Television
3:25 pm
Sun January 5, 2014

In High-Drama Parody, Will Ferrell Reveals 'Spoils Of Babylon'

Originally published on Sun January 5, 2014 4:55 pm

In The Spoils of Babylon, Will Ferrell plays a "nonexistent author of a nonexistent best-seller." His book, written in the 1970s, was supposedly made into a television miniseries that never saw the light of day — until now.

The story begins in the 1930s, and spans about 50 years, following the powerful Morehouse family.

The series is a parody of the big, bloated miniseries of the 1970s and '80s (like The Thorn Birds or The Winds of War), filled with family drama in a changing America.

It begins Thursday on IFC, starring Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig and Ferrell. Former Saturday Night Live writer Matt Piedmont directs the series. In an interview with NPR's Arun Rath, Piedmont says he worked with Ferrell's Funny or Die production team to bring this tale to the small screen.

Actor Tim Robbins plays the patriarch, bringing his family to Texas to become an oil wildcatter. Along the way, the family adopts a guy off the side of the road (Devon, played by Maguire). The family strikes it rich, but the adopted son and his new sister, played by Wiig, fall in love.

Devon goes off to war — where he's held as a prisoner of war — then comes back and becomes a beat poet. Wiig's character takes over the company.

"They're trying to avoid their love for each other, which is very difficult," Piedmont says.


Interview Highlights

On how Will Ferrell's character is like Orson Welles

It made us laugh, the kind of '70s Orson Welles who had kind of fallen from grace [and did some memorable commercials] ... If you see Orson Welles in the '70s, he still likes to hear himself talk. He may be bitter, that may come through pretty obviously, but you can tell ... once he starts getting warmed up, he likes the tales he's spinning, and so we kind of wanted to combine that in the character that we created for Will and have him have some fun. ... There's no one better than Will Ferrell at doing that kind of stuff.

A parody of cinema and history itself

We shot some of this in black and white — it was kind of an excuse to slip in a lot of different styles and get away with it. ... I think we're kind of playing loose and fast with the facts ... we make up a lot of stuff. It's not accurate. I don't think any history lessons are going to be learned from watching The Spoils of Babylon, as far as WWII is concerned, but we had a good time.

On his reputation of being "out there"

The problem is, I think this is all normal, so maybe that says more about me when people say it's out there. To me, I'm pitching a normal idea. I never really think about boundaries or, "Is this too much?" It's almost like, if it's too much, let's go even further. And it seems to have worked out OK so far.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We'll take a look back now at a best-selling book from the '70s, one you might not remember: "The Spoils of Babylon" by Eric Jonrosh, the epic tale of the powerful yet scandalous Morehouse family. It was made into a television miniseries that never saw the light of day until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

TOBEY MAGUIRE: (As Devon Morehouse) My name is Devon Morehouse. Yes, that Devon Morehouse. But I didn't start out with that name.

RATH: Actually, everything about "The Spoils of Babylon," even the writer, is fake. It's a parody of the big, bloated miniseries of a few decades back, like "The Thorn Birds" or "The Winds of War." The series begins this Thursday on IFC, and it stars Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig. Will Ferrell appears as the author Eric Jonrosh and as the Shah of Iran.

The director of "The Spoils of Babylon" is Matt Piedmont. He was a writer on "Saturday Night Live," and he's worked with Will Ferrell's Funny or Die production team to bring this tale to the small screen. I asked Piedmont for the Hollywood pitch version of the story, which begins in the late 1930s. Actor Tim Robbins plays the family's patriarch.

MATT PIEDMONT: Jonas Morehouse - Jonas has gone to Texas from New York to strike out as an oil wildcatter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

TIM ROBBINS: (As Jonas Morehouse) You see these hands? This nation was built by hands like these, honest hands, mostly African and Chinese, laboring under the belief that hard work is a religion onto itself.

PIEDMONT: Along the way they pick up Devon Morehouse - becomes a Morehouse. They adopt him.

RATH: Literally pick him up by the side of the road.

PIEDMONT: They do, pick him up on the side of the road. This is 1938 now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

ROBBINS: (As Jonas Morehouse) You can decide on what you want to call yourself in due time - Hezekiah, Ezekiel, Steve, Jim Bob, Skippy, Jesus, Jerry, Vladimir, Ortencio, Mahurishi, Billy...

PIEDMONT: They end up actually striking oil and becoming rich - very wealthy family. Devon Morehouse played by Tobey Maguire and Cynthia Morehouse played by Kristen Wiig fall in love. But it's a forbidden love as they are, you know, technically now brother and sister, although not by blood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Cynthia Morehouse) What?

