Behind the scenes of the new Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson film

By Joshua Rich
July 08, 2005 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Credit: EW

The following was the cover story from the Jul. 15, 2005 issue of EW.

“Someday you’ll look back on all this and laugh, and say we were young and stupid.”

Suits wrinkled, shirttails peeking out, neckties undone, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson lean back on the steps of Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial in the cool twilight, swapping swigs from a bottle of bubbly.

“Cut!”

The actors barely move as crew members reset the cameras for another take. It’s well before sunrise in early May 2004, and they’re here in the nation’s capital shooting a new comedy called Wedding Crashers. But right now there’s nothing very funny about it.

“Action!” Vaughn turns again to Wilson: “Someday you’ll look back on all this and laugh, say we were young and stupid.”

The stars are exhausted, coldcocked by the one-two punch of jet lag and an uncomically early 3 a.m. wake-up call, and every indication points to one thing: They’d much rather be in bed. Today’s scene has their characters — philandering divorce mediators whose lives revolve around crashing nuptials to score sex from vulnerable bridesmaids — ruminating on their increasingly hollow existences after a long night of free love and wedding cake.

Eyes heavy, Vaughn trips over his lines, and as the takes go by the frustration builds.

“Someday you’ll look back and say…” DAMMIT!

As the sun comes up, it’s getting harder to focus. Jet planes roar overhead, causing multiple disruptions. A bus arrives with Lincoln Memorial sightseers, and before long four score and seven tourists are scampering about, snapping Instamatics of the monuments and seeking autographs from the movie stars who are just trying to make it through a few lines of dialogue before tumbling back into the sack.

“Someday you’ll look back on all this and laugh, say we were young and stupid,” repeats Vaughn, this time nailing it.

“We’re not that young,” Wilson replies.

And comedy clearly isn’t that easy.

It would have been hard to see it coming back on Wedding Crashers‘ relatively subdued set: What started out as a buzz-free, moderately budgeted farce has emerged as the vehicle that could just drive its stars to the upper reaches of the Hollywood A list. Which is to say that the anxiety Vaughn and Wilson encountered in Washington pales in comparison to what’s riding on them now. After all, it’s they who were specifically sought for the roles; it’s they who imbued the film with their signature styles of humor; it’s they whose mugs are now plastered on billboards, buses, and Budweiser ads; and it’s they who must pack the theaters. So who knows? Someday they may look back on all this and laugh, say they were young and stupid — but more likely they’ll say they were actually pretty smart.

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Credit: New Line Cinema

The stars are about the same age (Vaughn’s 35, Wilson’s 36), and both rose to attention in a pair of 1996 cult indies (Vaughn in Swingers, Wilson in Bottle Rocket). But their careers have run in opposite directions. Wilson has an Oscar nomination (for co-writing The Royal Tenenbaums) and has appeared in a consistent streak of hits — Armageddon, Shanghai Noon, Meet the Parents, and so on — that warranted his $10 million salary on Wedding Crashers. Vaughn, by contrast, earned only around $3 million for the film, signing on shortly after Old School rescued him from a seven-year career limbo (remember A Cool, Dry Place or Return to Paradise? Didn’t think so) and long before last summer’s hit Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story boosted his profile.

So here they are. A year after the Lincoln Memorial shoot, Wilson is noticeably more jovial as he sits in the shady courtyard of the Santa Monica Public Library, clad in bedroom slippers, loose clothing, and a baseball cap — a comfy setting to talk about what’s on his mind. The buzz surrounding Wedding Crashers is applying an unusual amount pressure, he admits. “They’re paying you more money, you’re a little more out in front of the movie. So it would be nice if this did well.”

Conceived during a meeting between producer Andrew Panay (National Lampoon’s Van Wilder) and the screenwriting team of Steve Faber and Bob Fisher (Married…With Children), the movie is a throwback to raunchy R-rated comedy favorites like Animal House and Caddyshack, thanks to its proud display of the kind of bawdy behavior that’s now anathema in PG-13-mad Hollywood. (Not a single R-rated movie has cracked this year’s top 10 grossers.) The story follows the reception-crashing horndogs as they get involved with the beautiful daughters — one reserved (Rachel McAdams), the other randy (Isla Fisher) — of the U.S. treasury secretary (Christopher Walken) and join his trippy Kennedyesque clan for a weekend on the Chesapeake Bay.

