For anyone who has watched Between Two Ferns online, the fact that the show (or, “show”) has been adapted into a movie (not a "movie") is shocking, to say the least. The interviews are only a few minutes long and involve Zach Galifianakis speaking to one or two celebrities at a time — how do you make a movie out of that?
Well, for the movie, Galifianakis still interviews a bunch of celebrities, but a plot is added that explains why the chats are happening. And, like the online version of Between Two Ferns, improv is the mode of operation for Galifianakis, the guests, and the rest of the cast.
The plot of the film is that Galifianakis and his talk show crew have to travel across the country to shoot ten episodes of Between Two Ferns to make up for the fact that Galifianakis nearly killed Matthew McConaughey (or, “Matthew McConaughey”) during an interview. The people on the show’s staff are basically the only ones who aren’t playing a version of themselves. This setup means that the actors playing the crew got to improvise in their road trip scenes and that the Galifianakis still improvises in the scenes with the celebrities, including Keanu Reeves, Brie Larson, Chrissy Teigen, Jon Hamm, Benedict Cumberbatch, and many more.
“What I loved so much about it was that we got to improvise the majority of the film,” Lapkus said. “And we got to be really weird with it … I feel like we all got to have our own weird thing and build out a world that Zach could exist in, which would have to be bizarre.”
A lot of the production involved just letting the actors be in that world and do their thing. Aukerman said he was inspired by the simple plots of Wayne’s World and Spinal Tap, as well as by the reality TV parody Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, which was created by his wife, Kulap Vilaysack.
“...We wanted to shoot it like Spinal Tap, which was shot exactly like a documentary, where they set up things and just shot them, without too many ideas,” Aukerman told AV Club. “It was just a very lived-in world that these guys had been living in.”
Aukerman previously spoke with Vulture about the use of improv on Between Two Ferns in light of Hillary Clinton being a guest on the show during her 2016 presidential campaign. Aukerman explained that the questions Galifianakis asks are written in advance by a group of comedy writers, but the actor still improvises when the actual interview in filmed. “Zach is really great in the moment, so he’s constantly riffing during it and tagging jokes and adding really funny things,” Aukerman said.
As for what the person being interviewed knows in advance, it depends on the celebrity. But, Aukerman explained, “When we do these we prefer to do them with a lot of improvisation, where the interviewee doesn’t know what the questions are beforehand.” He said of Clinton’s episode in particular, “The campaign was pretty cool about that. In this one, actually, the majority of it was improvised.”
As for Galifianakis himself, he has said that moving Between Two Ferns from a short online format to a movie meant a lot of improvisation and flexibility in the process of making the film, too. “We just started filming things,” he told Variety. “Once we got some guests, people switched their schedules, storylines changed because we were writing on the fly and that’s a tricky thing to do … In the end, it was so much fun to do.”
Between Two Ferns is streaming now on Netflix.