybody does it from a realistic place, even though some of the stuff was a little bit big in the movie. You watch that scene when he’s putting the ointment on people – we had to shoot it pretty quickly, and he’ll do take after take and nail it every time. He’s unbelievable like that. It was cool to have him do that scene because that was probably one of the more sophomoric scenes, but having Steve Buscemi do it somehow made it okay, and you watch Taylor and Rob in the background, and they’re as funny [as Buscemi] just watching, so there was always somebody to cut to. It was almost too many good choices.
There’s a scene where the Left Eye gang that’s tormenting the Ridiculous 6 is buried up to their necks in sand and it looks real when they’re all being attacked by the critters around them, particularly Nick Swardson getting pecked at by a blackbird. Was that difficult to shoot?
It’s funny because that scene evolved. Adam and Tim wrote it, and I can’t even remember the original animal, but as we’re shooting it, my knowledge of visual effects and what can look good and what cannot look good [came in] It was a real bird, but it was actually really pecking a mannequin that was shot on a green screen. It works really great when you have an actor interacting as if it’s happening — and Nick Swardson’s so funny reacting to the bird — just the idea of being so vulnerable. We originally had a scorpion for Babyface, then I thought, “Ah, it’s not looking real, so what would be funny?” That was one of the ones I came up with — I imagined being stuck in the sand and a lizard going up your nose, and you have no hands to pull him out. Our visual effects company, it was Zero [VFX], did a great job of making that stuff look really real. None of [the actors] had to touch any of those animals, but I’m glad I did my job and sold that they did.
What they did do, though, was they were really buried. We put these giant boxes in the ground that had a lid and two sides that closed and a rubber grommet, then we covered [the actors] in dirt, and they stayed in there. It was a pain in the neck to get them in there — [the box for] Lavell Crawford, who plays the big bad guy with the afro, was double-sized — and they all were willing to stay in the boxes for about three hours. Somewhere in the last two-and-a-half hours, there was a windstorm and they couldn’t cover their faces, so we had everybody covering them with nets. They were miserable, but they stuck it out. Will [Forte] actually was smart enough to bring a bottle to pee in. He was like, “I’m not getting out because I’m going to pee in this bottle.” I had such dedication from my cast because it’s like we’re kids playing dress up like cowboys, with horses and guns. It’s just a fun genre.
Has Adam Sandler changed as an actor over the years?
Every project is different. When we knew the kind of western this was going to be, [Adam] had a good beat on his character, [which] was somewhere between John Wayne, David Carradine in “Kung Fu,” and a little bit of Billy Jack. But there were times when we were shooting it in the beginning where we’re like, “We’re getting him to do some funny stuff, but it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like we’re undercutting the truth of the movie.” And Adam has no problem being the straight man, knowing that he’s making a movie that’s funny for everyone – he and Tim wrote some of the biggest jokes, and he gets to be funny, but not to the degree that Taylor or Rob Schneider get to be funny. So it’s brave to me that he was able to play the straight man because as a comedian, your whole life, you’re programmed to make people laugh and he had the patience to know that the movie’s going to make people laugh.
How did the musical sequence come about?
One of the ideas that came out of our script meetings was every brother needed a reason to see the dad. It always starts out that the script’s really funny, and then the closer we get to shooting, we weave in the emotion. Sandler had the idea of the campfire — because we tried to do a lot of classic [western] things — and wrote that song, which came out of a note to set up the fact that [his character] lost his mother, and that affected him, but it ended up being hilarious, [with] an emotional beat at the end of Adam saying wish he had a mom.
Part of the rhythm that I think we’ve created [over the years]… I think it’s the opposite of a black comedy. In a black comedy, people are laughing and laughing, and their guard’s down, and then you shoot somebody in the head, and you go, “Oh, my god. I didn’t see that coming,” and it’s really emotionally disturbing. I feel like what we do in our movies is right when something gets emotional, we don’t let people roll their eyes. We make them laugh and they start to trust the filmmaker. I think they’ve had enough fun during the movie that when it does get to be emotional at a certain point, they’ll trust us more. That’s something that we did in “The Wedding Singer,” and I don’t think we’re the only ones that do that, but I think we’ve found a way to do it pretty well, knowing the audience and what the movie experience is. That’s something I think we’ve cultivated and has become part of our collaborative signature a little bit.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards those more emotional stories? Whether it’s “Blended,” in which Sandler plays a widower getting back in the dating game, or “Click,” when the remote control that allows him to fast-forward through life also makes him contemplate what he’s missed, your collaborations always seem more rooted in having that kind of core.
Because I went to NYU Film School, your tendency is to want to make dark, cool movies. If anything influenced me as a first movie, it was “Blue Velvet.” To me, what’s really interesting about a movie is tone, and I think why Quentin Tarantino’s a genius is he creates a tone that’s original and his own. What I love about “Ridiculous Six” is – and in some ways, it’s similar to “Click” in a weird way because “Click” took death head-on and it still was really funny – is that we have the burrow, and the ointment, and cross-eyes and pulling eyeballs out, but we felt we had a story that had some meat to it and something to say. The tone was the most exciting thing. The whole Nolte backstory and how he ends up not being the good dad that he wished he was [created] the biggest extreme from really fun, big comedy mixed with some moments that have some real grit.
I just love movies that aren’t afraid to be real but ultimately have a positive message. When it came to the movies that really touched my heart, I was definitely a Capra guy, but I got really interested in George Roy Hill. He had this ability of getting you to fall in love with characters, and he wasn’t afraid to kill somebody. I remember as a kid, when I saw “The Great Waldo Pepper” and then “The World According to Garp,” I was like, “Oh my God.” When you ask about auteur theory, maybe that’s the part of the auteur that I bring to the table when I’m with Sandler. He writes great scripts, and I feel like, as a director, it’s my job to help connect the dots and make things emotionally connect right. I also grew up with three sisters, so I was always the most girly of the gang. Maybe that’s where that comes from.