The pitch for “Champions” is simple enough — a salty, washed-out basketball coach can only avoid jail time for a drunk driving charge by coaching a team of intellectually disabled adults, known as the Friends, and he learns to be a better person along the way — though the director behind it might give some people pause. Wait, Bobby Farrelly? Like, “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” and “Stuck on You” Bobby Farrelly? The very same.
Four years after his brother (and frequent collaborator) Peter Farrelly won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for his “Green Book,” Bobby is offering up his own, slightly unexpected new feature. Based on the Spanish film “Campeones,” Farrelly’s “Champions” casts his “Kingpin” star Woody Harrelson as said washed-out coach, who has to learn a few things when he starts working with a plucky gang of young adults with intellectual disabilities. It’s sweet and straightforward, and Farrelly is well aware that some audiences might feel resistant to such a story right now.
“I think people are ready for ‘Champions,’ because there’s a lot of dark stories out there, and this is story of light and hope,” Farrelly said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “Hopefully, at the end of the movie, you feel good, you feel better than when you went in. I still think that some people are going to think, ‘Oh, I think I know what that’s about. That’s not for me. I’ll go see this superhero movie.’ People might not think they want to see it right away, but if you go see it, you’re going to enjoy it. That, in itself, is worth two hours’ investment.”
The Farrellys have been champions of disabled performers for decades, a crusade that stemmed from a very personal place. When the brothers were young men, one of their long-time friends, Danny Murphy, broke his neck in a diving accident. Due to his injuries, Murphy became a quadriplegic at the age of 19.
When Bobby and Peter made their first film, “Dumb and Dumber,” Murphy took them to task for not including any people with disabilities in it (the young actor, Brady Bluhm, who played the blind Billy, was not actually disabled).
“And we’re like, ‘Oh,’ it just hadn’t occurred to us,” Farrelly recalled. “At that point, if someone had a disability, you might even put an able-bodied actor in there playing that. So we said to him, ‘Well, that was an oversight. Do you want to be in the next one?’ And then he did go in the next one, became an actor.” Murphy appeared in all of the Farrellys’ films until he passed away from cancer in 2014.
After Murphy started appearing in the Farrellys’ films, more people with disabilities asked if they could be part of their productions, too. “We realized there’s a whole community of actors out there who never get roles unless it’s specifically written as someone like that, and then when it’s written for someone with some form of disability, it’s usually sort of a stereotype,” Farrelly said.
Despite the wacky, out-there humor the brothers are known for, Farrelly has always seen the sweetness in the brothers’ work. “Pete and myself always have a lot of humor in our movies, of course, but we always try to have some heart too, kind of hidden in there,” Farrelly said. “Even in ‘There’s Something About Mary,’ which is a big, zany comedy, there’s a through-line of a sweet story in there of a guy in love with a girl, and he kind of won’t give up. There’s always a percentage of comedy versus heart, and then this one, there’s a lot more heart.”
It was Harrelson who initially brought the idea to Farrelly to remake the Spanish film. “It’s very rare to have an actor come to you, so passionate,” Farrelly said. “Now, it’s five or six years later and the world’s changed a lot, so it didn’t call for the zaniness, the little bit that they had in the first one. We wanted to make sure it felt very real, that you believe Woody’s character, that you believed all the Friends’ characters. We wanted real people.”
To cast the Friends, Farrelly needed 10 actors with intellectual disabilities. “I don’t know that there are 10 [working actors] in Hollywood that you would know of, so it’s not like, ‘I’ll take him, her, and him. I’ll just pick from this list.’ There is no list. There’s a very short list, I’ll put it that way,” he said.
Farrelly and the production cast a wide net. They reached out to the Special Olympics, to Best Buddies, and to various rec leagues around the country. And, were “inundated” with audition tapes from all over.
