Their best foot forward

Special to The Times

To HEAR Will Ferrell's producing partner Adam McKay tell it, America is about to come down with a case of "Foot Fist" fever.

"I heard [John] McCain made mention of [the movie] at some town hall meeting in Iowa, then he kind of did the bow and then said to some reporters, 'Like "Foot Fist Way"? No one?' "

OK. So maybe he's kidding about Sen. McCain's endorsement, but McKay and Ferrell think the ultra-low-budget taekwondo comedy "The Foot Fist Way" is no joke, even though the film has had its share of Hollywood heavyweights in stitches ever since its premiere at Sundance in 2006.

With its mix of easy gags, foul-mouthed banter and hilariously awkward moments of unease, "The Foot Fist Way" has kicked down the door of the industry for friends turned filmmakers Danny McBride, Ben Best and Jody Hill. The trio of North Carolina School of the Arts grads just wanted to make something they thought was funny, collectively coming up with the concept and script about a deluded sensei named Fred Simmons who presides over a class of old ladies, pimply faced teens and ankle-biters.

Having moved to L.A. and looking to get away from what he calls "pretty soulless work" as a supervising story editor on MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenges," Hill saved up $35,000 over a four-year period to direct a labor of love inspired by his youth studying martial arts, with McBride starring as Simmons.

In the summer of 2005, McBride finally fastened his black belt while Hill scrambled around Concord, N.C., recruiting students from his alma mater to work on the crew and getting all the production value he could from using a largely vacant apartment complex owned by his father as a setting and a Ferrari lent by a family friend as a prop.

The one extravagance the budget allowed was for the potential casting of '80s action star Michael Dudikoff ("American Ninja") for the role of Simmons' idol, Chuck "The Truck" Wallace. But when Hill couldn't find a way to contact Dudikoff, Best stepped into the role. Less than a month after wrapping a 19-day shoot, they sent the film off to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing whether their go-for-broke comedy would fly.

Though the film received a warm reaction at Sundance ("If any Sundance movie deserves discovery and cult status it is 'The Foot Fist Way,' " said a review from website Ain't It Cool News), no major buyers pursued it.

Ultimately, Best, Hill and McBride left Park City, Utah, with a debilitating flu but with no distributor for the film.

And while that's usually the end of the story for most indie movies, it was just the beginning for "Foot Fist." In the spring of 2006, Ferrell and McKay, who were starting up their own production company, Gary Sanchez, were looking to get into business with new and unique comedic voices. Their manager and comedy kingmaker, Jimmy Miller, passed them a screener of "The Foot Fist Way." At first viewing, they didn't quite know what to make of mullet-sporting, karate-chopping McBride and his cartoonish brand of so-stupid-it's-somehow-smart bravado. McKay likens it to "that moment where you go to buy a house and [it's] the first thing you see, but you can't trust it."

Yet after the two watched the movie repeatedly, they decided that not only was it original and fresh but also that they wanted to back the filmmakers and help introduce them to audiences. "The Foot Fist Way" was later acquired by Paramount Vantage, which was in the process of signing an overall production deal with Gary Sanchez.

McKay says the acquisition took a while because they were launching Gary Sanchez when they picked up the movie. "We hadn't even signed our deal contracts with Vantage," he says. "And so we got [the film] and there was a big delay just literally setting up our offices and getting the company going. . . . We all agreed to give it that late spring shot where it can go into summer and then catch an audience. 'Napoleon Dynamite' is the obvious example."

But a strange thing happened in that year before the movie hit the multiplex. Copies of it had been floating around Hollywood, and it became an underground sensation with many of the industry's most influential comics. McBride and Hill recall the surreal experience of being invited by Judd Apatow to the set of "Knocked Up" and finding "Freaks and Geeks" alums Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Martin Starr sitting in Apatow's trailer, watching "The Foot Fist Way" on a monitor and shouting out their favorite parts.

"We're sitting there like what . . . is going on?" says McBride. "How did we end up here?"

Although their next project together, the Gary Sanchez-produced HBO series "East Bound and Down," centers on another underdog in the form of a baseball player (McBride) who is past his prime, the trio already seems to have beaten the odds, especially since the three had modest expectations for "The Foot Fist Way."

"We wanted to show off our bodies," jokes Best.

Adds McBride, "Yeah, it's like, 'Jody, whatever I do in this movie, I have to be able to wear denim shorts. I've got to show people these calves.' "

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