The Big Short director Adam McKay spoke with The Daily Beast about the online backlash against the Ronald Reagan film-in-development (titled Reagan) — a premature outrage whose consequences were seen even more rapidly than usual. Merely two days after the film’s future existence was reported with Will Ferrell as a potential star, the actor had “pulled out” of the project — and as McKay explains, it turns out he’d never officially been “in” the project in the first place.
The interesting thing about the nature of the backlash here was that it was coming from both sides — rabid Reagan defenders who’d spit venom at anyone who blasphemed the Tugboat Annie Sails Again actor/AIDS ignorer, and, on the other end, people who assumed — likely due to Will Ferrell’s starring role — that the film would be a coarse comedy whose handling of Alzheimer’s would be woefully offensive. In the Daily Beast interview, McKay — who had been set to produce the film through his and Ferrell’s company, Gary Sanchez Productions — spoke about getting caught up in the controversy over a film that didn’t even exist yet. He said:
People hadn’t even read the script, it was just three words: ‘Reagan, Ferrell, Alzheimer’s,’ and it became this huge thing. Finally, The Hollywood Reporter wrote a piece where they actually read the script and thought it was a really thoughtful script and tender towards Reagan, but yeah, it’s this culture we live in…I kept saying when that story snowballed, ‘Is there anyone who really thinks Will Ferrell would make a comedy about a horrible disease like Alzheimer’s?’ In a million years no one would do that!
Indeed, in the aforementioned THR piece (which came out following the backlash based not on the script, but rather on aggregated headlines), writer Seth Abramovitch actually decided to read the script (which itself had been praised within Hollywood circles after making its way onto 2015’s Black List; James Brolin, Lena Dunham and John Cho participated in a live reading of it).
He wrote about how it was a reconsideration of Reagan’s second presidential term in the vein of the Watergate satire Dick, but also said that it’s “actually a good-natured and well-researched comedy.” He emphasized however that it is, indeed, hinged on the concept of people having to convince Reagan he’s an actor playing the President. It’s somewhat hard to reconcile what sounds like satire and “good-naturedness,” but regardless, the THR writer concluded that “in light of the meteoric political rise of a certain reality star, it doesn’t take much to understand what Ferrell and McKay saw in the project.”
McKay posits — perhaps based on how the controversy first erupted after Ronald Reagan’s daughter penned an open letter to Will Ferrell (with some very legitimate concerns about the portrayal of the disease), and how that was reported with fury by the conservative media — that it’s America’s blinding nostalgia and “deification” of Reagan that’s turned him into an untouchable subject. (Though I wouldn’t say he’s entirely untouchable).
“Remember all the brouhaha over that Reagan miniseries? That miniseries was so soft, but nobody wants to hear anything near the reality of Reagan’s eight years as president,” McKay says. He describes the experience of everyone contacting the Gary Sanchez Productions office following that open letter:
It was scary, man. There are some scary people out there who respond to stuff like that…There were scary messages left at our office. Stuff like, ‘How dare you say anything bad about Ronald Reagan, you better watch your back.’ Some very scary voicemails.
He also explains the extent to which the whole thing was a matter of the media jumping the gun — not just about the “offensiveness” of the subject matter, which no one could really thoroughly diagnose yet — but also about the presumption that Ferrell was absolutely starring. He says, “Will wasn’t even attached to do the movie! He was just looking at it. It didn’t even have a director yet or was set up. It was just one of 30 projects Will was looking at.”
It’s quite possible that the film might have been totally offensive — but it seems it was treated culturally as guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.