“They came in from everywhere. There were so many good ones,” Farrelly said. “It would break your heart to not cast someone, as you can imagine, because they just laid it on the line. But these 10 that we picked, each one stood out in one way or another, and it was a balance of what types of people we were going to have on the team. Everyone has their own story. But we got the right 10 because, many of them, they had never acted, maybe two or three of them had acted at all. And they were actually way better than a non-disabled actor who had never acted.”
Farrelly enlisted the help of his son A.B., a rising standup comedian who volunteered with a group of intellectually disabled young adults when he was high school, to work with the Friends to prepare them for the work. They shot in Canada, and Farrelly said his young cast arrived fully prepared, ready to go.
“They rose to the challenge,” he said. “There’s not many of these roles out there, so they got a chance to show themselves in all their glory and just embrace it. That’s kind of what we did, rather than say, ‘Oh, your character has to be exactly like this, you just be yourself and try to read these lines that we have.’ When they did that, they just internalized it and it became them rather than some abstract character in a script.”
When the film premiered in New York City last week, inclusion was top of mind for everyone. The film was presented in an accessible theater with open captions on screen so that everyone could enjoy the film. “Obviously, our movie’s about inclusion of all people with disabilities, and we just wanted to make sure that it was inclusive for anyone who was there,” he said. “I don’t know that it’ll be like that in every theater in America. Maybe it should, maybe it will one day, just as a natural way of being. But we just wanted to make sure that whoever was there [at the premiere], it was for everyone.”
While the film has its laughs, it’s hardly the kind of gross-out comedy most closely associated with the Farrellys’ brand of filmmaking. Farrelly is optimistic that there is still space for those kinds of films. “Comedy’s kind of been on a hiatus the last couple of years, particularly in the movie world,” Farrelly said. “There’s been soft comedy, but not a laugh-out-loud stuff that there used to be, but I think it’ll come back, because I think it’s good. It’s good for the world. It’s good to laugh. As long as you’re not laughing at to someone, you’re laughing with situations and stuff and being human. I think it’s necessary.”
The brothers are reuniting soon to make a Christmas comedy more in line with their classic tone, this one starring their “Shallow Hal” star Jack Black (the pair will produce together, Peter wrote the script, and Bobby is directing). “It’s a much zanier comedy than this one, closer to what we did, I think, originally,” he said.
And, yes, speaking of the stuff they made “originally,” Farrelly knows they can’t go exactly back to that kind of movie-making. “There’s Something About Mary”? You couldn’t make it today.
“When we made that movie, we knew that we were going over the edge with certain scenes, the hair gel, Ben Stiller zipping himself up, and all that,” Farrelly said. “Even the crew was like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re going to show that?’ We’re like, ‘Well, we’ll shoot it and if it works, we’ll show it. And if not, we’ll take it out.’ And we put it together, and we showed it to a test audience, people who don’t know us, and see what they did. They laughed even more than we had thought they would. That movie was [made in] a particular time where you could do that. I don’t think we could even do that now, because people are more sensitive to things, particularly humor.”
And the marketplace is different. Farrelly knows that, too, but he thinks, he hopes, that “Champions” can break through. “It’s hard to hold your theaters, because there’s always a new one coming, and so whatever’s not doing well will get moved out,” he said. “I just hope this one has a chance in the theaters. People will find it when it starts streaming. Some of our movies have done that, they’re not immediate box office [hits[, but eventually people find them and then really enjoy them. ‘Kingpin’ was like this, it was not a big box office movie, but everyone saw it eventually.”
There is, however, one subset of the audience Farrelly really wants to please: the kind of people and families chronicled in the film. “If I ever let down that community, if they ever came to me and said, ‘That’s not how it is,’ I would be devastated,” Farrelly said. “But to the contrary, they’ve been saying, ‘That is so much what happens at our house,’ ‘this is exactly what our Jimmy’s like,’ ‘this is exactly what our Susie is like.’ So I take a lot of comfort in that, because I want to do right by that world for sure.”
A Focus Features release, “Champions” is now in theaters.