: (As Devon Morehouse) Oh, no.

WIIG: (As Cynthia Morehouse) Why not?

: (As Devon Morehouse) I do. I don't want to do this.

WIIG: (As Cynthia Morehouse) Why not?

: (As Devon Morehouse) I do want to do...

WIIG: (As Cynthia Morehouse) You do.

: (As Devon Morehouse) I do. You're right. No, I can't do this. I can't...

WIIG: (As Cynthia Morehouse) OK, fine.

PIEDMONT: Devon goes off to war, comes back with a new bride. I won't spoil who the new bride is, but voiced by Cary Mulligan, though, a very talented actress.

RATH: The fact that she has to be voiced gives it a little bit away.

PIEDMONT: Yeah. I know. Exactly. But I'll just leave it at that. And then Devon goes his own way, becomes kind of a Beat poet, kind of goes the green way, and Cynthia ends up taking over the company and becomes a little bit more like a traditional president of an oil company. They're trying to avoid their love for each other, which is very difficult. I know it's kind of vague. I'm not very good about dishing plot but that's essentially the gist of it.

RATH: It's sort of like "The Winds of War" or "North South"...

PIEDMONT: Yes.

RATH: ...the family history intertwined with the telling of America.

PIEDMONT: Yes, exactly. Thank you. See? Why didn't I just have you do it in the first place? You should've - yeah, great. Exactly.

RATH: And the lead characters age pretty well over the course of...

PIEDMONT: Yeah, yeah. They - well, they use a lot of special creams and things so their skin stays very nice and moist. But, yeah - no, they age over about a 50-year period so...

RATH: Well, you do a lot of playing with time, because not only the work itself spans decades and decades, but the film - the fake film, which we're now seeing here for the first time, was made in 1979.

PIEDMONT: Yeah. There's a lot of weird meta-stuff going on where Will Ferrell is a nonexistent author of a nonexistent best-seller who introduces this. And then the film was essentially a miniseries that was shot for three years from between 1976 and 1979 but never released. It's kind of like Ambersons - when Orson Welles made "Magnificent Ambersons," and I cut that out and then they've released it. So this was never released, supposedly, and then they now are just - he needs the money, so they're doing a truncated version now.

RATH: Well, you mention Orson Welles. And there's a really Orson Welles-y kind of feel to the character - the author character of Jonrosh played by Will Ferrell.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

WILL FERRELL: (As Eric Jonrosh) Please, won't you enjoy part two of my wonderful miniseries, "The Spoils of Babylon?"

PIEDMONT: You know, it made us laugh, the '70s kind of Orson Welles who, you know, had kind of fallen from grace who's...

RATH: Did a lot of commercials.

PIEDMONT: Paul Masson winery commercial. You've seen some of those where maybe he's a little intoxicated actually on air

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

FERRELL: (As Eric Jonrosh) Why would I say wonderful? No one says wonderful. Sounds like something a man from the - a circus would say.

RATH: And the bitterness kind of comes through.

PIEDMONT: Yeah. I think what we liked is that he's bitter. If you see Orson Welles in the '70s, he still likes to hear himself talk. He may be bitter, he may - that may come through pretty obviously. But you can tell he's - once he starts getting warmed up, he likes the tales he's spinning.

And so we kind of wanted to combine that in the character that we created for Will and have him to have some fun. Will - you know, there's no one better than Will Ferrell doing that kind of stuff. So I think we came up with something that he had a lot of fun doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

FERRELL: (As Eric Jonrosh) After a painful ordeal to bring my popular novels to television, I gave up. I could see that the network executives cared little for art, so I filmed "The Spoils of Babylon" on my own. I lived and breathed "Spoils" for three years. I slept with the cast. Every member of the cast you'll see tonight, I slept with. My wife at the time...

RATH: You have this reputation going back to your days as a "Saturday Night Live" writer for writing stuff that's just brilliant but just so out there that it couldn't - do you have more latitude with Funny or Die to - when you're pitching stuff like this directly to Will Farrell?

PIEDMONT: Well, it's...

(LAUGHTER)

PIEDMONT: No, the problem is I think this is all normal. So maybe that says more about me when people say it's out there. To me, I'm pitching a normal idea. You know, I never really think of boundaries or thinking of, is this too much or - you know, it's almost like, if it's too much, let's go even further. And it seems to have worked out okay so far. But...

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Matt Piedmont is the writer, director behind the fake "Spoils of Babylon" which will be premiering first episode this Thursday, January 9 on IFC. Matt, thank you.

PIEDMONT: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Misty visions cloud my mind. All I've had I've left behind. Like a stranger I walk alone... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.