The high-concept project, which was set up at New Line in April 2003, provided a strong platform for the kind of verbal improvisation and clever comedy that the actors do best. Their interest was piqued after New Line hired a young director named David Dobkin, whose lone feature credits were the 1998 indie Clay Pigeons (with Vaughn) and 2003’s Shanghai Knights (with Wilson). Vaughn and Wilson were friends with Dobkin, but they barely knew each other. They had shared only a few minutes of screen time in 2004’s Starsky & Hutch and were acquainted primarily via mutual costars like Ben Stiller and Wilson’s brother Luke. “A number of people were like, ‘I don’t know, their energy is just so different,'” says the director, a veteran of Coors Light ads and 2Pac videos who was jazzed by the contrast between Vaughn’s tommy-gun patter and Wilson’s slacker drawl. “I said, ‘I don’t think so. I think there is something that’s gonna happen that’s magical.'”

The stars concurred, and after they signed on, Dobkin went about filling out the rest of the cast — with Walken as the intimidating treasury secretary, Jane Seymour as his saucy wife, and scene-stealer Isla Fisher as the nutjob daughter with whom Vaughn gets entangled. Of particular interest, though, was McAdams, who the director hired to play Wilson’s would-be conquest. Dobkin says he cast the actress over “hundreds of people” well before she broke outlast year in Mean Girls and The Notebook. Which was good news for New Line: The studio had cast her in The Notebook and quickly hired her again on Wedding Crashers for six figures — before her asking price rose to $1.5 million for her next film (the August thriller Red Eye), and before offers from producers expecting her to be the next Julia Roberts started clogging her mailbox. “The landscape has definitely changed,” she says now of her growing demand. “It’s a nice place to be in — you know, high-class problems.”

When they weren’t trying to talk over cacophonous aircraft or humoring autograph hounds on set, Vaughn and Wilson blew off steam by indulging in the occasional game of backgammon or Ping-Pong. Most of the time, however, they honed their act. During breaks, the actors would fiddle around with pseudo-improvisational riffs — regarding thirtysomething, tattoos, Count Chocula, Cajun cuisine, whatever — that they’d first discussed in preproduction with Dobkin and the writers. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s just go make some jokes — who cares?'” Vaughn notes of their style of ad-libbing.

As cameras rolled, they put their rehearsal to work, drawing frequent chuckles from crew members. One afternoon, Vaughn left onlookers in stitches when he followed his scripted line “I love maple syrup” by adding that he uses syrup to spike his hair, that he puts it on pancakes and po’boys, and that he likes to slather it on his ass to make it soft like a baby’s bottom — references largely born of the actors’ giddy fascination with silly-sounding terms like slather and po’boy. In fact, to this day, the mention of po’boys makes Vaughn and Wilson giggle — even though that phrase, like most of the gags they shot, got cut from the finished film. “Sometimes a quip doesn’t have to go in the final movie,” Wilson says. “It just makes you more excited that day, and that excitement carries over.”

There were more reasons to get excited when the production crashed Washington, following a month of shooting on L.A. soundstages. The city’s sticky pre-summer heat and humidity “made it sultry, made it work for me,” says Wilson with a sly grin. “There were a ton of girls in D.C. It has a very favorable ratio.” At one point, Sen. John McCain and Democratic pundit James Carville stopped by to shoot G-rated cameos and awkwardly kibbitz with Walken and Seymour about pressing issues like the war in Iraq, the possible reinstitution of the military draft, and Seymour’s girly tearjerker Somewhere in Time. A bigger hoot came when Vaughn arranged for a tour of the White House. Producer Panay, a cheery fellow who looks more Freaks and Geeks than The West Wing, had removed his sport jacket and was checking out the executive mansion in a T-shirt and cords when he found himself face-to-face with President Bush. “He put his arm around me and went, ‘Uh, summer come early this year, son?’ He had the biggest laugh,” Panay remembers. “Of course, I never heard the end of it — getting made fun of by the president.”

Remember the pep talk that Vince Vaughn gives Jon Favreau in Swingers? “I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone’s really hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated-R movie, you know? The guy you’re not sure whether or not you like yet. You’re not sure where he’s coming from.” Well, here he is — the guy in the rated-R movie. And if he and Panay and company think being ribbed by George W. Bush is a big deal, they’ve got another thing coming.

