Growing up in Chicago, Richie Keen would ride his bike down to where John Hughes was shooting Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and sneak onto the set. Later, he started as an actor before becoming a writer and then an acting teacher. “I kept getting sent comedians and rappers and wrestlers and pop stars,” he recalls, “and I kept thinking, I’m directing these people. I should direct. I just didn’t know anything about cameras.” So he learned about cameras, and got a job directing his friend Demetri Martin’s show on Comedy Central. That led to a particularly raunchy sketch on Funny or Die starring Topher Grace and Kate Bosworth, which Grace shared with his friend Glenn Howerton, co-creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Howerton liked the direction on the sketch, and Keen got his big break. Since then, he’s worked on beloved offbeat ventures like Enlisted, New Girl, and Shameless, as well as more mainstream fare (The Goldbergs). Fist Fight — which pits Sunny star Charlie Day against Ice Cube as two high school teachers up against both the system and the students — is his first feature film. [Slightly spoilerish talk follows.]
Matthew Lickona: Why this for your first feature?
Richie Keen: [The script] was the funniest thing I had ever read, and I felt like I knew exactly what to do with it. Everyone who would meet with me, I just kept emailing them more and more notes. I said things like, “I want to put Charlie in a scene where Hank from Breaking Bad is angry and Ice Cube is angry; that’s a tough spot to be in.” They said, “This is a movie about a fighter, and this guy is a fighter. We don’t care if he hasn’t done a movie.” I have a very strong take on things. I always said this was a prison riot movie, inmates versus prison guards. I said, “This has got to be a boiling pot. We have to find a way for everyone to be losing their minds. Senior pranks right and left, bigger and more violent.” I looked at it as a rated-R Ferris Bueller. It had all the tropes of a good John Hughes movie: it all takes place in a day, it’s a day that changes someone’s life, it’s set in a high school...
ML: To the extent that a film like this has a message, would you say it’s about manhood, or about protest in general, or about both, or neither?
RK: I didn’t want to get to earnest with this, but there were two things that were still important to me. One, I think we can all agree that the education system needs a look. I’m hugely pro-teacher, but it’s not glossy in public school right now. So I picked a rusty school that was falling apart for the setting. And I wanted to make sure that Ice Cube’s character had a point of view, that he was doing what he was doing to draw attention to something. He’s an old-school teacher who loves history. He goes too far [with a fire axe], but he wants his students to learn. The other thing is that both Charlie and his daughter would experience bullying, and they would try to find different ways to deal with that. I was bullied growing up: I was punched in the face, and I was too much of a wimp to show up to the fight. I’m not a violent person, but in some ways, I wish I had stood up for myself. For Charlie, we wanted to say, “That guy is not going to stop, so all right: maybe you’ll get hit, and maybe you’ll go down, but you’ll keep getting back up.”
ML: As I walked out, I couldn’t help thinking that the film would have ended differently in the world of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Both Charlie and his daughter kind of blow up their lives, but then there’s this media ex machina...
RK: We talked about that at length — at length. We asked, “What if it just ended here, where there’s been a fight and who knows what the hell is going to happen to these two guys?”
ML: He tells his daughter that she’s probably going to get expelled for what she’s done.
RK: Right. “You stood up for yourself, don’t even worry about it. Life will be fine. Life will go on. The most important thing is you had confidence and stood up for yourself.” Film is a collaboration. We’re thrilled with how it ends, but we did have a conversation.
ML: Small surprise, Fist Fight does include a fist fight. Talk about choreographing a fight between regular folks as opposed to superheroes.
RK: Sam Hargrave plays Captain American whenever Chris Evans isn’t playing Captain America. I asked him to choreograph the fight, and he would take a couple of cameras and some stunt guys and film a version of what he thought it should be. Then I would give notes: “No, no, no — there’s no way Charlie can kick like that...” We went through weeks of this — God bless his stunt guys. I kept saying, “It’s got to be longer than the fight in They Live, it’s got to be more brutal than They Live, but not so much that you don’t buy it.” And it had to be surprising, like a horror movie where the final chase goes through all the areas you’ve been before. I wanted to pay off jokes that we had set up earlier, and make it so that you never knew when the fight would be truly over, and you never knew who was going to win.