Get comedians Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn in a room together and they get downright … serious
Which may explain their chemistry. Vaughn, 43, speaks as he does in his movies: in rapid-fire bursts with his head cocked and his hands churning. Stiller, 46, is more likely to finish Vaughn's sentence, ponder a question, bite his lip.
Yet they have a cadence, and they don't joke around when it comes to joking around.
"Even when you're doing something completely out there like Dodgeball, where you know people aren't going to consider it a masterpiece, you still have to take it seriously as an actor," Stiller says. "We get that in each other. Then you hope people get that in you."
So far that hasn't been an issue. Stiller and Vaughn combine for their fourth film, this time the alien comedy The Watch, which opens Friday.
When the two get together, success usually follows. They appeared in 2001's Zoolander, a $28 million comedy that made $45 million at the box office. They worked together again in 2004's Starsky & Hutch, which made $88 million. That year, they anchored Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, which became one of the year's biggest comedies, pulling in $114 million.
Though The Watch doesn't share much plot DNA with Stiller and Vaughn's earlier duets, the movie does borrow one of Dodgeball's comedic strategies: to let the two riff off each other with cameras rolling.
For the first take, the pair, joined by Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, stuck largely to the script, whose writers include Seth Rogen Then director Akiva Schaffer let the group ad-lib.
"First you do the script, then you do a free one," Vaughn says. "Some scenes went for six minutes of us just going back and forth — and parts even made it into the trailers. I promise you that doesn't happen unless you're comfortable with the person next to you, and have a serious respect for him as well."
"Serious" can seem out of place, given how utterly goofy they can get in The Watch, the story of four friends who start a neighborhood watch and discover an alien invasion. The group drives drunk, investigates local orgies and is willing to seduce any neighbor to track E.T.
Accidents will happen
"Every director will tell you that you do all the planning in the hopes of having a happy accident," says The Watch producer Shawn Levy, who directed Stiller in the Night at the Museum films.
In The Watch's case, Levy says, filmmakers planned for accidents.
"Sometimes it was a matter of setting up a couple cameras and letting it roll," Levy says. "They're that comfortable together."
But it was far from clowning, he says.
"What's interesting is that they have a similar sense of humor, but even more they have a shared perfectionism," Levy says. "They would be very serious about the scene until they feel they got it perfect. Vince talks like a machine gun and Ben is more in his own head, but they share a lot in common."
Including a disdain for what they consider safe comedy. Vaughn pronounced that outright with his comedic splash in 1996's R-rated hit Swingers, about wannabe Los Angeles lotharios. "I don't want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie who everyone's really hoping makes it happen," he tells co-star Jon Favreau's character. "I want you to be like the guy in the rated-R movie. You're a bad man."
When Stiller and Vaughn received the first version of The Watch, it wasn't bad enough.
"It was going to be rated PG or something, and it was going to be very safe," Stiller says. "I said no immediately."
But when Levy sent them a revised, "firmly R-rated" script that had more bromance — including profane exchanges "that were better at capturing the way guys talk to each other," Levy says — the two were on board.
While neither actor is fond of the industry's flavor-of-the-week approach to producing movies ("I guess everyone wants to make a Bridesmaids now," Vaughn says), they agree that comedy is more fun when it's rated R.
"The constraints come off," Stiller says. "That's why we're there. We're not making an action film. We're not going to out-sci-fi Ridley Scott. We just are trying to give people an escape, and you need the freedom to try any joke."
That was Vaughn's appeal for Stiller, who also is a writer whose credits include the 1992 sketch-variety series The Ben Stiller Show, which featured, among others, Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling and Janeane Garofalo.
Stiller met Vaughn in 1996. "My agent told me that I had to meet this new comedian," Stiller recalls. "That he was doing these things in Swingers that comedians just didn't get away with."
Stiller introduced himself at an L.A. restaurant and was so impressed that he attended the Swingers premiere. After that, he began looking for projects to do with Vaughn — despite his jealousy.
"The thing with comedians, we're not that good-looking," Stiller says. "So we can say, 'Yeah, he's good-looking, but he's not funny.' We all resented Vince, because he was funny, tall, handsome. So I had to get over that."
Stiller says he did when he realized how seriously Vaughn took acting; Vaughn is a fan of horror films and starred in the 1998 remake Psycho and the serial killer drama The Cell in 2000.
For Stiller, whose can't-miss TV is the drug drama Breaking Bad, the serious is as important as the silly in comedy.
"I love Will Ferrell because he's willing to do anything, but I was impressed with Casa de mi Padre," Ferrell's panned telenovela-style comedy released earlier this year. "He doesn't get enough credit for being experimental. Unfortunately, that can hurt a movie."
Headlines spark a change
So can real life. While not connected to tragedy the way The Dark Knight Rises was to last week's slayings in Aurora, Colo., distributor 20th Century Fox had to tweak The Watch after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 23.
Though the movie shares little in common with the death of the 17-year-old by a neighborhood-watch volunteer, the studio dropped "Neighborhood" from the movie's title.
Fox executives declined to comment on its changes to the movie or its subsequent ad campaign, which focused on aliens over residents.
"Well, it's really two different situations," says Levy. The Martin case "is completely unrelated to what happens in the movie, but (the title) was very much in the culture as a signifier of those events. … Since the characters in the movie call themselves The Watch anyway, (changing the title) felt like an organic switch."
Stiller understands the title revision. "Even if your movie doesn't relate to (real events), you have to be respectful of the people who were affected by the shooting," he says. "In a case like that, all you can do is offer your movie as a silly, fun escape."
If anything, the actors thought they were steering clear of headlines. Coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in the fact-based sports drama Moneyball, Hill says that the preposterous was the lure of The Watch.
"If I was going to do another broad comedy, I wanted it to have no basis in reality," Hill says, "and portray a character that could say or do anything."
That included with each other. The co-stars routinely pranked each other (a favorite was slicing toilet paper vertically, to make a whole square impossible), though Levy says the actors' studious sides came through when they gathered for dinner to talk plot points.
"A lot of actors come in as performers, not collaborators," Levy says. "I think the difference with these guys is that they really make each other laugh, so they want to give each other a chance to riff and do their thing. It's like improvisation, but they're very aware of what they're doing."
Which can be serious stuff, Stiller says. "Good acting is about the choices you make, even in silly escapist movies," he says. "I think the best comedy comes from intelligent people, bringing their true personae to the screen."