Producers Peter and Bobby Farrelly have always had fun pushing the razor-thin line between the outrageous and the taboo. From a gleefully raunchy look at the need for love in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY to a bold treatise on inner beauty in SHALLOW HAL, the Farrelly's have never shied away from the comedy in any human subject, no matter how seemingly untouchable or off-limits.
Now, with THE RINGER, they present a story that goes where no feature film comedy has ever dared to go before - to Special Olympics. Yet from this comedic forbidden zone comes an unexpected tale about discovering the meaning of courage, integrity and success, no matter what your abilities.
THE RINGER unfolds the escapades of a hapless man who, in a desperate bid for money, goes beyond the pale: in a preposterous ruse, he pretends to be intellectually challenged - only to be challenged by his Special Olympics competitors to do something far harder: become a better person.
This seemingly shocking premise emerged from the pen of screenwriter Ricky Blitt, who knew he was heading into risky, forbidden territory, yet saw a chance to take an audacious comedic concept somewhere emotionally surprising.
"At first, it was one of those ideas that just pops into your head and you think 'that's a funny concept but I could never really do that,'" says Blitt. "But then I realized that we could really turn the whole concept of what it means to be 'normal' on its head through this story. I began to wonder what would happen if the Special Olympics athletes that our 'ringer' meets are actually the ones in control - and the joke is entirely on him and his partner. It became a chance to tell a very warm, human story inside lots of edgy, comic hijinx."
When Blitt brought the script to Producer John Jacobs, Jacobs immediately saw the material as a perfect match for the no-holds-barred, satirical sensibilities of the Farrelly Brothers. "I knew they were the only two guys in the entire business who wouldn't be afraid of this story and could do it with the right touch," observes Jacobs. "They have always succeeded in creating moving characters and situations in the middle of outrageous comedy."
The day of the actual pitch, Blitt was hit with the flu and, though he considered postponing, inspired by the indomitable Special Olympics athletes in his script, he decided to go for it. Jacobs remembers bemusedly, "With sweat pouring down his face, Ricky pitched the story... and I don't think I've ever seen Peter Farrelly laugh so loud in my life."
"Naturally your first reaction to the storyline of this film is 'that's a crazy concept,'" admits Peter Farrelly. "But what's so great about it is that it turns your assumptions upside down when a friendship develops against all odds between Steve and the Special Olympics athletes. In the end, this so-called 'ringer' really doesn't teach these guys anything. Instead, they teach him everything - which is a wonderful twist."
Farrelly continues: "We were drawn to THE RINGER because it's a comedy with heart and we have always believed that, even in comedies, what audiences want most is to care about the characters. Comic moments will only carry you so far. Eventually, the characters have to be rich enough that people get behind them and relate to them at some deeper level. THE RINGER has funny yet poignant characters unlike those seen in a comedy before."
For producer Bradley Thomas, who has collaborated numerous times with the Farrelly Brothers, the script's emotional after-effect was a wonderful surprise. "I was impressed by how Ricky was able to fill his script with jokes and gags that never came at the expense of Special Olympics athletes, but, on the contrary, reveal their tremendous spirits," Thomas says. "At the same time, he didn't depict these characters in any kind of sainted, after-school special light either. It's an honest portrait of terrific people caught up in a funny situation."
Once the script was finished, the filmmakers decided there was only one way to proceed: by going directly to the leadership of Special Olympics for their blessing and cooperation. "We felt it was absolutely crucial that our film portray the athletes and the technical aspects of the games as they really are," explains Bradley Thomas. "We deeply wanted the support of the community."
Nevertheless, the filmmakers had no idea what the response might be - and though they hoped Special Olympics would see an opportunity to bust stereotypes and open eyes through laughter, they waited on pins and needles. "I always thought they were going to find it too edgy," admits screenwriter Blitt. "But it was sent to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, who is a really smart, hip guy - and he totally understood the tone and message of the script."
Says Shriver: "Beyond improving the lives of our athletes on the playing field, a key goal of Special Olympics is to change attitudes of non-disabled young people about people with intellectual disabilities, dispelling negative stereotypes. Humor can be a very effective way to reach young people and the Farrellys are masters of both."
With representatives from Special Olympics on board, the filmmakers collaborated closely with them to hone the film's story and highlight the open-hearted yet highly athletic nature of the games and their life-changing effect on participants. Special Olympics Vice President Sports and Competition and the film's technical advisor Dave Lenox explains: "The biggest surprise for everyone attending their first Special Olympics is the level at which the athletes compete, so we worked very closely with the filmmakers to ensure this was depicted with as much realism and authentic excitement as possible. For us it was a real chance to reach a lot of people with the untold story of Special Olympics."
Sums up Peter Farrelly: "We hope, in addition to being good fun, this film will inspire more athletes to compete and more everyday people to get involved in Special Olympics as well as make people more comfortable being around individuals who are intellectually challenged."
Meanwhile, the filmmakers began to search for a director who could master the very distinctive comedic/inspirational tone of the piece. The search led to Barry W. Blaustein, the screenwriter behind such comedy hits as THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and COMING TO AMERICA, and who recently had made an impressive directorial debut with the acclaimed professional wrestling documentary BEYOND THE MAT.
Comments Peter Farrelly: "Barry's vision for THE RINGER was completely in sync with our desire to keep the film edgy but moving." Adds producer Bradley Thomas: "Barry understood exactly what we were trying to accomplish. He really got the balance between comedy and humanity that makes this project so very special."
For his part, Blaustein was invigorated by what he saw as a genuinely different and daring script that would be a compelling challenge. "Underneath the irreverent premise of THE RINGER was something I hadn't expected to find: a really sweet story about people giving their all and telling the truth no matter what," observes Blaustein. "I thought it would be a wonderful thing to bring this to the fore in an entertaining way."
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