How Filmmaker Bobby Farrelly Mixed Heart and Humor While Directing Champions

An exclusive Q&A with Champions’ filmmaker Bobby Farrelly

Bobby Farrelly’s name has been attached to some of the most successful and funniest comedies in Hollywood. Farrelly and his brother Peter have created classics such as There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Kingpin. For Champions, Farrelly adapted the international hit Campeones into an American context. Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, an aggressive, ambitious minor league coach who is court mandated to work with the Friends, a team of players with intellectual disabilities.

After Harrelson saw the original Spanish film, he felt Farrelly was the perfect director to adapt this comedy. “He’s a deep person and he’s got the most amazing sense of humor,” says Harrelson in the production notes, adding that Bobby and his brother Peter are “absolutely brilliantly funny but just like their movies, there’s a lot of heart.”

We spoke with Farrelly about the pleasure of reuniting with Harrelson, the joy in working with actors with disabilities, and why Champions is the comedy we need right now.

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Bobby Farrelly directing the Friends on the set of Champions

What made adapting Campeones an interesting project for you?

Woody found it before me and was very passionate about it. He thought we should redo it. It's hard to find Woody this passionate about a project. When I saw the original movie, I felt the same thing. I’ve wanted to work with Woody again ever since my brother Pete and I did Kingpin with him in 1996. The original Spanish movie did such a beautiful job of making this team of people with intellectual disabilities into a basketball team. They were able to show them having such full human lives. That is typically not how people with intellectual disabilities are shown in movies. They are generally portrayed in a narrow, stereotypical way. The challenge for us was to redo it in a way that felt fresh and but still kept all the great things that were in the original.

How did you do that?

I had the advantage of having Woody. He puts his own stamp on everything he’s in. The world has changed so much in the last five or six years that this story also warranted being told in a way that felt real. I didn't want to do zany or make everything feel all bright and sunny or give it a sitcom feel. I wanted to tell the story as if these are real people and this is a real team. I wanted coach Marcus to feel like a real guy. The actors helped me so much to accomplish that. Kaitlin Olson is so real in this. I knew that she was funny from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but she really grounded the story. I just loved her performance.

Kaitlin Olson in Champtions

How did you cast the Friends, both as individual characters and as a team?

There were going to be 10 of them, and they all had to be a certain age and to have a certain athleticism, at least to be able to run up and down the court. When we started casting, we didn't have a set group of actors to pick from. We opened up a casting competition all over the country and in Canada. The thing we did that I think was smart is we went to basketball rec leagues first. We asked them if they had any players that might like to be on camera and act. We got hundreds of taped auditions. From those submissions, we found our 10 actors. They were all different, but they had a great balance. And they all had a love of basketball. I'd like to take credit for them forming a team, but honestly, when they came together for the first time, it was like they had known each other all their lives. That was just magic. They just instantly formed a team.

To learn more about the casting and coaching process, read our Q&A with the Friends’ point person, A.B. Farrelly.

Many of the performers had never acted before. How did you work with them?

I was a little worried about going into production. I was dealing with a bunch of actors who had never acted. Roughly six or seven of the 10 were brand new to acting. But you know what? They all nailed it. The trick was just getting them to be themselves. Often, we just asked them, "What would you say in this situation? How would you handle it?” When they got comfortable playing a version of themselves, it all worked. They took to it like a fish takes to water. Honestly, working with these actors with intellectual disabilities was no more difficult than working with actors without disabilities.

Were there scenes that turned out much better than you imagined?

Every time we had to do a basketball scene on the court, we had no idea what was going to happen. It's hard to orchestrate a play and then execute it with cameras. We just let them play and started filming. Over the course of a basketball game, there was always stuff that surprised me. But the biggest surprise came off the court with Joshua Felder's character Darius. He has this emotional scene with Woody, and the way Joshua played it had me in tears watching them from the monitor. It was just so powerful. As a director, you hope to get a good performance, but when a guy gives you so much more than you could have hoped for—that’s just magic.

Alex Hintz, Tom Sinclair, Bradley Edens, Matthew von der Ahe, James Day Keith, Casey Metcalfe, Joshua Felder, Kaitlin Olson, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Kevin Iannucci, and Woody Harrelson on the set of Champions

Your comedy deftly mixes humor and heart. How do you handle that mix in this film?

You figure it out as you go. There are some scenes, like the one with Joshua Felder, that are not comic. In directing a comedy, I’m comfortable knowing that some scenes aren’t about laughs. They are about delivering on the story. The humor that my brother Pete and I create—Peter is not on this movie but we certainly share a similar sensibility—works a lot better when there's a lot of heart involved in the background. You don't hit audiences over the head with it but our intention is that the viewers like the people we're telling the story about. When you do that, things are funnier.

What do you hope people take away from the movie?

I hope they take away from the movie that they had a lot of laughs. We haven't had that in a long time. It feels like comedy has been on a hiatus. And this is a really fun comedy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.