Charlie Day’s directorial debut hits theaters Friday when Roadside comes out The fool’s paradise, a satire in which he plays a man who cannot speak but becomes an accidental Hollywood star. Day, who plays Luigi in the smash hit The Super Mario Bros. movieis no stranger to leading his own projects.
While stuck in the audition trenches, Day met fellow aspiring actors Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton, and the trio realized they shared not only comedic sensibilities, but frustrations over landing roles. They started making short films at home, and these would eventually grow into It’s always sunny in Philadelphia, which premiered on FX in August 2005 with all three serving as executive producers. (It moved to FXX in 2013.)
“There was a real magic to the making of the show in the first three, four, or five seasons that can’t be recaptured because we (now) know the characters so well, and we know the show so well,” says Day. The Hollywood Reporter. He compares that feeling to how he felt during the The fool’s paradise process also: “That ignorance really is a wonderful place to be.”
The series features Mac (McElhenney), Charlie (Day) and Dennis (Howerton), plus Dennis’ sister, Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson), as the egocentric foursome who run the Philly bar Paddy’s Pub. The comedy began to gain a cult following in its first season, but ratings concerns cast doubt on a second season until the network suggested adding a bigger name: Danny DeVito as Frank, father of Dennis and Dee. The move helped Sunny to shine; the show is now TV’s longest-running live-action sitcom and will launch season 16 on June 7.
As Day explains, fears that bringing in an established star like DeVito could hurt the project have proven unfounded: “We had spent two to three years developing this very portable, gritty thing. So you start wondering, “Is it going to ruin what the show is?” And of course it was the opposite.”
In the rest of the interview below (conducted prior to the start of the writers’ strike), Day discusses how Sunny cohorts including Howerton and DeVito helped with the movie, what he learned after taking advice from Guillermo del Toro and why the upcoming season of the show feels like a classic.
Is it hard to believe how popular Super Mario Bros. movie has been?
I work with such an incredible team and a really great cast in there, so just to come along for that ride is an embarrassment of riches for me personally. I have a hard time wrapping my head around things like that. It’s always sunny in Philadelphia is a good example. I’ve never been able to say how popular the show is, even though we’ve just done some live performances, we sold out stadiums and people are screaming. And yet I still go through my life assuming, “Um, no one knows who I am.”
When did you first get an idea about putting? The fool’s paradise together?
Around 2014, I just started jotting down notes — in a notebook and even on my cell phone — and just ideas about a silent character dragging a Mr. Magoo through show business. Or by using Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby’s model There are and say, “Is there a way to make the same kind of structure as Forest Gump or Steve Martin’s The Acorn, that classic structure of a man failing upwards? Could I do it in Hollywood? Then I cobbled together a first version between the seasons It’s always sunny because I just started to feel much more comfortable in my writing process of getting something from concept to completion.
And then showed it to some friends, but didn’t really do anything with it until years later. Then I started doing the track with it probably a year or two later. It wasn’t until 2017 that I got together with (producer) John Rickard – we had just released Fistfightand we were done Horrible bosses together. I hadn’t thought of John because he had made big studio movies. He was one of the few people I returned the script to, and I knew he loved it. But what I knew and loved about John was that he got things done. So I sat down with John and said, “Listen, if you think you can help me find my way to get this made, I’d love to film it.”
In what ways did leading a movie with a mostly silent character present unique challenges?
Yeah, you don’t hear much from him at all. Writing that character is the easiest dialogue you’re ever going to write, because there isn’t any. (laughs.) Acting, it was a lot of fun. The directing was tricky because sometimes I was doing scenes and since I didn’t have to say anything I just made sure the camera was where it was supposed to be and the actors said the lines like I did. as they say them – and realized that I forgot to perform. Some recordings were useless. (laughs.) But I also just wanted that challenge. There were some things I knew I probably wouldn’t get the chance to do unless I created the opportunity for myself, and one of them was playing a silent character.
You mentioned that you asked for feedback from Guillermo del Toro (die Day in Pacific edge). What was it like getting notes from someone as established as him?
It is incredibly intimidating and humiliating to have to go to so many people with hat in hand. There are so many favors I’ve had to ask from people to the point of, “Hey, can I come on Fox’s property for three days?” And I have to write a letter begging to shoot on weekends at a third of the cost. But what was amazing and really hopeful and inspiring was how many people – not everyone, of course – were willing to lend something to the film along the way. The scene where I’m the method actor trapped in his trailer, I’m filming in Danny DeVito’s trailer, which he rented to me for a dollar.
As for Guillermo, the biggest mistake I made as a filmmaker was not reaching out to my more established filmmaker friends earlier in the process. I just never wanted to bother anyone, and it wasn’t until I had already made a version of it that I was in over my head. Then I reached out to friends to say, “Okay, let me get some thoughts, if you’re willing to give them.” (laughs.) It’s smarter to sit down with all of them earlier in the process.
It sure is nice to see Glenn in the The fool’s paradise trailer. How did the conversation go in terms of involving people? Sunny in the movie?
At first I may not have wanted too much It’s always sunny in Philadelphia people in the movie because I think probably in 2017, my instinct was I didn’t want to take the audience out of the story. And then, slowly but surely, while making the movie, I contacted each of them (laughs) and asked them to do something in the movie because not only are they good friends and great artists, but to me, they are truly my best collaborators.
I love Glenn dearly as an artist and as a person, and I knew he would give a great performance. He wanted to do some stuff with the character that was a little bit out of my mind. But I just like Glenn so much and said, “Listen, Glenn, you do your thing.” And then at one point I even contacted Rob, but I think he was in Wrexham working on the football show, so he couldn’t fill in for me anywhere. There are many It’s always sunny in Philadelphia people, both in front of and behind the camera, who helped make this happen.
What are you most excited about Sunny fans see in season 16?
It was a really fun season in terms of writing. We started podcasting last year, and it was an interesting way to think about the early years of the show, and what we liked and what we didn’t like. But we got closer to the characters on the show in a way that I think was really stimulating to write this season. So I think it’s a really strong season from a character perspective. We found out some things about the characters, and some of the stories just feel classic Sunny for me personally.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.