Years ago, Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy started writing a script that he hoped would illuminate her comic abilities.
Then Paul Feig’s ‘Bridesmaids’ (2011) happened, and McCarthy, as the most, ahem, offbeat of the title characters, pretty much stole the show, abetted by Falcone’s character, Air Marshal Jon, and some massive meat and cheese sandwiches. Leaving us to speculate about their real-life marriage.
McCarthy’s triumph opened doors, and ‘Tammy’, their long-gestating script, was made. So were three more collaborations — she the star, he the director of ‘The Boss’, ‘Life of the Party’ and now ‘Superintelligence’, debuting Thursday on HBO Max.
This time, McCarthy plays Carol Peters, the most average person on Earth as determined by an artificial intelligence (voiced by James Corden) that is pondering whether to save, enslave or destroy humanity. In three days. No pressure: The AI’s decision — and the world’s fate — depends largely on whether Carol has the courage to go after George (Bobby Cannavale), the one who got away.
When the film’s screenwriter, Steve Mallory, who also co-wrote ‘The Boss’ with them, brought up the idea, Falcone called dibs. McCarthy had her own request. The lead was originally written as a man. “Can we change it, and can it be for me?” she asked. “Because I’m all in on it.”
These days McCarthy and Falcone, and their daughters, Vivian, 13, and Georgette, 10, are living out the pandemic in beachy Byron Bay, Australia. Why Australia? In a video interview, the couple — cheerfully bantering like the school parents everyone wants as best friends — discussed that as well as their creative partnership, the dark art of comedy and keeping their family together. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How much does family figure into your career choices?
McCarthy: The carnival moves as one. Where we can do that, we pack up the tent and we all go together, and that’s usually what presents itself as the winning solution.
Australia, for instance?
Falcone: We had just finished a superhero movie called “Thunder Force.” We had just come home, and we promised our kids, “That’s it.” And then COVID hit.
McCarthy: Then I got a call saying, “Would you consider going to Australia to shoot ‘Nine Perfect Strangers?’” [That series is based on the novel by Liane Moriarty and also stars Nicole Kidman.] And I said, “I can’t move my family across the globe.” We were both like: “This is madness. This is impossible to do.” And our oldest daughter came out for lunch from her Zoom class, and without a second’s hesitation she said, “We should leave today.”
Now that you’re half a world from home, how have you been entertaining yourselves?
Falcone: [Elizabeth] Banks sent me just the weirdest text. And everything about this text said, Pandemic —
Falcone: And there was only one word: “Margarita?” So we started a Zoom with Liz and [her husband, Max Handelman]. Then a bunch more friends came in.
McCarthy: Then Ben said, “I’m going to watch a different Academy Award-winning movie every week.” And then everybody else said, “I’m going to do that, too.” For “Lawrence of Arabia,” Steve Mallory showed up fully dressed in costume. And one by one, everyone left the Zoom and came back, and it’s sheets, towels, Saran Wrap, just bits and bobs at the house. Now we’re on — what week is this?
Falcone: Our last movie was “Terms of Endearment,” which would be 1984.
McCarthy: And half of the joy is seeing who’s going to dress up as what. It’s a bunch of dingbats in full costume on Zoom, having a few cocktails —
Falcone: Talking about these great movies throughout history —
McCarthy: Trying to remember what it’s like to hang out with friends.
With your schedules, how do you find the time to conjure stories?
McCarthy: We’re always in some state of creative process. It’s around the dinner table with the kids, it’s making breakfast in the morning. This is what we talk about, and it doesn’t feel like work to us. There’s a lot of different pots going on at the same time, and one creative venture fuels the other.
What about writing together?
McCarthy: He writes something, I write something. It’s a constant ebb and flow. I’ve always described it, if he says blue, I say green, then together we’re like: “Ooh, purple. Let’s do that.”
Falcone: To find three hours a day to write is tricky. And with “Tammy,” we would actually write in the car.
McCarthy: We didn’t have an office, and the kids were so little that a lot of times we’d sit in the driveway or down the street and just write, because that was the only time we could find a quiet space. Which I’m sure looked like we were casing a place to rob.
You went all in on “Superintelligence.”
McCarthy: The combination of our dependence on technology with love and humanity — I thought Steve hit such a lovely balance.
Falcone: It read like a wonderful throwback movie, where it’s super funny and high concept, but there’s also a charm and a seriousness of content. You know, before movies were told, “You will only be this.”
McCarthy: I don’t agree with having to pick such a lane. Somewhere in the last 15 years, especially, it was like, if you’re a comedy, you are only a comedy. I think of movies like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” I laugh so hard, I cry so hard, it breaks me, it delights me. We want to tell more stories that are messy like life.
Melissa, you run the gamut of emotions with Brian Tyree Henry and Bobby Cannavale in ‘Superintelligence’. How did Ben direct that?
McCarthy: Ben and I have such a shorthand. We’ve been writing and performing together for 25 years, starting at the Groundlings Theater in L.A. And when you have that kind of trust, you know that you can try anything and you can’t really make a fool of yourself. Ben is a great keeper of the story. I still can get very locked into the minutiae of the scene itself.
The way Ben directs, it’s like yes, you want to push things to be funny or to elicit a feeling. But you have to walk that line of keeping it real, because if you break that, you can’t come back from that damage.
Falcone: We have a phrase that started on “Superintelligence,” which is, “Let’s do the one that hurts my heart.” A different version, just in case. So many times, the thing that we thought was great isn’t going to do it. The script — we really care about it, we work on it so hard, but it’s a living, breathing thing. If we feel the need to do reshoots, I don’t want it to be for some silly reason because we weren’t protecting the movie as much as we should’ve been.
So comedy can be daunting, even for you?
Falcone: There’s nothing else that proves how fallible you are as quickly as comedy. Anybody who has thought that they have the funniest thing ever to say at a party, and you’ve got it ready, and then your timing’s just a little off, and you’ve messed it up, and — it’s just so fragile.
McCarthy: It’s fragile, it’s fickle, it’s wonderful, it’s the worst. You cannot be precious. You just have to say, “I have a good idea, I think.” Give it your all. We work and we rewrite until we lock the door in the editing bay. But we don’t know until we know.
The question you’re probably asked more than any other: Who’s funnier?
[McCarthy and Falcone each point at the other.]
McCarthy: He is.
Falcone: 100%, she’s funnier.
McCarthy: He for sure. He’s weirder.
Falcone: You’re very weird.
McCarthy: You still surprise me. You kind of know what I’m going to say. I’m a bit of a one-trick pony, but I think you don’t always know where Ben’s going to come from.
Falcone: Because neither do I.