Overflowing with off-color antics, Wedding Crashers wags a big old middle finger in the face of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. This film is a buddy comedy, sure, but what really draws attention is its unabashed mix of profane language, sporadic nudity, and sexually charged set pieces involving things like adultery, gay bondage, and under-the-dinner-table manual stimulation. Indeed, from the beginning, the filmmakers aimed specifically for an R rating, and while most are quick to claim that it’s a “soft R” — because, they argue, it never matches the naughtiness of, say, Sharon Stone under interrogation — one detects a certain defiance in their rhetoric.

“I’m not interested in trying to shock people by how far we go,” Vaughn insists. “But I do want to be able to deal with adult subject matter in a way that’s honest.” Put simply: The only honest way to make a movie about two guys whose mission in life is to get laid is to embrace themes and language that bring a stricter rating. “I hate the idea that if you say f— you get an R,” says Wilson, his typically hushed voice rising. “It just seems like such bulls—.”

He may be right. But Wedding Crashers is ultimately a consumer product, and movies rated R tend to draw fewer consumers to theaters, due in part to restrictions on when and where they can be advertised. What’s more, it’s been a while since the American Pie trilogy struck a chord, and the all-time list of R-rated comedies that have grossed more than $150 million domestically is a short one: Scary Movie, There’s Something About Mary, and…well, that’s it.

Certainly, with a budget of just $40 million, Wedding Crashers doesn’t need to make a mint to turn a profit. But considering the buzz it’s been generating (thanks to a handful of smash test screenings and unusually early media and industry previews beginning last winter), anything less than a $100 million gross would be a disappointment — both for New Line, seeking its first blockbuster since 2003’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and for Hollywood at large, now looking to the summer’s second-half crop to stop the box office’s record 19-week slide.

“We’re coming up against PG-13 comedies, so there’s a way to wear an R as a badge of honor and say this is a little different, this takes things a little further,” says New Line production president Toby Emmerich. “There is a positive spin to the R.” Released in this environment, Wedding Crashers‘ financial fate may very well become a bellwether for future raw comedic fare like August’s 40-Year-Old Virgin. And if this movie — boosted by a girl-baiting wedding plot and guy-baiting bathroom behavior — doesn’t pay off in theaters, well, there’s always the DVD (which should include an unrated version and goodies like the guys’ kooky karaoke rendition of the ’80s ditty “99 Luftballons” at a Chinese wedding reception). As Dobkin says, “You can’t make movies for the ratings system. You’ve got to make the movie that’s right for the story and let the rest fall into place.”

For Vince Vaughn in particular, things have been falling into place nicely. A month before Wedding Crashers‘ July 15 opening, he leans back in the Chicago production office of The Break Up and kicks his feet up on his desk, displaying the same frat-boy bravado familiar to audiences. With mussed hair, unkempt attire, and heavy stubble, he actually looks more spent than he did back in Washington, though his mood betrays no fatigue.

As the producer of The Break Up, a Universal romantic comedy that he’s currently shooting opposite Jennifer Aniston, Vaughn is the boss of this huge production office, which has a view of the Sears Tower and an elevated train clanking past the window. He developed the film, got it greenlit, and set it up in his hometown, filling out the cast and crew with several old friends. “A big reason why I’m sitting here is because of Wedding Crashers,” he says, referring to the attention he’s drawn since the film began screening in Hollywood. “People [in the industry] have responded to the movie, so I think it’s helped me even before it’s come out.”

Vaughn is in high demand these days,thanks to his special type of guy’s-guy sarcasm, the crowd-pleasing comedic persona that has recently drawn kudos in Be Cool and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. And now that the number of movie offers he’s gotten has spiked (along with his paychecks, reportedly four times greater than before), the actor soberly acknowledges just how challenging his dramatic detours — like Domestic Disturbance and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake — were to overcome. “You’re always looked at for whatever you’ve done most recently,” he says. “So it was hard when I started coming back and doing some of these comedies. The doors weren’t wide open at first.”

But that’s behind him now, and Vaughn, like everyone else involved, can only watch as Wedding Crashers plays out at the box office. Not that he’s counting on it for much.”You know…peaks and valleys,” he says in all seriousness. “I never had a game plan, saying ‘One day, I’ll be this.’ I literally do not think that way.”

And you’ve got to believe him. After all, who’d have time to contemplate box office grosses or a career plan when the possibilities of slathering maple syrup on po’boys are so ripe to explore?

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