The first challenge for the production of THE RINGER was to authentically recreate the excitement, suspense and athletic atmosphere of a real Special Olympics - an ambiance that takes the scheming Steve Barker completely by surprise as he attempts to "fit in" as a competitor. Before pre-production even began, the filmmakers traveled to Dublin, Ireland to shoot footage and witness the 2003 Special Olympics World Games. The experience was one that would leave a lasting impression with producer Bradley Thomas.
"Attending the World Games was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life," recalls Thomas. "We were in the stadium watching highlights of the torch being carried all around the world by Special Olympics Athletes when they announced the torch was about to come into the stadium. A hundred thousand people rose to their feet with a gigantic ovation and this young boy ran through the stadium surrounded by 500 policemen, firemen and armed services personnel. He runs up on the stage while U2's Bono is singing "One Love" and then out comes Nelson Mandela. So you have this young boy holding hands with Bono and Nelson Mandela with their arms up in the air. It was a magical moment that really inspired us all."
With that experience still fresh in their minds, the filmmakers began to search for a location for the film's 45-day shooting schedule, ultimately choosing Austin, Texas for its conducive warm weather, down-home friendliness and growing film community.
"On all of the Farrelly Brothers films we like to create a comfortable atmosphere where everybody sort of hangs out together and it's summer camp for three months," explains producer Thomas. "For this film that was even more important, so we chose Austin, a city that would let our actors walk around in shorts and tank tops in the middle of winter." Adds Barry Blaustein: "Austin's a great city to make a comedy in because it's such a fun place and it has some of the hardest-working and most creative crews I've ever encountered. It's a place where camaraderie is a big part of everything."
To create a kind of Special Olympics boot camp, the filmmakers invited the entire cast to come to Texas early to develop the camaraderie and rapport so essential to the film's story. Director Blaustein recalls: "That period of time blew everyone's minds and changed all of our perspectives as to what an intellectually challenged person is really like. I think the cast also discovered something important -- which is that there is no one single perspective of it. It was a wonderful bonding experience that was key to creating the warmth and sweetness at the heart of the story."
Adds Johnny Knoxville: "I had never really been around intellectually challenged people much before so it really helped that everyone came to Austin a little early. We all taught each other a lot and grew very close to one another in a short period of time."
On October 14, 2003 principle photography began, and Blaustein and the rest of the crew watched as the preparation paid off on camera. "From the opening bell, Johnny and the entire cast and crew just clicked," notes Peter Farrelly. "I had always feared that the actors would split into factions; the Hollywood actors on one side and the intellectually challenged actors and athletes on the other, but it never happened. Instead the cast blended together so quickly that initially some of the crew didn't know who was intellectually challenged and who wasn't."
In the film, Jeffy quickly realizes, to his dismay, that he is outmatched by most of the Special Olympics athletes...a storyline that came to life when the production began filming the competition scenes, and Johnny Knoxville found himself huffing and puffing in an impossible effort to keep up.
"A lot of Special Olympians are superb athletes," says Knoxville. "And it was embarrassing how out of shape I was -although I did purposely put on fifteen pounds for the role in order to look like more of a slob. It was a great excuse to sit around and eat and do nothing, but then, when we began shooting the big running sequences, I was really hurting and I had to tell the guys to please take it easy on me."
Early on Knoxville attempted a real 100-yard race with one of the Special Olympics athletes - and lost by more than 40 yards! "I'm not a real athletic type of guy, but I don't think there was anybody on the set that could have beaten this kid, he was so fast," says Knoxville. After that, Knoxville realized it was best to ask the athletes to slow down so he could look a little faster.
"These are true athletes who train really hard and are very good at what they do, says Special Olympic Vice President Sports and Competition Dave Lenox, "And Johnny certainly came to understand that."
Camaraderie and a festive atmosphere is typical of a Farrelly Brothers set - but this time things were even more boisterous than usual, with pranks and practical jokes a near-constant state of affairs. "We always try to keep a loose and fun set," explains Peter Farrelly. "But this set was particularly great because we had 150 Special Olympics athletes as actors and extras having the time of their lives and their infectious energy trickled down to everyone. Every day, when you walked on the set the athletes and actors would come up and give you hugs and high fives. It really made us feel that this movie was one worth fighting for. These athletes pulled the whole thing off and gave us gold everyday."
In addition to the fun and games, the Special Olympics athletes added drama to the set. "Everyone became so close that we had all kinds of on-set romances developing as well as break-ups and there was a lot of advice-giving going on," remembers Blaustein. "It was a great way to make a comedy because comedy requires a loose atmosphere in which no one's afraid to take a chance. Ultimately the most important thing was capturing these wonderful high spirits on camera."
Once the cameras were rolling, one of the unique dynamics the Special Olympics athletes provided was the resounding celebration that erupted after every successful take, which became an inspiration to Blaustein and the entire cast and crew. "I remember the first day I worked, there were tons of Special Olympics athletes and volunteers all around and after every take they would applaud and cheer," recalls Katherine Heigl. "At first I couldn't figure out what was going on and why they were clapping, but by the end of the day I found myself clapping after takes, too. I realized how wonderful and rare it is to work around so much enthusiasm and enjoyment."
Adds Knoxville: "The athletes showed every day that they are extraordinarily gifted in so many ways. They were so positive, happy and honest that it really affected everyone's performance in a great way."
For Peter Farrelly, that extra special touch of emotion is exactly what he hoped to bring to the comic mayhem of THE RINGER. He recalls: "On one of the last days of filming, one of the Special Olympics athletes asked me 'Is it the way you wanted the movie to be?' I said 'No, this is so much better than I ever imagined it could be.' I truly feel that this is one of those rare time where the combination of what everyone brought to the mix of this film elevated it so much that it exceeded my grandest expectations. I hope people will not only enjoy the comedy of THE RINGER but realize that the next time they see somebody who looks or acts a little different, all they have to do is look a little harder and they'll be surprised at what they find."
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